David Fenton's "The Activist’s Media Handbook" traces his life in the media, from the "Ann Arbor Sun" to progressive public relations
Activist and public relations firm founder David Fenton launched his very first PR campaign in Ann Arbor in 1971: Fenton worked to get John Sinclair out of prison where he was serving a sentence for giving drugs to an undercover agent.
Following this effort, Fenton wrote for the countercultural newspaper Ann Arbor Sun where he worked on a campaign to increase sales by running a contest called “Win a Pound of Colombian Marijuana.”
Fenton’s new book, The Activist’s Media Handbook: Lessons From 50 Years As a Progressive Agitator, spends two chapters on his time in A2 and also details what happened before and after.
Of his time working at the newspaper and in activism, Fenton writes:
… many, if not most, young people at the time shared a common ideal of more peace and love, less racism, and an end to the Vietnam war. It’s hard to imagine now, but those feelings were definitely intensified by the music of the time.
While in Michigan, Fenton was involved with a concert for John Sinclair’s freedom, lived in Sinclair’s hippie commune Trans-Love Energies, engaged with city government, campaigned for legalizing pot, and saw the opening of free day care, free medical centers, and the People’s Food Co-op.
Fenton’s career in activism and public relations started early and dates to 1968 when he dropped out of high school to be a photographer. He writes:
When regular classes resumed [after a teacher strike in New York City], I couldn’t believe the stark contrast. The first day of chemistry was the last straw for me. The nerdy teacher divided the room in two, one side for the boys, the other for the girls. That class was a sure cure for insomnia, and homework was just as dull—answering the rote questions at the end of each rote chapter. I was finished. I never went back to high school, not even for a day. I never attended college, either.
Instead, Fenton drew on his own education through first diving into photography, then working with other activists and radicals, and eventually focusing on journalism and public relations through the Ann Arbor Sun, Rolling Stone magazine, and his own PR firm, Fenton Communications. Fenton shares his journey in a wry, confessional, and instructive tone in his new book.
Throughout The Activist’s Media Handbook, Fenton provides takeaways from his career. In the introduction, “For More Than Fifty Years, I Have Been a Progressive Media Activist,” there are “Communication Rules for Activists” such as “Speak to the heart first, the mind second” and “Practice framing issues your way.” The introduction also includes points to “Organize to Win,” including “Beware endless meetings and processes.”
At the end, Fenton wraps up his book with six things he has seen and learned, about which he writes, “Remember, no person or group has a monopoly on the truth—they will be victims of their own contradictions. No party line is right all the time, and everyone makes mistakes. Nobody can see reality clearly all by themselves.” Fenton offers numerous hard-earned lessons in his book.
Fenton returned to Ann Arbor on November 8 to talk about his book at AADL, I interviewed him before that day.
Q: The Activist’s Media Handbook features Ann Arbor in two chapters. Aside from the events, campaigns, and newspaper that you worked on here, what are your memories of the town?
A: That it was colder than it is now. There was ice on the ground all winter. I remember a wonderful sense of purpose, almost utopianism, that young people had back then in Ann Arbor. A real sense that we could make the world better.
Q: Ann Arbor in some ways seems timeless, and in other ways, ever-changing. For example, you were there when the People’s Food Co-op was started, and now it is a longstanding business. For those who were not there in the early '70s, how would you describe the city then?
A: It was full of cultural ferment and activism. Lots of social experimentation, and lots of psychedelic and marijuana use. I lived in a commune where nobody had any private property. There were also quite a few community institutions—people were connected.
Q: What prompted you to write a book about your career now?
A: I wanted to pass down some things I’ve learned about activist communications to the next generation. They are going to have incredible challenges, especially with global warming and the new fascism.
Q: Your book covers a wide swath of time from dropping out of high school in 1968 through to your climate activism today. How did you pull together the timeline and details?
A: I have all my appointment books going back to the '70s. The digitized copies of the Ann Arbor Sun at the Ann Arbor District Library were invaluable. I also made a point of reaching out to those who went through many of the episodes in the book with me to check my memory.
Q: What did your writing process look like? Did you write the chapters consecutively or jump around in time as you wrote?
A: First I wrote chronologically. Then we decided to edit out a substantial amount of the personal stuff to make it more useful for people. As my editor taught me, it shouldn’t be called writing. It should be called rewriting.
Q: You have a background in journalism through the Ann Arbor Sun. How did working on the newspaper inform your work at Fenton Communications, your PR firm? How do journalism and public relations overlap (or not)?
A: That’s a good question. Actually, my journalistic work started before I came to Ann Arbor, when I worked as a photojournalist and served on the collective that published Liberation News Service in New York. I have always tried to adhere to the ethics of journalism. After all, as is well known, for the most part public relations has no ethics at all. To the public, the very term means “will lie for money.” I was only interested in being ethical and truthful. Of course, as humans we can’t see reality by ourselves, so one makes mistakes.
Q: The Activist Media Handbook is part guide and part memoir. How did you decide on this style?
A: It started off more as a pure memoir. My amazing editors Michael Castleman and Karyn Gerhard convinced me to make it also useful in imparting lessons on activist communications, so it evolved.
Q: Your path unfolded as you went. Did you ever consider another career, or did you enjoy the adventure?
A: I once applied, after the No Nukes concerts in 1979, to go to NYU and get a law degree. But they insisted, since I don’t have a high school diploma, that I do several years of undergraduate work yet. I was hoping for life credit. At age 28, I was going to start college as an undergraduate.
But no, I never really considered doing anything but activist communications. There isn’t enough of it! I’ve had a lot of fun and tried to make a difference, but of course, life comes in waves of up and down.
Q: What is on your nightstand to read right now?
The New Climate War by Michael Mann. Carl Bernstein’s autobiography, Chasing History: A Kid in the Newsroom. And I just read an amazing piece of historical fiction on China by the great Orville Schell called My Old Home: A Novel of Exile.
Q: With the handbook published, what is on the horizon for you?
A: I hope to tour college communications and public relations schools to help the next generation. And expect to put together a significant new climate communications venture. Stay tuned!
Martha Stuit is a former reporter and current librarian.