Truth telling in Tennessee

Tucked away in the rolling hills and forested mountains of Tennessee’s Monroe County, Tellico Plains, borders North Carolina and resembles some of Vermont’s most scenic qualities, only with warmer temperatures, more republicans and evangelical Protestants per Pew Research Center.

Tellico Plains, a town of 941 according to the United States Census Bureau in 2016, is where 2016 JSC alum and journalist Sam Hartley grew up and has been helping his father rebuild the home in which he spent his formative years to improve its value on the open market.

He’s also working to chip away at his JSC debt, relegating work relating to his communications and community media degree to times when he isn’t busy landscaping. When the house is sold, Hartley says he intends to use his degree to pursue a more stable job.

During those early “pioneer” years, Hartley remembers when his house was without electricity or plumbing for a year while it was being built from the ground up.

Educated at Rural Vale Elementary School, a young Hartley would soon realize the political climate of his home state. “It’s extremely conservative around here,” he says. “I remember there was an instance when I was growing up in school where I was one of four people who were responsible for counting our mock election during the 2004 presidential election. When we were counting the votes it’s remarkable to me because every kid in the entire school except for one kid voted for George Bush.”

Growing up in a red state, Hartley found his politics turning a different shade of blue.

At JSC, Hartley kept a low profile and let his newspaper editorials express his views: leftist and progressive. On a blustery winter day, you might have spotted him sporting his dark blue and yellow-paneled jacket, blank red ball cap and eye glasses. At around five-foot-eight, Hartley isn’t physically imposing, but is often armed with questions and comments intended to elicit meaningful answers.

He also wears his politics like a pair of knuckle tattoos. It doesn’t take long before the 26-year-old journalist launches into an analysis, or rebuke, of Tennessee’s tax structure.

“Tennessee has one of the most regressive tax structures of any state,” says Hartley. “There’s no property taxes on anything. You can go to the store and any kind of food, any clothes, there’s still tax on that, so basically anything that lower or middle-class people are purchasing. They have taxes on those things, but for someone who is wealthy that is nothing.”

Although interested, Hartley didn’t immerse himself into activism or journalism until after he finished high school at Vergennes Union High School in Vermont. Then, in 2011, the Occupy Wall Street Movement took root in Zuccotti Park, New York, inside the city’s Wall Street financial district in response to income inequality and the economic crisis of 2007-2008.

The movement sparked protests throughout the states, including major cities in Vermont like Burlington, Rutland and Brattleboro. Fresh from high school, Hartley was front and center in Burlington’s protest, according to his Sept. 8, 2016 editorial in Basement Medicine.

Upon the disintegration of the movement, Hartley grew fascinated with more of Burlington’s left-leaning movements.

“[Even though it was happening], I was looking for something else to be part of,” says Hartley. “In Burlington, there’s a group called the International Socialist Organization (ISO). It’s sort of like a Trotskyist kind of socialist group. They had their own newspaper and stuff like that and I just thought it was interesting and fascinating. So I participated in that and that made me interested in print newspapers. That was how I developed a strong interest in written, traditional journalism.”

As his involvement and interest with Burlington’s ISO and influential German philosopher Karl Marx intensified, Hartley entered a “searching” period of his life post-Occupy. “I said, ‘I’m going to see what things are really about,’” he said. “And so I started to read a lot of Karl Marx, especially going beyond just the [Communist] Manifesto. I’ve read all “Das Kapital”; I’ve read a good 50 percent of all his works, I’d say. I agree with [Marx] and his analysis of capitalism and how all that works as he lays it out.”

After a brief stay with the Community College of Vermont, Hartley enrolled in JSC’s Communications and Community Media program in 2014. From 2015-2016, he became Basement Medicine’s editor-in-chief, offered sharp criticisms of American politics and chronicled the early stages of Northern Vermont University’s unification process.

Hartley says his time at JSC informed his work heading into real-world situations, like covering white supremacist conferences and summits. “In my time in elementary school and high school I was bored with how it works,” he says.

“But that journalism program at JSC, that was one of the first times in school where I felt like I was genuinely really learning a lot of stuff that I just never had any exposure to before,” says Hartley. “Particularly in the practical side of it where it’s sort of like a simulation of what it is like in the real world, where you’re going through the whole process of forming a whole newspaper from scratch. You’re doing it.”

Hartley has since parlayed some of these skills into Babeuf’s Virtual Coffee House, a Facebook page for news, politics and discussion. According to Hartley, the page, which has garnered over 750 likes and counting as of this December, is a way of maintaining his skills while he works to renovate his father’s house.

Of his “free time” projects, Hartley has shot and produced three videos for Babeuf’s, one of which focuses on Tennessee’s local activist scene in opposition of white supremacist think tanks like the New Century Foundation and its American Renaissance magazine and website. Another encounters several protestors in Crossville, Tennessee, speaking out against members of the long-running neo-Nazi website, Stormfront, who held a summit on Sept. 30 – the same day as the Jewish holiday, Yom Kippur.

Hartley says activists in Tennessee have an “extremely broad base,” with political tendencies from far-left to centrist-leaning types.

“Even though they might have disagreements about some things, everyone can say, ‘Hey, white supremacy is really fucking bad,’” Hartley says. “White supremacy is being used as a tool to make white working-class people [think like them]. It’s a divide and conquer strategy.”

In his video titled, “Shutting Down White Supremacy in Tennessee,” Hartley captured footage of American Renaissance and New Century Foundation Founder and Editor Jared Taylor escorting Swedish mining tycoon and alt-right bankroller Daniel Friberg away from protestors –coffee mug in hand – in Montgomery Bell State Park in Burns, Tennessee, on July 27. Hartley says gaining press access to such conferences is difficult given the amount of police protection.

Additionally, Hartley acknowledges how quickly information spreads, working anonymously to prevent his name from surfacing in the white supremacists’ networks. “The nature of that type of reporting is extremely hostile because the groups just hate the media,” he said. “Any media that doesn’t report on them favorably they loathe.”

Although Hartley says he didn’t see him, Gary Younge, editor-at-large for the Guardian, was also in attendance. The British scribe recently released his documentary “Angry, White and American” on the emotional and economic state of white America.

Hartley says the large gathering of activists on that summer day impressed him in their willingness to oppose the self-proclaimed “race realists.”

“It was very memorable just to see how many average Tennesseans were motivated to come and drive many miles out into the boonies, into the forest where the state park is to stand against white supremacists,” says Hartley. “There’s such a stigma that the southern U.S. has everywhere else in the country where everyone who lives here is condemned as being racist. It’s really not true. There’s a lot of people who are like that who are hyper-religious and very racist. But it’s not everyone and I think the numbers who are not are growing. Just being a witness to that was very cool to me.”

When entertaining where he’ll travel to next, Hartley says he’s considering a move back to Vermont, to an urban area of the Midwest or to stay put in Tellico Plains. And while his travel plans might be up in the air, he’ll maintain his progressive values wherever and whomever he’ll write for.

“I would say that I’m definitely not of the mid-century, old-school type of journalist where you’re super fixated being as neutral you can be, I’m more like an activist and a journalist, more of a hybrid,” said Hartley.

“I’m very forward with the fact that I’m a leftist and a progressive,” he says. “I approach journalism from that perspective unapologetically. That’s where I’m at and I see journalism as sort of a platform by which people who – society is so stilted towards people who have lots and lots of cash where you can just buy media influence – I think journalism provides the only really democratic platform for people who don’t come from very wealthy backgrounds so they can put their voice out there and have a say in how democracy works in this country.”

Whether he is writing full-time for a major news outlet or continuing with his own projects in the coming months, Hartley says he will continue reporting on both fact and truth in proper context. He says this is especially important when those “at the highest levels of society” are working to undermine the basic principles of journalism.

“The effort that’s being undertaken to question the very idea that facts even exist, and everything can sort of be questioned and doubt cast into anything, can create a murky environment where the truth isn’t real anymore,” says Hartley. “I would say that journalism is under heavy assault and that people who are aspiring to be journalists should be aware of that.

“It’s so necessary for young people to go into the field because you can’t let them win like that,” he continues. “If you’ve done something wrong, you can’t just wave the magic wand and say that up is now down and the sky is pink or something like that – we’re going to hold you accountable for this.”