Ted Rall is going back to Afghanistan.
In January, the cartoonist, reporter, essayist, radio broadcaster, book author, polemicist, graphic novelist, mischief-maker, and Pulitzer finalist posted a project proposal on Kickstarter, the community-funding site, in its journalism section: “Comix Journalism: Send Ted Rall Back to Afghanistan to Get the Real Story.”
Rall had been to Afghanistan before (a trip that resulted in, among other things, a graphic travelogue); he wanted to return, he wrote in the project’s pitch, “to see what has changed and how life is going for Afghans, especially those in the remote provinces in the southwest where Western reporters never venture.”
The project started with funding momentum, then ebbed a bit — as of Monday, several weeks after its funding effort launched and one week before its April 5 funding deadline, the project had received $15,000 of its $25,000 goal — and then, toward the end of this week, picked up speed. (“Like cartoonists, civilians love a deadline!” Rall told me.) As of yesterday, the project had received $21,660 from 179 different backers — with 52 people pledging between $50 and $100, 42 pledging $100-$500, 8 pledging between $500 and $1,000…and one generous soul pledging an amount in the $5,000-$10,000 range.
Yesterday afternoon, Rall sent an e-mail to his network:
Issue Number 4 – April 2010
Ted Rall Newsletter
AFGHANISTAN TRIP DOWN TO THE WIRE
Here’s the latest on my attempt to raise travel expenses for a return trip to Afghanistan.
Raised: $21,600 from 178 backers
Days To Go: 3
To pledge support for my trip, please click:
I will only receive the funds, and your credit card will only be charged, if I raise the whole amount of $25,000. Bear in mind; I will contribute some $10,000-$15,000 from my personal money in addition to the $25,000 to make this trip possible.
This is down to the wire, and could go either way. I’d say the odds are 50-50 of pulling this off.
The down-to-the-wire element seems to have worked in Rall’s favor: By this morning, the project had met its goal. Over 200 backers have donated $25,175 to pay for Rall’s reporting trip.
“Good luck Ted, I was really happy to see you undertaking this kind of thing, happy to pitch in on it,” one supporter (delightful handle: “lunchbreath”) wrote in after making a pledge. “i supported you for a hundred dollars i barely had because i believe so much in what you’re doing,” another put it. “thank you for having the guts to explore the dark terrain.”
I spoke with Rall before “Comix Journalism” was fully funded — when Rall was still “on pins and needles” about the pitch’s outcome — about the project, the journalism he hopes to produce with it, and his thoughts on crowdfunding. The conversation’s transcript is below; I’ve edited it for length.
What was the $25,000 number based on — your previous trip to Afghanistan?
Ted Rall: Yeah. And believe it or not, that’s a low-ball. It’s kind of funny how people have responded to that. Most people get it, because they’ve heard how much war correspondency costs. But some people are like, ‘What, were are you staying, four-star hotels or something?’ Far from it, trust me. I’m not going anyplace where there is a hotel — of any sort. I thought it would be easier to raise less money, so I put it as low as I could and still do it.
What you’re paying for mostly is passage through territories. Because Afghanistan’s not a contiguous nation-state — ironically, as it was under the Taliban — now, you have to pay warlords and sub-warlords and local commanders past checkpoints, one after the other. And everything you buy costs you a lot of money. When I was there, eggs were going for five bucks each. If you want to hire a truck to take you over the mountains for a day, that’s maybe a thousand bucks. So I’m going to put up at least $10,000 or $15,000 of my own money on top of the $25,000, assuming I get the $25,000. The $25,000 won’t cover everything.
I got laid off by United Features Syndicate, as an editor, last year. This is the kind of thing that I might have funded myself before that happened. The thing is, I also have a book offer — if I do this — from Farrar, Strauss. But the problem is, they don’t shell out the money quickly enough: Taxes and your agent take half, if you live in New York, then it takes months to get the check, and you only get the first half — so it’s not enough.
The main thing is to just go and see what happens. One thing that’s frustrating about war corresponsdency is editors always want to know what you’re going to do, and what you’re going to see, and what stores you’re going to bring back. And the truth is, you just don’t know. Things are going to happen while you’re there, right before you’re there, and you’re just going to have to chase the leads as they happen. Still, I like to have a plan, even if it’s a plan that I deviate from.
What will that plan entail?
So there are basically three goals here. One is to go back to northeastern Afghanistan, near the Tajik and Uzbek borders, where I was in the fall of 2001. There’s a town there that’s sometimes in the control of the Taliban, and sometimes of the central government. I’m going there to meet my old fixer and his family, to see how they’re doing. I want to bring them some stuff, some money. I want to just talk to them about how the last nine years have been. They’re a Tajik family, and the Tajiks were very oppressed by the Taliban, so they were very happy to see them go — and I want to see how they’re doing, and how the town looks, and how things have changed both for better and for worse since then.
There’s also the oil pipeline story, which I think is one of the most underreported stories. There’s an oil and gas pipeline that’s being built, right now, north of Herat. And as far as I know, nobody has gone there to talk to the workers, take photos and see the people who are building it — and the people who are trying to blow it up.
Why do you think that is?
Mostly I think it’s the big problem of there just not being very many foreign correspondents anymore — that’s probably 95 percent of it. And then of the people who are there, there’s this weird obsession with US military operations. It’s easier to pitch front-line coverage. I could get funding to go do that. I could go as an embedded reporter for that. Things that blow up are exciting. People like uniforms and bombs. It is exciting, and I’ve done that, but the truth is, it’s not really the big story in Afghanistan anymore. And it kind of never was, and it kind of never will be. This is a guerilla war like Vietnam. It doesn’t have a front line. The enemy just lives all around you.
And as far as the pipeline goes, it’s an interesting story, because it was dismissed by the right as basically a paranoid conspiracy on the left — kind of the equivalent of the 9/11 truthers. And so the argument was, ‘This doesn’t exist.’ And, you know, it does exist. So just to be able to go and show that is an interesting story.
So that’s part two. And then part three of the plan is to go to parts of the country that no one ever goes to, just because no one ever goes there. Reporters spend a lot of time wherever military operations are happening — so, these days, in Helmand Province, and since the beginning of the war, in the east along the border with Pakistan. But they really don’t spend any time in a lot of the country. So I’m going to go spend a lot of time on the border with Iran, north of Helmand, south of Herat. It’s an interesting part of the country because it’s so remote that in many ways it hasn’t really been affected by the American occupation. So it’ll be interesting to see how we’re viewed, and how life has changed — or not — since then.
Do you have any ideas about what you’ll find?
Absolutely none. Except that it’s not going to be a very pleasant place to stay. It’s going to be brutally hot — it’ll be August or September, and it’ll be 120, 130 degrees in the shade. And it’s going to be dusty, and dirt-poor — by Afghan standards — so it’s just going to be a miserable place to live for a few weeks. But those people live there all the time, so I can put up with it for a few weeks.
Finances aside (to the extent we can put them aside): Why Kickstarter? Are there other benefits to a self-financed trip, as opposed to a news-outlet-financed one?
I’m really, militantly, opposed to embedded journalism. I think it’s actually really irresponsible for anybody to participate in that program. It endangers all reporters. No one should do it. Imagine if your country were occupied, and you saw European reporters riding around on trucks with occupation troops — and they’re not talking to you, there’s only talking to those soldiers — and they’re going to their press conferences, and you see their reporters on TV, and they’re completely skewed toward the occupiers. You would say, ‘These people are part of the occupation forces.’ And that’s exactly what we’re doing there.
So even people who think they can remain independent — they can’t. When you’re riding around with people, and you’re being shot at, and your life depends on them shooting back successfully, there’s no way you can remain objective.
So the pitch here is: Whether you love me or hate me, I go in with my own mind, and I’m not beholden to anyone. Except the fine supporters of Kickstarter.