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Jason Marsden, on GARNA, the state of journalism today, being a cocktail party diversion at Harvard, and his friend Matthew Shepard

(Publication Date: 4.23.24)

In this episode of We Are Chaffee’s Looking Upstream podcast, Adam Williams talks with Jason Marsden, executive director of the Greater Arkansas River Nature Association (GARNA), rights advocate and former newspaper reporter.

 

Adam talks with Jason about his early years growing up on a farm, his studying post-WWII poetry at Harvard, and his time as an environmental reporter at the Casper Star-Tribune. They also talk about the state of journalism today.

 

And they talk about Jason’s friend, Matthew Shepard, who became the subject of national and international media coverage in the wake of a violent hate crime committed against him, in 1998. Among other things.

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SHOW NOTES, LINKS, CREDITS & TRANSCRIPT

The We Are Chaffee: Looking Upstream podcast is a collaboration with the Chaffee County Departments of Public Health and Housing, and is supported by the Colorado Public Health & Environment: Office of Health Disparities.

 

Along with being distributed on podcast listening platforms (e.g. Spotify, Apple), Looking Upstream is broadcast weekly at 1 p.m. on Tuesdays, on KHEN 106.9 community radio in Salida, Colo., and can be listened to on-demand via khen.org

 

Greater Arkansas River Nature Association

Website: garna.org

Facebook: facebook.com/GARNAinCO

Instagram: instagram.com/garnacolorado

We Are Chaffee

Website: wearechaffee.org

Instagram: instagram.com/wearechaffeepod 

Facebook: facebook.com/wearechaffee

Instagram: instagram.com/wearechaffee

CREDITS

Looking Upstream Host, Producer & Photographer: Adam Williams

Looking Upstream Engineer & Producer: Jon Pray

We Are Chaffee Community Advocacy Coordinator: Lisa Martin

We Are Chaffee Graphic and Web Design: Heather Gorby

Director of Chaffee County Public Health and Environment: Andrea Carlstrom

TRANSCRIPT

Note: Transcripts are produced using a transcription service.

Although it is largely accurate, minor errors inevitably exist.

 

[Intro music, guitar instrumental]

Adam Williams (00:00:15): Welcome to We Are Chaffee's Looking Upstream, a conversational podcast of humanness, community and well-being rooted in Chaffee County, Colorado. I'm Adam Williams. 

Today I'm talking with Jason Marsden. Jason is the executive director of GARNA, the Greater Arkansas River Nature Association. We do talk about GARNA a bit of course later in this conversation, but along the way we dive into so much more. 

Jason and I both have newspaper backgrounds from early in our careers, so this was a fantastic opportunity to dig into questions that I think are really worth considering, given the current state of journalism, our relationship to information these days and trust or lack of in institutions like our media and government, questions like what's the role and purpose of journalism and what are we collectively missing about that purpose and how the media is functioning today. 

We talk about Jason's early years growing up on a farm and then his move to the big city of Sheridan, Wyoming. We talk about what he learned and didn't learn while studying post-World War II poetry at Harvard and how he ended up becoming an environmental reporter at the Casper Star-Tribune.

(00:01:26): We also talk about Jason's friend, Matthew Shepard, that name, it might ring a bell. Matt became the subject of national and international media coverage in the wake of a violent hate crime committed against him in 1998. Jason tells about the humanity of his friend, Matt, and why he wrote a column that would change Jason's life. It also would land him on national television with Tom Brokaw. 

We also talk about our cynicism and our hope for the world and what's on Jason's mind as leader of GARNA and why in his view, the Arkansas Valley holds a brilliant story of success and redemption. The Looking Upstream podcast is supported by Chaffee County Public Health and the Chaffee Housing Authority. It's available on all podcast players and at WeAreChaffee.org. 

The show also airs at 1PM Tuesdays at KHEN 106.9 FM Community Radio in Salida. Show notes including links and a full transcript of this and all Looking Upstream conversations are available at WeAreChaffee.org and you can support the podcast by following We Are Chaffee Pod on Instagram and the We Are Chaffee account on Instagram and Facebook. Now here we go with Jason Marsden.

[Transition music, guitar instrumental]

Adam Williams (00:02:57): Let's talk about the environment and your interest in environmental advocacy and organizational leadership like now with GARNA, where does that come from for you?

Jason Marsden (00:03:08): I grew up on a farm. My dad and mom, both multi-generational farm families in southern Minnesota. We grew soybeans, corn, and alfalfa. My dad was very far out in front of a lot of his peers. He was one of the early adopters of soybeans in the late '70s in our part of Minnesota where a lot of people just thought that was just a little out there at the time. 

Obviously it's become a pretty big deal, and so I was aware of the dirt and the birds and the weather and did it rain enough for too much or hail storms? How can you tell if a cloud looks like hail? And my dad was a storm chaser, he was obsessed with tornadoes and disasters at some primal level. So I just always have been surrounded by not only nature and what we do to it, how we try to make it obey and animals.

(00:04:24): We had chickens for eggs and meat, but we also had a stupid cow for no particular reason and my mom had a couple of horses because she loves horses, not because they were a business move or anything, although she was able to mare her out a few times. So I've just always been surrounded by it and I think it intersects with my sense of justice and social justice in particular because of my grandmother who is very active in politics. Her father had been a minor party apparatchik to the Farmer Labor Party, which became Minnesota DFL.

Adam Williams (00:05:07): What is DFL?

Jason Marsden (00:05:08): It's the Democratic Farmer Labor Party, which is if you're a Democrat in Minnesota, that's what you actually are. It's one of two states, in North Dakota it's the DNPL, but it comes out of the farmer populist movement of the early 20th century that started to merge with the Democrats and through the labor union connection. 

My grandmother and her father had been very active in that and she and some other relatives put together a polka party for this Paul Wellstone cat once upon a time who got himself elected to the United States Senate and was a tremendous force for good in this country, one of the greats. And is so caring about the outdoors and caring about social justice and progressive outcomes for human beings just led me to my lifelong concern about environmental degradation in particular.

(00:06:11): Then I landed in Casper Wyoming in my early 20s as a newspaper reporter after helping manage a losing US senate campaign, and I ended up with the environmental beat, and this is in a town where what was once the world's largest oil refinery had gone out of business and been sitting there for five years or so, just shut down and there was a big, big hydrocarbon plume sitting on top of the groundwater underneath Casper, Wyoming, three times the volume of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. 

And people were finding themselves unable to refinance their houses or sell their properties because of the downstream potential environmental liabilities attached to their land or their homes. And a class action lawsuit got filed and it was the classic underdog of a bunch of older people, mostly poor or working class, whose homes were their real asset in their life's work, and they sued Amoco. I ended up with that lawsuit on my beat and I got to cover it.

And I got to know the involved and observe the corporate behavior that caused it and the corporate behavior in response to the lawsuit. And we had a dicta in the Casper Star-Tribune newsroom where if you got stuck with a seemingly boring story and wanted to piss and moan about it a little bit, an editor would say something along the lines of, "I don't know, go talk to them and write your way onto the front page.'' 

So I took that as a challenge and I wrote my way onto the front page because those people were nice people who deserve to be able to refi and sell their house if they wanted to and maybe live inside it and not be afraid of whatever health implications were. And I wrote my way onto the front page maybe 100 times, I don't know, over the course of that case, and I ended up getting an award from the Wyoming Wildlife Federation. I ended up getting an award from the EPA and it was a big deal for me career-wise.

Adam Williams (00:08:54): This is in your 20s?

Jason Marsden (00:08:55): Yeah, this is when I was 23, 24, 25 years old.

Adam Williams (00:09:00): We have a lot interwoven here already. It's your environmental advocacy, where that originates with your family, the politics, the corporate, you could say greed. I think journalism as an educational tool is powerful, both as the journalist and then of course what public service you're providing through that work. 

I am intrigued by that having been the early beginnings of your career for a few reasons, because of where you are and what your career history has involved with the environment. I wondered if it was by chance that you ended up as an environmental reporter in that situation, or if that was something that you had managed at the very beginning of your career to secure for yourself and say, "This is my mission. These are the topics I want to hit"?

Jason Marsden (00:09:53): I'm an insufferable busybody, so if there's something interesting going on and it has a nexus of injustice and working people and corporate behavior or misbehavior and public policy and it presents storytelling opportunities and the stories deserve to be told, it will be very difficult to keep me away from that spot where those Venn circles overlap. However, because God is mischievous, it still happened fairly accidentally. I ended up in Casper because I needed my first job after college and I was fumbling around. 

I could have been an editor for a company that does garden books in Boston. I could have worked for a literary agent. I interviewed for a bunch of really fascinating things, and then the Wyoming Democratic Party, which I had volunteered as a kid, I was active with the Democratic Party and campaigns in my teens. The Democratic Party got a coordinated campaign chunk of money because Governor Sullivan, the rare Wyoming Democrat and a personal friend, had been talked into running for the US Senate by Bill Clinton, and he was terribly popular and running against the, I think, personality-less Republican congressman at large from Wyoming.

(00:11:20): So it was this clash of the Titans race where is this going to be the once in a blue moon where the Democrats win a Senate seat out in the Northern Rockies? No, it was not, and I was out of work at Christmastime in Casper Wyoming, and I worked at a call center and I was at UPS elf for 8.98 an hour, a fortune, and the Casper Star-Tribune was looking for a general assignment reporter, and I love to write, and I was like, okay, I can cover the county commission. 

And then the next rung up on their ladder was the energy and environment position, and the next rung up on that ladder was the Washington DC bureau chief and the DC bureau chief quit, the energy environment reporter moved to DC. They gave me the energy and environment beat and a monstrous invisible oil spill underneath your town. Look at that, that's energy and environment. Go crazy, kid.

Adam Williams (00:12:23): Yeah. How much did you get paid when you started the newspaper?

Jason Marsden (00:12:27): How $15,600 a year.

Adam Williams (00:12:31): Nice.

Jason Marsden (00:12:32): Yeah, it was 7.47 an hour or something like that.

Adam Williams (00:12:36): Wow. It was a step-down from what UPS...

Jason Marsden (00:12:38): From UPS, yeah, from riding around in the back of the UPS truck. Yeah. I was making a buck 50 more an hour doing that than I was covering leadership in one of the energy capitals of the world, and it was terribly serious work because the next morning everyone would read it. And the morning drive time guys would be talking about your story on the radio when you're driving to work and hopefully not making fun of it.

Adam Williams (00:13:11): Which is probably a combination of emotions, it brings up some exhilaration. I did that. I'm part of that and then also maybe a little bit of anxiety around, oh no, what are they going to say about it? And how are people going to react to me if they connect me personally by face with it out in the town?

Jason Marsden (00:13:28): Yeah. Oh, yeah. And there were all these moments where you'd meet someone like, "Oh, hi,

Jason Marsden, Casper Star-Tribune." And then you would read their face for news of your fate.

Adam Williams (00:13:41): Right. Yeah.

Jason Marsden (00:13:42): I'd be like, "Oh yeah, I know your byline." He wrote something the other day, or it would be, "Oh, hi", which means potentially I work for an oil company and we are not really happy with you.

Adam Williams (00:13:58): It's an interesting type of job to have in how it shapes your social life and your whole existence in a particular community, different than so many other jobs because it's not just, oh, what do you do? It's I know something of what you do, and I have an opinion about it and who I think you are and what you're about. And that there are people who aren't always happy to know that you're doing that job and you're doing it well and you're digging out the information. 

Let's talk about how you got to be a reporter though, because you went to Harvard from Wyoming, from rural northern Wyoming. You went off to Boston on the East Coast, you went to Harvard, you studied literature. I'm thinking about the cultural differences there. What drew you out to Harvard and to Boston? You mentioned how you came back, but just can you take me through that time in your life when you went from rural Wyoming to the East coast back to Wyoming, and you mentioned DC bureau chief, then you're back to the East Coast before again returning to Wyoming.

Jason Marsden (00:15:02): Yeah, yeah, very young Jason was president of the debate team, state champion, national qualifier several times over, class president, blah, blah, blah, all that stuff, all the academics, all of that. Deeply insecure, very aware of being pretty struggling working class upbringing. My dad died when I was eight, my mom was a single mom with two kids in her 20s, moved 700 miles, and I think in part just as just an overt, 'let's start over'. 

She had old friends who had ended up in Sheridan, Wyoming and didn't want to be the same person, the widow in her 20s that everyone felt sorry for, I think, and wanted to start fresh. And so of all places, we went to Wyoming, and yet that was a move toward a more metropolitan existence because we moved off of a farm eight miles outside of a town of 4,500 people to living in town in a city of 14 or 15,000 where there was a lot more going on.

 

(00:16:28): And I felt very awakened to city life, which is the weirdest thing to say about moving to Sheridan, Wyoming. But Sheridan, Wyoming is a really interesting place, and it is connected not only to the East Coast, but to Britain. It's where they make Queen Elizabeth's saddles, King Ropes in Sheridan, Wyoming provides tack to the royal family because a bunch of the third sons of the Earl of whatnot moved out to Wyoming in the 1890s to become cattle barons in parts of Montana and Western North Dakota also. 

It's why Teddy Roosevelt was drawn out to the northern Rockies because there are a lot of social connections from that place all the way back to the East Coast and to old money and back to Britain. And so, one of my very dear friends from the speech team was two years ahead of me went to Harvard and his dad was a doctor and they were a big deal, but he encouraged me to apply and they had early decision, so I applied early to see if they would let me in, and then they did.

(00:17:44): And I literally was like, well, Boston University costs $50 to file an application. I really was interested in going to Brown in Providence, Rhode Island because it appealed to my oddball personality, but the unions in Rhode Island, the printers union was on strike, and Brown didn't get their catalog out and their application packet in time for me to apply for an early decision from them. So I was like, well, just, what the hell. 

I'll just apply early decision to Harvard. Hardly anyone gets into Harvard and only 10% of the class gets in through early action, but what the hell. I think it costs $65, which I earned from working at Arby's. And then they let me in and I was like, am I going to say no to Harvard because I really want to go to Gustavus Adolphus or am I going to wait out the printer strike in Providence Rhode Island? So I said, yes, sight unseen, I had never been to Boston Massachusetts, but I was aware that Harvard was regarded as a quality institution.

Adam Williams (00:18:55): A big deal. Yeah.

Jason Marsden (00:18:56): Yeah. So I went there and scraped some money together to go in April to go visit my friend John, who was then a sophomore and I thought it was pretty cool. So I show up in the class of 1994, and I'm surrounded by people who went to Andover and Exeter and all the prep schools and solid, at that time, 25-ish percent of the class was from Massachusetts, and a big chunk of the rest of them were either from New York or the Bay Area of California, but they were always very proud to have a geographically, socially, racially, economically diverse student body.

(00:19:40): And I was one of two students in my class from Wyoming. There was a young woman from Kemmerer who couldn't be more different from me, devout Mormon, just really completely different human being. And I think I was a useful cocktail party diversion to have around as a kid from Wyoming, and I have made it my business to be a useful cocktail party diversion the rest of my life. And I more or less majored in cocktail party conversation and it turns out it is really useful in life to be able to be something of a novelty and then hopefully impress people that you are worth talking to. It unlocks doors.

Adam Williams (00:20:26): Why did you study literature instead of maybe political science or something related to the environment? Something that...

Jason Marsden (00:20:31): I had so many people ask me that over the years that I don't even remember why now, I've had to explain so many times why I wanted to read specifically post-World War II American poetry and why I thought that was what I really needed to be doing with my life at that time. But I really felt that way about it, and I have made it my business to help people have a really good laugh about that many times throughout the rest of my life, that's what I studied.

(00:21:05): We have a tech problem at the GARNA office, and I'll be like, "I'm really sorry. I'd love to be more helpful with this, but I was an English major", and then I did that one time and someone said, "Oh, well, I have always wondered what was the thing with Lord Byron and the Shelleys?" And I was like, "I'm extra really sorry, but I studied post-World War II American poetry. I don't know that much about Lord Byron." 

So I would be fairly useless in wartime as a result of my college major, other than it taught me a great deal about trying to figure out what people are really saying, which I think has been very useful throughout my life.

Adam Williams (00:21:49): That's an interesting take on that because I would think of a psychologist, somebody who's a psychology major, learning the inner workings, what are people really saying and/or not saying or a sociologist or something like that. So that's a really interesting perspective. And look, you managed to go study this specific slice of literature and poetry in the world and have a life and a career with so much depth and meaning ever since. It's incredible, right?

Jason Marsden (00:22:15): Yeah. Well, and throughout my life people have been like, "Oh, my nephew's really interested in maybe applying to an Ivy League school, or my nephew's really interested in literature, but they're not sure that's a good major." And I've had the opportunity to tell tons of young people, "You can absolutely do this." One of the best majors for going to law school is English. 

If you look at the biographies of members of Congress who have law degrees, and most of them do, a surprising number of them are English majors because language is how we actually accomplish everything, absolutely everything. Even mathematics, even the hard sciences require language to make them work. And it's the old joke about the young fish ask the old fish how the water is today and the old fish asks what water is. 

What is language other than an earnest effort to be understood? And the hilarious accident of the evolution of the human brain that people can hear these utterances you make with your vocal cords and know what you mean.

Adam Williams (00:23:29): Yeah. As you know, I also had some beginnings in my career as a newspaper reporter. Now I look at what you were doing and think what you were doing was so much more consequential. I was a sports reporter, a features writer, and you were digging into these incredibly important matters of politics, environment, energy. 

I am curious then for your perspective as someone who has that background, what you feel like the role or purpose of journalism is in our society and where collectively right now, I think we might be missing that understanding.

Jason Marsden (00:24:11): Yeah. Well, we are missing, well-told, timely, widely disseminated storytelling about our contemporary day-to-day existences in this world. Because local papers, local radio stations, local TV stations have been laying off journalists for the entirety of my life basically. I could not go into the career path that I chose in my life were I 22 years old today. Those jobs don't exist, and where they do exist, they don't give you the time and the resources to do real reporting. 

And we are social creatures and we are very eager to know what is going on, what are other people doing? How important is it to whom, who and what does it affect? Am I one of those people and is there anyone who can explain it to me in a way that I can really understand and that empowers me should I choose to be involved in that situation and make it better or make it bigger or do something different with it?

(00:25:35): And that's what a local newspaper in 1995 was for. What is going on? I'd run into someone who'd be like, "I don't agree with what you wrote today." I was like, "You don't agree with what happened, or you don't agree that I captured what happened or what is it exactly?" And I wanted to know, I probably had a few chips on my shoulder at that point in the conversation already, but what did you disagree with and why? 

And is there anything I can do about it? Can I be helpful? My philosophy is how can I be helpful? Can I be helpful with that? And a lot of times they just really just disagreed with what happened. And that's beautiful. They had the opportunity to have an emotional response to the action of other human beings in real time right there in River City. How wonderful. I'm so glad I could be a part of that.

Adam Williams (00:26:47): How does that translate to where we are today, though? Because that feels like it's a little bit more of an innocent time pre- all this internet, pre-social media, pre- all the things that have changed in journalism and media, because the disagreement with the truth that we are experiencing now feels a lot more dangerous and problematic.

Jason Marsden (00:27:06): That's the water we're swimming in now. Everybody's drinking the Kool-Aid, and no one put any poison in it. We can all just drink all that Kool-Aid all day long, and there won't be a consequence apparently. But it's not good for us as creatures for our minds, for our hearts. 

What's different today is so many things, one, paper only comes out a couple of times a week, and the stories are pretty short, fairly bare bones. You don't write your way onto the front page with fascinatingly well-told stories that are crafted to hold your attention and carry you from point A to point B as an experience of learning.

Adam Williams (00:27:50): And incredible reporting.

Jason Marsden (00:27:51): Which is like the council I met last night, here's five things they did, bullet, bullet, bullet and we're out of here. And yet with social media, everybody thinks they know everything now. Everybody thinks they're really plugged into what's going on, but what they're really plugged into is everybody's PR about themselves and they're not plugged into anyone who is horrified by social media and keeping their distance from it. And there's no specific person out there with a notebook wandering around town talking to people and sharing the story. 

Maybe as things like podcasts and projects like this become more popular and evolve and are better resourced, maybe that's how people will learn more about one another and what's going on around them and have that wonderful experience of disagreeing with what's happening. But actually disagreeing with what's really happening, what is truthfully the situation, not disagreeing with some fabulist's portrayal of what life is like right now that is untrue and that is ideologically motivated.

Adam Williams (00:29:03): Emotionally.

Jason Marsden (00:29:04): Yeah.

Adam Williams (00:29:05): Like trying to trigger emotions in an audience, even beginning with headlines, which would not have happened years ago with mainstream national media, with newspapers or their websites using so many words like "So-and-so destroyed their opposing politician, they slammed them." And things that are triggering...

Jason Marsden (00:29:30): The language of warfare is being injected into everyday discourse and so slowly that no one is noticing it happening.

Adam Williams (00:29:40): It feels like a drama related to professional wrestling instead of... It's something to trigger our emotions, not inform us in any sense of an objective approach, which used to be the idea, at least for most journalism, aside from opinion columns and things of that nature, which I do think that people probably have long struggled to tell the difference when they read something in a newspaper. You were a columnist at one point, right?

Jason Marsden (00:30:05): Yeah.

Adam Williams (00:30:05): So you can delineate for anybody in the audience who really still is unclear or maybe unclear now because of all these changes we're talking about, the dissolution of this is reporting, this is fact-based, this is more or less objective. That's the attempt, and here's an opinion column. What's the difference in those roles that you held and your understanding of those positions?

Jason Marsden (00:30:32): Well, I love this question. When people consumed news from a newspaper, which is a primitive technology, in which words were printed on sheets of paper and folded in a certain way and given to other individuals to unfold and page through and read.

Adam Williams (00:30:51): Ridden around on bicycles by kids.

Jason Marsden (00:30:53): Yes. And then we turned it all over to 12-year-olds at 4:00 in the morning to distribute our very important journalism, which is delightful. There was geographic separation of news and opinion, when you picked up the newspaper and you unfolded it and you looked at A-1, the front page and what's above the fold so you could see it in the newspaper machine, which you could place quarters into to buy one. 

As you page through it, you might run across the opinion page, which was usually A-7 or A-9. And on that page, it was people telling you what they thought about what was going on in the news and if there was any doubt about it at the very top of that page, it was a really big word that said, 'Opinion.' Now you'll find yourself bouncing between feature stories, news and opinion all on the same screen in front of you, all equally easy to click, no real separation. And you might find something that calls itself 'Such and Such News' that is 99% opinion, but it says it's news.

Adam Williams (00:32:06): Masquerading.

Jason Marsden (00:32:08): That's not news, they say they're news. How can they say they're news if they're not?

Adam Williams (00:32:14): Yeah.

Jason Marsden (00:32:15): “Yeah. But it was on the news.”

Adam Williams (00:32:19): There's a lot of confusion.

Jason Marsden (00:32:21): That is not accidental. The confusion is on purpose and it is done by people who feel entitled to help you change your mind about stuff. And some of them play fair and some of them don't. And the ones who don't play fair, spoiler alert, they have advantages over the ones who play fair.

Adam Williams (00:32:42): Right. We could go on and on with this, I am sure, let's shift gears. Okay. I want to ask you about Matthew Shepard.

Jason Marsden (00:32:51): Yeah.

Adam Williams (00:32:52): That is a name that I imagine there are a number of listeners who it sounds familiar, maybe they know specifically who we're talking about. Maybe it's just that their eyes light up. I know, I know who that is.

Jason Marsden (00:33:02): Yeah, I've seen those eyes.

Adam Williams (00:33:04): You knew Matthew Shepard. You have a very intimate professional period of your life with the Matthew Shepard Foundation.

Jason Marsden (00:33:14): Yeah.

Adam Williams (00:33:16): Who was and is, based on his legacy, Matthew Shepard.

Jason Marsden (00:33:20): Yeah. While I was living in Casper making it as a reporter, one of my colleagues was finishing his bachelor's degree through distance learning through the local college extension program from the University of Wyoming. Had a classmate who had a birthday, took me to this little birthday party of young 20-somethings. 

It's one of those classic apartments that three roommates were living in, you walk in the front door and you're already halfway through the living room, and then there's a little kitchen bar pass-through sort of thing with a little galley kitchen behind it. And I walked in there and there was this little short blonde kid making a drink or something in the kitchen area, and I noticed him look at me. And then I noticed him bustle through the people to come over to the door and he said, "You're Jason Marsden from the Casper Star-Tribune, aren't you?"

(00:34:30): And I was like, "Okay, here we go. What's this going to be?" And he said, "I have a complaint. There's nothing in the paper about what's going on in Afghanistan." And I am a news junkie, I had the AP Wire on my computer screen all day long in the newsroom. I've always cared what's going on around the world and I had no idea what was going on in Afghanistan at the time. And I was like, "What is going on?" 

And he's like, "The country's been taken over by religious zealots and they're horse whipping and executing people and girls can't go to school anymore. I just can't believe there's nothing in the paper about it." I was like, "I'll mention it to the Wire editor. Thanks." That was Matthew Shepard. Now some household name to a lot of people, certainly people connected to the LGBTQ community, certainly people from Wyoming and the Rocky Mountain West.

(00:35:44): He was a University of Wyoming student four and a half, five years younger than me, my husband's age. They were high school classmates. My husband and Matthew Shepard were in high school together until Matt's dad, who was in oil and gas, had to move to Saudi Arabia for work because all the refineries in the West were closing. 

And that was how I met him because we had a mutual friend and he was from Casper, Wyoming. He went on to become known in the world because he was murdered in a despicable hate crime in Laramie Wyoming in October of 1998. And for a variety of reasons, that particular news story had legs and became of national and international interest. And President Clinton was asked about it and it became a thing and very quickly it became a big deal for gay people in Wyoming in particular, just a life altering news event.

(00:36:56): And I learned about that in the same way I learned about half of what went on in the world while I worked at the newspaper. I learned about it from the AP Wire or CNN in the corner in the newsroom or conversation. And my desk at that time in the newsroom was next to the fax machine, which was a primitive technology where you could send paper to other people through the phone lines. 

And I was aware of a bunch of people gathering, like a Wire editor and a copy editor and a couple other people were gathering by the fax machine. And faxes were coming through and something was going on. And one of the editors came out and tapped me on the shoulder and asked me to go back to the conference room, which is where they took you to chew your ass out because what you wrote about the governor the day before or whatever it was.

(00:37:54): So I went in there and just, it was my editor and it was the state editor and it was the city editor and I walked in and there were a bunch of faxes on the table. And David, the editor in chief, got up and closed the door behind me when I came in and they're like, "Do you know a University of Wyoming student named Matthew Shepard?" And I said, "Yeah, I know Matt. Did something happen?" And they're like, "Well, he was horribly beaten and the sheriff's office has said that they're initially already said that they're looking at whether it was an anti-gay hate crime." 

And they had sent a reporter over to Laramie from Cheyenne where we had a bureau. And they were like, "Some of his friends have been talking to Carrie Drake, the reporter, and they said that you were friends with him, and so we think you probably shouldn't be involved in the coverage."

I was like, "Okay." And they're like, "If you just need to go home or whatever, just take whatever time you need." And I lived in this apartment at the time that had no internet, so I stuck around the newsroom because that was how I would be able to follow what was going on. And it turned into an international outrage and one that has an enduring presence in the LGBTQ mind collectively to this day. 

And his parents ultimately created an organization dedicated to preventing, addressing and otherwise legislating around hate crime and bullying and discrimination generally, particularly through the lens of working with young people. And eventually after volunteering with them and being supportive and donating and attending their events and such, his mom asked me if I would take over as the executive director of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, which is how I ended up moving to Denver in 2009.

Adam Williams (00:40:18): So that was 11 years or so after the event itself. And I want us to get to that but before we do, I have a number of thoughts just based on what you said. How did you respond in those moments as you're hearing of this acquaintance or friend. I don't know how much time you spent with them after that initial party prior to this crime. When those editors are telling you what happened and this is someone personally, you have a connection to, I can only think that that was an incredible hit.

Jason Marsden (00:40:54): I had that sinking gray sickly feeling that you get when something just really awful is dawning on you that I've had a few times in my life when my dad died. Other things, like a really bad thing happens, you get a close family member or loved one has a bad diagnosis, it hit me like that. 

And then I started to immediately see all of the anti-gay people in a much sharper contrast than I had previously. All of the people who perpetuate unthinking unreflecting hatred of any sort, it really brought home to me how deadly that is, how easy it is to dehumanize a category of person in another person's mind and give them permission to commit violence. And I had by that point in my career at the newspaper, started also writing opinion columns about what was going on in the news.

(00:42:04): And I had once or twice written about anti-gay things that were going on in the news, but from a politely intellectual place of argument. And I was out to some of the people in the newsroom and to my close friends and immediate family, but not to everyone in the newsroom or all of my friends or all of my family, including my grandparents. 

And I thought as I watched this very quickly go from being there was a terrible crime against this person in this place to this is emblematic of anti-gay beliefs and the cultural war over homosexuality and so on. And it made me mad and I had to examine my feelings about what was going on. And I felt like my going straight to anger about it was the kind of thing that other people were going to do also. They were going to find themselves on some side of an issue and not really absorbing the terrible violence and loss that had occurred.

(00:43:22): So I did my level best to write something thoughtful and decent and humanitarian about Matt as a person and what he was like, and I thought it would be dishonest in some way if I did not disclose that I was gay myself. And so I did that in a column in the newspaper, came the morning that he actually finally passed away in intensive care. I sat down and wrote that and many thoughtful people who I love very much in the newsroom thought I should not write that. And I wrote it and they thought maybe that they should talk me out of it being printed in the paper and I talked them into printing it in the paper and it ran in the paper.

Adam Williams (00:44:13): Was that for your safety? Was it because they were opposed to you?

Jason Marsden (00:44:17): They were concerned about my safety. They were concerned about my career. They were concerned about how I would be viewed, I was on a first name basis with the governor, in a state like Wyoming, you don't have extra people around. I was in my mid-20s, but I had the responsibilities of, I was doing work as important then as the work I feel I'm doing now. And people didn't really pigeonhole me because of my age, and I just felt like they weren't going to pigeonhole me because I was gay either. 

So it ran in the paper, and as I have said since then, if you do something principled in your life, you will not live it down because people will notice that you did something principled and they will think, wow, that was brave. But the truth is it wasn't really brave. It shouldn't have had to have been brave anyway, in my mind, it was just what a decent person would do to eulogize a friend.

(00:45:27): And I still feel that way about it, but it got a lot of people's attention. And then they wanted to fly me to this and that journalism school and the American Society of News Editors conference, put me on a panel and the Center in New York in Greenwich Village flew me out there and I ended up involved in the Society of Professional Journalists in the LGBTQ arm of that, and it just changed the entire trajectory of my career. 

I was on Tom Brokaw, and I had to call my grandparents and tell them I was gay that day so that they didn't learn it from Tom Brokaw. It was very weird but compared to what his family was going through under the withering scrutiny of the international media, it was nothing. I and I had just met Guy Padgett, we were dating, we had just met five weeks before Matt was killed.

Adam Williams (00:46:28): Who is your husband.

Jason Marsden (00:46:29): Yeah, who is now my husband. We've been together for going on 26 years now. It was the third date we went on was to Matt's funeral, and there was a crazy blizzard that day, heavy wet snow and branches were breaking all over town. And the Fred Phelps 'God Hates Fags' freaks were across the street.

Adam Williams (00:46:48): From Westboro?

Jason Marsden (00:46:49): Yeah.

Adam Williams (00:46:49): Is that who that is?

Jason Marsden (00:46:50): Yeah. Were across the street shouting and picketing and just making asses of themselves with little six and seven-year-old children with them in a blizzard. It was just so surreal.

Adam Williams (00:47:02): I want to ask about that experience of the unintended consequence, I suppose, your friend is brutally beaten, it becomes this international thing. Because of what your job and your work is, it ends up being a springboard of sorts to people knowing who you are, to your career. 

I'm going to guess that brings mixed emotions, but I don't want to put that in your mouth either so how did you balance intellectually, emotionally, that surreality of experience that, my goodness, I just lost my friend and I'm also gay and I've just come out in this public way that is so extraordinary and now people are flying me around the country and I am some sort of minor famous.

Jason Marsden (00:47:58): Yeah.

Adam Williams (00:47:59): How did you balance all of that and the positive gain to your career because of it?

Jason Marsden (00:48:05): I tried to balance it using the same instincts that guided me as a reporter, which are to not make yourself part of the story. I did make myself part of the story literally by writing an opinion column about it but I feel I was doing my job by doing that because I had an opinion about something that happened in the news. 

And I could make a little more sense out of what was going on for a lot of people, not for everyone who read that, I got hate mail, also people sent me flowers to the newsroom. I got all kinds of unsolicited attention from it, but I felt like my job was, I am a little bit part of this story. I've learned a little bit about what it's like when the newspapers writing about your loved ones because they found their way into the news.

(00:49:05): I got a real dose of what it's like to be on the other side of the notebook, and I just thought I could help people understand a little bit better what this whole thing was all about if I was honest about it. And so then when they flew me around the country, I would sit on panels and say that to them. 

I would say at the journalism schools and conferences, I would say "As a reporter, be aware of what it's like to be on the other side of the notebook and God help you if that happens. But if it happens, be transparent, be intellectually honest, do your job and help people understand this moment. If it made you feel, good. Feeling is important. Help other people feel too."

(00:50:00): And that was words of advice to young people. Be yourself, be truthful. This is what our profession is for. This is the connection. Yes, it's tragic. Yes, it's terrible. Yes, this should stop happening. Yes, there could be laws about this sort of thing, and we'll be writing stories about that for a long time to come. We're still writing those stories, but what's happening right now is real. Tell the truth about it. The rest will sort itself out.

Adam Williams (00:50:34): It is an opinion column and you are a person who is uniquely positioned to provide another layer of understanding. And I think that there is a way in what you were describing considering our journalism talk earlier here, there is a difference between opinion that was written 30 years ago and the way opinion often is handled in the various forms of media that exist now. 

And you were able to do that with integrity, journalistic integrity, human integrity, and show this is the way to handle this. And it's incredible then that you also were able to go talk with the future, the next generation of journalists about such important topics, not only being Matt, but journalistically. When you were director of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, this was 16 plus years later, you wrote an article that was reflecting on the media – I don't know if you'd call it circus, but whatever – that followed in the wake of that event nationally, internationally. 

And I wonder what you feel like now, which is another 10 years on, what you feel like you have observed about the way such a tragic event is handled. What happens with that in relation to politics, media coverage? It's probably different now in some ways. What are your senses of that as where we stand now and in relation, I should say, to the violence and the 'anti' rhetoric in particular toward trans people? Have we grown? Have we improved? Where have we come here?

Jason Marsden (00:52:30): Well, it's nuanced, right? I said at some point to someone, I was reading a newspaper and there was a headline about the LGBT issue, I think was how it was described in the headline. And I was like, "Oh, good. I am so glad, I need to read this story about the me issue and how controversial it is." Just with a intellectual disbelief that we're really doing this. Are we really talking about people being an issue? People are not an issue. Issues do not eat. Issues, do not sleep.

Adam Williams (00:53:15): Breathe, feel.

Jason Marsden (00:53:16): Breathe, yeah, love. So for starters, and I've had people say like, "Oh, Matthew Shepard, I remember that whole thing." Or "I remember when that happened." And when I'm my best self, I always try to remind people that wasn't a thing that happened, that was a person, that was a human being. The sanitation strike in Memphis that Dr. King was helping lead in 1968 when he was murdered, there was a famous sign of a man on strike holding a sign, and the sign said, "I am a man." 

And I just always try to remember that the people who are going through the latest, most coarse, most vulgar version of storytelling and media in our culture right now, that they are people first, foremost, last and always. And we can all have opinions about them or what they're like. We are free to have opinions about them, even if they're complete strangers to us.

(00:54:35): We are even free to pass laws about them without knowing their name, where they live, who they are. The colossal arrogance of this culture scarcely bears scrutiny sometimes. By way of answering your question, I think there has been a coarsening not only in how we tell stories, but how we listen to them, what kind of stories we expect to hear, how we expect to feel about what we're about to listen to is already baked in when we choose the source of our information now. 

We already know we're going to give ourselves a dopamine hit or a dose of righteous indignation if we click on that thing and it never disappoints, we can always make ourselves feel angry about what's going on in the news. And I think when this whole media coverage episode, is how I would describe it, when that happened, that was the day, that was the time when I stopped defending reporters and news organizations for how they behaved.

(00:55:50): Up to that date it was like, these are reporters. They're people. They're doing their job, they're doing their best. They're working inside a complicated system. They don't write their own headlines. They don't decide what's first in the newscast. They're just doing what they're trying and trained to do. After Matt's murder, I stopped feeling that way. 

I started to realize that the reporters were doing their jobs, but the institutions were suspect often and coming up on 30 years on now, I very strongly feel that way. And I very seldom feel any sympathy for a reporter, partly because they're really invisible and there aren't a lot of them around anymore. Decisions are being made by producers for cable news networks, not by reporters on the ground who interviewed anybody.

Adam Williams (00:56:44): There clearly is a legacy related to Matthew Shepard. There's the foundation that his parents started. There's countless news stories and all the things, but something that you clued me into before we were sitting here and recording was that he had journals. I don't know if there were other materials that institutions were interested in, and ultimately those would go to the Smithsonian. 

I am fascinated by that, I'm curious. I don't even know at all what to think they're doing with them. Can you enlighten me as to why there was competition to get those materials, what's being done with them and the value that you think the Smithsonian in this case or any of the others that wanted them, what it is they see in them and why they wanted to preserve this legacy of Matthew Shepard?

Jason Marsden (00:57:48): Yeah, I think the historian's impulse is a beautiful one. A historian is a very far removed news reporter, I wrote a lot of stories about what the Natrona County Commission was up to in 1996 and the county budget and stuff and it was read by a handful of people who cared or needed to know those things and ignored by most other people. And that's fine, that was the purpose of writing, it was for those handful of people. 100 years from now, people are going to read that as original source material of what happened in that human community in those long ago days.

(00:58:30): Those stories will exist in bound form in a library somewhere, because they're not on the internet, it was too long ago. And the curator plays an especially important role in trying to toss the net out as widely as possible of what the original source materials could be for those future historians. 

And so Matthew Shepard will be a person who's talked about for as long as people are talked about and his journals and his belongings and his letters to and from his friends because in those days, if you wanted to communicate with a friend who wasn't nearby, you would write on a piece of paper things that you wanted them to know and read, and you would place it in the mail.

Adam Williams (00:59:23): I think that's an incredible loss especially in terms of history, the fact that that's not our primary source of communication across distance anymore.

Jason Marsden (00:59:31): Nobody's going to be reading even Hillary Clinton's emails in 100 years, they're just going to be gone. So those institutions that have archives, they all specialize. If there's a university, it has some kind of an archival arm that collects original source materials that may be of importance to scholars in the future. And many of those institutions specialize because it's a very competitive world out there amongst people who have archives. 

I had no idea but yeah, and there's a couple of really big dogs in that pen, and one of them is the Smithsonian, and in the end, Matt's parents felt like the Smithsonian is going to be around. The University of Such and Such, So-and-So Center for Source Materials may or may not be around or easy to find, a long, long time in the future, but the Smithsonian will be there. And they thought this is the best chance anyone will have of getting these things written in Matt's own really ugly handwriting and getting a sense of who he was and what he thought and what he felt and what was lost when he died.

(01:00:51): We'll always have Matthew Shepard up to and until the day he died, his life story became well known and it will become well-preserved. But what he was really like, that will go away when the people who knew him go away, unless some piece of it can be held onto and cherished, and he was a journaler so it will be. And in the future, people won't be saying, "Oh, right, Matthew Shepard, I remember that whole thing." 

They'll be saying, "Matthew Shepard was a person who was murdered in this type of a crime, and this was the kind of person he was. This is how he felt about religion. This is how he felt about his best friends." 

That's priceless and that's what was lost when he died. We lost everything from that day up until right now, all the things he could have said and done and loved and hated and shared. That was what was taken from everybody and those documents and those materials and those possessions hold a piece of that still and can forever.

Adam Williams (01:02:06): From what you described in your first meeting at that party, he sounds like someone who was intelligent, thoughtful, compassionate, willing to be an advocate and fight for something. Did you ever find out how he knew what was happening in Afghanistan when you, as a professional news watcher, news professional, engaged in wanting to know about such nuggets in the world and you didn't know?

Jason Marsden (01:02:32): Yeah, because he had gone to an international school. By that point, he had finished out high school at the American school in Lugano Switzerland when his family had to move to Saudi Arabia for work. There were no American schools there at that time where his dad was stationed with Aramco, the state-owned Saudi Energy company. 

So the company paid to put him in boarding school, and a lot of people went to that particular boarding school from that company and other big companies and expats and globetrotters. And so he was exposed to people from all kinds of different places, different parts of the world, and he was able to travel, and he was able to go to Japan and to Morocco and to a couple other places. He had a worldly perspective that most 20, 21-year-old Wyoming people don't. He was exposed to it, and he was a feminist.

(01:03:37): He was always very interested in women's rights and women's empowerment and so he was very upset in particular about the backsliding in human rights that was taking place there. And it was a long time later when I had become the bureau chief in Washington, DC for the paper and 9/11 happened, and all of a sudden everyone was very interested in what was going on in Afghanistan. 

And Matt had been dead for about three years at that point and I remember I was in DC, the streets were locked down, there were fighter jets flying overhead. Our apartment was six blocks from the White House. There were the dudes with little phone cords running into their ears, wearing really nice-looking black suits on every street corner, sometimes on each corner of the corner, and they're all like "The Taliban", this and that. And I was just like, "Son of a bitch, that's what Matt was telling me about. That's those people."

Adam Williams (01:04:45): Did that bring home the pain all that much more to realize how much he could have done and contributed?

Jason Marsden (01:04:51): Yes, and I also laughed because life is so comical sometimes. It's just like all of this, which changed the whole world we live in, the person who was paying the most attention to it, as far as I know, was a little gay boy from Casper, Wyoming, and he had his eye on the ball and he was mad about it. It was evil. He could smell it.

Adam Williams (01:05:17): Do you know what he wanted to do?

Jason Marsden (01:05:19): He wanted to be a diplomat. He saw himself with the State Department, and his mom has said how heartbroken she was when he announced that his ambition in life was that he was going to be a diplomat because they still were discriminating against gay people in sensitive jobs at the federal level, including the State Department because of the lingering belief that they would be susceptible to blackmail and were security risks. 

It was not until the Clinton administration that they started allowing gay people to obtain security clearances. Even though the Lavender Scare era of the 1950s and '60s had fallen into disrepute, the federal government was still behaving like that in the '90s.

Adam Williams (01:06:09): There is a tremendous amount of optimism and trust that I hear in you throughout your career, the fact that you still engage with advocacy for things, for rights, get involved in politics, pay attention, and care about these things. I feel like I'm relatively skeptical, maybe even cynical, at least at times, as to where are we headed. But the fact that you keep engaging and participating and have this passion for it, I feel like represents some sort of hope. Is that reasonable? Does that ring true for you?

Jason Marsden (01:06:47): Oddly, it does, even though I think I'm possibly the most cynical person I've ever encountered in this world, it does ring true because I'm stubborn. I do not wish to believe the world to be irredeemable so I do not believe that. I'm not sure I believe that it is redeemable by me or anyone I know, or any trend that's going on right now that I can point to. But in the fullness of time, evildoers are dealt with, good people survive. We as a species get better very slowly, and most people are mostly awesome most of the time. And I like to live in the realm of what's possible and things being better is possible, and who am I to say they're not? So I just keep trying to see what good can be done.

Adam Williams (01:07:57): I think cynicism, or at least a healthy skepticism, is a natural part of being a newspaper reporter.

Jason Marsden (01:08:02): Sure.

Adam Williams (01:08:03): Because you need to question the information you're given.

Jason Marsden (01:08:06): Right.

Adam Williams (01:08:07): I think it was in journalism school where I learned the expression, "Trust your mother, but verify."

Jason Marsden (01:08:13): Right.

Adam Williams (01:08:14): It's like we need to question what's being said and think critically about it and go dig for other information and let's see how it all actually shakes out. So that's a natural part of things but again, I hear this belief of some kind that is more optimistic from you and well, let's talk about how all of that brings you to where you are as executive director here with GARNA, the Greater Arkansas River Nature Association. 

What does all of this that we've gotten to hear, what does that bring to this role and what your vision or hope is for what you're doing now for the environment around us?

Jason Marsden (01:08:50): I first encountered Salida in 2014, '15, '16, on a series of camping and backpacking trips. I'd been with the Shepard Foundation for about five years, going on more, and I spent a lot of time in conference rooms, a lot of time on airplanes, huge amount of time on airplanes and in hotel rooms, and doing stuff all over creation. 

And I needed to be outdoors more, and I started taking that seriously and I kept passing through this valley or coming to it on purpose and I always just had a really good feeling about it. And as I studied contemporary history in the Arkansas River Valley, this is a story of redemption. That river was poison in living memory. People my age grew up being told by their parents not to go down to that damn river because it was full of poison and was treated like a sewer.

(01:09:58): And I just felt this incredible wonder and excitement about the cleanup that had been very painstakingly and expensively put together to turn this back into a natural river system with healthy aquatic life and a booming recreation industry and people laughing and being joyful in that river. 

That was because people who hated pollution and loved rivers got together and fixed the situation at its root up in Leadville and beyond, but also in all the landscapes that that river runs through. It is such a brilliant success story, and it is such an affirmation of optimism and the fact that it is now at the center of what so many people love so much about this place that gets them to live here and gets them to know and love one another.

(01:11:06): This place just started to really seem to me to be very special, worthy of protection and important and very much in need of continued support and continued activism and continued vigilance. But also continued celebration and recognition of what a treasure it is and it's a gift of nature, but it is a work of human beings, the state that it finds itself in now. 

And I wanted to be a part of that very much, and I spent a lot of my younger years identifying and triangulating against and trying to address bad behaviors and bad beliefs and bad situations, and to be part of something that is this treasured and precious is healing for me. I feel, I see how healing it is for how many people it is and I cannot resist trying to do my part.

Adam Williams (01:12:18): What do you think that is, that part? What is your vision or what are a couple of priorities right now as you have taken the reins of this organization at this point in its journey?

Jason Marsden (01:12:33): There are two driving things behind GARNA, nature and community. If something is a natural treasure or wonder or resource or value and it brings people together, then that's where GARNA is and should be. So can we manage the land around here in a way that puts less sediment and pesticide and whatever it might be, sewage just into the river? 

And can we do that in a way that everybody wants to be a part of and that brings people together who enjoy spending time with and knowing one another? There are land management decisions that might be made that could hurt that, if so, we should stand ready to raise voices around that and try to shape what happens.

(01:13:23): But I think most importantly, are there just a ton of people around who really haven't thought deeply about this and haven't yet discovered how much they care and love this natural resource and this landscape? 

And can we help them find that excitement and can we be so fortunate that when they find that excitement that it becomes a passion for them and they want to dedicate their energies and their time to protecting things like that for the rest of their lives and raise kids who feel the same way and grandkids? And can we create something here where the human beings in this valley are not a constant danger of destroying it, but it's vanguard protecting it.

(01:14:09): I would love to retire feeling like we got GARNA and the Conservancy and the Park Service and all of the different institutions that we all work together every day to do that. If I'm an old man in a rocking chair at some point, and I see the valley grew because people want to be here, we know it's going to grow, but it grew the right way and it's full of people who feel the same way about how darling it is. Wow. How wonderful would that be? I'd feel pretty good about that.

Adam Williams (01:14:42): This has been really great to talk with you, Jason. I appreciate what you're bringing to the community and the things you just described in your efforts to preserve, protect, teach, bring us together around the resources we have here because of course for my family, like so many others, we are here largely in part because we want to be in this space and appreciate it. So thank you very much. This has been great.

Jason Marsden (01:15:06): Thank you. Thank you.

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Adam Williams (01:15:19): Thanks for listening to the We Are Chaffee Looking Upstream podcast. If our conversation here today sparks curiosity for you, you can learn more in this episode's show notes at wearechaffee.org. 

If you have comments or know someone in Chaffee County, Colorado who I should consider talking with on the podcast, you can email us at info@WeAreChaffee.org. We invite you to rate and review the We Are Chaffee: Looking Upstream podcast on Apple Podcast, Spotify, or whatever platform you use with that functionality. We also invite you to tell others about the Looking Upstream podcast. Help us to keep growing community and connection through conversation. 

Once again, I'm Adam Williams, host, producer, and photographer. Jon Pray is engineer and producer. Thank you to KHEN 106.9 FM, our community radio partner in Salida, Colorado, to Heather Gorby for graphic and web design, to Andrea Carlstrom, director of Chaffee County Public Health and Environment and to Lisa Martin community advocacy coordinator for the We Are Chaffee Storytelling Initiative. 

The We Are Chaffee Looking Upstream podcast is a collaboration with the Chaffee County Department of Public Health and the Chaffee Housing Authority, and it's supported by the Colorado Public Health and Environment Office of Health Disparities. You can learn more about the Looking Upstream podcast and related storytelling initiatives at WeAreChaffee.org and on Instagram and Facebook @WeAreChaffee. Lastly, until the next episode, as we say here at We Are Chaffee, “share stories, make change.”

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