Ross Barkan was once caught stealing a muffin from the SAC cafeteria at Stony Brook University, and he wrote over 1,000 words on why.
It was April 2010, and the financial crash was still beating a hole in the nation’s collective consciousness. But only a college student, deep into student debt and conscious about nearly every purchase, could be so hot blooded about getting caught robbing a lunch tray.
“Why shouldn’t a student struggling to pay for a meal plan and an education take a piece of food or a drink once in awhile to stave off the inevitable depletion of meal points?” he wrote in his piece in an issue of the Stony Brook Press. “…we are now told that we will be confronted with higher tuition, less classes, overcrowding, and a marginalization of our right to learn.”
Barkan made headlines when he left The New York Observer, owned by Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, after learning that editor in chief Ken Kurson had secretly reviewed a draft of a campaign speech for the Republican candidate, and then later that The Observer had endorsed Trump for the Republican nomination..
“It was a long, thought-out decision. I spent more than a week thinking about it.”
To Barkan, the leave was not based on ideological differences with Trump but because of the news site’s lack of independence.
There are two different kinds of dissent. Barkan once balked at the oppressive burden of college debt, but he also understands a different form of protest, one based in the professional world of journalism, of the ethics standardized and impressed upon the minds of young journalists: independence, accuracy, objectivity. This comes from someone who was once impartial toward straight journalism.
“I was sort of a disinterested journalism student in college,” Barkan said. “I was an English major. I did not do a lot of by-the-book, classic journalism. I didn’t take too many journalism classes either. I was more of a satirist and someone who sneered at the conventions of journalism.”
But Barkan became a journalist, and an effective one at that. His professional pictures on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn show a clean-faced man in a black suit and tie. His act is clean, but Barkan’s writing never left that edge. His standards for politicians were set high, and he came down on both sides of the spectrum, both when covering New York State elections for three years and then national politics for The Observer.
Barkan was a member of The Stony Brook Press from 2007 to 2010, where he was both Features Editor and Managing Editor. He was an English student, but wrote wrote several articles about current politics. Barkan also wrote book reviews, such as the novel The Abyss of Human Illusion by the late Gilbert Sorrentino.
It often got more unconventional than muffins. Barkan wrote satire about race, religion, political events and even a piece branding the worst bathrooms on campus.
“You know, I have a lot of fond memories of The Press,” Barkan said. “I met a lot of good people there. It was definitely a place I came into my own as a writer.”
Barkan left The Press in Fall 2010 after he tried to become Executive Editor, but mostly he wanted to try something new. That same year, he founded Spoke the Thunder, Stony Brook’s literary magazine. “I was so into literature and books, and I wanted Stony Brook to have something for that.”
English Professor Patricia Dunn once wrote about Barkan’s efforts to form Spoke the Thunder in May 2011, when Barkan had graduated from Stony Brook. “Ross Barkan has contributed much to our English Department,” Dunn said. “In the spring of 2010, Ross, along with Josh Ginsberg, worked tirelessly to begin a literary magazine for undergraduates at Stony Brook. Such an undertaking requires funding, a faculty advisor, a large staff, and much talent. His efforts paid off.”
Barkan occupied that interesting space between journalist and writer. To an outsider, it seems like a muddied field with an unclear/narrow path. Barkan proved just how small that field can be. Particularly, Barkan had a propensity for political analysis, such as President Obama’s proposal for a job’s bill in 2010.
Barkan looks at the situation around The Observer with as much distance.
“I felt that the Editor-in-Chief had crossed a line, but we’re on good terms. I have a lot of respect for The Observer still. I had been thinking about this for a while before hand, but this was the end.”
What Barkan didn’t expect was how much attention his leaving would get him. “It turns out moving on has gotten me more attention than I could have imagined. There’s already a lot of attention in controversies, and The Observer and what’s happening over there. The calls started coming in.”
In a way, it could have been the best career decision he could have made. He has been interviewed by multiple other media organizations, including CNN about his departure from The Observer, but he is now concerned. While The Observer did not pay exceptionally well, it paid for all his basic expenses. He expects he might have to freelance for a while and use some of the money he saved up.
“It was something I felt I had to do. I felt it in my gut, in my head. It was time to move on.”