The Reconstruction of American Journalism in the Age of Culture War
The coverage of race and xenophobia in American life and politics has often lacked adequate pattern recognition and historical context. I spoke about this in a speech in March, posted below as text and video; and am posting it now, spurred by the recent mass killing in El Paso, Texas. The gunman’s manifesto read that “this attack is a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas.” We have to understand the history and present implications of weaponized political xenophobia, as reporters and as Americans, if we want to survive this era and build a better future for all. When I gave this speech in March, I reflected on why the media has failed time and again to report on white supremacist extremism, the number one cause of domestic terrorism. Now is a moment when we can reflect and do better.
[Given as a speech in March 2019 at the Power of Narrative conference in Boston under the title “Alone in America With You: 25 Years On the Road in a Changing Nation”; and a variant at American University (video below); some edits to text made for clarity.]
I. We are at war. There are wars of blood and death; others of disinformation, data breaches and cyberattacks; and, years after I thought they had faded, cold wars fought primarily through diplomacy and threats. But the thread that connects them all is narrative.
One person’s glorious leader is another’s oppressor. One person’s liberator is another’s rogue actor. To a greater and greater degree, no war can be won without the narrative first emerging that supports its victory.
The wars of narratives are wars for hearts and souls and minds. As a subset of “narrative storytelling,” journalism can be an instrument of either liberation or obfuscation.
That is true of the war to reconstruct American journalism as well. I say “American journalism” because that’s what I will drill down on, but be clear that the news generated in the United States is a global force, just as America is a nation whose choices ripple across our world.
American journalism is not up to the challenge of covering shifting culture war narratives, nor of delivering information to the diverse audiences that represent the American public. I offer my critiques as someone who has spent my life in the mainstream American newsroom, despite its challenges. I have worked at ABC, CNN, NPR, and other outlets which have lots of excellent reporters and do great work at times. But we can no longer ignore the blind spots in our media coverage and ecosystem, because they are eroding trust in civil society.
Since our time here is short, I’ll start out by telling you about my time on the road covering, among other things, six presidential elections. I’ll also explore why the body I inhabit and my personal history are crucial to the work I do.
Then I’ll explain how the journalistic world I’ve inhabited is missing important voices — both within the ranks of storytellers and how we approach the stories of this nation — and why that puts the journalism industry and our very democracy in peril.
Finally, I’ll move into talking about solutions — ways we can take what we’ve learned and stop repeating the same mistakes, instead working to elevate the public discourse and enrich our lives. With the 2020 election and the Census right around the corner, there is no better time for us to become better, more probing, more inclusive storytellers than right now. Our very nation depends on it.
II. Let me start with my origin story.
I was born into journalism.
My mother and father met while they were grad students at Syracuse’s school of communications. Before I was born, they lived and worked in Zambia. In fact, they returned when my mother was 7 months pregnant with me. My mother was almost turned back for being too close to term to fly.
I grew up in two stages: the New York years, and the Baltimore years.
I’m going to self-plagarize here and read from an essay I wrote right after the election which sums this journey up best:
The summer before I entered first grade, my family moved from Central Park West and 100th street to a virtually all black neighborhood in Baltimore. In New York, my friends were not just black or white. My best friend was half black and half Jewish. My friends were blond and Asian and black and it was all very Free to Be You and Me.
When we moved to Baltimore, to a tree-lined street of 1920s-era houses near the city line, I was plunged into a world where there was only blackness and whiteness, and the two were engaged in a fierce cold war.
This dislocation/re-location meant that by the age of six I had the seed of a psychology that remains with me today, and has shaped my perspective as a journalist.
First, I came to believe that humans lived in “reality zones” with quite different rules about identity, fairness and achievement. Inside each of these zones was an internally consistent reality, but as one crossed barriers of geography, class, culture, religion and race, the rules changed entirely.
Second, that whiteness, which was inconsequential to my early childhood, was of the paramount importance to understand.
Third, that I was able to cross these worlds and remain self-aware of how I was being perceived.
The psychological adjustment to a new “reality zone” steered me towards being a journalist later in life, as much as my parents’ backgrounds did. I became a student of American cultures — plural.
My family gave me two messages that have held me in good stead: 1) that I could do anything; and 2) that there would be people who tried to stop me from doing it. They would try to stop me because of the body I lived in, and the cultural, political, and historic implications of my being a free woman of color. I was made to understand that my very existence was troubling to some people, but I should not let that curtail my quest to live freely and with mission and purpose.
III. Now that I’ve set the scene for how I came into existence — physically, intellectually, and culturally — let me drill down on part of a story I’ve only begun to grapple with.
I have tried so very hard over the years to convince people that my mind was worthy of the challenge of reporting on our vast nation. But I’ve also come to believe that my BODY is also a critical part of the work I do.
In Ta’Nehisi Coates’s bestselling book “Between the World and Me,” the word “BODY” appears more than 300 times. He talks of the ways that the black body in America is controlled, constrained, and abused; and also how we seek freedom.
Living in a black body, specifically a black female body, has made me a better reporter. I’ve had to work harder to build trust with my interview subjects, and slow down the pace of how I interview. I will often spend 20 minutes talking with people about their personal hobbies or their families before asking any substantive questions. The fact that the body I live in makes it challenging for me to do my chosen profession has made me attuned to how to truly connect with people.
I’ve spent years on the road, often alone, as a black woman… sometimes interviewing white nationalists and supremacists or other people whose world views I did not share, but who I was compelled to treat fairly in my reporting.
Even when traveling with a team, there is an aspect of aloneness to being a reporter.
You have to stand alone in your physical body, no matter what gender or race, and deal with people’s conceptions of who you are when they meet you. You have to both show the knowledge you have and show humility about what you don’t know. And you have to stand alone, in many ways, with some ultimate confidence that the narrative you depict is truthful and accurate.
Both the physical and editorial aloneness are a part of doing the work, and a part of the narrative of what it takes to be a reporter.
For example, for my 1999 book “The Color of Our Future,” I went, alone, into a church which had threatened to disinter the body of a mixed-race baby from its all-white cemetery, so I could spring out my tape recorder and interview the pastor on the church stairs after worship.
I spoke to the baby’s grandparents, who had told the story to local reporters. I visited their trailer home and noticed how many of the trailers around them had been damaged by storms. They told me that they used to fly the confederate flag over their trailer, but seeing their dead baby grandchild disrespected so profoundly over race had changed their minds about that.
That entire trip remains emblazoned on my minds-eye, as does the time I went into a Klansman’s house for a television story in the late 90s; or, before that, when I did a story on women in the white supremacist movement.
Let me tell you a little tale about reporting that story, “Women Who Love to Hate,” in 1994. I spoke with a number of women in the Klan, the Aryan Nation, and other white supremacist groups, including a woman who had escaped after being forced to be a child bride in a white supremacist cult.
I was in my early 20s.
Through a Grand Wizard, I got the chance to speak to a woman in his klavern — that’s Klan for “local meeting group” by the way.
In any case, they wanted to meet at a Park ‘n Ride lot in Frederick, Maryland. I didn’t want to go alone. So I asked my friend Thomas, who is a white Southerner from a rural area, to go with me.
He didn’t hesitate to accompany me. But he did say: “Farai, the Klan doesn’t like race mixing” — meaning, if I thought I was safe as a black woman because I brought my white road dog along, it might actually antagonize them rather than protect me.
I still brought Thomas with me, and I thank him for being a ride-or-die friend… although that term seems a bit too literal, under the circumstances.
The day we were scheduled to meet, there had been a blizzard. So instead of meeting in a public space full of people, we met these white supremacists in an empty, snow-covered lot.
I call it my “white on white” interview.
By the way — no one told me how to protect myself while doing this kind of reporting. I had to figure it out for myself. I have put my physical and emotional safety at risk year after year because I saw there were stories that needed telling that few others were doing.
In any case, the woman’s husband had a handgun-shaped bulge in the pocket of his camo jumpsuit, which my friend pointed out to me when we arrived.
And still I persisted. I did the interview. The woman, Robyn, told me that she didn’t want her kids growing up around black people in the apartment complex where she lived. She wanted them to be able to live in an all-white neighborhood. She had bad teeth, something author Sarah Smarsh has pointed out are a huge class signifier in America. She was white, and poor. She struck me as more sad than angry.
It also struck me that Robyn didn’t have a race problem, at least not in the sense she was seeing it. She had a money problem. There are all-white neighborhoods all around America. She just couldn’t afford to move to one.
Despite the obvious differences in worldview between us, I found room for empathy. She wanted the best for her kids. Okay, I can get down with that. But she was stuck on race and segregation as a remedy instead of asking why someone in her income bracket couldn’t live well; and why America couldn’t provide her family with an on-ramp to the American Dream.
Understanding Robyn’s worldview has helped me understand the long history of race as a wedge between working-class and financially struggling people who share common economic interests. One CANNOT cover America well without understanding the historical and contemporary ways that race has been used to polarize and to divvy up power. And yet, in 2016 — more than two decades after I reported this story — the mainstream journalism industry pretended it had no idea that racial resentment was a THING in politics.
IV. Flash to 2015. At the beginning of the election cycle, I wrote a mild-mannered article about the use of racial dog whistles in the election. My top editor called me into the office on my day off; accused me of “cherry picking facts” to fit my thesis; and asked why I had come to work there. (Mind you — they recruited ME.) If he had bothered to pick up any book of political history, he would have seen that not only was I not cherry picking facts, I was flagging what later would become a dominant theme in the election.
He came around to see that…. About a year later.
That interaction was just one of many moments where I realized that I am presumed to be not only less qualified but less rational because of my race or gender. I am asked to not see what I see, because it doesn’t fit with what others from the staff’s majority race or gender or class background see. In those cases, the majority’s gaze is presumed to be the right gaze, and those who have a different gaze are presumed to be emotional, obsessed, holding a grudge, or simply incorrect.
Meanwhile, during the election I was corresponding with a white nationalist on Twitter and getting a taste of what people thought inside the movement. He liked my reporting for FiveThirtyEight… he followed my Twitter account; I saw his profile, which was clearly alt-right; and I followed him back. He said, “Hey, you should know I’m a white nationalist.” I told him that was PRECISELY why I followed him back. And thus we began more than a year of intense correspondence.
I learned so much from our interactions. He went to Charlottsville, and when he returned he was so hyped up and manic. He was engorged with the bloody rhetoric of the moment. And he gave me the chance, over many months, to see how he vacillated between self-assured promotion of white nationalism and doubt, despair, and loneliness.
So when America’s news editors say that they missed the rise of white nationalism in politics and extremism in America, that’s not true. They didn’t miss it. They ignored it. And those are two entirely different things.
Something else which got ignored: white supremacist extremism is the number one cause of domestic terrorism, something we only are beginning to cover with the attention it deserves.
V. Another example of what shocked the world of journalism, but shouldn’t have, was the rise of politically weaponized anti-Mexican xenophobia.
In 2010, I interviewed Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Arizona, for a series of radio documentaries I produced.
Arpaio said that he wanted to send troops into Mexico. I asked him to clarify, and he reiterated that he — a sheriff, not a federal agent — wanted to send troops into Mexico. (He also ran a celebrity militia, including actor Stephen Segal, that he was very proud of.)
The “Mexican rapist” playbook that candidate Donald Trump used was perfected by Arpaio, who spent 24 years in elected office — even once the department he ran was cited for racially profiling Latinos. He was later convicted of contempt of court for not following orders to stop violating civil rights. (His department also misspent 99-and a half million dollars, by the way.)
I was not shocked when Trump’s poll numbers went up after his high-profile anti-Mexican rally in September 2016, after he’d met earlier that day with the Mexican president. Nor was I surprised that Arpaio became the first pardon granted by President Trump.
The fact that the Arpaio-Trump narrative didn’t play out in most news coverage… I embedded a bit about Arpaio into my 2016 reporting series, The Voters… is a lack of pattern-recognition and historical context. We as an industry didn’t connect the dots. More than that, we helped spread the disinformation.
Xenophobic rhetoric was the payload; but among the key delivery systems were not just Twitter trolls and extremists, but mainstream news.
When he was CEO of CBS, the now-disgraced and dismissed Les Moonves bragged on earnings calls that candidate Trump wasn’t good for America but he was good for CBS’s bottom line. Multiple networks kept showing the empty podium of a Trump rally for minutes ahead of Trump’s arrival, and running commentator audio over that, before covering his speeches in full. By several estimates, Trump got $2 billion more in earned media, or free coverage, than Senator Hillary Clinton did.
Here’s a question I won’t linger over, but would love to explore: Would asking networks to voluntarily opt-in to an ethical framework like the now defunct fairness doctrine or the now essentially un-enforceable equal time doctrine help our information ecosystem?
VI. Why did so many esteemed news reporters and editors miss the biggest culture war of our era? A lot of it has to do with lived experience.
Many newsroom leaders in our profession weren’t living in the war zone. They were living in the green zone.
On the other hand, most of the reporters of color I know were living the culture war 24–7 as well as covering it.
At night, instead of going home to the green zone — a metaphor for RELATIVE safety — we went home to neighborhoods where we could see the race, class and gender wars in America raging.
I live in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, a rapidly gentrifying but still, for the moment, majority non-white, heavily immigrant neighborhood. Just walking the square block around my building, there are businesses owned by people from Haiti, West Africa, Yemen, China and the Spanish-speaking Caribbean, plus a historically black college. It’s a neighborhood where some people wear hijabs; and others, hot pants.
I live in a large pre-war building with amazing people willing to share their lives with me.
I’ve talked to one of my neighbors who is an undocumented immigrant about how she lost her property in her home country because she couldn’t leave her US-born daughter to return and settle a dispute with her ex-husband. She works doing round-the-clock nursing care five days a week for a wealthy, elderly white client. She has survived cancer and works hard to take care of her health. She has a haunted look in her eyes, yet a fierce determination.
Others of my neighbors who are Haitian-born are now in legal limbo because the current administration is trying to revoke the means by which they are here, “Temporary Protected Status,” and it’s all tied up in the courts.
And yet another set of neighbors is considering moving to Europe, where the husband is from, if the de-facto caste system of U.S. school districts puts their children’s educations at risk.
The people I live with in my building are living in a state of Maximum Realness.
Some other reporters could leave America’s trials and tribulations behind when they went home. My home life — and that of most reporters of color I know — was just another space to observe this country’s upheavals.
I’ve also been someone who has made financial contributions to my extended family in the US and Southern Africa since my 20s. I helped my mother deal with the disastrous cascade of events at a property next-door to her in Baltimore. After a foreclosure on longtime owners, the house was bought by a real estate speculator. The building then because a physically decaying, overcrowded, unlicensed group home, which I helped my mother fight to get closed. But the unintended consequence was that the house caught fire; became a burnt wreck; and we had to fight for months more to get attention from the city before it was demolished.
These types of civic battles to right a wrong or neglect are ones which many professionals of color, and white professionals from low income and working-class backgrounds, often end up fighting on behalf of their families. There are financial, emotional and time costs. On the one hand, it’s been painful and frustrating; but it’s also kept issues including foreclosures, financial fraud, and the racial wealth gap from being theoretical to me.
So that’s why inhabiting the body I do, and having the personal history I have, has been so instrumental to my work.
When I went out on the road in 2016, I was verbally sexually harassed by a Trump voter I featured in a profile, and chose not to put that into the story. I knew that foregrounding that personal experience would override all of the other context. I was not seeking to protect him. Rather, I was seeking to protect what I saw as an appropriate use of a reporter’s power to illuminate. And yet, reporters who are women and/or people of color, who I have seen grieve in private over the wounds suffered silently both in the office and in the field, are still viewed as unreliable narrators of the American experience.
Another perspective comes from NPR’s Asma Khaled, who I was lucky enough to do three podcasts with during the election. Both of us were covering voter demographics.
In a piece for NPR, Asma wrote about being a Muslim-American woman on the campaign trail during a time of increasing anti-Muslim xenophobia.
Her article begins:
Sometime in early 2016 between a Trump rally in New Hampshire, where a burly man shouted something at me about being Muslim, and a series of particularly vitriolic tweets that included some combination of “raghead,” “terrorist,” “bitch” and “jihadi,” I went into my editor’s office and wept.
I cried for the first (but not the last) time this campaign season.
Through tears, I told her that if I had known my sheer existence — just the idea of being Muslim — would be a debatable issue in the 2016 election, I would never have signed up to do this job.
To friends and family, I looked like a masochist. But I was too invested to quit.
That’s the level of dedication it takes to do this work. For any of you who are aspiring political field reporters of color, know that you are needed, and also that the road is covered with thorns. For any national news editors who think you can cover the country well without reporters of color, or women, or people who are working class in your newsroom: you can’t.
VII. Let me also approach the question of newsroom diversity from a different perspective — how critical it is to white Americans.
Kai Wright chronicled his parents’ home-ownership journey. They qualified for a traditional mortgage loan. But like so many other African-American families, his parents were steered into a sub-prime loan. They were unable to meet the balloon payments, and they lost their home.
Wright found that in 2006 black borrowers were three times as likely to be given sub-prime loans as whites with similar credit scores. He’s gone on to do a series for WNYC called “There Goes the Neighborhood” on real estate and gentrification.
What if business reporters had focused their attention in a timely manner on predatory lending in communities of color, which were the canaries in the coal mine for the larger wave of predatory lending to whites? In a plausible alternate timeline, reporters could have surfaced the malfeasance in time to help white Americans keep their homes, and to prevent some of the devastation of the Great Recession.
What happens IN and TO communities of color is often predictive of broader trends that hit white communities later.
Ignore at your own peril.
VIII. I’ve established that the journalism industry is not diverse or equitable in its ranks; and it misses many important stories and trends, often when it overlooks the narratives surfaced by diverse staff.
Our industry is also obsessed with traditional seats of power, and misses the networked and distributed nature of power in this nation. White supremacists and nationalists are a great example of networked power. But so are the teachers who marched in states from West Virginia to Arizona; and the indigenous and non-indigenous people who went to Standing Rock. Too often, people who hold traditional power — be that financial or political — are blindsided by the power of non-elite networks, with which they have little contact but which can reshape politics over the span of a decade, or a day. This lack of connection to the grassroots is particularly acute as we see more and more communities become “news deserts,” with little or no local coverage.
So: what can we do to change the narrative?
First of all, we have to desegregate the American newsroom.
That includes economic desegregation. One of the not-so-secret secrets is that middle-class-to-wealthy families often subsidize the lives of their progeny in creative, low paying, and/or unstable professions, including journalism. I just had one of my former students over for coffee this weekend and she talked about how many of her colleagues are subsidized by their parents in ways that aren’t possible in her family… everything from paying rent in full or a downpayment on a mortgage, to giving monthly allowances or stipends. The “elite” in “elite journalism” often has as much to with who can afford basic survival in an unstable profession as who has talent. Many national media companies are just as emblematic of the huge American pay gap between management and workers as any other industry. In some cases, low salaries are a result of truly financially compromised news outlets; but in many others they’re a choice, and this impacts who can enter the field.
Looking at issues of race and gender in newsroom staffing is something I’ve done throughout my career, including for a 2018 research paper I wrote for Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on the political press corps.
During my fellowship, I was hoping to do content analysis of whether more diverse political news teams covered the election differently than less diverse ones. I had two opposing theses: 1) that more diverse teams would have covered the nation differently, and seen the narrative of 2016 sooner and more comprehensively; and 2) that they wouldn’t have been any different, because newsrooms sometimes norm to the vision of editors, regardless of who is hired. I’m legitimately curious what a diversity-meets-content analysis would show; and also how diversity tracks with revenue.
I never got to do that high-level analysis because the majority of newsrooms I contacted did not disclose the data. Our profession constantly asks for transparency from others, but hypocritically we are afraid of it ourselves.
From those who did disclose, NPR had the most diverse team, 32 percent people of color and 60 percent women; while the New York Times had the least diverse, 10 percent people of color and 30 percent women. If the industry can be more transparent about its hiring, we can finally produce evidence-based analyses of how content and revenue track with staffing. Right now we cannot… even though the news industry as a whole is faltering financially.
Second, we need to invest — financially and with knowledge and networks — in a broader range of media-makers.
For nearly two years, I’ve been the journalism program officer at the Ford Foundation. I get to help make decisions about the money which the foundation uses to fund civic media. But even though Ford’s commitment to journalism is deep and long-standing, the amount of money we can apply to journalism makes only a small dent in the need.
When I see larger-scale efforts to rebuild journalism, whether for- or non-profit, there is often a sad shrug when asked how diversity and media equity fit into the picture. The ideas being forwarded often involve putting a lot of money into the hands of the same mainly upper-middle-class, white-, male-led newsrooms; and not taking into account the high civic value of newsrooms which are predominately white working class-; indigenous-; women-; or people of color-led. I have heard things like “We need to bet on the winners.”
Let me ask this — if these organizations were all that successful, why is journalism in the crisis it’s in now… not just financially but editorially? If we replicate the newsroom models of the past, even as America becomes more racially diverse AND ever more divided by income inequality, how is that winning?
Third, reporters can accept that we are being judged, just as we judge others, and even learn from it.
The default in mainstream journalism has, for the past few decades and even today, been that a reporter was a white, middle-class-or-wealthier, heterosexual [looking] male. See: the fact that almost no women solo-hosted political news shows until recent years, the late Gwen Ifill being a sorely-missed exception.
If you fit the white/male/class/perceived-sexuality bin, I expect it’s pretty easy not to question how your physical embodiment affects the journalism you do. If you are a woman, a person of color, LGBTQ, etcetera, you may be more likely to ask: “How would this interview and story have gone differently if I were perceived differently?”
I learned a lot of trust-building techniques very early… like greeting certain people as “Sir” or “M’am” until they told me to stop (and if they didn’t tell me to stop, to keep doing it).
White and male reporters can practice embodied reporting just as much as anyone else can. No matter what skin we live in, we have to begin to understand its implications to our work.
Finally, we need you.
To use a Star Wars metaphor, mainstream journalism still thinks of itself as the resistance when often it is the Empire. Our industry can produce an army of clones, in terms of who we employ; who we give access to capital to become media owners and operators; and the content we produce.
But clone narratives will not get us through this culture war. Authenticity, vulnerability…. the willingness to engage with people who are, in fact, harmful to society… the willingness NOT to engage in hagiography of the powerful… all of that will shape our future.
The time in America, and our world, is half-past-urgent, and the clock is ticking.
What kind of narratives do you want in your life?
What are you prepared to know?
Because if you don’t want to know the truth, there’s plenty out there to distract you.
If you do, you need to work for it. You need to become a champion for knowledge. I have outlined a number of solutions which have to do with the structural nature of journalism, but the biggest solution is YOU: discerning news consumers who care about democracy, care about the truth, and are willing to expand their comfort zone.
No one publication or broadcast outlet is going to give you everything you need. One of your assignments — should you choose to accept it — is to spend more time learning what you need to understand the news.
That means history, political science, geography, economics. These will let you understand if what you are getting from the news is shit or shinola.
- Read things that make you angry.
- Watch things that aren’t true, and take the time to research why these stories are so popular.
- Plug into the narratives all around us and make distinctions between truth, half-truths, and falsehoods.
In other words, commit to the journey it takes for us to understand our divided nation. That’s something no reporter can do for you… you have to do it for yourself.