To Those Who Saw It Coming, and Those Who Didn’t — Here’s What Might Come Next.
I’m writing this on Juneteenth. This year I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on how journalism has often marginalized (not to mention underpaid) reporters of color, women, LGBTQ mediamakers, and whites from poor and working-class backgrounds. The exclusion and bias in our field has materially made us — “us” as in all Americans — less likely to understand our shared destiny. We simply can no longer afford to do this and survive.
Some of you reading this are people like me, people who saw a cluster**** of epic proportions heading for America — a perfect storm of racial animus, increasing authoritarianism, wealth inequality, and lack of government infrastructure. That missing infrastructure includes the current administration ignoring public health planning to deal with a pandemic.
A civic crisis this severe not only seemed possible to me, but probable. My life is, by design, one which brings me into contact with hard truths. I live in a multi-racial mixed-income neighborhood. I’ve spent three decades as a reporter, and you can read my more analytical piece on Medium here about why reporting failed us in 2016 and beyond. I lead a specific type of intersectional life which has brought me into contact with extremes of wealth and poverty on a regular basis. I’ve also chosen to report on racial extremists and people seeking racial justice as part of my work on our society and electorate.
It would be great if I could have brought my full expertise and lived experience to bear on covering the top issues of our times. The reality is that the work I’ve done has been constrained by the willingness of my newsrooms to engage with it. And now that we are in an era of racial reckoning in the media, we have to avoid a cycle of apologies, flagellation, cosmetic changes, and immediate return to business as usual.
Many mainstream journalists underestimated the impact of race on political decision making, certainly in the 2016 election and up until the moment that George Floyd’s brutal killing awoke the dormant American conscience. Many mainstream futurists continue to do the same, planning out scenarios that take industry and the stability of governance into account, but where an examination of racial justice is a footnote. (A newer futurist group I am an unabashed fan of called The Guild of Future Architects holds race and Indigenous communities as core to its analyses of human survival and promise.)
One cannot have a functioning civil society without racial justice. So as we look ahead to our shared future, let me do a back of napkin on a best and worst case scenario for our near future, and how media fits into them both.
In the best case scenario, we have real reform in newsrooms. We do the work we didn’t in the Kerner Commission era. We begin to regain the trust of the American public because we operate with humility, admitting what we don’t know as we cover this complex nation. Journalism opens up to more citizen-participants, like the documenters trained and paid to cover city meetings by City Bureau. Newsrooms become data transparent and compare notes on best practices. Government becomes more transparent as well. We avoid mourning governance failures and humanitarian disasters like the lead poisoning in the Flint water system, because people inside government are empowered to say that we simply cannot make policy that sacrifices humanity. Likewise, businesses, faced by internal pressures (shareholders, employees) and external ones (regulation, competition), stop treating the climate crisis and the lives of marginalized people as externalities, and begin factoring in the costs of doing ethical business and ethical fundraising. Speaking of which: women and people of color in media and broadly get access to capital to create wealth and new systems which benefit us all. America catches up with the rest of the developed world and passes paid parental leave and restructures childcare as a key part of both our economy and civic life. Voting rises because the impact of voting rises… political influence peddling is severely restricted in every form. We ensure elections are free, fair and fast — in the sense of having quick-moving polling places which are fully accessible and properly geolocated and staffed. Shared prosperity and true democracy for the win.
In the worst case scenario, we have a brief national self-flagellation and verbal repentance, followed by swift and decisive moves to codify power and resources among the few. Wealth inequality continues to rise, as does both veiled and naked racial resentment. In fact, as it has been for hundreds of years, weaponized racial resentment is used to control parts of the electorate that are not otherwise getting their needs met. (Change “bread and circuses” to “blood and circuses.”) The climate crisis rapidly worsens, and the rate at which we have climate refugees in the US and globally increases. A small number of Americans hold large reserves of land which are largely un-governed by the federal government, and act more like feudal fiefdoms than parts of the civic infrastructure. Employment laws are gutted, and people who work are asked to do whatever they can do for a dollar until they are too injured and broken to do it. There is no reliable path for working class and even middle-class people to age in place or have a planned retirement. As wealth inequality grows, so do cadres of private security serving duty on personal and property protection, with very little regulation. The number and size of extremist militias continues to rise. Voting declines, as does infrastructure of all types, including in public health. Waves of pandemics continue to decimate the population. Waves of successive predatory lending continue to erode Black homeownership.
I do not believe we will end up in either of these scenarios. But we have to think about them. And journalism — smart journalism, done by newsrooms with staffs which reflect the wide expanse of lived experience in this nation — will give us ways to ask the right questions about our possible American futures.
I still believe in us, us as in “U.S.,” and us as in journalists. I hope I’m right.
In spirit and support on Juneteenth 2020.