Reporting on Race
Trymaine Lee: It's officially week two of the Biden administration, and since taking office the president has signed dozens of executive orders. Many of them are aimed at undoing the policies of his predecessor and finally getting a handle on the pandemic. And on Tuesday, details emerged around his plan to address what I would consider the biggest and oldest crisis facing this country: Racial inequity.
President Joe Biden: Yes, we need criminal justice reform, but that isn't nearly enough. We need to open the promise of America to every American. And that means we need to make the issue of racial equity not just an issue for any one department of government, it has to be the business of the whole of government.
Lee: It's obvious why there's a sense of urgency around this issue for President Biden. He won the White House in no small measure by saying explicitly that he'd try and right some historical wrongs. But it was the January 6th attack on the Capitol Building that put the stains of racism, racial resentment and the rejection of progress on full display. (CHANTS) Some journalists were surprised that the Trump era would enter in a fog of violence.
Archival Recording: We've never seen anything like this. I think for a lot of us, this was simply unimaginable. I mean, I have gone to work at the Capitol--
Lee: But I gotta say, Black journalists, we've been sounding the alarm on the tide of racism and extremism in this country for years. And for just as long, many of us have been told that we're not seeing things clearly. That we are not quote "objective enough."
Now the problem actually is not with us at all but with the fallacy of objectivity itself and how it's defined in the media, which has, and let's be honest here, historically been by white gatekeepers. Over the next four years, that's gotta change, or we will pay a price for it again.
Farai Chideya: Everyone pays the price when we diminish Black voices, because it is part of our very survival that we have to preserve democracy.
Lee: I'm Trymaine Lee, and this is Into America. Today, I'm holding a microscope up to the industry I work in to better understand how the media failed to cover race under the Trump administration and what we can do to better cover this country, the good and the ugly, now that Joe Biden is president.
Chideya: I'm hoping that right now we can do better than in the past, because people get tired of racial equity both in newsrooms and in America extremely quickly.
Lee: Farai Chideya is an author, an academic and a journalist who has worked at CNN, ABC News and FiveThirtyEight. Now she's doing her own thing as creator and host of Our Body Politic, a politics podcast about women of color, produced in collaboration with public media.
Chideya: For three decades, I put the story before my story, but I realized I have to put myself, Black women, and other women of color at the center of the story if I am to tell the truth.
Lee: She spent decades writing about, talking about and living through how the media works and when it doesn't. So I wanted her take on this reckoning in our industry. I started by asking her whether she actually feels a difference as we begin to cover this new administration.
Chideya: I feel some difference, but I feel like there's also, you know, both sides-ism is really hard. So now I'm seeing people kind of bending over backwards to criticize the administration. I'm for constructive critique of everyone. I'm definitely not someone who wants to blow smoke up the derriere of any political administration.
But I do see people saying, "Oh well, we have to find fault in A, B and C," and then also not looking as much as I would like from a journalistic perspective at the construct of equity in America, which gets to the intersections of race, class and gender. Because if we just try to roll back the clock as journalists to 2010, we'd still have a lotta problems, both with journalism and politics. So this-- this shouldn't be a do-over of the past. This should be something that is new.
Lee: When you think about this idea of both sides-ism and the intersection of race and culture and class and everything, it all kinda seems to me that it came to a head on January 6th. We see an apparent murder, an attempted coup, the Confederate flag.
And if folks were paying attention, right, especially the reporting from Black and brown journalists all across the country, this seemed to be a reflection of what we at least were witnessing. Did you get that sense, like, what we were seeing was also just, like, had been there the whole time? But where media writ large was trying not to see it?
Chideya: Absolutely. I mean, I've covered white nationalists and supremacists for 25 years, and I do it because they are people, and they are political organizers. If we want to hold up a standard about what journalism is, we have to cover everyone.
And so I have been appalled by the spotty coverage of Black people, Latinos, immigrants, indigenous people, but I've also been appalled by the lack of coverage of poor white Americans, wealthy white Americans in terms of deconstructing structural power.
I mean, Donald Trump, if people had investigated his finances 15 years ago, we never would have been here. And also of white nationalists and supremacists. So a lotta people were left out of the deconstruction of power, which is supposed to be part of the premise of journalism.
And when you look at January 6th, I had a conversation with a friend of mine who tipped me off years ago to the rise of militias in the Midwest. You know, she is a progressive, white American whose mother is a Trump voter and conspiracy theorist.
And she basically has been watching the evolution of politics and extremism in her hometown and her home region. And she said to me, "Yeah, everyone who I talk to from home wasn't that sprung by the killing of George Floyd. They were, like, 'Well, yeah, whatever.' But when they saw January 6th, they were, like, 'Oh my gosh, the chickens are coming home to roost.'"
Because they knew that this stuff would eventually blow back on them. So I do think that there's been a change where people now, even people who are not remotely Democrats and not remotely progressive are realizing, this moment in history has come for all of us.
Lee: Do you think that when it comes to white media, they were unable to kinda disentangle the idea of economic anxiety and just pure racism?
Chideya: Oh, absolutely. Well, yeah, I mean, I think Adam Serwer's piece The Respectables was just brilliant, talking about how people with private planes, people with badges, people who are former and active duty military were all involved on January 6th.
And that lets you know this is not a question of poverty. And, in fact, there's some indication that the lowest income whites actually were less likely to support President Trump than people who were middle class, I think because they understand that they rely on government for survival in ways that middle income white do not, or at least do not directly.
So I think that there's been a huge myth that economics explains it all. And in my time talking to active white nationalists and supremacists, they make it very clear it's not about money. You know, I spent a year DM'ing with a white nationalist who went to Charlottesville, who's from Brooklyn, by the way, so that's another thing to disabuse yourself of.
It's, like, all these Southern, you know, small town people. No. It's people everywhere, Los Angeles, Brooklyn, et cetera. And he was, like, "It's not about money. We want to preserve our control of a white-led America, and as we become a minority in America-- we want to preserve control."
Lee: You know, after Donald Trump was elected, there were a lot of pieces written, you know, I describe as, like, the Nazi next door, right?
Lee: Do you think media did a disservice to us all by trying to humanize and trying to understand but not really, really peeling back to the deepest levels of the onion?
Chideya: I don't think that the problem was the urge to humanize. I think that the problem was the lack of what some people call objectivity, and I prefer to call fairness. You can see someone as a human being, as I do with white nationalists and supremacists and still say, "These people kill people. These people preserve jobs for white-only candidates in police departments. These people do X, Y, and Z."
And I think it was not just the urge to talk to them, but to make them seem kinder and gentler. That somehow talking to someone means that you have to make them sympathetic. There's a lotta people in this world who aren't sympathetic of every race and gender.
And so that's the problem I saw was that there was this urge that, "Oh, if we're gonna cover them, we have to make them sympathetic." And I actually do have not sympathy as much as empathy. When I DM'd with this white nationalist, you know, he's someone who saw class warfare affecting his family.
That his family of working class whites, and he was more educated, were not being treated well in America. And there's a lot of working class whites who aren't. I have empathy for that. That doesn't justify him being a white nationalist who went to Charlottesville, but I have empathy for everyone who is a working class person, who's underestimated and underpaid in America.
Lee: You know, this moment we're in now doesn't seem totally unlike the era after enslavement ended. You know, trying to pull this nation together. And we were in this period of reconstruction, of rebuilding and affording access and privilege to folks who had been denied it before. And you talk often about this idea of reconstruction and reparations as being applied to media.
Lee: What does that mean?
Chideya: Well, first of all, you look at certain companies that have been flooded with capital. You know, I can't help but think of Vice Media which has some wonderful leaders including Black leaders now, but these were white guys, one of whom is now one of the leaders of the Proud Boys, Gavin McInnes, who were flooded with hundreds of millions of dollars to build a media empire.
Which then in its early days was a persistent sexual harasser. And so if we want an equitable media, the money has to follow the sentiment. The reconstruction of American media has to come fully funded by people who are literally investing in their own future.
And again, when we go back to January 6th, this is not about saving Black people from white supremacy. White people need to save themselves, you know. And so part of the reconstruction has to be financial, and it also has to be a troubling of the concept of objectivity, which has been applied to suppressing the voices of Black and brown people and immigrants and white people who report on racial injustice.
And not applied to white reporters who privilege inside sources, kind of give friendly handshakes to people of dubious values, including Donald Trump before he was president, who got all this friendly media coverage about being a great business person, when in fact, he was busy drawing down assets from Deutsche Bank. And people didn't ask the right questions.
Lee: Should this reconstruction also include a racial component when it comes to media, in terms of elevating or-- or at least opening the way for Black voices and Black journalists?
Chideya: Absolutely. We have to invest in our own forms of media. And at the same time, we also have to ask major media companies and media investors and philanthropic organizations to invest in us. So it's not an either or. And I had an interesting conversation, somewhat challenging, with a person who I asked to help me network with some resources for the radio show that I do, Our Body Politic.
And her opening gambit was to tell me how to change this radio show to make it more appealing to white women. And I was, like, "That's not the point." You know, maybe it's not. First of all, we have a lot of white female listeners, but if you can't wrap your brain around the idea that a successful product could have a core audience of women of color as a starting, and everyone's welcome to listen but we're not optimizing for white women, that says so much. If you look at women of color, that's tens of millions of people. That should be enough, I think. And so it's also deconstructing some of these business principles that lead people to say, you can't optimize for women of color.
Lee: On one hand, there's an opportunity for us to take hold of some agency and tell our stories to and for us, right. But also I think, you know, in the broader perspective of American media, our voices matter, because it's part of the American experience. What's at stake here? When we mute or diminish Black voices, who pays the price?
Chideya: Everyone pays the price when we diminish Black voices, because we have always been the people who, not just because we're nice and wonderful, which I think we often are, but because it is part of our very survival that we have to preserve democracy.
I mean, the reality is, we live in a country where you can opt out of democracy if you have enough money and privilege. And most Black people can't. So if-- public transportation breaks down, and you have a car, you can live without the government's transportation system.
If commercial transportation is dangerous because of COVID and you have a private plane, you can opt out. And Black people, like many in my family are overrepresented in public employment, in government, state, local and federal, because often, as much as there's discrimination there, there's more in the private sector. We can't opt out of America. Therefore, we preserve the rights and privileges that everyone gets to enjoy.
Lee: When we come back, Farai tells me about how she got into journalism, and how she's fought to make the industry better.
Lee: We're back with Farai Chideya. Farai, many of us have been listening to you for a very long time and reading your work. Give us a sense of your life in a nutshell and also how you got into journalism.
Chideya: Yeah, so both of my parents had a role in communication. So my mother and father met at Syracuse University where they were going to grad school. My mother unfortunately had a wonderful and brief career in journalism that was ended because she's a Black woman who had children.
There's no doubt in my mind, so by the time we moved to Baltimore, The Baltimore Sun wouldn't grant her an interview, even though she had reported internationally in Zambia and also been an intern at The Washington Post and had a master's degree.
Chideya: I mean, I bet if you went back and did an audit of who actually got jobs at The Baltimore Sun when she was denied even an interview, you'd find a lot of high school educated white men who were viewed as more competent than she was. So one of the things I learned from my mom's experience was that being highly educated did not mean you would be treated fairly.
And unfortunately, that's held true. I mean, I've been discriminated against based on race, gender, and the intersection thereof, as well as probably for being just big-mouthed and sassy. So my mother worked as a journalist for a time. My father worked for AT&T in communications.
And my dad also after my parents got divorced, he went to Zimbabwe and became the head of the Zimbabwean Broadcasting Corporation's News Division. And he quit over propaganda. He saw Robert Mugabe inserting propaganda into the news, and he quit. So I come from people who love the truth.
Lee: You describe yourself kind of as big-mouthed and sassy, but you're also a really good journalist. But in this era where we're reckoning with so many truths, right, racially, with the media, with what democracy means, have you seen your voice muted in this time? Have you had pushback from folks or organizations?
Chideya: Absolutely. I mean, I have talked repeatedly about how at FiveThirtyEight, which was the last newsroom that I didn't control where I worked during an election, Nate Silver from October 2015 blocked me from reporting on racial animus as an indicator of political preference. And what's interesting and frustrating is that, by the end, he called Trump "evil," which is by no means objective.
Nate Silver: I'm not sure what words to use, except there's something profoundly evil about the Trump campaign at this point, and the people he attracts to it. And I think that's the right word to use.
Chideya: I was just so frustrated. I wanted to chew him out. Like, so this is the end game of your objectivity, that you're calling him evil after preventing me from reporting on this? It's a complete double standard where Black women like Jemele Hill are punished for saying anything, whereas white men can selectively say what they want.
Another person on the podcast started crying when Trump was elected. What Black woman could keep her job when she started crying after the election of a president? So that's what I'm talking about is, there was a suppression of my work.
The word count of my articles was kept low. Some of my stories were killed. I pitched over and over again stories on racial resentment and the weaponization of it. And at the end, this was a part that was completely hilarious to me in that kinda bitter, rueful laughter way.
At the end, they were, "Oh, can you write a wrap-up story basically on racial resentment?" I refused. I had already given notice. I was, "That's ass coverage for you. That has nothing to do with, no. No, I'm not gonna write that story three days before I leave."
Lee: It's the hypocrisy certainly, and you kinda laid out how it played out, but what was the conversation like? So in that blocking of you telling the stories, what did that actually look like?
Chideya: Well, the first one was that I had done a story in early October 2015 about Jeb Bush saying that, "Black people should vote for Republicans, because it shows that they don't just want free stuff."
Jeb Bush: Republicans get 4% to 7% maybe of the African American vote for president. If you double that, you win elections in places like Ohio and Virginia. And we should make that case, because our message is one of hope and aspiration. It isn't one of division and get in line, and we'll take care of you with free stuff.
Chideya: That was a very low-key racial dog whistle, but I called it out. And Nate called me in on my day off and said, "Why did you come here?" He said, "At FiveThirtyEight, we don't cherry pick facts to fit a thesis." So the thesis that there are racial dog whistles is cherry picking? What about the past 50 to 200 years of American history?
So he basically let me know, he didn't respect my work, he didn't respect what I was bringing to the table. And I stayed, because at the time I was in the pipeline for an adoption, which unfortunately fell through. But I was thinking with my wallet more than my heart.
And I don't regret doing it, because all of this, I mean, in some ways what I realize is that the meta-narrative throughout my career has been reporting on the media itself. My first book, Don't Believe the Hype was about race in the media.
And this is more information. You know, I mean, part of what I've done is report on what it's like to be a Black journalist in a country that doesn't respect Black journalists and doesn't respect what we bring to the table, to our own detriment.
Lee: We reached out to Nate Silver and FiveThirtyEight about Farai's experiences. A rep did not provide comment. Obviously, we've bungled a lot, right, but have there been media organizations or journalists who have covered the Trump era with precision and who've really just done it well?
Chideya: Yamiche Alcindor, you know, at PBS, brilliant. Amna Nawaz. There's a long list, and not all of them people of color, but a lot for obvious reasons. Because one of the things that's been highly underrated is the role of lived experience in good journalism.
You know, you look at someone like Sarah Smarsh who is a white woman who grew up low income on a farm outside of Wichita, Kansas. She brings an incredible lens on race, gender, and class as a white woman. And that's because of her lived experience. You know, she's a New York Times best seller for writing about that lived experience and also the intersection of politics.
So you don't have to be a people of color, but I think it's actually harder for people who grow up in the perceptual occlusion, the blindspot of American life, which is upper middle class whiteness. You believe that your experience is completely normative, and that people outside of your experience are living lives that are non-normative.
You know, that may be an exaggeration. Not everyone feels that way, but elite news is normed to the upper middle class white experience. I know what it's like not to be hungry but to grow your own food so that you won't be hungry. I know what it's like to have white people underestimate me on a regular basis. And what I learned, to be honest, was not always to shine. That's what's allowed me to report on white supremacists. I don't bring out all my fancy. I am very low key, and that is very helpful.
Lee: But sometimes we got our flex on though, right?
Lee: And it's unfortunate that we don't have enough space to flex. But the idea of self-sufficiency, and of course we all dream in the world. I started in the Black press at the Philadelphia Tribune in Philadelphia, the oldest continuously publishing Black newspaper in the country.
We only had two computers with the internet, right. It was just a whole bunch of actual infrastructural kind of issues. And I always say, if the Black press had access to money, obviously financing and infrastructure to create a space where the greatest Black journalists in the country were employed, they couldn't mess with us. We wouldn't need NBC Universal, which I'm happy to be here, it's great, thank you everyone.
Chideya: Yeah. Well, I mean, my dream is that in the future we get the choice. That we get the choice to work for a Black press or a Black women's press or a women's press or a multiracial press. And that it's truly a choice, and that all of these types of outlets are well-resourced so that you can make a choice based on where you want to be.
Lee: You know, for Black journalists, journalists of color, you know, women in the newsroom who might be hitting a wall in mainstream news operations, what advice do you have for them to either push through, to amplify, to sharpen the focus of those spaces or their own work?
Chideya: I think first of all, it's not you. And know when it is you. So, for example, I've cried a lot of tears over abuse in the workplace. But I've also been fairly good at getting out, and my white colleagues have not always understood it. I mean, I chewed a white colleague out by email, who said that he would give me a job recommendation, and then said something really snarky about me leaving all these places.
And so I said, "Do you know what I've dealt with in my career? Do you know why I've left the places I've left when I've left them?" I leave because I have to. Or sometimes I leave because there's something better, and why shouldn't I do better for myself? Why do I have to, you know, stay at a place that's not giving me growth? And it's, like, somehow I have to stay in broken systems to mop up things that other people have broken. No.
Lee: Because you're supposed to.
Chideya: I don't. Yeah, 'cause I'm the janitor somehow. I don't think so. I mean, nothing wrong with being a janitor, but it's not my role to be an editorial janitor who mops up the spills in the whiteness aisle. It's just not.
Lee: You know, one thing I've always found interesting and kind of infuriating is this idea that we can scrutinize structures for their institutional racism, but we so rarely turn the lens on ourselves.
Lee: And I can remember bein' in Ferguson after Mike Brown was killed. And of course we were focused on the police department. Out of 54 officers, they had six Black officers. But then you look at the other side of the police state at the media, and I know every single Black journalist here. There's only six of us. Me, Wes Lowery, Errin Haines. You know, I mean, here we are, right? But we don't turn the lens on ourselves. And I think that is to great detriment to all of us.
Chideya: Well, what I did after the 2016 election, first of all, I applied for a fellowship while the election was still happening, 'cause I knew I didn't want to stay at FiveThirtyEight. I got it, and so I started a project to, what I was hoping to do was contextual analysis of the content produced by different newsrooms and index that against the race and gender of their political reporters.
I never got to do that, because the majority of organizations I contacted would not give me the race and gender of their political teams. One of the organizations that even gave me data, it took 23 emails. Twenty-three emails to get basic data on a 20-person team.
And the only reason they actually gave me the data is 'cause they'd showed up to some blah, blah meeting on racial equity. I think if they hadn't been at that meeting and I hadn't been at that meeting, they wouldn't have shared it with me. So not only is there a lack of transparency, there's an active coverup. There is an active coverup of anything that would actually reveal how the news is produced. And I use that term coverup deliberately.
Lee: How can audiences you think hold journalists and media organizations to account in real time? Especially I think sometimes Black listeners and viewers and readers can point and see the BS from a mile away. And they know it doesn't sound right. As my mother would say, "Some of the milk ain't clean." Like, you know some of the milk ain't clean as soon as you see it. How can these viewers and listeners actually hold the media to account?
Chideya: I think we have to find credible sources. And we have to do better discovery. Rather than give up on the media, the media is multifaceted. There's a lot of bad stuff, and there's a lot of good stuff. And those of us who have a little bit of a microphone have to, I mean, I can fall into this trap myself.
Like, this is horrible, that's horrible, this too is horrible. We have to make more pointers to the good stuff that's actually giving us good information. And we have to shore up our commitment to consuming accurate and important information.
Lee: How do we cover inequity and racism and all the white supremacy that we're still steeped in with the Biden administration? What does that look like? 'Cause with Trump it was easy, 'cause it was there. I mean, it was hard, but we saw it. What do we do now?
Chideya: I think we cover impartially. I don't like the construct of objectivity, because it often involves masking whiteness and invisibilizing whiteness. But I think we cover it impartially. We do not assume that poor people are less competent or less moral than wealthy people, which is what happened to Donald Trump for years in the media.
We do not assume that people who win office are more moral or more competent than people who don't win office. That's impartiality. So it means covering Vice President Kamala Harris who is incredible and landbreaking with scrutiny. You know, we just on our radio show had on an indigenous organizer who critiqued then Senator Harris's work on indigenous communities.
I want to better understand Vice President Harris's record. That doesn't mean I'm against Vice President Harris. I am certainly for her success as someone who I want to see succeed for the good of the United States and for her beacon of leadership as a Black and South Asian woman.
But I will be impartial in covering her, and I expect my white colleagues to be the same. To not go after her because she's Black and South Asian and a woman. And so impartiality and fairness and basically not privileging whiteness or wealth. I mean, honestly the way the journalism privileges wealth and power and access is destroying both journalism and the United States.
Lee: Hmm. I think that's a great place to end. Farai, thank you for showing the way.
Chideya: Thank you.
Lee: That was Farai Chideya, creator and host of the Our Body Politic podcast. And before we go, I want to get you all excited about something that I'm really excited about. We've been working on it for a long time, and it kicks off next week. For Black History Month, we're doing a series that starts with a personal story for me, with a print that I bought at an online auction last year by the artist, Jacob Lawrence.
Now Lawrence is someone whose work I've admired for a long time, but I had no idea when I purchased this print that it would lead me down this road of discovery, of finding out who Lawrence and his peers really were, and how they shaped and were shaped by Harlem. And how collectively they helped define what it means to be Black in America. We begin with Jacob Lawrence's story.
Archival Recording: Jacob said, "Don't listen to anything that they have said about me. I wasn't a social realist. No, I wasn't informed by Cubism. I was working on Harlem, I was working on Black people, I was working on the history."
Lee: And each week, we'll introduce you to a new figure and help connect the dots between the lives they lived. We hope you'll check it out. So if you are subscribed, check your feed next week. If not, subscribe now. And as always, let us know what you think. Leave us a review. And you can write to us at IntoAmerica@nbcuni.com. That's @nbcuni.com.
Into America is produced by Isabel Angel, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, Barbara Raab, Claire Tighe, Aisha Turner, and Preeti Varathan. Original music by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. And I'm Trymaine Lee. See you next Thursday