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People's journalist

Sarah Jaffe at the People's Summit in Chicago
Kevin Taghabon

August 23, 2017

Sarah Jaffe is a fellow at the Nation Institute and a journalist reporting on labour and political movements in the United States. Her work has appeared in numerous publications including The Nation, The Guardian, the Atlantic, as well as a notable piece in the New York Times on American Communism. Jaffe has edited several books and recently authored her own, Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt. The following interview was conducted at the 2017 People's Summit in Chicago.
Kevin Taghabon: I don't know if you've been following what's been happening in Toronto, but one of our most prominent journalists, Desmond Cole, recently stepped down from the Toronto Star for essentially being told, "don't be political."
Sarah Jaffe: I did hear about that, yeah.
How do you feel about that when people say, "journalists shouldn't be political"?
Like I said on stage, journalism is always political. Nobody doesn't have opinions. Even if you hold yourself to some sort of strange, inhuman, strict idea of objectivity and don't register to vote or don't vote, you still have an opinion about what's going on. You still have an opinion about what is good or bad. The idea that we can just wipe that out and just be neutral is, whatever. And it's also really noting: Desmond Cole is a black man. Who gets to be a neutral, objective, non-political person is dependent on which boxes you check and what body you inhabit. White men are assumed to be neutral in a way that a black man is not assumed to be neutral. In a way that a woman is not assumed to be neutral. I think that's this question – who gets to be neutral and who gets to be political or non-political anymore?
We had a recent piece in Macleans in Canada that dealt with a lot of stuff in rural communities that don't get a lot of coverage. I think that's an especially interesting conversation to be involved in if you are covering something like labour. How do you feel that intersection or that tension exists now? Newsrooms are shutting down, there's not as much coverage from areas where formerly there might have been a couple of papers or a few reporters. And react politically in a way – whether or not it's correct – that they feel they're kicking out the establishment because they don't feel like they're represented. Do you think that's a fair analysis?
I really wanted after the election here in the US to do a study of the places where the decline of newspapers . Look at where local newspapers had closed, and then map that onto the Trump vote. There's just no local news in so many places. I live in New York City and even then a lot of the local stuff doesn't make the paper because the New York Times is the paper of record for the world. It's covering what's happening in Syria better than what's happening down the street. I can't speak to how that's happening in Canada but I imagine that it's very similar.
The decline of local neighbourhood community reporting, and also the decline of what's going on nationally from the angle of the people who live in whatever town you're in, is something that happen. When you had a local paper, that local paper probably also had somebody in DC who was following your senator around to see what your senator was up to, and that's not happening now. So unless your senator does something newsworthy – whether that's good or bad – you don't really get to know what the hell they're up to because there's nobody who's following them around trying to be responsible to you.
David Sirota , in the talk earlier that you guys had, said that he has an uncharacteristic optimism about the future of media. Do you share that ?
I am always optimistic. It's weird, I have this terrible optimistic streak. Yeah, I think that. I think David's correct. The media realized after Trump that they are very much responsible for him being president right now. That was because he was entertaining, and he made ratings good, and he made outrage clicks. And then look what happened. We've got President Trump. The media's ratings are up so some of them love that. But if you are a human who cares about 25 million humans losing access to health insurance, you might think that screwed up a little bit.
I think there's an understanding that you can't cover Trump the same way. Also, I think that when politicians are openly hostile to reporters – I should have said this on stage because it's actually an important point – lazy-ass reporters who function on access have to actually become reporters again. So when Donald Trump declares that, “you are fake news” and refuses to talk to you or let you into a briefing, okay, fine. There are twenty reporters in that briefing anyway. So who gives a shit? News doesn't happen in the briefings anyway. Get out and report.
Pissing off the press, this is what Richard Nixon learned: he would send Spiro Agnew out to attack the press and call them the enemy, and eventually the press really enjoyed ruining his life. The fact that independent media exists and is growing in some cases, the fact that Nomi is able to have her salary crowdfunded – and I presume it's an alright one – that's a really good sign.
How do you feel when there's figures like Jim Acosta or Jake Tapper or the New York Times rebranding themselves as...
Democracy Dies in Darkness?
Yeah, the last bastions of a dying democracy.
I mean, yes they should be. It would be a good idea.
But did it happen starting January?
No, right, exactly. That's the problem is that they haven't been. I think that they have not been doing their jobs. They've been doing the job of making money, sort of. Less and less of that over the years. And thinking that calling up a Democratic senator and a Republican senator and being like, “shrug, I don't know”, was working. It's clearly not working. That's how they still are ignoring – even as they declare themselves the watchdogs of democracy – are still ignoring massive swaths of the country and massive swaths of political opinion. That just is not in any way representative.
There was a story today in the New York Times about how religious liberals have sat out for a while and now they want in. Reverend Barber is the cover photo for the story, and I'm like, “Reverend Barber has not been sitting out anything.” If you want to talk about what he's doing and have a critical story about that, that's a fair thing to do. But to imply that he only got active after Trump? You are high! And you don't think that North Carolina is worth covering. If you're a political reporter who hasn't been covering North Carolina in the last four years, I don't know what the hell you're doing. It's been one of the most important places with many of the most important stories.
This week, there was another big Supreme Court decision on North Carolina's gerrymandering case, which is an incredibly important case, that came down in favour of small “D” democracy – not the Democratic party – against racist gerrymandering. That got nothing, not a whimper, because everybody's covering friggin' James Comey. Who's nothing of interest. Trump lies. I'm shocked.
That's interesting too because it was twelve months ago where was trying to convince Apple to break encryption making a hero of CEO Tim Cook all of a sudden. Cook says, “you're not going to have the keys to our iPhones.” James Comey, clearly not understanding how encryption works says, “well we need the key, we need a back door, there needs to be a way for federal agencies to get into every citizen's private communications.” Some liberals get mad. And twelve months later he's the new hero of the liberal establishment.
We need to have fewer heroes.
But even then, that short term amnesia...
And I'm saying that carrying around a Jeremy Corbyn backpack right now. I get the irony of this. The short term amnesia, I actually wish wish I was more versed in psychoanalytic theory , because I think there's something really deep about it. But also it seems to be a peculiar thing about American politics. And I don't know how you feel about this looking at Canada, maybe it's a North American politics thing. Maybe we should say that. There's definitely this memory hole, so fast! It's so fast, and it makes me nuts.
I'll be sitting here like, “I'm so old, I remember back in 2008 when Hillary Clinton was the defender of the white working class and now you're racist for implying that you should care about the white working class.” Literally, this is the woman who said, “hard working voters, white voters,” back in 2008. “Haven't had the chance to vote yet,” when she was asked if she was going to drop out because Barack Obama was stopping her.
A really interesting connection point from that to movements, it's movements like Black Lives Matter that remind us in 1996 or whenever it was, the welfare reform that she pushed for...
Yeah, Ashley Williams. Speaking of North Carolina again, from North Carolina, in the Hillary Clinton fundraiser with the sign with the “superpredator” quote on it. That was exactly to refuse the memory hole. If you think about, particularly Black Lives Matter is a really good example of this. When these fights – like the campus fights about renaming things and the confederate monuments coming down – things like that. These fights over historical memory really matter because they do shape the world that we're in. Pretending that, “oh it's just history, oh the confederate flag is heritage, oh the confederate monuments,” – and I went to college in New Orleans. The giant phallic symbol with Robert E. Lee in the middle of the circle coming down, what does that tell you every day when you're driving past that? And then Mitch Lander takes credit for it which, F that guy, but that's another story entirely . The fight for memory, that's why I put a bunch of history in my book.
Surprisingly the New York Times is coming to you for communist history now.
Well they're doing a whole series. So it wasn't like they just , “Sarah Jaffe's the person we want to write about communism.” But I was one of the people that they came to to write about communism, which is great. Some of that stuff that I wrote about in there is also in my book. I'm talking to organizers who are drawing on the work of – I know who Claudia Jones is because I've talked to organizers who , “Claudia Jones theorized intersectionality decades before we called it intersectionality.” I learned that from them. This is actually history that is important, it's history that's alive in the movements of today. It's super important.
What movements inspire you? Who should be elevated? Who should we be writing about? What should we be covering?
My god. Since we're in Chicago, we're talking about Black Lives Matter, the reparations campaign for victims of police torture here in the city was an incredible, incredible campaign. The movement for single-payer healthcare is on the move now in New York, in California, in cities around the country. There are different bills being put forward and different solutions that are being put forward in different places. Nevada has a bill that would allow everyone to buy into Medicaid. You would still have to pay into it, but it would basically function like a public option. Which is essentially the stalking horse for single-payer, which is why Obama ended up killing it.
There are so many things that inspire me. People who are working on sanctuary again in Chicago. There's a great campaign that's connecting the sanctuary for immigrants in this conversation to sanctuary against police violence. It's not enough to say, “the police shouldn't work with ICE .” You actually have to say, “we don't want police.” Police don't make us safe. All of these things are actually connected, and they're actually affecting all of these different communities in a way that's really intertwined.



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