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Danielle Tcholakian
Freelance writer/reporter

An Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Reading List

NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 26: Progressive challenger Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez celebrartes at a victory party in the Bronx after upsetting incumbent Democratic Representative Joseph Crowly on June 26, 2018 in New York City. Ocasio-Cortez upset Rep. Joseph Crowley in New York’s 14th Congressional District, which includes parts of the Bronx and Queens. (Photo by Scott Heins/Getty Images)

I was in Canada when I watched Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez do what many, myself included, thought was the impossible: win the nomination as the Democratic Congressional candidate for New York’s District 14, beating incumbent party boss Joe Crowley, one of the most powerful machine Democrats in New York City, who hadn’t been challenged since he was essentially handed his congressional seat nearly two decades ago.

I watched it on Twitter, sensing the shock of my colleagues in the New York press corps. Those of us who were natives had grown up in, and continue to live in, a New York City that is ruled by money at every turn. Politics is no exception; if anything, it is the rule. Candidates in New York are typically taken seriously based on the weight of their “war chest,” how much money their campaign has accrued. In one campaign funding quarter, incumbent party boss Joe Crowley had out-raised her 30-to-1.

And yet. She had done the impossible. And in doing so, she had shown us — the press, and also voters — what is possible. It is hard to believe something is possible if you have never seen it happen before. Now we’ve seen it happen. Now we know.

I could not tear my eyes away from Twitter, from the impossible becoming real before my eyes. It felt too magical. I kept waiting for someone to say, no, we spoke too soon. No, we were wrong. Instead I saw video footage, filmed by NY1, the local news channel I grew up watching, depicting Ocasio-Cortez at the moment she realized it, too: That she had made the impossible a reality.

I watched it over and over. Ocasio-Cortez’s eyes widen, her hands flutter in agitation, then go to cover her mouth. She is overwhelmed. She reaches out one hand and grips the shoulder of the NY1 reporter, unconsciously, the way one reaches out blindly for any stability in a moment of reeling. Her other hand is still covering her mouth. She is still in shock, her eyes still so wide. She looks a little terrified, and who can blame her? How completely terrifying must it be to commit such magic, to make the impossible real for a generation who’d never seen it? A woman near her is crying now. It’s been only a matter of seconds so far. The NY1 reporter says something to her, and Ocasio-Cortez takes her hand from her mouth, looks at the reporter as if seeing her all of a sudden, and then she is back, and she is on, and she shakes her head with a little dip of conviction, a little dip that said, to me, I’m ready.

I wondered, what that must be like, to do something so tremendous, and then to have barely seconds to recover from it? I was awed by her grace and temerity. And I wasn’t scared for her, not even a little bit. She was ready.

***

That moment made me wonder, though, if some part of her had braced herself for the outcome so many people had said was inevitable: a stinging loss. All that effort for nothing — though it wouldn’t have been nothing, for she had activated voters, and pushed Crowley to the left, enough that he backed a Medicare for All bill that he’d previously scoffed at.

But still, how could she not have anticipated the possibility of losing? She had been ignored by television media, and by much of the mainstream political media. When they did write about her, her defeat seemed preordained. “It’s an understatement to say the underfunded Ocasio-Cortez has an uphill battle,” POLITICO wrote in February, near the end of a long piece about progressive candidates nationwide. Crowley was “heading into an all-but-certain victory,” POLITICO New York wrote in June, just before the primary.

But even those stories contained tacit hints about the potential for an Ocasio-Cortez victory. The June story reported:

“The No. 4 House Democrat’s longtime colleagues in the New York delegation say they’re not worried about his primary — and brushed aside any idea that the race could hurt Crowley’s ambitions to become Speaker one day.

‘Everybody is supportive of Joe and how he’s running the race,’ said Rep. Gregory Meeks, who represents parts of Queens and Nassau County. ‘The fact that Joe is the chair of the Queens Democratic Party and how he’s held that organization together — he’s got Democrats working together — works in his favor of his leadership as chair of the Democratic Caucus.'”

Perhaps voters finally asked: Working together for what? A sharply divided nation in which racists no longer feel the need to wear masks when they rally, safe with their hatred out fully in the open? A city in which economic disparity seems to widen year after year? Apartments that are affordable for few, if any, and healthcare out of reach for most, while this party boss takes cash from real estate and pharmaceutical companies?

Or, as Ocasio-Cortez herself told POLITICO in February:

“What this is about is that if we reelect the same Democratic Party that we had going into this mess, then we’re going to have the same exact result,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “In order for the country to move forward, the Democratic Party has to transform.”

And she wasn’t universally ignored by media outlets. She was profiled by the Village Voice as early as last year, in June 2017, and WNYC later that year. Mic profiled her in February of this year, and Splinter News in March 2018. Ozy, Elite Daily, Refinery29, The Cut and Vogue all followed. The Intercept wrote about her repeatedly, and Politico Media’s Michael Calderone quoted Intercept reporter Ryan Grim at her election night party:

“She represented the perfect contrast to Crowley’s model of politics,” Grim said. “Our theory is that big money corrupts politics. The corollary to that is there is another way to do politics. Otherwise you’re just nihilists. People like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who are doing that kind of politics, are important to highlight, to show there is an alternative.”

I couldn’t help but recall here what an anonymous Democratic operative, fearful of offending Crowley, told POLITICO New York for their June article: “Once there is an initial threat, a challenge in his dominance, it changes people’s perception on the Hill about his power.”

Hopefully, others like Ocasio-Cortez will see this and feel emboldened to take on the political machines in their own communities. New York’s is powerful, with deep roots — but often lazy, a laziness that sometimes seems intentional, in light of the low voter turnout that results. (I wrote last year for The New York Times about efforts to counter this in Brooklyn.) Per POLITICO New York:

“Crowley’s dominance over the Queens machine — formally known as the Queens County Democratic Organization — remains unchallenged. He’s been in charge since 2006, shortly after former Rep. Tom Manton, who had molded Crowley as his political protege, died of cancer. Since then, both supporters and detractors say Crowley has run a well-oiled operation that controls everything from the Queens judicial system to who wins local city and state elections, who gets on the ballot and who can tap into the resources available at the disposal of the operation.

Still, interviews with several Democratic operatives, elected officials and political advisers show the Queens County operation’s bark may be worse than its bite. The county has power, but it has a nearly non-existent ground operation; it does not deliver votes or ensure that people hit the polls on election day. Rather, it offers candidates a friendly “how-to” map for running for office in Queens which includes everything from who to hire for consulting to ensuring a specific ballot line.”

It’s hard not to be hopeful that Ocasio-Cortez’s victory will extend to other candidates like her all over the country who are brave enough to challenge the antiquated machine politics around them.

After all, her victory was also one for “millennial” publications, according to HuffPost. POLITICO’s Calderone detailed how outrage at The New York Times’ dismissive characterization of Elite Daily, Mic and Refinery29 as “websites most often associated with millennial and female audiences” as opposed to “national” outlets provoked such outrage that “national” was changed to “traditional.”

Here is a reading list about Ocasio-Cortez, including González-Ramírez’s piece and others.

1. “The Most Powerful Democrat in Queens Must Finally Compete,” Ross Barkan, the Village Voice, June 19, 2017 

The Voice article gives crucial background on how Crowley came to power — as, essentially, a prodigal son of New York City machine politics. Most gallingly, and personally for Ocasio-Cortez, it shows how that same machine politics has brought wealth to only a select few, due to the hardship of those who most need their elected officials’ assistance — as Ocasio-Cortez and her mother did when her father died of cancer.

The day-to-day operations of the Queens party have remained in the hands of a trio of Crowley- and Manton-aligned lawyers for three decades.

These men — Gerard Sweeney, Michael Reich, and Frank Bolz — have a law firm that has earned millions in Surrogate’s Court, where the estates of people who die without wills are processed, and from representing banks foreclosing on people’s homes. The judicial system in Queens is effectively under Crowley’s control, since no one becomes a judge or receives a court appointment without staying in the county organization’s good graces.

2. “Can Local Candidates Ever Defeat the Political Machine?” Brigid Bergin, WNYC and CityLab, November 7, 2017

Bergin’s story looked at Ocasio-Cortez and three other women in Queens hoping to destabilize the borough’s entrenched political machine. Perhaps most interesting in her story is context she provides for the responses she gets from Crowley, like the following (among others):

“The way the Queens Democratic Party machine has worked, they operate on a politics of exclusion,” said Ocasio.

I asked Crowley what he says to people who see how the local party operates and say, the system is rigged.

“I think ‘rigged’ is an interesting word to use when the judges in this county are elected by the people,” Crowley replied. That’s technically true, but slightly misleading: Judicial candidates are nominated by the party. In a one-party town, voters don’t have much choice at the polls.

3. “Meet the young progressive Latina trying to oust one of the most powerful Democrats in the House,” A.P. Joyce, Mic.com, Feb. 28, 2018 

After Ocasio-Cortez’s primary victory, a Twitter user posted a photo of the suburban house where she grew up, claiming that it proved the urban roots she claimed were a lie.

But she’d never denied that she grew up in a privileged zip code. As far back as February, she told Mic that her father moved her family to a neighborhood with better opportunities, but most of her extended family remained in the Bronx, where her father continued to commute for work.

The experience of living between the two worlds of New York’s poorest borough and its more affluent suburbs gave Ocasio-Cortez an early firsthand look at some of the inequities facing the country.

“I grew up with this reality and understanding of income inequality as, ‘When I’m in this zip code I have these opportunities, and when I’m in that zip code I don’t have these opportunities,’” she said.

“At a very young age I knew it was wrong. I knew that the fact that my cousins didn’t have adequate resources or adequate public services and good schools, and I did, was something that just didn’t strike me as right.”

4. “Talking With Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Woman Challenging One of New York’s Political Kingmakers,” Clio Chang, Splinter, March 22, 2018 

Chang’s Q&A with Ocasio-Cortez is thorough and well worth a read — particularly the context she provides on the call to abolish ICE, and the hopes she has for New York and national politics at large.

In order for our country to move forward both parties have to transform fundamentally. On the Democratic side, we need to be the party of working people again and no one has stepped up to the plate. People have been too scared in New York’s frankly very intimidating political environment.

5. “A Primary Against the Machine: A Bronx Activist Looks to Dethrone Joseph Crowley, The King of Queens,” Aida Chavez and Ryan Grim, The Intercept, May 22, 2018 

The Intercept did multiple stories on Ocasio-Cortez, but its initial profile is a really compelling retelling of the story of Ocasio-Cortez’s call to activism — in part due to the chaos that ensued after her father’s death — and a good explanation of how the Queens political machine flexes its power, especially when it comes to the court system.

“Crowley’s allies in the machine, Ocasio-Cortez charged, ‘defend him in court and they bump his opponents off the ballot,’ referring to ballot challenges filed with the Board of Elections against candidates Crowley did not support or who oppose the machine. Last year, as DNAInfo reported, a candidate in a City Council primary was booted from the ballot for not having enough valid signatures; she said she was bullied for not ‘kissing the ring’ of the party boss, Crowley. In that race, Crowley supported Assemblyman Francisco Moya, who went on to defeat Hiram Monserrate, a former council member and state senator who was expelled from the legislature after a 2009 conviction for assaulting his girlfriend.

The machine has a tight relationship with developers. Ocasio-Cortez noted in a follow-up email that Crowley’s organization reaped large sums of real estate money before the Queens machine installed the new City Council speaker, Corey Johnson, who has since led the council in rezoning neighborhoods for luxury developments — pricing out local families and constructing high rises when the city already has 275k vacant units.'”

6. “This Berniecrat Aims to Unseat a Queens Power Broker,” Daniel Malloy, Ozy, May 23, 2018

The update to this article states, “Ozy told you about her first,” which likely isn’t true — unless their readers don’t have access to the Village Voice, WNYC, CityLab, Mic, Splinter and The Intercept. But their profile is good nonetheless, opening with a glimpse into Ocasio-Cortez’s campaigning efforts and sweet details about her personality and background.

“There were times when Ocasio-Cortez would wonder whether it was worth it, especially when she’d drag herself home to her Bronx apartment after midnight, her campaign materials crammed into a Trader Joe’s bag. But this is the mid-February moment when she passes the point of no return: She’s quitting her day job to campaign full-time through the June Democratic primary, living off her savings and her partner’s income. Her social media and volunteer following, as well as the community members she meets, won’t let her quit. ‘It is simultaneously so exciting and terrifying,’ she says.”

7. “28-Year-Old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is Pushing For Millennials’ Future Through Politics,” Hannah Golden, Elite Daily, June 12, 2018

Elite Daily’s look at Ocasio-Cortez emphasizes her youth, with good reason: to show the importance of having legislators who by necessity need to take a long view on complicated issues. As Ocasio-Cortez tells the publication, most members of Congress “won’t have to deal with 20-foot storm surges, but we will.”

“If elected, Ocasio-Cortez could be the youngest woman ever elected to the House. According to the Congressional Research Service, the average age of a House member at the beginning of this session was 57.8 years, and 61.8 years for a senator. That’s one of the highest averages in the legislature’s history. Under the U.S. Constitution, House representatives must be at least 25 years old (and senators 30) when they take office. The youngest member of Congress currently is fellow New Yorker Elise Stefanik, who was 30 years old when she took office in 2015.

In fact, it’s out of a sense of responsibility as a young person that Ocasio-Cortez is daring to take on a high-profile member of her own party. ‘Congress is too old, they don’t have a stake in the game,’ she says. Issues like climate change and the rising costs of higher education and housing, she adds, aren’t being addressed by the current representation.

8. “Meet The Bronx-Born Puerto Rican Challenging One Of The Most Powerful House Democrats,” Andrea González-Ramírez, Refinery29, June 13, 2018

Andrea González-Ramírez’s story is full of important and notable statistics and data and great quotes from Ocasio-Cortez, but perhaps the one that struck me the most was that Ocasio-Cortez had at one point decided she would not like to run for office.

“But Ocasio-Cortez argued that for all the power Crowley wields in Congress, he has failed to serve the people of Queens and the Bronx. Though she never planned to run for office because she didn’t like the culture behind it, she decided she couldn’t continue to stand-by.

‘While it’s not that nothing has happened in the Bronx, it feels that we are dealing with the same problems 20 years later,’ she said. ‘I’m an organizer here and I know no one ever sees him, he doesn’t have a presence in this community. It would be different if he was around.’

(In 2011, the New York Post reported that Crowley lived in Virginia and was raising his family there, though he maintains a house in Queens.)”

9. “The 28-Year-Old at the Center of One of This Year’s Most Exciting Primaries,” Gabriella Paiella, The Cut, June 25, 2018 

The Cut’s profile gives further context to Ocasio-Cortez’s previous stance against running for office.

“Ocasio-Cortez’s candidacy has made the race one of this year’s most buzzed-about primaries, even if she didn’t have political ambitions until recently. ‘I counted out that possibility because I felt that possibility had counted out me,’ she told the Cut. ‘I felt like the only way to effectively run for office is if you had access to a lot of wealth, high social influence, a lot of high dynastic power, and I knew that I didn’t have any of those things.’

And while she may be running a long-shot progressive campaign against a powerful old-guard opponent, she’s determined to run on her own terms. The weekend before the Democratic primary, for instance, Ocasio-Cortez opted to fly down to the U.S.-Mexico border to address the Trump administration’s child-separation policy instead of doing last-minute campaigning.”

10. “28-Year-Old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Might Just Be the Future of the Democratic Party,” Bridget Read, Vogue, June 25, 2018

Vogue’s Q&A with Ocasio-Cortez, a week before her victory and right before she left the city to visit a detention center in Texas, contains great answers about her background and political positions, including this on how abolishing ICE should not be a “fringe” position.

“One of the biggest dangers of this administration is the erosion of norms, which is pretty typical for authoritarian regimes. This is one of the problems when it comes to immigration. My opponent has literally called ICE “fascist”, yet he refuses to take the stance of abolishing it, which, to me, is morally incomprehensible. Words mean something, and the moment you have identified something as fascist, that with it carries a moral responsibility to abolish it. That’s what I’m talking about when we say that norms have been eroded: that we literally have elected officials arguing to basically retain fascist agencies.”

11. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Victory Has Striking Similarities to a 1972 Trailblazing Win,” Amanda Farinacci, NY1, June 27, 2018

My love for this little story is certainly related to being a local news nerd and native New Yorker, but I think it also proves my earlier point about how an entire generation of New Yorkers had never seen a win like Ocasio-Cortez’s in their lives: The last time anything like this happened was with Elizabeth Holtzman in 1972.

“There were no news cameras present when Elizabeth Holtzman did the unthinkable 46 years ago, beating Emanuel Celler in the Democratic primary for the congressional seat he held for a remarkable 50 years.

Tuesday night, Holtzman couldn’t help but think of that moment as she watched Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez pull off an equally implausible victory.

‘I was excited for her and I felt obviously a real bond there,’ Holtzman said. ‘I said, “Oh my goodness, nobody gave her a chance.”‘”

12. “Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Is Driving New Energy and Money to Progressive Candidates,” Daniel Marans and Kevin Robillard, HuffPost, July 4, 2018

And now for a post-victory story, because of course Ocasio-Cortez’s work has only just begun. This HuffPost story opens with a candidate forum in Michigan, 600 miles from New York, where the mere mention of Ocasio-Cortez’s name elicits excited cheers from the crowd. Since her victory, established politicians who couldn’t be bothered to take the risk of endorsing her are now rushing to curry favor with her, while she is using her platform to endorse young, progressive candidates all over the country.

“Earlier in the day, Ocasio-Cortez had used her massive Twitter platform to endorse El-Sayed. He has since picked up an additional 2,500 Twitter followers and is awash in national press inquiries.

Ocasio-Cortez, a 28-year-old former Bernie Sanders organizer who just a few short weeks ago was scolding establishment Democrats on Twitter for ignoring her campaign, now has 600,000 followers hanging on every 280-character missive ― far more than the typical rank-and-file member of Congress.

And those same establishment Democrats are now knocking on her door. A little over a week since her upset of Joe Crowley, the Democratic Party boss of Queens County, Ocasio-Cortez finds herself as an unlikely kingmaker.”

Surviving Depression

Illustration by Katie Kosma

In the wake of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain’s recent suicides, the New York Times published a piece with the headline, “What to Do When a Loved One Is Severely Depressed.” The writer, Heather Murphy, noticed that the people commenting on these stories were struggling with the same question: “What do you do when a friend is depressed for such a long time that you’ve started to feel that nothing you can do will make a difference, and your empathy reserves are tapped out?”

Here is a difficult truth: If your loved one has not yet come to terms with accepting help from a professional, there is very little you can do for their sickness.

But I phrased that carefully for a reason. There is very little you can do for their sickness. There is plenty you can do for them — without exhausting yourself. The Times story leads with one of the most effective options: “Don’t underestimate the power of showing up.”

Read more…

Behind The NYT Investigation into Prosecuting Overdoses as Homicides

Sonya Cradle holds a poem she wrote in memory of her friend Len Bias, during a wake for Bias at a church Sunday evening on June 22, 1986 in Washington. Bias died of an apparent heart attack in his University of Maryland dormitory. (AP photo/Tom Reed)

Last year, I spoke to a former cop and a public health policy expert, both of whom told me that the major failing of the “war on drugs” was prioritizing incarceration over treatment and prevention. Part of the problem today, the former cop told me, was that in many places where opioids are currently leading to deaths, the only resource available is law enforcement. He pointed to the Midwest town of East Liverpool, Ohio, where a photo of two adults overdosing in a car with a baby in the backseat had gone viral. The East Liverpool police chief had told NPR, “We don’t have any resources, and we don’t have a place. Even if somebody comes down here to the station, knocks on the door and asks for help, where do we send them? We have nothing here in our county.”

“Opioid crisis” has become a catchphrase in the United States. The word crisis points to the panic that authorities in government and law enforcement feel about the situation — panic that seems to be spurring a fevered response to the issue.

A recent New York Times investigation looked at the fervor that has seized prosecutors around the country attempting to do their part to address the problem — by bringing homicide charges against the friends, family, and fellow users of people who die by overdose.

“I look at it in a real micro way,” Pete Orput, the chief prosecutor in Washington County outside Minneapolis, told the reporter, Rosa Goldensohn. “You owe me for that dead kid.”

Goldensohn wrote:

As overdose deaths mount, prosecutors are increasingly treating them as homicide scenes and looking to hold someone criminally accountable. Using laws devised to go after drug dealers, they are charging friends, partners and siblings. The accused include young people who shared drugs at a party and a son who gave his mother heroin after her pain medication had been cut off. Many are fellow users, themselves struggling with addiction.

Goldensohn (who goes by Rosie) spent nearly a year exploring this issue, in several states around the country. Longreads spoke to her and her editor, Shaila Dewan, about the investigation and how it came together.

How did you come up with or find this story?

RG: In 2016, I heard New York City’s now-police commissioner, then the Chief of Department, James O’Neill, allude to opening overdose investigations on Staten Island during a City Council hearing. Then last year, I learned that the city was spending a lot of their opioid plan resources on detectives and amping up that approach. I set up a Google alert, “overdose charged murder.” I wasn’t necessarily thinking of doing a national story, but I was getting so many clips from all over that I set up a spreadsheet and started tracking them. I saw a lot of local articles saying, “This is the first such charge in this county,” that kind of thing, so I knew it was an emerging trend.

Shaila, What was your reaction when Rosie first brought this story to you? Did you have any hesitations? Did you immediately know what was needed, or was there more of a process in developing what it would ultimately be?

SD: Rosie’s story pitch was ​like Athena leaping from the head of Zeus full grown. I knew immediately that even though she had not written for us before, it was worth a full-fledged New York Times takeout. It was a staggering trend that had so many implications and said something important about how the country deals with crisis.

In terms of what was needed, what we talked about early on (and what I think Rosie achieved), was giving full voice to all sides of the issue — the accused, the victims’ families, the prosecutors, etc. We didn’t want it to be a gotcha piece; we wanted it to really grapple with responsibility and guilt.

What kind of resources and support did this story require?

RG: A lot. First off, a very experienced and fantastic editor and a supportive desk and institution. Shaila spent a ton of time with me, basically taught me how to do this kind of story while I was doing it. I had never done anything on this scale before and she had the map and knew where we were in the process even when I didn’t. We projected each section on a TV screen and worked through it line by line.

Second, time. Third, money. The Times invested a lot of money in this piece, flying me around to West Virginia, Colorado, Minnesota, Wisconsin. Fourth, a brilliant data team that audited all my numbers and analysis to make sure I was doing it right. Fifth, the lack of desire for any extracurricular activities or social engagement.

SD: We needed time and travel. Time to do way more interviews than we would ever use, to become an expert on something that no one is an expert on yet because it’s too new, and travel to find and go deep with the right examples. Rosie actually went to Hibbing, MN, twice, but I’ll let her tell that story if she wants to.

We also needed to quantify the problem as best we could​. Data is a perennial problem in criminal justice stories because there are basically more than 3,000 local justice systems and many states don’t have reliable, centralized case tracking.

Rosie, can you talk about what you learned from this project, your biggest takeaways?

RG: One of my biggest takeaways is how much of the writing of a long feature like this is done in the reporting of it, getting the kind of details that will bring it to life. As Shaila mentioned, I went to Hibbing twice. I planned to go back secretly for a weekend night with frequent flyer miles because I was looking for a word to describe this town and I felt like I needed to see it again. I had a really nice breakfast at Sportsman’s Cafe and gabbed with the dishwasher there and tried to see the taconite mine but it was blocked off. Hibbing is not only the birthplace of Bob Dylan, but of the Greyhound bus, I learned. The word I came back with was “snowy.”

What were the biggest challenges in making this story happen?

SD: It was extraordinarily difficult to count cases because they were charged under various statutes and sometimes were impossible to separate from other homicide cases. The Times‘s data people and researchers were able to help Rosie clean up her database and determine what data was reliable enough to use. Also, in legal reporting, it’s just incredibly easy to misstep because there are so many finer points.

RG: The analysis of Pennsylvania cases had a lot of logistical pieces, because I needed to get court documents from all these counties and then speak to people involved in dozens of cases, many ongoing. But for me, the biggest challenge was wrangling this massive quantity of material. I interviewed, I think, 15 prosecutors and four are in the piece. I went to a whole trial that’s not in here. What to leave in, what to leave out, in the immortal words of Bob Seger.

Shaila, what advice do you have for reporters who want to undertake a story like this?

SD: Persistence is a good quality. ​I just think that good reporters are determined reporters.

The Manipulative Power of ‘You Understand’

Pussy Riot's Nadya Tolokonnikova at a TimesTalk on May 14, 2018. Credit: YouTube

Live journalism serves a few different purposes. It can seek to engage an audience directly in the process of producing journalism, sometimes as a means to combatting mistrust for the profession. It can seek to break news, live, on a stage.

At a TimesTalk featuring Pussy Riot’s Nadya Tolokonnikova and performance artist Marina Abramovic on in Midtown Manhattan on May 14, Melena Ryzik did a little of both.

Tolokonnikova spoke of a recent visit to the city jail at Rikers Island and her horror at the conditions at what she described as a penal colony in the middle of “supposedly progressive” New York. She found them, to her shock, worse that those in Putin’s jails. The pair of artists teased a potential forthcoming collaboration, perhaps stemming from a plan they have to work together on May 27. And at Abramovic’s urging, Ryzik screened two Pussy Riot videos, at least one of which was being displayed for the first time.

But the most powerful moment for me was when Tolokonnikova described what sounded like the watershed experience of her life as an activist. At age 13, she wanted to be a political journalist and write about environmental issues. She lived in a small northern town where the snow was always black due to pollution from the industrial business that the town was essentially organized around. She went to the local paper with an investigation into “who is responsible for making black snow,” and was told by the editors — who she said she’d written for before — that the story was good, but “you understand, we can’t publish it.” The company that was responsible was too powerful to challenge.

“‘You understand’ — that’s the keyword in Russia. ‘You understand,'” Tolokonnikova said.

Here is an image of a 13-year-old idealist being enlisted to participate in her own oppression. “You understand” is a phrase used to inure us to our own oppression, and make us complicit in the oppression of others. It draws us into the system that oppresses; tells us that we are already part of it; suggests that to reject it is simply to not get it. The implication is that to not understand is to somehow be lacking, to be not as smart as we would be if we understood. The young don’t understand, by their very nature. That is part of their power. They are not yet indoctrinated into the performance of the system; their powers of perception and inclination to question has not yet been eroded by years of bumping up against oppression both subtle and overt.

I thought of this when I saw the writer Quince Mountain’s description on Twitter of growing up trans. “To be trans is to grow up with a persistent and overwhelming sense of being lied to by those around you and a sense that those around you demand your wholehearted participation in that lie,” he wrote.

I thought of it again when reflecting on conversations with women abused by politicians. Women cajoled to participate in the continuation of their abuse, cajoled by agents of a system to preserve that system, agents who believe that the system is invaluable and the men who comprise it are, too. I thought of a line from Emma Gray’s Huffington Post essay after New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman was accused of intimate partner violence by four women, one of whom he was simultaneously using to build his reputation as a feminist ally: “Thus the victim would be made to participate in the invention of the alibi.”

I thought about struggles I’ve had to convince editors that a woman’s story is deserving of consideration on its own, even if she is not accompanied by other victims. I thought about people who dismiss corruption because “everyone does it,” and “that’s the way it is” or because our laws are flawed, so bad acts aren’t actually illegal. I thought about all the times I’ve heard, “you understand,” and nodded.

Then I thought about the energy I got from teaching journalism students this year, from their almost unconscious rejection of the system we’ve become conditioned to accept as “just the way it is.” And I thought about Tolokonnikova’s assertion that resistance and activism is not something that is ever finished, that we ever achieve to some conclusive end. “You’re never going to get there finally, but that’s the beauty of human life, I think… It’s an everyday struggle,” she’d said. Ryzik had helped summarize for her: “Being a citizen is a daily exercise.” Agreeing, Tolokonnikova added, “You cannot win. You cannot lose. You have to keep working on it it, you have to find new ways every day… That’s a daily job.” Likewise, I realized, resisting the power of “you understand” is a daily practice.

Near the end of the event, Abramovic took issue with a question from an audience member who apparently had read some misinformation about an upcoming performance. She used the Trumpian phrase “fake news” twice, to raucous applause from the audience and my dismay. I thought back to Tolokonnikova’s statement earlier in the discussion that “artists should develop new languages to help other people, new languages that are not mainstream languages,” and was disappointed that Abramovic would perpetuate the use of language meant to sow mistrust and discord among a polity. It seemed less like resistance and more like another form of “you understand.” I remembered the Tolokonnikova’s statement on language: “We are not alive; we are dead if we are using the language that was given to us.”

And I remembered Tolokonnikova’s anecdote this week amid now-regular calls from conservatives and liberals alike for liberals to be nicer to bigots, to be more “civil.” When people — including Julia Ioffe, who later apologized — questioned why news outlets were following around a lawyer who threatened to call immigration on two women speaking Spanish, I thought of how these calls for “civility” seem to be veiled calls for complacency, or even complicity. For silence. I heard “you understand” in these calls. You understand why it’s better to be polite, to be quiet, to be “civil.” Stop resisting. You understand.

End the White House Correspondents’ Dinner

Sarah Huckabee Sanders at the 2018 White House Correspondents' Dinner. Photo Credit: Tasos Katopodis / Getty Images Stringer

The White House Correspondents’ Dinner happened this weekend and mostly no one cared, rightly, until some journalists thought it was a good idea to criticize a comedian for telling the truth, which is what both comedians and journalists are supposed to do.

Michelle Wolf was the comedian at this year’s dinner, and made some jokes about White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders that were both funny and pointed, in that they pointed directly at Sanders’ penchant for lying to the press.

“I actually really like Sarah,” Wolf said. “I think she’s very resourceful. She burns facts and then she uses that ash to create a perfect smoky eye. Like maybe she’s born with it, maybe it’s lies. It’s probably lies.” Read more…

The Myth of Kevin Williamson

Kevin Williamson (via YouTube/The Cato Institute)

After a week or so of mostly women questioning The Atlantic’s hiring of Kevin Williamson, a conservative columnist who has advocated for hanging women who have had abortions, the magazine’s editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg announced Williamson is no longer in his employ.

Goldberg had justified hiring Williamson on the grounds that he’s a talented writer, and his assertion that women who have abortions should be hanged was an errant tweet, not to be taken seriously. But Media Matters dug up a 2014 podcast for the National Review in which Williamson talked at length about how much he likes this idea. “I’m kind of squishy about capital punishment in general, but I’ve got a soft spot for hanging as a form of capital punishment.” Read more…

Digital Media and the Case of the Missing Archives

(Walter Zerla / Getty)

One of the poems that earned Robert Frost the Pulitzer Prize in 1924 is titled “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” and puts forward the claim that nothing, especially nothing beautiful, lasts forever. I thought of this recently when I was considering the impermanence of digital media. As Maria Bustillos wrote for the Columbia Journalism Review earlier this year, digital media came at first with “fantasies of whole libraries preserved on a pin.” Digital writers often revel in the notion that they have limitless space, unlike their print counterparts who squish their reporting to fit precious column inches. But increasingly we’re learning how ephemeral that space is.  Read more…

Is Journalism a Form of Activism?

Portrait of journalist and suffragist Ida B. Wells, 1920. (Photo by Chicago History Museum/Getty Images)

Danielle Tcholakian | Longreads | March 2018 | 17 minutes (4,071 words)

Last weekend, as March For Our Lives protests took place all across the country, the student co-editor-in-chief of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School newspaper said on the CNN show “Reliable Sources” that journalism is a form of activism.

I was not surprised to see her quickly criticized on Twitter. Josh Kraushaar of the National Journal tweeted that the belief the student espoused is what’s “killing trust in our profession,” adding in a second tweet that the mentality the student shared “is more common among younger journalists.”

But I was surprised to see how many journalists came to the students’ defense, agreeing that journalism is a form of activism. They were highly respected, solid, investigative journalists. Los Angeles Times writer Matt Pearce asked, “Does anybody think that even the fairest and most diligent of investigative reporters wrote their horrifying stories hoping that nothing would change?” The Washington Post‘s Wesley Lowery asserted, “Even beyond big, long investigations, journalists perform acts of activism every day. Any good journalist is an activist for truth, in favor of transparency, on the behalf of accountability. It is our literal job to pressure powerful people and institutions via our questions.” Nikole Hannah-Jones, a reporter for The New York Times Magazine and arguably one of the greatest living reporters today, quoted Lowery’s tweet, agreeing with it. Read more…

Are The Teens All Right?

Matt Deitsch and Ryan Deitsch, students from Parkland, FL's Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, are pictured during a panel held to discuss changing the conversation on guns at the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum at Harvard University's Institute for Politics in Cambridge, MA on March 20, 2018. (Photo by Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Danielle Tcholakian | Longreads | March 2018 | 14 minutes (3,629 words)

Over the past several weeks, many of us have been familiar with the voices and faces of the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, the school in Parkland, Florida, where 17 people were murdered on February 14. The students appeared to quickly shunt away their grief, giving adults across the U.S. a schooling on effective activism, taking to Twitter and effectively employing media outlets to push for policy change so that other teenagers won’t have to experience the terror they did.

In turn, many of the adults that other adults have elected to positions of power — adults we apparently decided were such worthy and good decision-makers that we would pay their salary out of our own pockets — have shown us what very small people they are, and how terribly unqualified they are to be people in the public eye, let alone leaders.

Read more…

It’s Never Too Late to Apologize

Hindudstan Times/Getty Images Justin Bieber asks, “Is it too late now to say sorry?” Longreads says, “Better late than never!”

Taking criticism is hard. Lately, it appears especially hard for writers who are also on Twitter, which is many — maybe even most — writers.

Earlier this week, New York Times opinion writer Bari Weiss tweeted a video of American Olympic skater Mirai Nagasu landing a triple axel. Nagasu was the first American to ever achieve this at the Olympics — a huge feat. Weiss appended her tweet with a reference to Hamilton: “Immigrants: They get the job done.”

Twitter users were quick to point out that Nagasu is not an immigrant. Her parents are Japanese immigrants, but she was born in California and held dual citizenship until she was 22. (Also, the lyric in Miranda’s song is phrased “Immigrants: we get the job done.”) To the first correction, Weiss claimed she knew that fact, but she was taking “poetic license.” In a vacuum, Weiss’ tweet is a misstep, but not unforgivable. The desire to celebrate Nagasu is good, referencing Hamilton is good. But in the context of her work and public statements, the implicit assumption that someone non-white, with an “ethnic” name, was automatically an immigrant rubbed people the wrong way.

Rather than considering this point, Weiss lashed out. She claimed she deleted the tweet after “being told I am a racist, a ghoul and that I deserve to die.” A cursory look through her mentions showed no evidence supporting this claim, but women are attacked on the internet regularly and virulently, so it’s possible people had taken to email with particularly galling attacks.

But this claim that being criticized, and corrected, is akin to being “silenced” is becoming a common theme of late. People are responding to criticism as though it is some sort of form of torture. Katie Roiphe, a professional critic, dislikes being criticized so much that she responds by accusing her critics of being “low-level secret policemen in a new totalitarian state.” Weiss believes that when she is criticized, it is “another sign of civilization’s end.”

If I were Roiphe, I might deem these reactions “hysterical” but I dislike the gendered connotations of that word. Men who balk at “political correctness” have been reacting this way for years. Any criticism of their behavior or their opinions is galling, is somehow an attempt to erase them off the face of the earth. “We have a right to free speech!” they shout, but what they really want is a right to be free from criticism, from reflection, from having to think about the experiences of anyone other than themselves.

It is an interesting form of entitlement, this belief that criticism is an infringement on some fundamental right. As Rebecca Traister pointed out in a recent essay for The Cut, published after Roiphe’s much-hyped contra-#MeToo essay in Harper’s, it is “a tic of the powerful… mistaking the right to speech for the right to unquestioned authority.”

In a recent issue of n+1, Dayna Tortorici wrote of this same phenomenon, time-pegging it to the end of 2014: “The right to free speech under the First Amendment had been recast in popular discourse as the right to free speech without consequence, without reaction.”

This is, it should be obvious, not a right that any government or other entity ensures. Alexis Grenell wrote about this last September in a column in the New York Daily News touting the value of “shame speech,” and “the soft power of shame.”

“The First Amendment only protects freedom of expression; there is no right to be heard, or respected,” Grenell explains. “The state of shame is made possible by thousands of people of different backgrounds finally having their voices heard.”

While writers like Roiphe and Weiss are still the ones getting platforms in publications like Harper’s and The New York Times, the internet — that great equalizer — is facilitating this “state of shame.” Twitter might be overrun by Nazis, white supremacists, and angry basement-dwellers making rape and death threats, but it has also increasingly become a place where marginalized voices are able to make themselves heard.

Some people hate that. People you wouldn’t expect! Just this week, Eric Lipton, an investigative reporter at the New York Times, appeared to be so moved watching the teens who survived the school shooting in Florida this week speak on television, he tweeted, “Impressive how articulate and well-educated these kids are from this school. Obviously a good school. Another sad reason for yesterday’s events.”

More than 200 people replied to his tweet, pointing out how hurtful his words were, so Lipton attempted a clarification, “And not saying it would be less sad it [sic] there were poor kids, obviously. Just such a waste to see kids with so much opportunity before them wiped out.” More than a thousand people responded to that one, which anyone who spends any time on Twitter could have predicted.

After a few hours, he deleted those tweets, and wrote a new one. “I deleted an earlier tweet that was misread by many people. What I was saying was not meant to me [sic] disrespectful. Sorry it was read that way.”

This type of reaction is so common, and it confounds me. It is so, so much easier to listen, see that you’ve hurt people (usually people with less institutional and systemic power than you), and say sorry. Then it all goes away!

Bret Stephens, a colleague of Weiss’ in the opinion section at the Times, who seems to live for the thrill of being a bogeyman contrarian, came to Lipton’s defense.

The last line is a reference to the fact that Stephens dislikes criticism so much, he keeps threatening to leave Twitter but then fails to do so.

Opinion writers, in particular, should be able to handle criticism better, given their job is to criticize — and, at their best, honestly and diligently examine different ideas in good faith.

This week, NYT opinion editor James Bennet issued a 1,500-word memo in defense of Bari Weiss, insisting that she, and everyone else in his stable, are operating in good faith. The way he described the opinion section is exactly what its critics want it to be, and what they feel it’s falling short of achieving:

[W]e owe our readers an honest struggle over the right paths ahead, not a pretense that we’re in possession of God’s own map.

That means being willing to challenge our own assumptions; it means being open to counter-arguments even as we advance our own convictions; it means listening to voices that we may object to and even sometimes find obnoxious, provided they meet the same tests of intellectual honesty, respect for others and openness. It means taking on the toughest arguments on the other side, not the straw men. It means starting from a presumption of good faith, particularly on the part of our colleagues, including those we disagree with. It means having some humility about the possibility that, in the end, the other side might have a point, or more than one.

Bennet! Bennet. This is exactly what we are asking you, and Stephens, and Weiss to do. This is all we want! Take your critics seriously. Don’t dismiss them as too stupid or “insane” to understand your point. You are writers. You are writers of opinion, which ultimately means you are rhetoricians, so your goal is to persuade. If people are arguing with you, it means you have fallen short of that goal. Engage with them! Start from a presumption of good faith! And please, please think about why you think that presumption is owed “particularly” to people who work for the Times, not to those who read it, and love it enough to try to push you to be better.

Bennet’s memo was written after an internal Slack chat was leaked, showing NYT employees frustrated both by Weiss’ tweet and her entitled self-defense earlier this week. One anonymous employee wrote:

i wasn’t here when we had a public editor, but i understand how it worked. it was clear. what i don’t understand now and now what’s unclear is what’s supposed to happen when the same mistakes keep getting made again and again. at what point is the company willing to take the responsibility off the public for calling this stuff out? will the reader center step in? is that even what the reader center is for? i genuinely don’t know!

What seems to be obvious both to us readers and internally at the Times is that the Reader Center is not living up to the legacy of the public editor. As I’ve mentioned previously, I wrote NYT public editor Margaret Sullivan in 2014 — around the time Tortorici references in her essay, when this outcry about the audacity of plebeian critics surfaced. I was frustrated about three separate instances when NYT writers had been criticized for insensitive language and responded by pooh-poohing an uptight, uncomprehending Twitterati. (Sullivan was at the time working on a column in response to the latest incident — Alessandra Stanley referring to Shonda Rhimes as an “angry black woman” — but it was also in the wake of a column about Ray Rice that used florid language to describe his spousal abuse, and the infamous Mike Brown “no angel” article.) The writers were, similarly to Weiss, defending their perceived “right” to use the language they want without considering the impact it would have on readers, and vulnerable readers in particular.

I wrote the following to Sullivan at the time, and I still believe it today:

Journalism does not occur in a vacuum. When your artful words are sent out into the world, they have the power to hurt people who are particularly vulnerable.

That these articles get past not only a writer but — I assume — multiple editors without one person stopping to think about the effects the language will have, not in their stylistic quality, but in their existence in the world of readers who may be victims of violence or domestic violence or systemic discrimination and racism, is absurd.

Pretty writing is not more important than empathy and respect for people with less power and less of an ability to have their voices heard.

The problem here is not Twitter. It is a culture in which a writer can receive criticism from people their writing has harmed, and respond not with a gracious, empathetic apology, but with the dismissive arrogance it must take to claim that anyone who disagrees with you just isn’t smart enough to understand your point.

If Bennet wants people to assume his writers are operating in good faith, they need to show that. For now, Weiss has shown exactly the opposite, both in her work (as when she claimed the motto of contemporary feminism is “Believe All Women” or reductively cited a vague Instagram post in a claim of a black activist’s anti-police bias), and this week’s dustup. Tom Scocca outlined this well on — of course — Twitter:

Here’s the thing. Weiss, Stephens, and Roiphe claim they want a gentler, kinder discourse. That’s a good goal. It can be exhausting to be patient in the face of microaggressions, especially for people who have been on the receiving end of them for so long. But if we can muster it, I have no doubt it will lead to a better discourse.

The flipside of that, though, is that Weiss, Stephens, Roiphe et al need to come down from their mountain and actually listen to and consider the criticism leveled against them. They have to try to be better right along with the rest of us.