Our Body Politic

Just Economy: Jelani Cobb On Rebuilding Trust In The Media

Episode Summary

Guest host and Washington Post Columnist Karen Attiah sits down with writer, historian, and scholar Jelani Cobb at the 2023 Just Economy Conference to discuss the challenges facing journalists of color in today’s media landscape.

Episode Transcription

Karen Attiah [00:00:01] Hi, folks. We're so glad you're listening to Our Body Politic. If you haven't yet, remember to follow us on Apple or Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts. And if you have time, please leave us a review. It helps other listeners find us and we read them for your feedback. You can also reach out to us on Instagram and Twitter @OurBodyPolitic. We're here for you, with you and because of you, so keep letting us know what's on your mind. We'd also love for you to join in financially supporting the show if you're able. You can find out more at ourbodypolitic.com/donate. Thanks for listening.

This is Our Body Politic. I am guest host Karen Attiah, Washington Post columnist, sitting in for Farai Chideya. Journalists report the events that shaped our nation and our lives. We do this work as honestly and as accurately as we can. But as Black American journalists, we often find ourselves navigating injustice within our industry and the institutions that are supposed to protect us. Few people understand this relationship more deeply than one of the nation's most notable historians, Jelani Cobb. Cobb is an author, scholar and journalist whose writing centers, race, politics, history and culture. He joined us live at the 2023 Just Economy Conference in Washington, D.C., to talk about the challenges he sees journalists of color facing today. He also shares findings from a new report Uncovering Inequality, a sweeping joint commission by the Columbia Journalism School, and the Ira A. Lipman, Center for Journalism and Civil and Human Rights. Let's listen. How are you? 

Jelani Cobb [00:01:46] Oh, I'm really good, thank you. 

Karen Attiah [00:01:47] And you've been the dean and hearing this professor of journalism at Columbia, which is also my alma mater for seven months. Yeah. How has the seven months gone? 

Jelani Cobb [00:01:58] Totally nailed it. Got the whole thing figured out. 

Karen Attiah [00:02:01] Uh huh. I mean, what does it mean? What does it take to be a dean of a journalism school? Especially in this day and age, when there seems to be so many issues within our industry and within trying to, frankly, just tell the truth? 

Jelani Cobb [00:02:16] Yeah, I've been Dean for seven months. I've been on faculty at Columbia Journalism School for seven years, and we're in a period of immense pressure on journalists where we are really literally being told that we have to do more with less and what we say with less. It means less money, less in terms of the number of colleagues you have that you can spread the workload out over. And at the same time, it seems like a proliferation of crucial issues that we need, you know, the best, sharpest, most analytical minds to engage. And so one of the things that we're talking about is when we're talking about inequalities, you know, we have this project which is meant to help reshape the parameters for the conversation about inequality and reshape the ways in which inequality is covered. And I'm really eager to talk about that. But at the same time, the people who are covering it are often experiencing that same sort of inequality, or at least marginality, because it's shocking to people to say that, you know, the average starting salary for a journalist now is somewhere around $35,000. It is crucial, crucial work. If we look at the George Santos situation where a person lied about everything. I mean, just basic fundamental stuff, like every single thing. And it was played with punch lines on late night TV because the lies were so absurd. Big, bold print, easily discernible, easily fact checked lies that should have been caught before he was sworn into Congress. But I said, you know, sure, we can talk about this. But the problem typically is not the big lies. The most pernicious are the subtle ones. The person who shade the number on an earnings report, you know, the person who skews the data about just how carcinogenic this product you made really is. Like those sorts of things where it requires someone to have the diligence, the resources, teamwork, the assistance, the number of people. 

Karen Attiah [00:04:37] Who are all. 

Jelani Cobb [00:04:39] In on what it takes to do an investigation in order to bring that to light. And so if you missed the really big lies, the most important thing is that that is a barometer of many, many more small lies that you're missing, and that is directly connected to what's happening with resources in journalism. It doesn't take much to muddy the waters in such a way that people throw up their hands and say, Oh, I don't know. We'll just never find out what the truth is. There are lies, damn lies and statistics, you know, and that kind of relinquishing of our responsibility to at least know what's going on in the public square. That is one of the things that we're most concerned about. And that was one of the things that we're taking seriously in terms of teaching emerging journalists about how you operate in a disinformation ecosystem. And I'll be honest with you and say that we're still learning as we're teaching it, because the landscape is changing so fast. 

Karen Attiah [00:05:36] Speaking of sort of looking at landscapes, I want to talk to you about this uncovering inequality report that you released, which pairs the social sciences and journalism and looking at inequality in five areas. So economics, criminal justice, health, housing and education. And you convene a large number of renowned researchers to compile that. I mean, what were some of the biggest sort of takeaways, not even just from the report, but even the process of compiling just such a sweeping look at inequality in this country. 

Jelani Cobb [00:06:08] So we in the spring of 2020, we're looking at the same things that everyone else was. And, you know, we had a proposal that was into the Ford Foundation, and I don't even remember what that proposal was, you know, as a kind of measure of like how much has transpired since then. But I know that proposal went in maybe a week or two before George Floyd died, days after. Darren Walker called me directly and said, I wonder if you're thinking differently about this proposal. 

Karen Attiah [00:06:44] This is Darren Walker, the president of the Ford Foundation. 

Jelani Cobb [00:06:49] And I said, Yeah, I want to rescind that proposal. And he was like, What do you want to replace it with? I was like, I don't know. But I was like something else because we were looking at all these things. And he said, Well, what are you thinking? And I said, We're in the midst of a pandemic. We're in the midst of a pandemic recession and we're in the midst of this reckoning with police violence. We're talking about them like they're three different things. We're not talking about the fact that all of those things disproportionately affect the same communities. You know, I said if we have a virus that is so new, that is literally referred to as the novel coronavirus, how does it know the address of the hood? And so what we're looking at is just as you have rain gutters that root water away from where you don't want it, to places where you've deemed that it's more acceptable for it to go. We have the social equivalent of that. That hardship falls in particular places and that it follows a particular rubric and we need to find a way to talk about that. And so I thought about it and thought about it and had conversations with my people that Columbia Journalism School was saying, How do we contextualize this conversation about inequality and how do we do this in a way that's consistent with our mission as a journalism school? And so what we came up with was the inequality project. We said we would look at racial inequality in those five areas housing, education, health care, criminal justice and economics. And, you know, around the same time that we were thinking about this, two scholars, very Jackman and Kim Shaiman, sent me a draft of a paper that they had written, and they'd done something astounding. They had crunched all of the mortality data for the 20th century. They started in 1900, ended in 1999, and came with a staggering analysis that said of the Black people who died in the 20th century, 40%, 40 0% of those people fell into the category of excess death, which is to say people who would not be anticipated to have died at that point were they not Black. That stood out, but it didn't surprise me. Sure. What was more notable to me was the fact that it had always been a gap in life expectancy, had not always been driven by the same things at the beginning of the 20th century. This was driven by infant mortality. Overwhelmingly, homicide is a secondary factor as antibiotics become more available. You see infectious disease, which is also one of the drivers dropout. And as neonatal care becomes more accessible, you see that begin to drop out. And then in the middle of the 20th century, what emerges is a pattern that you see fully developed now, which is diseases of middle age that knock off ten, 20, 25 years of people's lives. Diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, etc., etc.. That is the pattern. So inequality wasn't just created, it was recreated and then re recreated. And the analogy that I used, it was like software that received an update, but it operated in one way and one context. And then there was a systemic shift. Society changed in particular ways and inequality reemerged in a different context. And so we requested that these five teams of scholars in each of those areas look at inequality. And I posed one question to them What does your field know about inequality in this area over time? And we've defined over time as at least 50 years. And so what we got were these reports and we said 50 pages is hard for academics to say their names and 50 pages. I think at first I said 25 pages, which they thought was just a haiku, like revolting about that. But what we did with those reports. We'll create a kind of basis for understanding the parameters of how the housing market is unfair, but it hasn't always been unfair in the same way. And how have these different forms of unfairness reinforce each other? What have been the areas of convergence, which is also important? We've always had this economic gap, but it always hasn't been the same size. Sometimes they've been periods where we saw vast improvement. Sometimes the housing market was less rigidly segregated in terms of value than it was at other points. And so we were looking. 

Karen Attiah [00:11:38] For. 

Jelani Cobb [00:11:38] The moments of opportunity in that. And so once we had those five reports in hand, we then started disseminating them to teams of journalists and saying, I would like you to take this report on housing and just do work that's informed by it. You know, it could be anything. You could report out the things that are in the story. You could take this information and apply it to stories that you're already doing. We simply want you to use this knowledge. And what we were trying to do at Columbia Journalism School was reframe the parameters of the conversation around racial inequality. We also have a bigger kind of set of things. We want to change the parameters of the conversation around lots of things, around bigger sets of broader inequalities that affect the country. Generally speaking, we're just getting started with that. But that's what we're doing now. And we've just the reports are available on our website at the Lippmann Center at Columbia Journalism School, and we are encouraging all sorts of people to use them in ways that they think will be helpful. 

Karen Attiah [00:12:42] How has this industry undermined the pursuit of getting to the truth and the truth of inequality in this country? 

Jelani Cobb [00:12:53] So, you know, there's a data way to answer that, and then there's a kind of broader way to answer it. The data part of it is that when we talked about racial inequality, for most of the reports, because it's over time, we're talking about Black, white inequality and there's not even data on other communities until like post 1965, because the Immigration Act of 1965 drastically changes the demographics of the country. You can't even really get reliable data on Latinos until the 1970s. The one distinction is in education. And so the people who did the education report did a lot of stuff around the inequality that, for instance, Native American students experienced early in the 20th century and so on. But a lot of this data up. You were kind of bound by where the researchers paid attention and what they paid attention to. And there'd been a long tradition of economics with a long tradition of kind of Black economists who were bringing these questions up literally back into like the 19 tens, 19 tens, 1920s and so on. So you could actually understand that in that way. But in a in a bigger kind of sense, we've had these separate reckonings in this country and a kind of low grade fever around all sorts of inequality and all sorts of inequities that are fundamentally economic, but also social and all these other kinds of things. And it's partly because we have not been willing to have the bigger conversations, like even when we talk about, you know, when we say things like income inequality, you know, income inequality is a euphemism. Once upon a time, people would say something like class exploitation, you know, which means there's actually something being done to someone, not. 

Karen Attiah [00:14:43] Just as they say. It just is. 

Jelani Cobb [00:14:46] It just is. 

Karen Attiah [00:14:47] Just. 

Jelani Cobb [00:14:48] Like crumbs, like in certain environmental dynamics, you can produce hail. It's like in certain circumstances, you can produce income inequality, but have anything to do with anything that anyone actually did or what the legislature, what the laws have been and what the policies and practices have been. And we don't want to have that conversation. But we also have to remember that the most sustained growth that we've seen in the middle class across racial lines in this country comes as a result of the reforms in our capitalist system that came about because of the Great Depression. But it was the threat of the collapse of capitalism that made people reckon with the idea that more people had to have some sort of semi just relationship to capitalism. We have a kind of. Limited time frame for which historical lessons operate. I often talk about how. Our for instance, our debate around vaccines would have been completely inscrutable to the generation of people who saw polio. So people who lived through polio and saw what the polio vaccine did had a very different relationship. But once those people had by and large died out, we forgot what that had meant. Same thing. But the people who lived through the Great Depression, by and large in many instances died out. We have moved away from the understanding of what it meant to have the kind of radical inequality that we've seen in this country with the astounding disparities, irrespective of whether you live in a blue state or a red state. And even the kind of staggering housing inequalities that we see in predominantly liberal areas, New York City, San Francisco, doesn't matter. And that kind of inequality has persisted because we're in the midst of systemic threat and we haven't actually talked about why. 

Karen Attiah [00:16:50] How much. And that, again, also as journalists, as wordsmiths and as some sort of information workers is our language, you know, softening, serving the purposes of sort of I'm thinking, I know what we're talking about, you know, inequality in terms of economics, but I'm even thinking about our language around police shootings, rape as this sort of passive. Sure. You know, officer. 

Jelani Cobb [00:17:15] And officer involved. 

Karen Attiah [00:17:16] Shootings, the weapon discharged. 

Jelani Cobb [00:17:19] Exactly. It's as if the weapon was like, you know what I'm doing right now? 

Karen Attiah [00:17:23] Yeah, it's Tuesday. Like, why don't I just, you know. Right, Right. So, like, how much of that is also, especially as an educator, we are not able to have those conversations because our our language and our our standards. 

Jelani Cobb [00:17:38] You know, we're in the midst of these debates, of these wars about objectivity. Right. And, you know, the problem is that we're not using the same definition of objectivity. And if you're talking about the initial idea of journalistic objectivity, which was independence and not being beholden, I mean, even now to this day, we have newspapers that are called, you know, the Democrat or the Republican. And like the those papers used to have formal relationships to the political parties. And so the idea of objective journalism was more disinterested. So the Democratic Party paper would always cover Republican corruption and vice versa. And it was a radical idea to say, what if we had papers that just covered corruption and we weren't really invested? Just let the chips fall where they may? And that was the great innovation of journalism to say we should be disinterested along the path. We came to this idea that we should have this detached voice of God perspective, which was never possible or necessarily even desirable. And the result of that was that you could never really say anything that might offend someone else for fear of being called biased. And you would wind up with kind of both sides. So literally on the train, the Amtrak coming down, I got into a conversation with the person who was in the seat across from me, and I mentioned what I do for a living. And he said, I just feel like we should have journalism that tells all the sides. And I was like, yes, sure. Do you know what all the sides are? You know, Because that means I'm going to give air to the person who tells you that vaccines will make you magnetic. You know, And so, like, really believe they will magnetize you and you will be like Magneto from the X-Men. And so, like, but you don't want that person's perspective in it. So it means we are going to make a judgment. And we've always been making judgments, but we've been making judgments without really being willing to own the fact that we've made judgments. And that's how I think we get into part of the problem. 

Karen Attiah [00:19:52] Yeah, I think about this this question of objectivity and neutrality. You know, I've written plenty of times that I think that that is a position to take when you're in a position of privilege, when the outcome does not affect you materially. And that very often some of our best journalists in history, I think of was at the time using their journalism to actively make that judgment call, to say, I'm going to study and I'm going to find out what's happening with lynching in the United States. And I'm curious not to put you on the spot as a seven month old, Dean, but how do you see this question of objectivity and neutrality, particularly when it comes to inequality? How do you pursue balance? And even if that's the right question I've seen these things is actually means. When in reality and objectivity in trying to address these issues that require intervention, that is by definition not sort of a balance, you know. So how are you thinking about teaching that, talking to even established people in our field about that or even this report? How do you see that kind of intersecting with these debates that we're having about how we should do journalism and if objectivity is really the virtue that we should be? 

Jelani Cobb [00:21:16] Yeah, I mean, I think that evenhandedness is not necessarily a virtue. And, you know, that may be controversial, but there are not always two things that are equal and that when you treat things that are unequal as if they are equal, you don't serve your purpose in terms of giving the public information that's useful to them about their lives. Now, there are places where you report the debate about things. If we're talking about what one side says about the marginal tax rate and another side says about the marginal tax rate. There may well be data that roughly supports each argument on either side. You can write about that. But it also is necessary for journalists to have enough understanding of enough things to know when they hear [censored] quite frankly. And so I'm not supposed to say that, sorry. 

Karen Attiah [00:22:05] This is going on NPR. 

Jelani Cobb [00:22:07] NPR, but we say bovine manure, so. 

Karen Attiah [00:22:11] We'll deal with it in that in after after edits. Right? 

Jelani Cobb [00:22:14] Right. And so that's it's it's important that you serve that function as well and that you are equipped to be able to report accurately. And that we're doing this at the journalism school. Now that you have a sense of understanding about how people manipulate a data sets to make something appear to be know, We're not saying every person who graduates is going to be a statistician, but we want you to have enough understanding to navigate conversations with people who might be trying to to make it seem that two things are equal when they're not, or that there's an equal claim to something when it's not. And so if we mean by objectivity, we want you to not be invested in what the implications of telling the truth are. And we are all on board with that. You know, we should be equal opportunity. We should pick our targets with kind of equal opportunity. But we should also not shy away from telling the world what is actually happening. 

Karen Attiah [00:23:11] I'm sure as an educator, you've been watching what's been going on in our country with other universities. In terms of the way I would say the sort of active censoring of educators that are allowed to teach about inequality, about race, about history. You know, especially I'm from Texas and I've been reporting on this happening in Texas and in Florida. I'm curious about how you're seeing this, especially as as a historian and even for the purposes of all of us here in this room that care about inequality and care about even getting the data or getting the permission for for teachers and researchers and educators to even carry out these studies. I mean, is this are we going through something that could really kind of seriously actually impact our understanding of this country for the future? 

Jelani Cobb [00:24:06] You know, it already is. And so when we talk about this, first off, there's a point that I've made since I'm a person who actually has taught critical race theory, and I know what it is and what it is not. 

Karen Attiah [00:24:19] Surprised that a lot of people who are very vocal about it have no idea it is. 

Jelani Cobb [00:24:22] Well, I said they have the biggest advantage. The critics of of critical race theory have the biggest advantage and that they have not read any of it. And so and one of the quickest ways to end that conversation is that whenever someone would say critical race theory, you say, which particular theorist who who are you referring to in that conversation? That question will almost always be met with silence. And so the irony of this is I wrote a piece, you know, I hate to be one of those people whose self quotes span. I know. But I just will direct people to the piece that I wrote about Derrick Bell in The New Yorker. The late law professor Derek Bell, and it's called The Man Behind Critical Race Theory. If we would look at all of the kind of sprawling bodies of literature around critical race theory and distill it down to a few things, one of them would be the argument that. In a racially hierarchical society, people will utilize the tools of anti-discrimination in order to further the cause of actual discrimination. So when you look at the language being used by the people who were trying to ban CRT, what they are actually doing is validating CRT is this meta experience that they have no sense, they have no understanding of. Is that the biggest proponent of CRT in the United States right now is Ron DeSantis, because they are using this language of we don't want white people to be discriminated against and using that language to neuter attempts to actually upend the historic discrimination that communities of color have faced. That is the reality. The impact of that is already being felt not only in the level of secondary schools and elementary schools, but on the level of universities and what questions faculty members are willing to pursue. What questions untenured faculty members feel comfortable writing about. And so it's had this kind of massive chilling effect that is still ongoing and shows no sign of relenting. 

Karen Attiah [00:26:33] I'm going to toss like a mini grenade into that. 

Jelani Cobb [00:26:37] Here we go. 

Karen Attiah [00:26:39] Again. As someone who's from from Texas and has seen what's happening in the red states, those are the ones that make the headlines. Right. However, we are also looking at so-called liberal institutions that made a lot of promises in 2020, around the time that you proposed your Uncovering Inequality report. A lot of these promises to do better on integration. Diversity. I often like to call it basically racial integration programing. We're also seeing that as well. The rollback of those pledges and promises, the unfulfilled donations, hiring, what have you. So I would also say it's it's not just the right, quote unquote. Oh, sure. It's also it's across the board, almost as if our racial justice 2020 internship is over now. Right. We can get back to regular programing. 

Jelani Cobb [00:27:37] Yeah. I mean, the actual engagement of this is that I've told this story a few times that I was in Maine a few years ago and I was there to give a talk and I was at Bates College. And, you know, people there are wonderful. That amazing. Senator Angus King came out for the talk and we thought it was wonderful. And I was feeling more and more uncomfortable because I knew what I was going to say when I stood up and I opened my comments and said, This is great. Thank you for your hospitality. This place only exists because of white supremacy. And that went over like what? And then people thought about what I meant. And I was referencing that 1820 compromise that when Missouri wanted to enter the union, it would have tipped the balance in terms of the number of free states and slave states. 11 free. 11 slave. There would have been 12 slave. Maybe it would have been more representatives of pro-slavery states and the United States Senate, which was a situation that Northerners would not abide. And in order to make that possible, to make it possible for Missouri to enter the union, they just created a new state out of the northwestern portion of Massachusetts, just carved out this new state that counterbalanced Missouri. And so I said that, you know, this whole place was there to allow the distinguished gentleman of Missouri to indulge in their right to buy, sell traffic, rape, own and abuse Black people. And so that's how we got started. And so I left Maine and went to Florida. And I told the people in Florida what I'd said Maine. And they were like. And I was like, Well, before you get too smug, why do you think Andrew Jackson marched into the place that's now known as Jacksonville and seized that territory on the behalf of the United States, partly as part of a suppression campaign of the Seminole Native Americans, but also to cut off the escape route of enslaved Black people who were fleeing from South Carolina and Georgia into what was then a Spanish territory, knowing that they would not be returned. And so that is the origins of the state of Florida are tied to the history of trying to prevent people from escaping slavery. We could talk about Texas, We could talk about California. We go through the whole geography of this country. And so the problem doesn't correspond to red states and blue states. The problem corresponds with a fundamental unwillingness to grapple with American history that can be found anywhere in the country.



Karen Attiah [00:30:24] Welcome back to Our Body Politic. I'm Washington Post columnist Karen Attiah sitting in for Farai Chideya. We're sharing our live conversation from the Just Economy conference in Washington, D.C., with celebrated writer, historian and the dean, and Henry Luce, professor of journalism at Columbia Journalism School. Jelani Cobb. Cobb was the driving force behind the report, Uncovering Inequality, which looks at racial inequality in the U.S. and how it has persisted throughout history. The report was released in March and is already making waves in the journalism industry and beyond. You can find the link to the report on our website, OurBodyPolitic.com, or on Instagram and Twitter @OurBodyPolitic. Now let's get back to the conversation. 

Karen Attiah [00:31:02] Do you find that the younger journalists that you're seeing at the school and I know you're fresh into it, but I'm thinking about the younger journalists, particularly the ones that have definitely seen I mean, all the way from perhaps Occupy Wall Street to Black Lives Matter and all that. Are you seeing that they get it and that they're eager to kind of fix how we talk about things? You know. 

Jelani Cobb [00:31:35] I think I think that what's happened with certainly with younger journalists and, you know, some of our students are more mature folk further in their careers, but and they have a different set of experiences, frames of reference. But for people who saw COVID I, one of the things that COVID did was strip away the euphemisms. You know, we could see exactly what was happening in the society. We could see who was being affected. We could see the crucial issues and the vulnerable communities that, you know, really in the past decade, we've seen just become more vulnerable. And the way that the economy works with some people and that doesn't work for other people. Those things, I think, are more apparent for them in their lifetimes than it was. But the euphemisms and the cloaks worked better, I think, previously. And so when I interact with our students, they are very clear about wanting to report, you know, in ways that are beneficial to communities that are vulnerable. And that doesn't mean that they're not people who want to, you know, go into sports and, you know, sports journalism or people who want to cover, you know, also the whole array of human affairs. And I think that's important that we have journalists who are well equipped to cover every single thing that comes up that we classify as news. But there is a real sense, I think, of understanding the necessity of exposing what exactly is happening and who exactly is responsible. 

Karen Attiah [00:33:13] Absolutely. All right. Now I'm going to move to questions they have for you. This first question is, I don't have a name on this, but it's a very good question. Your work is about identifying systemic inequalities in its new forms, but many don't even accept the premise that racism is systemic. Do you try to convince them or do you continue on and report for those who are willing to listen? 

Jelani Cobb [00:33:40] I think that our job I talk with Nikole Hannah-Jones about this. Our job is to put out information, you know, and people can do with it what they will. There really is no credible argument that there isn't systemic racism in this country. The reason I say that is that every single institution that we have in American life produces reliably hierarchical outcomes that correspond with race. We see that in education. We see that in our criminal justice system. We see that in our housing system. We see that in employment. We see that in health care. We see that in just the most fundamental statistic, which is who lives the longest. We see all of these things that if they were all over the map, we could have an argument about this. But they roughly correspond to the categories that we see as race. And so, you know, I wrote something, you know, in the midst of the George Floyd kind of reckoning that said that to the extent that race represents anything coherent in American life, it is simply a set of probabilities. And when we look at the probabilities, it explains to us what race actually is in this country. And so beyond that, we just saw this thing that The Times published where wealthy people say, Oh, well, what about class? It was like, sure, class is a real issue. Class… I just mentioned class exploitation and the so-called income inequality and all the things that we see that have only been exacerbated, not the same thing as the problem we’re talking about, you know, there's some Venn overlap between those two things, but they're not the same. We just saw the thing in the New York Times a couple of weeks ago that wealthy Black women have infant mortality rates that exceed those of poor white women, or that Black people with household incomes that are about $100,000 have home values of white people whose homes are about $60,000. Like there is a racial element to this that is pernicious. And like you said, the software gets updated periodically to make sure that it is applicable in new contexts, and we have to be willing to actually grapple with that. And to the extent that we say, oh, there's no of nothing systemic about it, it simply is a reflection of the refusal to acknowledge the society that we're living in. 

Karen Attiah [00:36:10] I have a question here that actually gets to a topic that I wanted to touch on, so I'm very glad that it is in here and it's on this subject, I would say, of news deserts. And so many of the people here, I'm sure are obviously interested in enriching, you know, our communities and again, that we need a rich information landscape. But this question basically is talking about. So our local papers are getting shut down. Do you see a future movement of journalists creating new news businesses in response? And I would, you know, taking upon myself to add, how does the shutting down of local news really impact inequality? 

Jelani Cobb [00:36:55] Oh, sure. So, I mean, most of us live our lives locally, you know, but most of us live for what it is. But within a few miles of the place where we were born, you know, are a really hyper local society. And, you know, the distrust. One of the things that we see now is this conversation around the distrust of news media. And, you know, we've thought about this as being connected to what's happening in news. And they say, sure, that's actually true. And there are lots of things that are going on and disinformation doesn't help, etc., etc.. But, you know, I've pointed out to my colleagues that I look at the places where news is disappearing and news organizations are shuttering are in the exact places where you will most likely to know, people most likely to feel personal connection. The things that we do that bind people to us, that trust us, that make people trust us is not election coverage. It is not presidential election coverage. It's not even mayoral electoral coverage. It is the coverage of the high school that made it to the quarterfinals. It is the coverage of the local Arbor Day parade and whose float won first prize. Like the things that let you know that you understand who you are talking to and those things are going away. On the other side of it, big outlets: The Washington Post is doing fine. The New York Times is doing fine. The L.A. Times is doing well. I mean, I'm at The New Yorker. The New Yorker is doing well and for most of American history outside of news media, Americans have had a historic distrust of large institutions. If you go back to the railroad era, people distrusted the railroad trust. You know, Joseph Pulitzer, who founded the journalism school, started his career writing about how the railroad trusts were corrupt and people didn't trust them. If you talk about if you get like John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath, with the distrust of banks in the early 20, earliest 20th century, early 20th century, because they were thought of as these monolithic… I can't talk now… monolithic, faceless institutions. And it is just now that our news is a news landscape is dominated by large organizations that are centered in places where most of these people do not live. So we are heirs to that historic distrust. And so that's part of it. 

Karen Attiah [00:39:38] This is a question that, you know, we have, you know, as an institution, we get asked about this all the time. We try to say we need to win back people's trust. And there are all sorts of ways we think about that. Does that mean ensuring trust in the quality of our products, putting on the articles, how much work and how much time and sometimes how much money went into it? It's this question of of how do we earn trust? But in a culture that fundamentally, yes, again, cynical, distrustful of some would say maybe anti- intellectual. So sometimes I wonder again, are we are we wasting our time? 

Jelani Cobb [00:40:20] Well, well, let me start with this, it’s my time to throw a grenade. We should be trustworthy. And what I mean by that is we haven't grappled with the fact. That a lot of the distrust that people have for media is warranted and that we have to be institutions that actually deserve the trust of the people who we write. I don't mean every outlet of every organization for every. That's not what I'm saying. But I'm saying that there are communities that looked at news coverage for years and didn't think that they were reflected, certainly not reflected in a way that they understood themselves. So that's the starting place. The other aspect of it, I think, is that we have to find ways of subsidizing and creating. And I think this is going to have to come from something akin to what the Australians are doing, whether Australians are levying taxes on tech platforms which are then used to support local journalism. We are averse to that kind of thing here in the United States. It's not even part of the conversation, but the platforms are making gazillions of dollars on content that they don't create and that they don't pay for. And at some point we're going to actually have to come to terms with that, because I don't think it's going to be that we get more people in the middle of the country to trust the L.A. Times. It's more like we make it possible for the people who live in the middle of the country to have that outlet that is actually covering what's going on in the world. 

Karen Attiah [00:41:55] Another question that speaks about resources and journalism. This question says the task for journalists to ensure accuracy and representation seem high compared to the incentives of the jobs with the wages, as you write. With the median salary reported being $30,000. How do you ensure quality and equity in journalism when the incentives are so low? 

Jelani Cobb [00:42:22] So, I mean, I think about this like. We have people who every year graduate from social work schools. Every year we have people who… 

Karen Attiah [00:42:35] Probably many people in this room I’d imagine. 

Jelani Cobb [00:42:37] Right. Or people who become kindergarten teachers, people who do work that is vital. And that’s essential. And we don't pay well. I think that it is just imperative that we fight like hell on behalf of those people. And so, I mean, but it literally does not work without them. And like my hope in the midst of the pandemic, when we had that kind of category of essential workers. My hope was that this was going to spark a bigger reckoning with what labor means, what work means in the United States. And that hasn't happened. But I also know that sometimes things take a long time to Germany, that seeds that were set then. Like, for instance, I live in New York City and during the kind of really intense phases of lockdown. You would look out the window and you would only see two things. One were the ambulances. But other were these fleets. Of bike delivery persons who are bringing food to people throughout the city. And every time someone opened their door, they took a viral risk to hand the metro. And that was like essential for people. We didn't have that conversation. And so I think that journalists are here, but we have the advantage of having visibility. We know how to argue a case. We know how to present information. But I think that this is the fight that we're in. This is the long, the long haul fight. And the thing that I think about every single day is dean of the journalism school. Are we doing right by our graduates? Are we doing right by the people who are in the field who are doing this work because they care.

Karen Attiah [00:44:32] This question, and again, it sort of ties into this and this is maybe a form of maybe even advice for Black journalists entering the field and wanting to cover perhaps the topics that they're talking about today. Would you say that our assignments given to Black journalists, are they skewed towards topics of cultural significance? And I think I would take from that just in terms of how should Black journalists think about the topics that they are either sort of assigned to cover or what they can cover? Obviously, I can. There are not many of us, particularly in these legacy institutions, and there is a sense of sometimes duty or for some maybe burden, responsibility, privilege, what have you to cover, quote unquote, Black topics, race, racism. What would you say to Black journalists who are trying to enter this space and how they go about choosing what they if they can choose and what they cover? 

Jelani Cobb [00:45:38] You know, I think that the most important thing well, one of the first questions I got when I came to Columbia as a faculty member was I get this question more than once, and it was always from white students who would ask if it was acceptable for them to cover stories about race. And at first, the question kind of threw me. And then I was like, no, yes, right. It is important that you be able to knowledgeably cover issues that relate to race irrespective of who you are. And I have the kind of opposite conversation very often with Black journalists. It is important that you be able to cover knowledgeably and accurately any single thing that comes up. And so I think that some of the best things that I've done, I'm overwhelmingly known for the work that I did around race, that I've done around race. Some of the work that I'm proudest of have been stories that I've got thrown in on where I didn't have any background. And you had to rely on your tools as a journalist, being able to listen to people, knowing what questions to pose, knowing how to find information, knowing how to write accurately and quickly, like those things have to be your core skill set that are applicable in any way that you go. And I think that you'll always be in good standing with that.


Karen Attiah [00:47:06] Thank you all so much. Thank you. 

Karen Attiah [00:47:10] That was Jelani Cobb, author and contributing writer for The New Yorker and the Dean, and Henry Luce, Professor of Journalism at Columbia Journalism School live at this year's Just Economy Conference in Washington, D.C. 

Cobb is the author of “The Substance of Hope: Barack Obama and the Paradox of Progress”, “The Matter of Black Lives: Writing from the New Yorker”, “The Devil and Dave Chappelle”, and other works. He also won the 20-15 Sidney Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism, for his columns on race, the police, and injustice. 

Thanks for listening to Our Body Politic. We're on the air each week and everywhere you listen to podcasts. You can also find us on Instagram and Twitter at Our Body Politic. 

Our Body Politic is produced by Diaspora Farms and Rococo Punch. I'm today's host, Karen Attiah. Farai Chideya and Nina Spensley are executive producers. Emily J. Daly is our senior producer. Bridget McAllister is our booking producer. Anoa Changa is our producer. Natyna Bean and Emily Ho are our associate producers. Monica Morales-Garcia is our fact checker. 

This program is produced with support from the Luce Foundation, Open Society Foundation, Ford Foundation, Craig Newmark Philanthropies, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies, Democracy Fund, The Harnisch Foundation, Compton Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, the BMe Community, Katie McGrath & JJ Abrams Family Foundation, and from generous contributions from listeners like you.