Between layoffs, show cancellations, downsizing and network shut-downs, some are calling the recent news about the news an all out “media massacre.” Will this disintegration of outlets cause increased polarization? The people who get the platform to tell the news – and how they tell it – will matter more than ever before.
Farai Chideya [00:00:01] Hi, folks. We are so glad that you're listening to Our Body Politic. If you haven't yet, remember to follow this podcast on your podcast tour of choice, like Apple or Spotify or wherever you get your podcast. 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 are able. You can find out more at OurBody Politic.com/donate. Thanks for listening.
This is Our Body Politic. I'm Farai Chideya. Recently, there has been a lot of news about the news. Between layoffs, show cancellations and increasing polarization, who gets the platform to tell the news and how they tell It matters more than ever before. To help us understand what's at stake, we talk first with someone at the center of it all. Melissa Harris-Perry is a bold voice in an often conventional media landscape. On her former MSNBC weekend show Melissa Harris-Perry, as well as on WNYC Studios’ The Takeaway, Melissa tackles how gender, race and identity impact our politics. Most recently, she spoke truth to New York Public Radio in the face of their sudden cancellation of The Takeaway. If you love public radio, this will not be an easy episode to listen to. It wasn't easy for us to produce, so we talk about the failures of public radio to equitably resource or responsibly employ Black and bipoc talent and how that has helped undermine public radio's long term audience growth and stability. Our Body Politic also offered New York Public Radio the chance to respond, and we made an offer to have the chief content officer of WNYC on our air any time that he's able to join us. New York Public Radio did respond by email saying that Melissa Harris-Perry was not fired temporarily, but rather, quote, “was off air for a few days while we worked through a contractual matter.” The network also pointed out that the 1.9 million in compensation paid to former CEO Laura Walker that we mentioned at the top of the segment includes, quote, payment due upon an employee's departure, including vacation payout and payments from deferred compensation plans. The site Gothamist, which is owned by WNYC, put it this way in a 2021 article, quote, Former New York Public Radio CEO and President Laura Walker received almost $1.9 million in total compensation in 2019, despite leaving the public media organization that March after acknowledging she could have done more to address allegations of sexual harassment and bullying that led WNYC to end its relationship with three prominent hosts. Well, I was one of those three hosts. And yes, this conversation has a perspective hard won, I might add. We are deeply steeped in facts, and we hope that if you love public radio as much as I do, that this show gives you perspective on the challenges that both public radio specifically and media at large face. So without further ado, my conversation with Melissa Harris-Perry. Melissa, thanks for joining us.
Melissa Harris-Perry [00:03:21] Thank you, Farai. It's always lovely to spend even a moment with you. So, so nice to be here.
Farai Chideya [00:03:26] Well, I know this has got to be a very intense time as you are wrapping up The Takeaway. And for those who don't know, I was a temporary host of The Takeaway and dealt with the bullying of John Hockenberry. I told the head of WNYC at the time, Laura Walker, about it directly, and she did nothing and yet somehow was allowed not only to keep her job and be exonerated by a supposedly independent panel, but she also walked away with a $1.9 million golden parachute, which is easily obtainable through nonprofit tax filings while 14 staffers were laid off. So I'm not going to start this with the kind of milquetoast. How do you feel about things? Because I feel some kind of way and I think it's okay to feel some kind of way when you have the facts to back it up. The facts show that there was mismanagement of the entire hiring pipeline. And four Black women, counting you, have paid for that. So you know where I stand. How are you parsing this moment?
Melissa Harris-Perry [00:04:28] Well, look, before I came into The Takeaway knowing parts of the most recent history. Right. And yeah, it is one of the things about working for a public nonprofit is even if you don't know it, you can pretty easily Google search the tax filings year to year so you can see what the economic circumstances are. You can see what people are paid. And look, I came in initially as just a fill in host and then ultimately took the gig permanently. And I'm fine, like, you know, as you will know, as folks who may have known me on MHP Show know, I've been a college professor for 25 years. I've never stopped teaching one day. I always, you know, think of myself primarily as a teacher. What isn't okay, I think, is that we were working really hard to build a team and this time a team that in acknowledging this history of bullying, of mismanagement, of harassment, a team that was operating in really different ways, despite the fact that we were a daily show provided, at least at times, an opportunity to do more in-depth reporting, a longer term kind of sonic storytelling, all of that. So I feel like we were innovating. We were working to build a collegial, well and diverse team. And it wasn't as though we were told, hey, you've got some benchmarks to hit and you've got a month to hit them or three months at them or a year to hit them. Basically, there was a labor dispute. I asked to be in the union instead of being given the right to join the union, I was first fired and then after my team publicly supported me, I was rehired until the end of my contract and two weeks later the show was canceled and we were told it was about finances. It was one of those things was like, Oh, I remember this story. I know this story. I'm not surprised by this story, but I am certainly… I am hoping that both our story and the stories of so many others in media and particularly in public media, are taken seriously by the consumers of public media. That they don't see it as just personal complaining because I went out again. I'm fine. I'm not. I don't need a movement. Please don't say save MHP, MHP is fine. But I would say save your own public airwaves. Ask questions about, you know, on a pledge drive like they're currently carpet bombing our show with pledge drive spots, despite the fact that we've all been canceled and laid off. And I do think consumers have a right to ask questions about how these decisions are made and to not support those spaces that are making decisions in this way.
Farai Chideya [00:07:05] Well, because I worked at WNYC, the channel operated by the nonprofit New York Public Radio, I was able to see their coverage maps. And as someone who still splits my time between Crown Heights, Brooklyn and D.C., I can tell you that the coverage maps were basically Manhattan and inner Brooklyn, which are the whitest parts of the metro area. Queens was not feeling the programming. Outer Brooklyn was not feeling the programming. And I say this with no schadenfreude, but with one of my Cassandra moments was predicting that public radio would hit the iceberg of not having cultivated working income, diverse, born in America, people of color, immigrants and working class white Americans. And so basically there was a long philosophy stated openly of super serving the core, which meant super serving, college educated, liberal, white baby boomers.
Melissa Harris-Perry [00:08:07] God bless them.
Farai Chideya [00:08:10] Many of them are friends of mine, but they alone will not sustain public radio. So now we are seeing a reckoning which has to do with the idea of what the public in public radio means. And to me, what has transpired in public radio is a shame because more than ever we should be pushing the envelope. We shouldn't be just saying “hello we're here to tell you exactly what you already know and say it in a way that makes you feel better about yourself.” I'm sorry. Am I getting a little too…
Melissa Harris-Perry [00:08:40] No. I mean, actually, I think so. It goes to your point, maybe even of super-serving the core. Right. So let's stick with that for a moment because, again, God bless a white, college educated baby boomer. You know, like we know a lot about this particular demographic because since their birth, they've literally driven the economy, driven the politics because there were just so many of them. My mother is a white college-educated baby boomer. Right. So love them right? And the public radio listener, which is how I became one, right, sitting in the backseat of her car as a kid. But I think the question of even what does it mean to serve this population? Right.
Farai Chideya [00:09:14] Exactly.
Melissa Harris-Perry [00:09:14] So one of the things that used to kind of irritate me about some of the ways that The Takeaway was talked about was they would say, oh, we're giving a platform to voices that don't otherwise have it. And I think that's y'all know about Black radio, right? Like we got platforms. We're actually not… we're not doing a service necessarily to the guests that we're bringing because almost always they've cultivated platforms of their own in a wide variety of ways. And of course, we know subaltern media, independent media, Black media, Brown media, Spanish language media is serving these audiences in ways that are both entertaining and informational. But for the core. So what does it mean to serve that core? You know, I live in the South, right? I live in North Carolina. Right now North Carolina is like literally the border state on abortion, the border state on the trans …right. I live there now. This programing with a North Carolina representative speaking to a national audience is gone. I'm a college professor who does African-American politics at a time when CRT is under attack at a national level, I'm gone. Right now. Right. And I'm in this space where affirmative action is going to probably be ended by the U.S. Supreme Court two weeks after The Takeaway goes off air. We won't be there to talk about it. Right. So. Even if you're looking to super-serve a core audience, it's still an odd decision to take a show that at the time we were canceled, had a Black woman EP, a Black woman senior producer, a Black woman host who has Spanish speaking producers, who has queer producers right at a time that literally is national politics. And by the way, we're going into the 2024 election cycle.
Farai Chideya [00:11:09] I know.
Melissa Harris-Perry [00:11:10] So it is not about money. We didn't cost that much and we cost a lot less now than we used to. It was about a decision not to deal with us and not, I think actually the super-serve the core. I can't say we were going to bring diverse audiences. I can say that we were going to help a college educated, white, middle class baby boomer audience have a much better sense of what was really going on.
Farai Chideya [00:11:33] Absolutely. And we look at, you know, our audience metrics. Our audience is predominantly white because public radio's audience is predominantly white. And we get great responses because our audience wants to actually know what is happening in this country. And last I heard, people of color were part of this country. And there are so many white Americans and people of every background who do appreciate knowing what's going on. Like I was taught from childhood, and I'm sure it was the same way for you that knowledge should not be segregated. And it is a form of very positive resistance to say that you will not segregate your knowledge, you know, and that you will live broadly and expansively. And that's exactly what you've done, Melissa. So I'm sorry that you did not get treated well and that your staff, some of whom I overlapped with, did not get treated well. But as we have said, it's not about us. We're doing fine with lots of challenges because there are always are. But let's let's pivot to context. MSNBC pretty much did the same thing to you.
Melissa Harris-Perry [00:12:40] MSNBC I’ll say was much worse for so many reasons. It was much worse. And part of it, I would say, is the devastation that I felt behind that was multi-year and like I went very low. I had been not in touch with how important the show was to me until it was gone. I had a real identity crisis around it and also experienced violence almost immediately after. So in February of 2016, I was fired from MSNBC for speaking, and in August of that year I was sexually assaulted by a stranger who claimed to be a fan of the show. And so there was like a about a four year slide for me. What I will say is, in this case, in part, learning from that experience is it's part of why we're really approaching this end differently. We're trying to celebrate the work that we've done. I keep reminding myself that I exist, even if I'm not speaking into a mic and I'm remembering that, like we lived through those things to be in this new place.
Farai Chideya [00:13:40] You know, I just want to take a pause and say, I am so sorry about the assault and people don't understand how perilous it is to be a Black woman in media. I have some trauma from being stalked by a viewer when I was a pundit on CNN and he was sending me letters and said that when he got out of prison, he was going to come find me. So that was the first time that I switched my mailing address to a nonphysical mailing address. But I'm so sorry. And I'm I'm glad that you did whatever you needed to do to be in a position to do more media and to heal from that. I'm really sorry.
Melissa Harris-Perry [00:14:20] I was just with Professor Kendi, who wrote How To Be An Anti Racist, and I have some beef with the book. You know, I've talked about my critique, but I hadn't spent any time with him personally. And we did an event in Buffalo to mark one year since the mass shooting, and he was there and at the end after we had this wonderful, very, I think, generative conversation. You know I just got up, gave him a hug. And as I hugged him, I could feel that he was wearing a bulletproof vest. Oh, God. And Farai it was just yeah, such a reminder that this is where we are, Right? This is not just about tweets and what it like. You know, you talk about the segregation of knowledge. Like, this is a young professor who's literally just writing books, suggesting ideas, right? He's, like, engaged in the marketplace of ideas. That should not be a deadly circumstance for women and should not be a potentially violent circumstance. And those are things I think don't get factored in, even when we're talking to young journalists. Right. About what it means to have a public life.
Farai Chideya [00:15:23] Oh, absolutely. Yeah. And I have to say that it has been a profound disappointment to me that we have devolved civil society to this point. I love doing journalism, but I have a lot of beef with the media industry and the way it devalues women, people of color. But also misses major stories like the descent of this nation into a sort of feudalism. And it wasn't missed. It was covered up. You know, many different journalists of many different races, genders, national origins said we are risking our lives if we don't cover A, B or C correctly. But major newsrooms were Johnny-come-latelys as compared to Black and brown reporters and rural white reporters who saw their neighbors being radicalized and joining militias. And we missed some major narratives. And I think that these exclusions, they seem self-serving to the people who might push you off the stage or Tiffany Cross, who we'll get to in a second. But it's it's not self-serving. It is serving the dissent of the American body politic into chaos. So let's turn to Tiffany Cross. This was a situation where MSNBC canceled the Cross Connection with Tiffany Cross. MSNBC said it was a programing decision, but according to Nielsen data, it was one of the higher rated weekend shows. And MSNBC sources told Variety that Tiffany's commentary didn't meet their standards. Here is a comment that Tiffany Cross made on Comedy Central's Hell of a Week with Charlamagne.
Tiffany Cross Clip [00:17:03] Then we cannot separate Republicans from right wing extremists. They have merged right now, and even this whole concept of all the political violence has reached this ultimate tone. Look, Black folks in this country know that political violence is…it’s the American way.
Farai Chideya [00:17:17] So when Tiffany Cross, you know, says things like this and again, that's not from her show, but it's from, you know, contemporaneous to me, that just seems yes, strongly worded, but not outside of the current Overton window by any means. But I've spoken with Tiffany, and I think that there are still aspects of this that will unfold. Have you been able to check in with her?
Melissa Harris-Perry [00:17:44] So let me just be clear. I have not watched MSNBC one day, not one hour, not one minute since February of 2016. Yeah, that said, although I have not watched in all those years, I have stayed in relationship with some folks there, including Joy Reid, who is like my hardwired daughter and so is regularly in contact with her. I don't know Tiffany as well, but was in contact with her both prior to this, like when she first got the show does given a lot of love. And then similarly as it was ending, just sort of sending notes to say, hey, let me know if I can support and I'll go back to what I was saying about The Takeaway that the notion that we would be entering into this election cycle without her voice. Right. So I don't expect any one host any one show to provide all the analysis, all the worldview, all the perspective. Right. But it's a question of within a 24 hour news network. I mean, if there's room with no shade, maybe a little shade, but like, if you're going to have room for Ari Melber and Chris Hayes, who I don't know, is there a difference?...Maybe I don't know. But like, if you're going to have those two and within a couple of hours of each other, then surely once a week there's room for a Tiffany Cross. Right. And I do know that don't nobody on the weekends get paid what people on the weekdays get paid. So I know her show couldn't have been that expensive to produce, but I think maybe more than anything, for me it is…and I was so naive about media when I came in to MS, and so I certainly understood that coming into cable news that I was coming into a for-profit driven institution. But I also thought that there was a mission driven aspect to it. Same thing with being on public radio. I understood there is being a mission driven aspect that was journalism, but it also had some goals around informing the public and sort of doing the work of the fourth estate. And it was at the start of 2016 when I came to understand the willingness to turn everything aside in order to cover the Trump campaign and to cover it in a way that was just about amplifying it, just more Trump, more Trump on TV. I'm not even talking about covering Republicans, you know, being told don't cover Rubio, don't cover Bush, right. Cover exclusively. Trump. You could look at the numbers declining, declining, declining. He's elected and people are tuning in to watch the confirmation hearings of the like secretary of education, like who watched the confirmation hearings of the secretary of education for the Biden administration? Nobody, not one person, nobody. The notion that there is anything other than a deep interest on the part of these news organizations to amplify a Trump candidacy for the goal of ratings is just… and it's not about like are these each individual bad people? It's an incentive structure built into media that if he can draw eyeballs and if terrifying people with that level of like emotional angst and the big reveals and make all of politics you know a sports event. You'll get the ratings but you'll also you'll also really harm democracy.
Farai Chideya [00:21:01] So, Melissa, now I want to open up the time vault. Many moons ago, I was on Bill Maher's Politically Incorrect with Tucker Carlson. We were discussing President Bill Clinton's alleged, at the time, affair with Monica Lewinsky. So take a listen.
FARAI TV CLIP You know, we don't really have any tolerance for that kind of mythmaking anymore. I mean, today, if there was a story about a president, you know, not telling lies, nobody would believe it. Nobody would see the president as a role model. And that's that's all gone, you know, by and by.
Tucker Carlson [00:21:29] But it's also a different kind of lie. I mean, this is… the lie that President Clinton is telling us, a lie that we all know is a lie, and therefore, we're all part of that lie. And that's the poisonous thing.
Farai Chideya [00:21:36] What lie is that that we all know?.
Tucker Carlson [00:21:37] That he didn't have an affair with Monica Lewinsky. I mean, anybody who's looked I mean, it has reached an OJ level of…
Farai Chideya [00:21:41] So if you if you knew that conclusively, you would be the richest man in the world today because you could sell your story to the tabloids.
Tucker Carlson [00:21:47] That's true. I guess if if if there was evidence. That's right. But I mean, I don't think you really need videotape of it.
Bill Maher Farai, do you think he wasn't having…
Farai Chideya Having a I wasn't saying that, but this man just said that he knew. He knew conclusively. And I and I just you know, I haven't seen that around yet.
Farai Chideya [00:21:55]So now we do know and there was conclusive evidence, as it turns out, the dress. But at the time, we didn't know. And Tucker Carlson has always been so good at claiming he knows certain things. So what do you make of the firing of Tucker Carlson?
Melissa Harris-Perry [00:22:20] You know I don't quite know what to make of it. I do think one of the things we've talked about here has been this notion of like continued investments. Right. And even listing and recalling sort of where Tucker Carlson is politically positioned at that time that you're having that conversation with him in the nineties. His ability to remake himself into all these different versions of Tucker Carlson. Right. So he’s had, what I like to call, the white boy trifecta, right? CNN, MSNBC, Right. Fox News. And so for him, each fail is a fail up, right? It's it's a bigger contract next, it's it will come over here and be this mouthpiece for this. He's able to move across these spaces, take on a whole new, like ideological identities and keep failing up, up, up. Right?
Farai Chideya [00:23:04] So let's talk about the freedom of speech aspect of this. People defended Tucker Carlson incessantly based on free speech, and it would go something like this. Tucker would say something abhorrent. For example, his comments about Black Lives Matter in 2020 on his show, Tucker Carlson Tonight on Fox News.
Tucker Carlson CLIP [00:23:22] This may be a lot of things this moment we're living through, but it is definitely not about Black lives. And remember that when they come for you and at this rate, they will.
Farai Chideya [00:23:30] They so many days, so many days, so little time to hate them.
Melissa Harris-Perry [00:23:35] Look, I haven't watched MSNBC since 2016. Been even longer than that since I haven't watched Fox.
Farai Chideya [00:23:41] I watch them all for you, including Newsmax.
Melissa Harris-Perry [00:23:44] Look, there are lots of problems with Fox News, and if you just watch the latest episode of succession right there, you know, you get that sense of all those incentives working in there. But it is going to be rare for me to ever say, take this voice away, take this voice off air, remove this person. No. Bill O'Reilly, Not like there are folks who are doing that. And I'm down for it. Like I said, with Rashad Robinson from Color of Change all the time. He's like, We got different lanes. He's like, My lane is to get these fools off the air. And I'm like, Yes, all right, that's fine, right? You never going to hear from me in part because I don't want to hear the take Melissa Harris-Perry off the air because I disagree with her. But what I see is the fundamental problem has to do with this extraordinary imbalance in resources and amplification for voices.
Farai Chideya [00:24:26] Yeah, let's definitely go into the money side of the business. So there have been a lot of layoffs and outlet deaths. BuzzFeed News completely shut down. NPR canceled programming and laid off 10% of its staff. Vice has filed for bankruptcy. What do you make of, and you know, I'm just going to throw in there that there were massive amounts of profit taking by people who were able to say, we're the next hot thing. So a lot of cash flowed into specific hands of outlets that are being shuttered or going on the auction block on a bankruptcy sale. But what do you make of this moment?
Melissa Harris-Perry [00:25:06] So for me, when you look at an organization, for example, and we can just take public radio because we can see, literally see how much people are paid. So, you know, you know that there are folks making 60, 65, $70,000 who are working ten hour days. Right? And then, you know that there are executives. So, for example, I'll just namecheck Chief Content Officer Andrew Golis at New York Public Radio, if things go well or badly. Right. He is not held accountable. So let's say the takeaway has been a big failure. The only people getting fired are these kids making 60 and $70,000. Not this dude. Right? Who presumably, if anything, is failing, it's because in part because it hasn't been marketed like all the parts that presumably Andrew Golis would be in charge of. So I think for me, the idea that even in a public space, a nonprofit space, you have that kind of gap, you can predict where that is going. Much less in a place like a Vice, right, or a BuzzFeed, where the gap is even from those who are sort of doing the work daily to those who are presumably overseeing it. So we we do want movement. We do want people to be able to earn a living. We do want to attract the best talent. But I do think we should also be very mindful of these kinds of inequities will burn out. Like, it's a question of whether they'll burn today or in five years or in ten. But ultimately, that level of inequity cannot persist, right, without basically being underwritten by government policy that allows it.
Farai Chideya [00:26:41] Yeah. You know, one of my big bugbears has been tracking the way that investment goes into people who create media based on race and gender. And one person who I have had also a very clear storyline about is one of my former bosses, Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight. And FiveThirtyEight is another one of the media organizations that's in financial trouble. But he's owned this for profit company and it's never turned a profit. And to me, I had many disagreements with him when I was saying that candidate Trump could win the presidency. He didn't want to hear that until he actually won. And I had a lot of editorial difficulties dealing with the myopic filter of what he thought was possible. Despite the fact that I'd been a field reporter for 25 years. But that's personal beef and editorial beef. But my fiscal beef as a Black entrepreneur is that no one's going to give me years of operating funds to run my business without ever seeing a return. Just to be perfectly straightforward, white men have been able to raise millions based on a concept and a handshake, and Black women can come in with massive documentation and never get the same level of support and never get the runway. But overall, the media business has rewarded people based on race and gender with investment, and that is something I don't have the time or resources right now to chronicle all of it. But I would love to see of these various companies that are shutting down who actually walked away with the bag, you know, who who got this satchel of money and was able to turn it into the Barbie dream house. I do think it matters, and I think you and I are at stages of our life where we can say certain things and many other people can't. And I'm grateful. As painful as it is sometimes to talk about what we face, I'm grateful that we have the ability to talk about it.
Melissa Harris-Perry [00:28:44] Look, if there was some place, some sector selling insurance, being a college professor, being a journalist, there was some place where Black women were free from harassment. Where we could thrive exclusively based on our skills and talents. Where there was a sheer meritocracy and you could go as high as you worked. We would send up the flag, right? We would be like, Y’all over here. Yeah. And we all go, Right, You? Yeah. There was some one university and one gig. We nevertheless would tell each other, right? There'd be a whisper campaign. Ava DuVernay would be like y’all over here. Yeah. Yeah. So. So there's not. Right. You can move across the sectors and you'll find these various pieces, right? But I think for me, it is it is knowing that, like Ida Wells was shoved out of the NAACP and that, you know, Angela Cooper was fired from the M Street school that she built. And so at my age, at 50, like had to go to Paris, to the Sorbonne and get a Ph.., which she wrote. Right. Wrote her dissertation in French. But, I mean, like the level of extraordinary that she was and the level of mediocrity of the by the way, Black men. Right. Who shoved her out.
Farai Chideya [00:29:57] Yeah.
Melissa Harris-Perry [00:29:58] You know, I was fired from WNYC. Yes. By Andrew Golis, who was a white guy, but also by La Fontaine Oliver, who is a Black man and two Black women vice presidents.
Farai Chideya [00:30:06] And Tiffany Cross was fired by Rashida Jones, who's a Black woman.
Melissa Harris-Perry [00:30:09] Ain't that the truth? Right. So I think for me, I recall that my grandmother, Rosa Harris, was a genius herself, and she could make a wedding dress without a pattern. So people would come to her home and they'd have like a photo and they'd be like, Miss Rosa, can you make this right? And if anybody ever even tried to, like, hem a curtain, you know, the idea that you could make a wedding dress. But she never been given any kind of opportunity for education because she was a domestic worker. She was a seamstress. But had she been given a scholarship to MIT… surely should have been an engineer or could have been right? Yep. So when I think about like being the first to do this or the first to do that, it's really almost more like the first to be allowed to do it, because we know that we come from all of these geniuses who were stepped on, stepped over, pushed out. Right. I got fired, but they didn’t burned down my show, which is what they do to Ida Wells. Right. So we stand in that tradition. We know that if it was fixable just by being smart, just by being cute, just by being wonderful, just by being courageous, it would already be fixed, right? Ella Baker wanted to fix it for us. Martin King, Malcolm X, They wanted to fix it for us. So if it was fixable, they were all more courageous, smarter, better. They would have done it. So. So it's not fixable through that. It's more that like, as you point out, you have to be of service. You have to be in the game. You have to recognize your privileges, like the ability to speak. Use them to the best that you can. When you make a mistake, you step back, take care of yourself a little bit, Try to be good to the people you work with. And an acknowledgment like: white supremacy isn't just something we report on like it's happening to us. You know, sexism isn't just something we report on. It's happening.
Farai Chideya [00:31:54] Yeah.
Melissa Harris-Perry [00:31:55] To us.
Farai Chideya [00:31:55] Yeah. And we have to heal as we go. Well, Melissa, I just want to say that it's. It's such a pleasure to talk to you, because you all of this is an example of what in your book, Sister Citizen, you called the crooked room. You know that that Black women very often find ourselves in a crooked room where we are told that green is red and purple is is pink. And we have to constantly reaffirm our commitment to reality no matter what people around us are saying. And to me, very often I find that I call it the Black Cassandra syndrome, which is that we say things and people don't believe us, and then they come true and people are like, “Oh, I'm shocked.” And it gets exhausting in the crooked room… Standing in the crooked room is exhausting. Being a Black Cassandra is exhausting. What do you do in your life to fill your well?
Melissa Harris-Perry [00:32:53] Well, right now. So right now I am reading my very best friend in the whole world's brand new book. So. Blair Kelley what I will say is, yes, read Sister Citizen sure. But if you have time to read one thing this summer, I'm going to encourage everybody to read Black Folk: The Roots of the Black Working Class. It's written by Professor Blair Kelley. It's out in early June, which means we won't get to report on it on the takeaway because we're kids only breaks my heart. But you know, precisely the point that you're making about sort of our devaluation. Blair writes, and she is such a beautiful writer. And I just kept weeping because I've forgotten who was who taught me how to tell stories. Like I think of myself as just being able to tell stories. And I forgot it was really 25 years of friendship with Blair that got me here. And the way that she tells the story is very much a story about the devaluation of Black work by those who aren't Black workers. But she's not so interested in them as she is in us. And so it centers on us and on how at every point from a period of enslavement forward, we are making value and community out of the things that we're laboring. And it is I think that for me, I feel my wealth primarily through ancestor worship. I have a very bad case of ancestor worship. But when I think about my people and who I come from and people who were in intergenerational chattel bondage and yet yeah, did amazing work, did innovative work, did scientific work. You know, I didn’t want to keep making these damn shows for Andrew Golis after we got fired. But like the idea of the level of creativity and brilliance that people brought to their work and continue again, that my grandmother as a domestic laborer getting paid nothing of what she was worth, brought such artistry to what she did. And I think… I think for me that helps me feel like the line I'm laboring in isn't about the bosses. It's about my people, who I come from and who I'm giving it out to.
Farai Chideya [00:35:06] Right. And you always do give it out. And you are a leader and a teacher and someone who serves. Thank you so much, Melissa Harris-Perry.
Melissa Harris-Perry [00:35:17] Thank you, Farai, as always.
Farai Chideya [00:35:19] That was Melissa Harris-Perry. Maya Angelou, presidential chair at Wake Forest University and host and managing editor of WNYC Studios’ The Takeaway.
Farai Chideya [00:35:23] Welcome back to Our Body Politic. I'm Farai Chideya. It's no secret that conservative media outlets played a huge role in former President Donald Trump's election and administration. And while we don't know who will win the White House in 2024, we do know that conservative media will continue to shape voters opinions. Here to help us understand what's going on in conservative media and what might happen next is journalist Tina Nguyen. Tina Nguyen is a national correspondent and founding partner at Puck, a journalist-owned subscription media company that covers power, money and ego by quote focusing on the inside story at the nexus of Hollywood, Wall Street, Washington and Silicon Valley. She's also a former political correspondent at Politico and Vanity Fair. Tina joins us now to talk about her unique career trajectory and how conservative media has changed since she was a part of it. Welcome to the show, Tina.
Tina Nguyen [00:36:34] Thanks for having me, Farai. Really excited.
Farai Chideya [00:36:36] Well, I am excited to I'm one of your readers and I think that you come at things from a really interesting perspective. And part of your back story is that, you know, the conservative media is part of your current beat, but once upon a time you were part of conservative media itself, or at least, you know, given an onramp. So tell us your back story.
Tina Nguyen [00:36:56] Oh, boy. All right. Here's the deep, dark, tragic, sometimes backstory or bizarre depends on how you look at it. So when I was in college around 2009, 2008, I wanted to be a journalist really badly. And I went to school called Claremont McKenna, which I have to say solidly is a normal liberal arts college. It is not ideologically driven. However, it has a government department that's been around since I would say the seventies and has a connection to a larger conservative activist movement politics, institutions like the Claremont Institute. And they would have these internship lists available. And one of the internships on offer was, Hey, do you want to have an internship in journalism in the year 2009 where all of these outlets are shutting down their internship programs and firing their lower level staff because they're running out of money and it's paid. And you just have to be interested in liberty and apply and love this application. And you also have to have this endless summer internship camp before you take your job. And I got the internship. I ended up going to this place called the Institute for Humane Studies, and I learned eventually it was funded by the Koch brothers, and the name of the seminar was Journalism and the Free Society fully paid. I got to go there. I got a stipend to travel there, and all of the seminars were like, Hey, did you know that the free market is probably a better way to distribute health care across the country rather than this Obamacare stuff? Isn't that wild? So I did this internship. I afterwards get this offer to join the mentorship program. My mentorship program, I think, was meant towards people who are really gung ho about getting a place in journalism. And the mentor I was assigned to, John Elliott, would tell me things like, Hey, okay, I don't know if you really want to go work for, say, Andrew Sullivan because he doesn't have the right ideas. I have this internship available for you at The Daily Caller. Come to The Daily Caller, it'll be great. And I was like, Yeah, sure, whatever.
Farai Chideya [00:39:18] And did you go there?
Tina Nguyen [00:39:18] I did, yes. I was there in 2011 and I entered The Daily Caller as a tech reporter. This was run by Tucker Carlson. His argument was there needs to be a publication that does not conform to liberal groupthink. I know that's a buzz word these days, but he wanted to have people who came from outside of the journalistic pipeline say, like students who could afford going to J-school or people who wanted to work for their local regional papers but suddenly realized, oh, crap, those don't exist anymore, and start off at these new online publications.
Farai Chideya [00:39:59] So you've given us some great context for what the media environment was then. Who were you then?
Tina Nguyen [00:40:07] Oh, man, I was definitely a big politics dork. I don't know whether I had any sort of ideological leaning at the time. Like I really wholesale bought into this idea of if I get a job in journalism, even if it was in Partizan media, I would be able to work my way into the mainstream. A lot of people were able to do that at the time. This was not a completely foreign phenomenon. You had people go to BuzzFeed, The Daily Beast, CBS it. Was not a kiss of death to work at The Daily Caller. I was slightly interested in libertarian stuff, but that was also me being kind of rebellious and thinking, Hey, I think we like, you know, smoking pot is not a bad idea, guys. I also did go to a extremely liberal high school, didn't feel like I fit in at all. And I loved American politics. My goal had always been to be a writer of some kind in the political field, either as a journalist or as a commentator. And I also really like the Lonely Island and Internet culture.
Farai Chideya [00:41:12] How did you get from your early days in this pipeline of conservative media to where you are now? What were your interim steps?
Tina Nguyen [00:41:20] One of them was getting cut from The Daily Caller.
Farai Chideya [00:41:25] What did you do? No, I'm just kidding. What happened?
Tina Nguyen [00:41:28] It was like several months in and the beat that I was on, which was tech and tech policy, just wasn't working out for the site. It just wasn't generating the revenue that they thought it was going to. So that happened with me. They were very nice about it. And here's where it got sketchy. My mentor from the program that I went to in college started setting me up with organizations that were more and more sketchy, like at least The Daily Caller had some independent funding attached to it. The organizations who were setting me up for internships and interviews were things that may or may not have been funded by right wing billionaires and shadow donor groups. And I looked into my quote unquote editors background and realized that he'd been working for several Koch-linked organizations in the past. And then I just, like, stopped filing. And when I can't do this and at that point, I just wondered whether being a political journalist was for me, like even this was the experience that I was bound to get, why would I ever want to go there? And so I decided to move to New York and become a food writer.
Farai Chideya [00:42:39] Oh, wow.
Tina Nguyen [00:42:39] Yeah. And I did that for about a year and a half to two years. And people don't believe me when I say this, but food writing can actually be really miserable.
Farai Chideya [00:42:51] Huh. How did you get back into political journalism after the food writing?
Tina Nguyen [00:42:54] So the site that I worked for The Braiser was under the same parent company as Mediaite, which is a political media website that focuses on current events and sort of made its bread and butter on flipping outrageous fights and big viral moments from cable news shows and television and reporting on the media industry. And they had lost a writer. And I was like, Hey, you know what? I could take this writer's job, like, I know the CMS, I know the way that things are supposed to be published. I know this industry pretty well. And it would take you, what, three or four months to hire someone else and bring them on board. And they're like, Well, that's a good argument. Let's do this. And so I came on board, had a blast. I'm still friends with a lot of people who I met working there, and I ended up there for about a year or so. It's a bit of a factory, but at that point, what place wasn't, you know?
Farai Chideya [00:43:55] Yeah, yeah. No, I mean, sure, words never spoken. You have had a storied career at a number of different places. Vanity Fair was another turning point for you. Tell us about that.
Tina Nguyen [00:44:09] So that was a nexus of me trying to break into normal journalism and then returning to cover the conservative media and conservative politics as an outside reporter. And that was something I never really thought was going to happen. Literally, day one of joining VF, I come on board to do my like on boarding. And then day two, Trump announces that he's running for president. And about a year or so later, I started realizing that not only is Trump well on his way to being the nominee, all of these people that I used to work with, and all of these people whose names I recognized in my past life were starting to appear in Trump's orbit like Breitbart, Steve Bannon, Tucker Carlson And I'm sitting in Vanity Fair's office, you know, the pinnacle of quote unquote, respectable journalism that has nothing to do with all of these, like weirdos and psychopaths, as they would call them. And I'm like, hey, you know, Steve Bannon's going to be a really big deal one day. And they're like, What to know? And then Trump becomes president. And then all of those people I talked about started becoming big deals. And my boss, John Kelly at the time goes “say so you've been spending a lot of time talking about those guys. Could you write about them and tell us what the heck is happening?” And I'm like. Okay. Sure. I have tried to forget that any of that ever happened, but it seems pretty important now. So here we go. And it's been a completely wild ride ever since.
Farai Chideya [00:45:46] How did you feel? I mean, obviously people came around once candidate Trump became President Trump or President-elect Trump, that people like Bannon were important, but do you feel people missed the thread? You know, early on?
Tina Nguyen [00:46:02] Around the beginning of the Trump administration, the big narrative and the big idea going into his presidency was. Initially, he is going to understand the gravity of the office that he is assuming and he is going to have people around him who will help him navigate through Washington and navigate the Republican Party. They have an ally in him. It'll be great. Then once Steve Bannon comes around, the new narrative is, well, he's got a bunch of other people having this team of rivals approach. You've got Reince Priebus as his chief of staff. You've got Jared and Ivanka who have the respectable New York elite influence on him and Bannon, you know, whatever. And I don't think people recognize that Trump was going to have that influence still pressing on him, but it was going to be through the Internet and all of these alternative media channels. And you only started seeing that come into play around the time of the pandemic when he's on Twitter 24-7 and not just putting his ideas out into the ether, but reading all of this stuff about him, reading who is fans are, and then retweeting accounts that are willing to take you in on, for instance, or white nationalists or weighing into things about Milo Yiannopoulos, what have you.
Farai Chideya [00:47:28] Yeah. And after Vanity Fair recognized that you actually knew a lot of things that they needed to know and put you in a position to cover it, how did you move on to Politico?
Tina Nguyen [00:47:39] It was an opportunity that I just couldn't really ignore at that point. But there was a part of me that still wanted to live in New York, and I still remember what I'd been treated like when I lived in DC, where people were like, only talk to you if they believed that they could extract some sort of professional value from you. And I've never really been into that. That always kind of turns me off. And so the memo I put to them was, I want to cover the Trump administration from the perspective of the outsider. Trump is far more interested in getting the opinions of people who are outside the Beltway, outside of these institutions than he is from listening to the Republicans or whatever. So one of the lessons that I suggested I'd cover was the Internet. And so I came in to the office. I did a couple of White House things. I visited the press room, which at that point was a glorified storage closet. And in March, the world shuts down and I'm locked in my apartment. And all of a sudden, me being an Internet loaner circa 2004 suddenly comes into play and is a huge asset because all of these random references that Trump's making, all of these things that Tucker Carlson is now talking about are being filtered through these obscure message boards and shows… like Web shows airing on like live Facebook, streaming things like Newsmax and One America are popping up. And you start to see the personalities that I cover up here, there. And not just that, but Trump is retweeting them as well and you start seeing that paranoia leach into Trump's mind. And I'm like, well, he's the president, and it's coming up through the administration. I think this is a White House story and everyone's like, “Are you sure, Tina? This is Internet stuff” like look what he's saying. People are listening to him because he's the president. And I was right. And then we had January 6th.
Farai Chideya [00:49:47] Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I felt like we really should have gotten a clue. We meaning the media, but we also meaning Americans about how powerful a lot of this messaging was precisely because it defied expectations. So as we wrap up here, covering 2020 and having that perspective and now looking at 2024, from your vantage at Puck, what are you most interested in covering for 2024? And then separately from that, what do you think 2024 is going to be like from what we've seen so far?
Tina Nguyen [00:50:20] Ooh, I've covered the split between Ron DeSantis and Donald Trump for a couple of years now, and DeSantis came in with the expectation that he was going to be a guy who nodded to quote unquote MAGA policies but was a more stable, straightforward leader. And then he started taking his cues from Internet personalities as well, and deep intellectual fringe thinkers that truly do believe that not just the American experiment, but western civilization is under attack by sectarianism and Black Lives Matter and quote unquote, wokeism and transgender issues like saying, “hey, you know what? Why is everyone attacking white people? Why is it that you may be turning our children into the gender that they're not supposed to be, or you're confusing them” and exploiting these new issues and taking them to an extreme. I would say that DeSantis is more of a zealot on cultural issues than Trump is. And Trump for once is the guy who seems slightly less MAGA than DeSantis is. It's for me, it's going to be an interesting test of what exactly is the MAGA movement? Is it a set of coherent ideals that one can understand and wrap their hands around? Or is it a cult of personality to Trump? The other one is exactly how is AI going to continue to send these little hairline fractures through the social fabric? Tucker Carlson's firing from Fox. I really think that people completely underestimate the impact it's going to have on Fox itself. Like, sure, now that Tucker is no longer there, they're going to be able to attract advertisers, make money once again. But what does that mean for the diehard MAGA voter that really likes Tucker Carlson? Trump seems to be on Tucker's side. Elon Musk seems to be on Tucker's side by letting him onto his platform. What does conservative media look like in the future? It's so unclear at this point, and I don't know whether that future includes Fox News.
Farai Chideya [00:52:39] Yeah, and that is something that we're definitely going to keep an eye on. Well, I hope that we can talk to you again in the future. Tina, thank you so much.
Tina Nguyen [00:52:46] This was awesome. Thanks.
Farai Chideya [00:52:48] That was Tina Nguyen, national correspondent and founding partner at Puck.
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 @OurBodyPolitic. Our Body Politic is produced by Diaspora Farms and Rococo Punch.
I'm host and executive producer Farai Chideya. Nina Spensley is also executive producer. Emily J. Daly is our senior producer. Bridget McAllister is our booking producer. Natyna Bean and Emily Ho are our associate producers. Monica Morales-Garcia is our fact checker. This episode was produced by Bridget McAllister, Kate Dellis, Monica Morales-Garcia and Andrea Asuaje. It was engineered by Mike Garth and Mike Gaylor.
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.