Kai Wright: This is the United States of anxiety show about the unfinished business of our history and its grip on our future.
Malika Bilal: National Geographic Magazine recently apologized for a history of racism and its coverage of non Western cultures and people of color around the world.
Anthony Kelly: Journalists and news outlets can feed into a racialized crime panic by tapping into scripts that have existed for a long time.
Lisa Cutter: I think that we live in a scary time people don't know who they can trust and when that happens it's easy to manipulate people.
Tucker Carlson: A number of figures on the left have denounced this show as racist.
Joseph Cafasso: The Christian fundamentalist movement is one that believes in we're right, you're wrong no matter what. I saw a lot of that at Fox.
Soledad O’Brien: Twitter is treated very differently than the New York Times. Why are they not treated like media companies?
Christina Nicholson: Today we are all members of the media.
Kai Wright: Welcome to the show. I'm Kai Wright. Ever since Joe Biden managed to take office and the whole violent insurrection thing passed on by, a lot of us have been very happy to take a break from national politics. Right after the election listeners told us over and over again that you were eager to make space in your minds for something else entirely, and that is true for me as anybody else. I got to say, I didn't even watch the President's congressional speech this past week. I am here to tell you I am the political nerd who happily watches presidential speeches to Congress. This time I just felt like I would rather go have dinner in a beer garden instead.
It just felt like a more immediate need. The sun is shining. The days are longer. I'm vaccinated and I don't have to wake up every day to new provocations from the president of the United States. It feels like I can turn away from this stuff for just a minute, except let's be very clear. The Trump movement has not shrunk into the night. Here lately I'm actually quite reminded of its beginning, of the birther madness and the lies about a death panel. Remember that during the debate over the affordable care act? Just of everything that's circulated particularly in conservative media throughout the Obama years and how much it all ultimately mattered.
This week we're turning our attention to what's been happening in right-wing media over the past couple of months. If you aren't already in the audience for it you have probably seen some of this in your social media feeds, especially Tucker Carlson's increasingly extreme behavior on Fox News prime time, which by the way, it bears pointing out continues to comfortably lead cable news ratings even in the post-Trump world. It is dangerously easy to just mock what's been happening on Fox and in other outlets but I'm joined tonight by someone who's instead spent years studying it. She even DVRed Tucker Carlson's show so she can pick through it on her own time and tell all of us what's on.
Nicole Hemmer is a political historian and researcher at Columbia University and author of Messengers on the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics. She also co-hosts the podcast Past Present in which she and some other historians discuss American politics and culture. Nicole, thanks for joining us tonight.
Nicole Hemmer: Thank you so much for having me.
Kai Wright: Nicole, how did you get interested in this in the first place? How did you get invested in the world of right-wing and conservative media and drawn to listening and watching and reading the conversation there?
Nicole Hemmer: This is one of those questions where I can remember the exact moment. I was home from graduate school in the summer of 2004 and I was in the car with my dad and we were talking and he was like, "My goal for you this summer is to get you to vote for George W. Bush in the presidential election." He reached over and he turned on the radio to Rush Limbaugh. We listened to a lot of conservative talk radio that summer. While it didn't change my vote in 2004, it got me so interested in the way my dad saw a connection between what we listened to, what media we consume, and how we vote, how we think about our politics. I was hooked from that moment on and when I discovered there was a history to all of this it became my life's work.
Kai Wright: What was that connection, for your dad at least, in particular? Why do you think that was so important to him? Not that he would tell you, "I've got some ideas for you," but like, "Here, I want you to listen to this thing."
Nicole Hemmer: I think because he found it so entertaining and compelling, and I'm going to say smart. My dad would argue back to the radio. It's not that he swallowed whole cloth everything that he was hearing on Limbaugh and Hannity and these shows, but he liked being able to interact with it and wrestle with the ideas. He thought that that presentation of conservatism was something that would get me intrigued.
Kai Wright: That's really interesting too because, as I said, it's easy to mock and listen. I'm open about my politics, I don't watch these shows. This idea that there is a combativeness and a debate with what's happening is part of the draw, or was part of the draw for your dad. I think that's not how a lot of people think about this.
Nicole Hemmer: I think that we tend to, especially if we're not conservative, to think about these programs as brainwashing. I think that that robs the audience of these shows of their agency. They're drawn to these programs for reasons and they pick and choose, from what they hear, what they believe and how it shapes their politics.
Kai Wright: Listeners, we can take calls for Nicole as we talk as we don't want to just talk about people who watch conservative media. If you are somebody who consumes conservative media, who consumes Tucker Carlson or Fox news or used to listen to Rush Limbaugh, we want to hear why, why you tune in and what you're getting from it. 646-435-7280. Nicole, you recently published an essay on CNN with the headline, "History shows we ignore Tucker Carlson at our peril." We'll get into the details of that history in a moment. Just in the most basic sense, why do you feel like we should be paying attention to what's happening on his show now? As opposed to saying, "This stuff is just meant to troll me," if you disagree with it and roll your eyes and move on. Why is it important to pay attention?
Nicole Hemmer: It certainly is meant to troll liberals. That is part of his brand. It's important because first, as you mentioned, Tucker Carlson is the most watched show on cable news but he is also very much in touch with the turn that the Republican party took under Donald Trump. He represents a powerful wing of the Republican party. By listening to him not only do you understand where that wing of the party sits but the kinds of arguments that are being used and the code words that are being used. I think that we'll get into the specifics of it. He introduces a lot of white supremacist themes into a show but then he frames them in ways that if you're not paying attention you might not understand exactly the point that he's trying to make or the history that he's drawing on.
Kai Wright: Let's talk about one of those. In your CNN essay History Shows we Ignore Tucker Carlson at our Peril, you were responding to his promotion of this idea of "white replacement," which is a far right conspiracy theory originally popularized by a French white supremacist. For the past few years this idea has migrated into some mainstream conservative media and just a few weeks ago people watching Fox and prime time, watching Tucker Carlson's show, may have heard him say this. Take a listen.
Tucker Carlson: Now I know that the left and all the little gatekeepers on Twitter become literally hysterical if you use the term replacement, if you suggest that the democratic party is trying to replace the current electorate, the voters now casting ballots, with new people, more obedient voters from the third world. They become hysterical because that's what's happening actually. Let's just say it, that's true.
Kai Wright: What is the backstory for this idea that you were trying to trace, particularly in right-wing media circles. Nicole, can you walk us through that here a bit?
Nicole Hemmer: Sure. The great replacement theory, as you mentioned, is this idea that lax immigration laws are meant to replace white Americans with nonwhite immigrants. The reason that I think it's important understand this history is because in the mid 1990s this was a pretty mainstream argument. One of the best-selling books of 1995 was a book called Alien Nation by Peter Brimelow. It made this argument that if America was going to continue to be America it needed to shut down immigration from non Western European countries.
It needed to protect the whiteness of the United States.
Over the course of the late 1990s, Brimelow and those ideas start to get pushed to the fringe. In fact, he would go off to found a white nationalist website called VDARE and become part of the movement that would become the alt-right. Seeing how those ideas flow back and forth from mainstream conservatism into the fringe and back again, I think it's important to understand that these are ideas that can easily cross over into the mainstream if we're not talking openly about the very racist ideas that underlie them.
Kai Wright: Speaking of crossing over to the mainstream, Tucker Carlson has been saying similar things this for a while now, really, since he took the helm of Fox prime time, which of course coincided with the beginning of Trump's presidency. Here he is, again, back in July of 2017.
Tucker Carlson: Western civilization is our birthright. It makes all good things possible. Undefended it collapses, and so we've got to fight to preserve it.
Kai Wright: It's not new, that was 2017, but is there anything different about what's been happening since Biden's inauguration that you have noted in this conversation? Any shift in the conversation either on Carlson's show in particular are just in right-wing media more broadly?
Nicole Hemmer: It certainly has been ramped-up. Although, again, Carlson had as one of his writers somebody who moved in white supremacist circles. As you pointed out, this is not something that's new for him, but I think one of the things that is new is during the Trump years all of the focus was on Donald Trump and the reason people paid attention to Tucker Carlson was because of Donald Trump. Now that Trump is not really in the mix in the same way, Carlson's words in a way carry more power, more weight, because he is one of the leading voices of these ideas. Before it was Donald Trump, now it's Tucker Carlson.
He's getting, I think, a little more open about things and he is more visible precisely because he's not competing, in a way, with the president of the United States.
Kai Wright: He's got more airtime.
Nicole Hemmer: That's right.
Kai Wright: Let's go to Joe in Miami, Florida. Joe, welcome to the show.
Joe: Thank you. Thanks for taking the call. I'm in my 70s and I travel across the country a lot and I haven't had a television since '72. As a result, all my input for years was reading in the radio. This has spread like a virus over the last 30 years, your guest spoke to Rush Limbaugh. I listen to 12 hours a day of hate radio on top of my NPR not because I enjoy it, but because my background's behavioral psychology, and I understand what the propaganda is doing. I live in a community of tradespeople, retired law enforcement people, a majority of whom would have been the backbone of the Democratic Party 30 years ago. 30, 40 years ago.
All these folks vote Republican. They're good people, but they absolutely know nothing about what's happening in a timely fashion. They knew nothing about Sidney Powell refuting her assertion about election fraud. I just see that the history of our country has used propaganda to upend regimes. We did it in Iran, we did in Indonesia. I see the same effort at propaganda from a behavioral standpoint that we've seen over the last five years. I don't how we're going to overcome the Sinclair and Murdoch stranglehold on this country. I'd love to hear any suggestions on that while you're at it and I thank you for taking the call.
Kai Wright: Thanks, Joe. I'm going to leave it there. Nicole, I'm going to get your answers some answers to that right after we take a quick break. I'm talking with Nicole Hemmer, a political historian and researcher at Columbia University and author of Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics. Our phones are open. If you or someone in your household regularly consumes and engages with particularly hard-right media, tell us why, or conversely if you refuse to consume it, but you've got questions about what's happening in those outlets, how things are shifting in the Biden era, call us up. 646-435-7280, that's 646-435-7280. We'll talk more after break.
Kai Wright: Welcome back. This is The United States of Anxiety. I'm Kai Wright. I'm talking with Nicole Hemmer, a political historian and researcher at Columbia University and author of Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics. Nicole, just before the break a caller was pointing out that he just feels like part of it is that people don't know what they're hearing. People have lost, I don't want to misrepresent what he had to say, but I heard him talking about the propaganda and the way it's shifts people's thinking.
I want to put that to you because what is the cause and effect here? As you study it, do you feel like this is true? What a lot of liberal people like to say is that all people watch these shows and it brainwashes them and they lose track of fact. Is it vice versa, that these shows are serving an audience that already exists?
Nicole Hemmer: It's a great question. It's a complicated one. It's not one or the other. It's both, that people opt in to listening to conservative radio. I don't think that there are a ton of people who don't understand on some level that they're listening to information from a conservative viewpoint, but that it can draw them further and further to the right, depending on what they're listening to. One of the things that the guest talked about was driving through the countryside and listening to 12 hours of talk radio a day and coming across people who don't know some of the basic facts of things that are going on in the country.
That's one of the big differences between a conservative media in the 1950s and the 1960s, when it existed, but you couldn't have wall-to-wall conservative media. There just wasn't enough of it. It's not until the mid-1990s that there's enough conservative media that you can silo yourself within it. I think that that's a big difference and it contributes to the sense that it's propaganda, because it allows you to cut yourself off from contrary information or to dismiss contrary information that gets into your bubble.
Kai Wright: Is that surge in the '90s that you're talking about, where suddenly there became enough of it to silo yourself off, and is that owing to rush Limbaugh's popularity? What was the change?
Nicole Hemmer: Rush Limbaugh's a big, big part of it. He goes national in 1988 and by the mid-1990s, there are all sorts of people who are emulating him like Oliver North and G. Gordon Liddy. In 1996, you have the founding of Fox News, which is modeled off of talk radio, just like MSNBC is. Rush Limbaugh's success pointed out that there was a big audience for conservative media and that that big audience could be incredibly profitable. Once he was the proof of concept for that, lots of imitators came along after.
Kai Wright: All right, let's go to Ru on the upper East side. Ru, welcome to the show.
Kai Wright: Thanks for calling in. Are you a consumer of any of this media that we're talking about, of conservative media?
Ru: On occasion. I am an NYU student, so I go to a very liberal college. For a time I lived with a Republican foster family where their own kids walked around with like Breitbart shirts. Sometimes, after coming out of that, going into my own chosen family, I refuse to believe that the conservative half of the country is simply illogical but from my perspective, their standpoint is completely illogical. I turn on Fox News so I know what the conservative narrative is, because I know that more often than not there as at least as semblance of a narrative.
Another reason I turned it on is so I can see not hardline conservative arguments, but just not mainstream progressive media, so I can see what the opposite arguments are and see if I can come up to a different conclusion than what the mainstream progressive stance is.
Kai Wright: Does that work for you?
Ru: I think so. I think at least it makes me feel like I've done the work. It makes me feel happier with the stance I've arrived at, because it feels like, you know what? I've done my homework, I've crunched the numbers, I've thought it through.
Kai Wright: This is a common thing. Thank you, Ru, for calling in. I think this is a meaningful part of the audience as well, for some of these outlets, is folks who genuinely are trying to get a balanced point of view. What about that, Nicole? Ru's watching skeptically, but if people are seeking a balanced point of view as a consumer of media right now, put it this way, is there a distinction between what is happening in a space like Tucker Carlson's show on Fox and what is happening on MSNBC nowadays? Is there a distinction between those kinds of things or do they represent two sides of a coin?
Nicole Hemmer: I think there is a distinction between them, and you could imagine a time in the future where there isn't necessarily, but the right has had its own media for a long, long time and it's become part of what it means to be a conservative in the United States, to consume conservative media. You have this built-in audience, this audience that is eager to tune in and to believe and to absorb a lot of the messages that are coming from these media. These media have real power within the Republican Party in a way that MSNBC just doesn't. I always use as the example of the difference between the two when Michael Steele, who was the head of the Republican National Committee insulted Rush Limbaugh once.
Within 48 hours he's groveling with an apology because if you insult Rush Limbaugh, you insult the base of the Republican Party. You just can't really imagine something like that happening if Joe Biden says something cross about Rachel Maddow. She doesn't have the same pull within the Democratic Party, and that's a real difference. There isn't as strong of a connection between the base of the Democratic Party and overtly political media.
Kai Wright: What about distinctions inside right-wing media at this point? I mean, there was certainly a time as you point out where there was a stark difference between a show like Rush Limbaugh, say, and a brainy magazine like The National Review. That there was a range of Conservative thought. What is the landscape now you think? Do those distinctions still exist?
Nicole Hemmer: They exist up to a point. I mean, there has been a real revolution within Conservative media during the Trump years. The collapse of anti-Trump Conservative media. National Review, prior to Trump's election, had come out with a whole issue about why he wasn't fit to be president, and by a couple of years into the Trump administration, it was functionally a pro-Trump outlet, maybe not as much so as other outlets, but there wasn't a lot of space for anti-Trump conservatism. There's been a kind of collapse during the Trump years of that more capacious Conservative media of an earlier era. It could come back, but it hasn't yet.
Kai Wright: Well, one of the distinctions is we've talked about increasingly unapologetic white supremacy on a show like Tucker Carlson's, and again, Fox prime time remains, the far and away ratings leader in cable news, so just take that in. There's also the, frankly, lying and misinformation that I mentioned at the start of the show. Last week, there was a story circulating that falsely claimed that detained migrant children were handed copies of Vice President Kamala Harris's children's book upon entry into detention centers that began as a report here at The New York Post. It was easily established as false, but it spread so rapidly, and of course, that is by no means the first example.
In this time, can you help us understand how this is happening? Is it as cynical as it appears to be as a student of it, or has out lie writing always been a staple of the right-wing media? Is this a cynical tool, or is there something deeper that's at play?
Nicole Hemmer: Well, it is a cynical tool in a lot of ways. There are fewer safeguards for stories that fit in with the ideology of the outlets. Something that confirms the priors of conservative media tends to get more lift and a little less fact-checking. I think that the thing that goes deeper is that audiences for right-wing media trust that media because it's right-wing. They trust stories that confirm their political beliefs. Even if those stories end up being wrong, the attitude tends to be, "Well, maybe that story wasn't right, but the idea beneath it was right."
That is where it gets complicated. That fake news, as it were, or these false stories and conspiracies, they have a much longer tail, because the attitude is, "Well, even if some of the facts are wrong, the underlying idea is right."
Kai Wright: Is there something, I talked about the birther movement idea at the top of the show, we've talked about the death panel that emerged. What's happening now? Is there a version of this that is circulating as you watch and listen and read that you've noticed that people should be mindful of that is not just an individual untruth, but something that is really circulating constantly? There's the obvious example of the election.
Nicole Hemmer: Yes. I think that the election is the one to pay attention to because it serves a much broader political agenda. It's not just about the 2020 election. It's not just about the insurrection on January 6th, but it is fueling all of these voter suppression laws in Republican run states across the country. When you have a big lie that is attached to a political agenda, those are the spaces to really pay attention to because they get extra power because they're so politically useful. I think that non-conservative media really need to be on guard for these things.
There's a story out today about a new station in Pennsylvania, that is not a platform. It's not letting people forget that the representatives who participated in trying to overthrow the election. It's something that we all have a responsibility to continue to call attention to, because not only does it have an effect on how people see the 2020 election, but whether we have free, open, fair elections going forward.
Kai Wright: I saw reports that the Republican National Committee has been fundraising off of some of Tucker Carlson's more extreme outbursts also. Have you tracked the relationship between these media moments and party fundraising at all? Is there a deliberate circle there?
Nicole Hemmer: There's very much connection there. The Republican Party and conservative media are closely intertwined. That was true prior to Donald Trump, but during the Trump years, Fox News, in particular, became just so closely interwoven with the Trump administration and with the Republican Party, you saw that with the Sean Hannity having nightly phone calls with President Trump after his shows. There were a lot of behind the scenes conversations that were happening. There's a very close connection between the party and these media, which is not to say that Tucker Carlson calls up the chair of the RNC before he goes on to make sure that they have their fundraising letters ready, but the party knows that its base consumes this media, and so they target them accordingly.
Kai Wright: Well, and vice versa, I would imagine. That's what I'm getting at is it, who's driving here? How much does Tucker Carlson know, "If I say this ridiculous thing tonight, it's going to have this effect because the RNC is going to amplify it?"
Nicole Hemmer: I think that he is aware of how the things that he says are going to hit and how they intersect with the electoral prospects of the Republican party. I do think that conservative media are more in the driver's seat than the Republican party. Parties have tended to be quite a bit weaker in the last 20 or 30 years or so, which has really empowered Conservative media. There's almost always an eye on electoral prospects of the Republican party in these conservative media outlets.
Kai Wright: Let's go to Tammy in Bridgewater, New Jersey. Tammy, welcome to the show.
Tammy: Hi, thanks for taking my call. I'm a big Tucker Carlson watcher, I watched CNN exclusively for my adult life, and then I started to get very friendly with an African American woman that I work with who is a conservative, and she turned me on to Tucker Carlson. We have the water cooler talk every morning about what he talked about the night before, and she really opened my eyes to the racism that she was feeling from the left about how African Americans don't know how to get an ID, and they don't know how to use computers, and she found that insulting.
Then, we talked about how the left has a narrative. Also, we had a big conversation when that Project Veritas undercover video came out, and the producer admitted that they do propaganda and reporting for their own personal narrative. I just wondered what your take was on that?
Kai Wright: You're talking about the Project Veritas videos, this is a conservative media outlet, the media project defines itself as investigative reporting. They have been behind a number of big got you stories, getting people on the left in various positions. You're talking about them admitting to have, just to clarify?
Tammy: Yes, the latest one with the CNN producer, when he did talk about there was false reporting and things that they did to make sure that Donald Trump would not get elected. Then making Joe Biden look better, making sure they didn't bring up maybe some of his gaps or whatever.
Kai Wright: Thank you, Tammy. Nicole, I'm not sure the video that Tammy is talking about, but I'm familiar with many of these Project Veritas videos that are repeatedly proven to be heavily edited and also full of misinformation and often lies. It sounds there's one I don't know of, I don't know if you're familiar with it. In general, can you talk about the role that that outlet plays if you're familiar with them?
Nicole Hemmer: Yes. Project Veritas, you're right, that they're often heavily edited, but they create these powerful visual films that spread like wildfire across conservative media. That connection there with Tucker Carlson is interesting because it speaks to the way that conservative media work as an ecosystem. A Project Veritas video doesn't just live off in the wilderness on its own, where you have to track down James O'Keefe in order to get a copy of it. It's played regularly on Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity and on talk radio, and it becomes a network of authority.
You hear so many people talking about the same video and you hear the repetition of it again and again that it becomes a pretty potent and powerful political weapon, even in the case of some of O'Keeffe's videos that have been proven not to be what he proposes they are.
Kai Wright: We got to wrap up. I wonder, for somebody who has spent, you said since 2004, watching and studying conservative media. I would find that to be dispiriting about the state of our politics and the state of our political culture. How does it leave you? What's your takeaway from doing that work?
Nicole Hemmer: Well, I think that it's important work. I'm not going to say that it is always heartening. I think it's so important to understand the role that media outlets play in shaping our politics and making sense of where they fit in our political culture and in shaping the outcomes of our elections and shaping the way people see the country and see the world. I find it pretty edifying work on that front because it makes me feel like I have a better sense of what's going on. There's a power in that.
Kai Wright: Nicole Hemmer is a political historian and researcher at Columbia University and author of Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics. She also co-hosts the podcast Past Present, in which she and other historians discuss American politics and culture. Nicole, thanks for coming on.
Nicole Hemmer: Thank you so much for having me.
Kai Wright: Thanks to everybody who called. Sorry, as always, for those who we didn't get to. You can always email me at email@example.com. Coming up, it's one thing to point the finger today at how far-right media profits off of racism and misinformation, but they learned it somewhere. Most of our largest most mainstream news outlets were built on peddling anti-Black ideas for generations, and very few of them have owned up to that fact. That's next.
Kai Wright: Hi, everybody. I want to ask your help with something. A huge part of what we're doing with this show is building a community. A community of people who want to share the joy and the work of creating and living in a healthy plural society. That's why we've started taking calls on a live show and soliciting your tweets and your voicemails here.
Michael: Hi, this is Michael from Raleigh, North Carolina.
Ida: This is Ida in Austin, Texas.
Dorian: Hi, Kai. My name is Dorian from Queens, New York.
Ida: My wildest dreams and imaginations, it's going to be hard for me to get through this note to you guys without getting emotional.
Kai Wright: It's all part of building a community. You can do two things to help build our community. First off, just invite somebody to join you in it. Maybe even start listening together on Sunday evenings. However you do it, invite other people in. Second, you can leave a review on whatever app you're using to listen right now. You can give us a rating there. That's nice. Also, leave a comment. Why do you listen? Why should others join you in listening? Again, think of it as making an invitation. That's how community works. Thanks in advance for doing either or both of those things. Even if you can't do either of them, thanks for being part of our community.
Kai Wright: Welcome back. This is The United States of Anxiety. I'm Kai Wright. I'm joined now by another historian. Channing Gerard Joseph is a professor at the University of Southern California Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism. He wrote a cover story in this week's Nation magazine titled American Journalism's Role in Promoting Racist Terror. He joins us to talk about his research for that article. Channing, thanks for coming on.
Channing Gerard Joseph: Thanks so much for having me, Kai.
Kai Wright: You have a personal relationship to this history. We all do as Black people, of course. Tell us what specifically prompted you to write this article.
Channing Gerard Joseph: What prompted me to write the article was several conversations that I had last year during the racial injustice protests over George Floyd. That's really what sparked me realizing the necessity for this piece. During that time, a lot of conversations I was having with my colleagues at USC were around what we could do to make our curriculum more anti-racist, more sensitive to diversity and inclusion and more inclusive of stories about Black people. I kept saying we need to talk more about history and I kept getting these blank stares from colleagues.
It made me realize that a lot of the history of journalism, particularly journalism's role in promoting racism, is something that even journalism scholars don't know about. It felt like something that was really necessary for me to speak out about.
Kai Wright: You're bit of the of a family genealogist, it sounds like. My uncle would love your approach to this. As I understand it, you keep on your bookshelf a record you found in a newspaper of an 1843 auction of some of your ancestors. I wonder what it was like to find that in a newspaper?
Channing Gerard Joseph: Absolutely. I grew up in Louisiana, mostly in a town called Slidell, which is near New Orleans. My family's from Slidell and from New Orleans proper back many, many generations. I had some great grandparents who were still around. When I was younger, I used to love sitting at their knee and hearing stories that they told. Some of the stories were not so great but I was captivated by them. I wanted to learn more about my own family's role in American history really. One of the inspirations during this research was a story that my grandmother told me about a lynching that had happened in the middle of town, in which a Black man was dragged through the center of town until he was dead.
Then nobody was charged for his Killing. That was a story that I learned had happened in 1914. This was an event that had been passed down really from generation to generation, until me and I'm passing it on to your audience here. It drove home for me the point that these are stories that linger on in our lives. The specific thing you're asking me about, about finding my ancestor in the newspaper, was just part of continuing continue that journey of learning more about my family tree. My ancestors, some of them were enslaved, and there are records of them being sold, being advertised for sale in newspapers. As a journalist, it puts me on both sides of the fence.
I am both a descendant of the enslaved people who were put on sale, as well as somebody whose professional it is to report the news and to put out that newspaper. It seemed to me like I was one of the most appropriate voices to maybe tell that story.
Kai Wright: In your article, you focus on newspapers and you talk about these ads as an important part of what built some of the newspapers that came to dominate our media landscape. What role did these ads play in those business models?
Channing Gerard Joseph: The ads played an important economic role. In the 19th century, one of the greatest sources of income for newspapers in America were classified ads. In many cases, those classified ads were specifically for the sale of enslaved people or to advertise enslaved people who had run away from their masters. That was a constant and lucrative source of income for many newspapers that exist to this day, from the Baltimore Sun to the New Orleans Times-Picayune to the New York Post. All those are newspapers that profited from the sale of human beings and part of the reason they exist to this day is because of that profit that they earned at that time.
Kai Wright: Then pushing forward into the 20th century or maybe late 19th century and early 20th century, I think one of the things that a lot of folks don't recognize is, when we talk about lynching in that era, how popular news stories about lynching were. You write about how important they became to the growth of newspapers in general. Can you explain that?
Channing Gerard Joseph: Absolutely. Everybody knows if it bleeds it leads, that old phrase. That's the idea that blood and gore helps to drive up ratings, helps to sell media of all kinds. That was true back in the late 19th, early 20th century. After the end of slavery, without that constant source of classified ads for enslaved people, newspapers had to pivot a bit to gain readers and to keep readers. One of the ways they did that is through really sensationalized, lurid accounts of lynchings that sometimes were one on the front page. In some cases reporters were sent to the scene of lynchings before they occurred.
In one particular case in 1900 Associated Press reporters were sent to the scene of a lynching in Colorado in which a 16 year old intellectually disabled black boy was burned at the stake and reporters set up camp before the lynching occurred. As it occurred, they sent reports along the wires across the country letting the newspapers from San Francisco to Chicago to New York know exactly what was going on. The stories about that lynching appeared nationwide. The tone of it was not to question lynching. It was to, in many ways, promote and justify lynching.
Most of the newspapers that reported that story and that picked up that story, some of them might say that the method itself, the fact that it was burning a boy at the stake, was a little bit excessive, they would say, but he probably deserved it. The vast majority of papers assumed the guilt of people who were victims of mob violence for many decades.
Kai Wright: You note that it wasn't only print, that radio played a big role as well. We don't think about radio in that era, but what role did radio play in popularizing lynchings or spreading racial terror?
Channing Gerard Joseph: Absolutely. It is believed by scholars that radio played a big role in helping to drive out the message about lynchings that were about to occur and getting people mobilized. In many cases you would entire white population of a town gathered together to be at present at a lynching. There was no way really that there's a more efficient way to do that then through the radio. On the downside, a lot of those radio reports, we don't have any recordings of, we have newspaper accounts of some of those events. One of the reasons I focus on print in the piece in the Nation is because newspapers that profited from lynching and profited from slavery are still around to this day.
It's harder to make the connection that TV and radio profited from lynching, but they certainly participated and certainly promoted racism in other ways. Perhaps that's for another piece.
Kai Wright: Well, let's talk about the newspapers then today. Thinking about what do we do with this history now? I have to say, and you can check me on this, but it feels to me like we're in this remarkable era of mainstream corporate news outlets making real efforts to center Black people in our work. Artists and thinkers and activists and political leaders, they all show up in the times now. What do you think? How do you look at this moment in the context of the history you've been digging through?
Channing Gerard Joseph: I think you're right that there has been some progress, but the reality is I reached out to many papers for this piece. Many media organizations, some of which own dozens of other outlets, and very few are willing to come to grips with this past. Only a handful of willing to issue an apology. I think that reality underscores the fact that, one, we don't know the history, but also, two, there's still a reluctance to really acknowledge in a full-throated way and to really grapple with the long-term consequences of race and in a genuine way.
Those reports and those ads have had a material effect on Black people's lives, had a material effect on Black communities for generations. Those reports and those ads created and helped to shape the lives we live today as Black people and in many cases have a lot to do with why there's the inequality that we're still facing.
Kai Wright: Can we name some names? Who has apologized, which of the publications have apologized? What apology achieve and what does it need to look like to achieve something in your mind?
Channing Gerard Joseph: I'm careful, I want to say that I don't want it to be about who's apologized and who hasn't. I want it to be about a reckoning. I want papers to investigate, acknowledge, show us what they've done in the past. I think that's more significant than simply an apology. An apology is certainly better than nothing. Papers that have apologized. Well, the Associated Press is not a paper it's a wire service, the Associated Press issued a statement of regret. I count that as half an apology. The Kansas City Star is a notable example of a paper that spent months, assigned reporters to spend months digging through archives, interviewing local community members about some of the racism that the paper had promoted.
The paper promoted redlining, it promoted segregation, it didn't allow Black people obituaries to be printed for many years. They spent months documenting, researching and documenting those things. That would be, I think, one of the best responses, is to have every publication go back in time, look at what they did, come forth with not just an apology, but lay everything out on the table, tell us what happened.
Kai Wright: Apply some journalism to it.
Channing Gerard Joseph: Absolutely. Mike Fannin is the editor of the Kansas City Star. He told me that his motivation for doing what he did was trying to regain trust of communities that have lost trust in journalism. It is an acknowledged fact journalism has lost the trust of many different groups of people. In order to gain back that trust, one of the ways to gain back Black people's trust in Fannin's words is to acknowledge what the paper has done in the past and lay it out. I agree with that. I think that one of the best ways to acknowledge the truth is not to pretend that it didn't happen.
Kai Wright: Jennings Gerard Joseph is a narrative journalist and professor at the university of Southern California Annenberg school of communication and Journalism. He wrote a cover story in this week's Nation magazine titled American Journalism's Role in Promoting Racist Terror. Thanks for coming on Channing.
Channing Gerard Joseph: Thanks so much Kai, it's been a pleasure.
Kai Wright: United States of Anxiety is a production of WNYC studios. Jared Paul mixed the podcast version. Kevin Bristow and Milton Ruiz were at the boards for the live show. Our team also includes Carolyn Adams, Carl Boisrond, Emily Botein, Karen Frillmann and Christopher Worth. Our theme music was written by Hannis Brown and performed by the Outer Borough Brass Band. Veralyn Williams is our executive producer, and I am Kai Wright. You can keep in touch with me on Twitter @Kai_Wright or drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
As always, I hope you'll join us for the live version of the show. Next Sunday, 6:00 PM Eastern. You can stream it @wnyc.org or tell your smart speaker to play WNYC. Till then, take care of yourselves. Thanks for listening.
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