Chase Woodruff, a journalist who's recently been laid off from his alt weekly job in Denver, Colorado, thinks that's all fine, but not enough. What's missing from the media's content checklist, he says, is anger. This is from his website, quote, "As I spent the last two months, trying to keep up with all the ways the world was suddenly changing, all the pain being inflicted that we couldn't see, it was anger that kept me going. I held on to anger like a lifeline thrown into a sea of fear and despair, that was otherwise going to swallow me whole."
Amid the slow and painful death of newspapers, Woodruff worries that such anger will be a casualty. Righteous indignation has always been a staple of the alt weekly world, that world he until recently inhabited. And as those feisty alt weeklies die off at an even more rapid pace than dailies, he fears that lost too, will be vital outlets for resistance and emotion. Chase, welcome to On the Media.
Chase Woodruff: Thanks for having me.
Bob Garfield:You begin your essay by citing one of the last pieces you wrote for Westward, a Denver-based alt weekly. It made you mad to write and it made you mad to think about it weeks later. Why?
Chase Woodruff:The story was about a woman who worked at a Walmart here in suburban Denver, and her name was Sandy Kunz. She was 72 years old, she was on oxygen because of a lung condition, and was forced to work throughout a deadly pandemic in a low wage job. She was a cashier; that's the highest risk job in the store. And she passed away. She contracted the virus, we don't know exactly how, but the store was later shut down, because due to an outbreak there, there were ultimately three deaths connected to this store; including Sandy's husband, who also passed away.
And it still makes me angry to think about it. To think about, deadly pandemic or not, that we are a country where a 72 year old woman, who needs supplemental oxygen, needs to work to survive and to make ends meet. And yeah, it's one of tens of thousands, perhaps by the end of this, hundreds of thousands of stories like this. And it makes me angry, because it didn't need to be this way, and this was, as other countries have proven, a largely preventable public health disaster.
Bob Garfield: Now what you wrote and what you just said, practically trembles with righteous indignation, which especially compared to the mainstream dailies, has been the stock and trade of your former employer, Westward, and I think alt weeklies in general. But not just generalize pissed off-edness, the anger typically has a moral bent. You quote Village Voice legend, Jack Newfield saying, quote, "Compassion without anger can become merely sentiment or pity. Knowledge without anger stagnate into mere cynicism and apathy. Anger improves lucidity, persistence, audacity, and memory."
Chase Woodruff: The key thing about anger and expressing anger and sort of being a platform for anger, is that anger has a direction to it, right? If you are telling someone to be angry or telling someone that it's okay that they're angry, you are telling them who to be angry at. For Jack Newfield and his day at the Village Voice, it was greedy landlords, and corrupt politicians and industrial polluters, and we need that. And unfortunately, as I've learned, and as so many other people have learned, who have been employed by the alternative press in the last couple of decades, it is shrinking. And there are fewer and fewer of those opportunities to practice that kind of aggressive antagonistic journalism that he advocated for.
Bob Garfield: How did that new fieldy insensibility guide public interest reporting that you and Westward did in Denver?
Chase Woodruff: Just North of Denver, there is one of the largest oil and gas fields in the country. There has been a huge boom in drilling and fracking over the last 10 years. And it is happening right on the doorstep of metropolitan Denver. It is happening within suburban communities in many cases. There are fracking pads that are less than a half mile from people's homes.
Bob Garfield: And certainly their groundwater.
Chase Woodruff: Yes, absolutely. And you can imagine the conflict that it's created. There was an incident in 2017 where two people died in a home explosion that was caused by a nearby oil and gas well. It has such clear moral stakes to it and such a clear narrative of neglect and I would argue wrongdoing. And it is not a good fit for the traditional mode of journalism.
It's infuriating to hear stories of mothers who believe their children have been poisoned by a nearby fracking well, or to read the story of a predominantly Latino and low income school that had a fracking rig and popped up right next to its playground, and to then pick up the Denver Post or whoever it may be, and see that he said, she said. To put the people who have been impacted by this, the people who have faced these negative health consequences, to put them on sort of a level moral playing field with a quote from an AstroTurffed, big oil backed, industry group that wants to claim that all of this is safe and there's nothing to worry about, and climate change is overblown and all the other bullshit that they trot out.
And there's sort of an amnesia to how the coverage is produced. Jack Newfield says that one of the things that anger improves is memory. And to have an institutional or collective memory to say, "We, the press, we understand what this press release that we've gotten from a Colorado oil and gas trade group, we understand what they represent and whose interests they're fighting for. And we should treat them differently because of that."
Bob Garfield: In your essay, you argue that anger has gone out of vogue in American journalism; not just in the mainstream press, but that all of us are taught how to hide how we feel. We're taught to associate incivility, just with plain lack of emotional maturity and intelligence. For the past 70 or 80 years, journalistic cannons have discouraged emotion and have elevated sobriety, in the name of objectivity and fair mindedness. Just the facts please, and maybe some disinterested analysis, but absolutely no editorializing.
Now, obviously this has led to some horrors of false balance and insufficient challenging of lies by people in power. But it's long been considered a prerequisite for audience trust, without which we are nowhere. But you think that especially in the midst of pandemic, that's the wrong calculus. Why?
Chase Woodruff: I think there is certainly a backdoor from this conversation about anger, into the possibility even of being truly objective, and editorial sensibilities and reporting styles and all those debates that we journalists like to have. The question of are you angry, I think is sort of at the heart of all of this, because if what is happening right now does not provoke a feeling of anger in you, I truly do not know what to say.
Now, the question becomes, what do we do with that anger? And you can wield anger as a tool and sort of embrace its power, whatever your role may be. If you are an opinion writer or someone who's able to set an editorial vision or sensibility at a publication, yeah. I think that means potentially outward expressions of anger. If you are someone who is a more narrow reporting role, I think you can still wield it as a tool, even if it's just your own internalized sense of anger to, as Jack Newfield said, produce reporting that is more lucid, more and more relentless, that comes from that place.
Bob Garfield: As you may or may not know, I myself cannot pretend to be a disinterested observer in this conversation, because my own reporting and commentary, and especially my TV appearances and Twitter, but also my work on this show, have been fueled for a little more than four years by rage, not doctrinaire. Evidence-based intellectually honest, I hope, but nonetheless, these days, really, really angry and laden with contempt. And it has been a very delicate balance regulating the rage. Any suggestions?
Chase Woodruff: You always need to synthesize anger with obviously, fact-finding, honesty, and transparency and accuracy. But when the facts are on your side, I think wielding anger is much more powerful. Anger and rage is about all that's kept me going. I mean, this is a very tough time, and anger I find, has an energy to it. It points all these feelings in a direction a lot of the time, and I think we need that.
Bob Garfield: But at the cost sometimes, or maybe a lot of the time, of simply not being taken seriously. Of just being seen as squealing or preordained. Chase is going to write about fracking. It's going to reflect badly on big energy. Maybe I'll just go turn to see the movie reviews.
Chase Woodruff: Let's be clear. People are angry and journalists do a disservice by not only refusing to feel or express anger themselves, or tell people who to be angry at, but to validate the anger of their audience; their legitimate anger about whether it is the horrors that we have seen throughout this pandemic or all of the many disparities and injustices that predated and are now being exacerbated.
Journalists have a responsibility to honor that anger, and failing to do so, and failing to wield it against the powerful, as the press is charged with doing, has led down this road where people feel like their anger isn't being heard, and they search for unhealthier outlets for that anger. And to connect us to Fox News and Donald Trump, I think that is certainly a case of anger being harnessed and exploited for ill purposes.
Bob Garfield: Sometimes I think that the boundaries shift, based on what kind of story you're reporting. Anderson Cooper was allowed to demonstrate rage at the colossal failures and inhumanity of the government's response to Katrina. But you're not allowed to express rage when a regulatory agency is shut down, or the rule of law is ignored in the balance of power between the executive and legislative branch, or when the Paris Accords are simply ignored by the largest industrial power in the world. When are we permitted by common consensus to lose our equanimity?
Chase Woodruff: Journalists are granted more leeway to express anger, or in those cases you mentioned, like natural disasters, where there is a sensational tragedy unfolding on our television screens, or where there are raw emotions being provoked in all of us. They're granted much less leeway to express anger against the everyday structural injustices, that are not as dramatic and not as sensational and not always on our television screens.
Chase Woodruff: And I think that is a problem, because I think typically, the folks who deserve our anger and deserve our contempt, are the people who are in power and who have a vested interest in the status quo. And the ultimate determinant of whether anger is permitted is how much of a challenge to the powerful is this?
Bob Garfield: Well, in these times, I don't know what is the appropriate level of rage, but I certainly know it's not a shrug.
Chase Woodruff: No, certainly not. This is to me, a sort of existential question at the heart of all of it, because it really feels like we have hit a wall as a country, and we're either going to get angry and smashed through it, or we're going to lay down and die.
Bob Garfield: Chase. Thank you so much.
Chase Woodruff: Thank you.
Bob Garfield: Chase Woodruff is now a freelance journalist, based in Denver, Colorado. Good luck, man.
Chase Woodruff: Thank you.
Bob Garfield: Thanks for listening to our midweek podcast. Tune in this weekend for the Big Show, in which we will be unpacking the Karen meme, among other things. See you Friday. I'm Bob Garfield.