Citations Needed is a podcast about the intersection of media, PR, and power, hosted by Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.
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"Increasing Numbers of US Students Look for a ‘Real' World," read a 1965 headline from the magazine Moderator. "Academics: Get Real!," the Harvard Business Review implored in 2009. "‘Defund the police' runs into reality," the Washington Post warned in 2021. "As Latin America Shifts Left, Leaders Face a Short Honeymoon," the New York Times declared in 2022. We're often reminded that anyone who espouses some degree of left-wing politics – whether a student, activist, political leader, or anyone in between – is at odds with the "real world." Academics, especially those in the humanities, sit in their ivory towers. Organizers and demonstrators against state violence have their heads in the clouds. Elected leaders campaigning on elevating living standards don't know what they're in for. But who's in charge of determining what's ‘realistic'? Or what "the real world" is exactly? Why is studying theory, fighting for better healthcare, or working toward poverty reduction any less ‘real' than plugging away at a spreadsheet for a weapons manufacturer or venture capital firm? And how did this pat and folksy concept of the "real world" emerge as a go-to dunk on eggheads and activists? On this episode, we seek to answer these questions, as we examine the canard that anyone to the left of a Goldman Sachs executive isn't living in or contributing to the "real world." Our guest is Street Fight Radio's Bryan Quinby.
"Why Are We Still Governed by Baby Boomers and the Remarkably Old?," inquires The New York Times. "Why Do Such Elderly People Run America?," The Atlantic wonders. "Gerontocracy Is Hurting Democracy," insists New York Magazine's Intelligencer. "Too old to run again? Biden faces questions about his age as crises mount," The Guardian reports. Though these headlines are framed as exploratory questions, news media seem to have their minds made up: the problem with Washington is that it's chock full of geezers. In recent years, we've often heard that U.S. policymaking, helmed at the federal level by seventy- and eighty-somethings like Donald Trump, Joe Biden, and Nancy Pelosi, and at the state level by the similarly aged Dianne Feinstein, Chuck Grassley and Pat Leahy, is simply growing too old and out of touch with the electorate. There's some credence to this, of course. It's certainly true that those occupying the most powerful positions in U.S. government, on the whole, don't legislate to the needs of the public – whether on healthcare, policing, education – the list goes on and on. But is that really because of legislators' age? Why does age have to be the focus in this analysis, rather than policy positions and, relatedly, class interests, which exist independent of age? Who does it serve to reduce the causes of U.S. austerity politics and violence to pat, Pepsi marketing-style "generation gap" discourse? On this episode show, we detail how "generations" analysis is ineffectual and, more often than not, misses the mark. We'll discuss how fears of a "gerontocracy" can – if not in intent, in effect – malign old age itself, stigmatize the elderly and, above all, distract from what could be a substantive critical analysis of real, more profound vectors of oppression such as class, racism, sexism and anti-LGBTQ currents. Our guest in Winslow Erik Wright.
"Education... is a great equalizer of conditions of men—the balance wheel of the social machinery," stated school reformer Horace Mann in 1848. "Math is the great equalizer," preached Jaime Escalante, Edward James Olmos' character, in the 1988 film Stand and Deliver. "The best anti-poverty program around is a world-class education," announced Barack Obama during his 2010 State of the Union address. This message is everywhere, pervading political speeches, Oscar-bait films, think-tank papers, and everything in between. The key to economic upward mobility—we're endlessly told, is education—a societal building block that is, or at least should be, accessible to every child, no matter their race, gender, or income level. It's a seductive, seemingly unassailable conceit, suggesting that we live in a meritocracy where second chances and generational wealth-building are possible, even probable, with a few simple tools. But is there any truth to this idea? There's a growing body of evidence showing that education level does not, in fact, necessarily translate to higher wages. Which raises the questions: Why has the idea that education is the ultimate anti-poverty tool persisted? Whose interests are served in its continuation? And who, in turn, pays the price? On this episode, the Season Six premiere of Citations Needed, we detail and debunk the widespread conventional wisdom that education is the rising tide that lifts all boats, looking at the ways it reinforces themes of individualism and personal responsibility; obscures systemic issues like racism and worker exploitation in the labor market; and ultimately keeps people entrenched in, rather than liberating them from, poverty and low-wage work. Our guest is Lake Forest professor Cristina Viviana Groeger.
A white collar worker wrestles with whether to accept a promotion or help his co-workers organize. Salt miners stand up to the company that's taken over their town. A factory worker exposes her employer's union-busting tactics. Stories like these represent something we don't often see in Hollywood: Unions and labor organizers as the good guys. Not as egomaniacs or zealots, thugs or grifters—but as heroes willing to risk their health, homes, and livelihoods for the greater good. This is in contrast to the anti-union depictions in pop culture we explored in Episode 164, part one of a two-part series on depictions of labor in film and television. We discussed Hollywood's emphasis on corruption in labor organizing, focusing on depictions of bloated bureaucracy, organized crime, and autocratic union bosses in On the Waterfront (1954), Blue Collar (1978), and The Irishman (2019), among others. On this episode we address the inverse of that, looking at the rare but nontrivial examples that pop film has celebrated the accomplishments of labor movements, centered beleaguered workers with everything to lose, positioned abusive employers as the villains, and embraced themes of worker courage and heroism. While very often not perfect, these examples show that compelling, award-winning narratives can be crafted out of tales of collective action and collective bargaining. Our guest is Angela Allan.
Chances are you've seen this storyline play out on either a big or small screen: An FBI agent investigates a prominent labor leader. Or maybe a union boss orders a hit on a recalcitrant member of the rank-and-file. Or perhaps a union president skims money off a pension fund to make an illegal loan. Plotlines like these derive from one of Hollywood's longstanding and most favored tropes: the corrupt, mobbed up union, and more specifically, the corrupt union boss. It lends itself to countless stories: The rise and fall of a Mafia-backed labor head, the rebellion of rank-and-file workers against their tyrannical leadership, the precarious union on the verge of implosion. Accordingly, over and over again, we've seen stories of labor unions entangled with extortion, bribery, blackmail, theft and murder. But, even if union bosses can make compelling characters, why is it that they must all be corrupt mafiosi? Why is it that heroism in pop culture is overwhelmingly the domain of police, attorneys and doctors and hardly ever people fighting for labor rights and the collective power of their co-workers and communities? Why, instead of highlighting the courage of labor organizers and the life-changing protections won, must Hollywood repeatedly emphasize only unions' historical ties to organized crime and a seamy underbelly of corruption, murder and intrigue? On this show, part one of a two-part episode on labor depictions in Hollywood, we explore organized labor and unions in film and television, how these pop depictions inform broader public sentiment about unions. And next week, we'll discuss some of the more positive portrayals of labor and unionism in film and television. Our guest is writer and organizer Ken Margolies.
In this public News Brief, we detail the strange quadrennial tradition of acting like the US is "abandoning its principles" by reaffirming decades-long alliances with Israel and Saudi Arabia.
In this Live Interview from 7/8/22, we break down US media's inflation discourse that places the blame for rising food and gas prices squarely on the shoulders of greedy Burger King cashiers living high on the government hog. With J.W. Mason, Associate Professor of Economics at John Jay College, City University of New York and a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute.
In this public News Brief we catch up with the latest far right attacks on the liberal state and Democratic Party leadership's pathological inability––or unwillingness––to meet the moment.
"John Roberts Passes Test: Politicization of Judicial Appointment is Disheartening," read a 2005 headline from Salisbury, Maryland's Daily Times. "Ignore the attacks on Neil Gorsuch. He's an intellectual giant — and a good man," Robert P. George pleaded in The Washington Post in 2017. Ketanji Brown Jackson's Supreme Court nomination "is beyond politics," South Carolina Congressman James Clyburn told CBS's Face the Nation in 2022. We hear the same refrains over and over about the US federal court system in general and the U.S. Supreme Court in particular. They're independent judiciaries. They abide by the Constitution, the rule of law, the law of the land. They follow legal precedent. They're bastions of integrity and impartiality. It's reassuring to think of our courts as measured, fair, upholding democracy, and acting in the public's interest. But history shows that these articles of faith are undeserved. The courts are profoundly political, and they wield power that affects every corner of people's lives, from healthcare to policing, education to climate. So why is it that The Courts are awarded such mystique? What purpose does it serve to paint them as untouchable and unquestionable, existing outside of politics? And how does this framing stack the deck against those seeking long overdue and radical change to our systems? On this episode, we examine how media have helped manufacture the sense of ennobled secrecy of the Supreme Court and broader so-called "justice system," looking at the ways in which the courts' power runs counter to the will and needs of the public, the creation of campaigns to feign judicial impartiality and apoliticism, and the American exceptionalism that undergirds popular framings of one of the world's most reactionary institutions. Our guest is writer Josie Duffy Rice.
In this Live Interview from 5/20, we are joined by Layla A. Jones of the Philadelphia Inquirer whose report, "Lights. Camera. Crime," brilliantly documented the White Flight origins of the "action news" genre and how it dehumanized—and thus helped lawmakers gut—black communities throughout the country.
In this News Brief, we examine two New York Times articles—one about Chesa Boudin and one about Eric Adams—and how they serve as object lessons in how liberal outlets repackaging 1990s-era Tough on Crime dogma as sophisticated, sanitized, and progressive.
“Follow The Data” is the name of a Bloomberg Philanthropies podcast that debuted 2016. “How Data Analysis Is Driving Policing,” a 2018 NPR headline read. “Data suggests that schools might be one of the least risky kinds of institutions to reopen,” an opinion piece in The Washington Post told us in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic. Over the last 20 or so years, a trend of labeling concepts as “data-driven” emerged. It applied, and continues to apply, to policies affecting everything from education to public health, policing to journalism. Decisions affecting these areas will be more thoughtful, the idea goes, when informed and supported by data. In many ways, this has been a welcome development: The idea that a rigorously scientific collection of information via surveys, observation, and other methods would make policies and media stronger seems unimpeachable. But this isn't always the case. While gathering “data” is a potentially beneficial process, the process alone isn't inherently good, and is too often used to obscure important and requisite value-based or moral questions, assert contested ideological priors and traffic in right-wing austerity premises backed by monied interests. When our media tell us a largely unpopular, billionaire-backed idea like school privatization, “targeted” policing, or tax incentive handouts to corporations have merit they're backed by “the data,” what purpose does this framing serve? Where does the data come from? Who is funding the data gathering? What data are we choosing to care about and, most important of all, what data are we choosing to ignore? On today's episode, we'll look at the development of the push to make everything data-driven, examining who defines what counts as “data,” which forces shape its sourcing and collection, and how the fetishization of “data” as something that exists outside and separate from politics is more often than not, less a methodology for determining truth and more a branding exercise for neoliberal ideological production and reproduction. Our guests: Abigail Cartus is an epidemiologist at Brown University. She focuses on perinatal health and overdose prevention in her work at The People, Place & Health Collective, a Brown School of Public Health research laboratory.
Criminal Minds. Inside the Mind of a Serial Killer. Inside the Criminal Mind. Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez. Each of these is the title of a series, fictional or otherwise, or documentary that relies on the work of so-called criminal profilers. They're all premised, more or less, on the same idea: That the ability to venture inside the mind of an individual who's committed a horrific act of violence–say, serial murder, rape, or kidnapping–is the key to figuring out why that crime happened in the first place. This theory may sound promising at first blush; after all, the highest echelons of law enforcement in the US continue to use criminal profiling tactics to this day. But the reality is that, despite their prevalence in law enforcement both onscreen and off, criminal profiling techniques are largely ineffective, and in many ways, dangerous. Failing to consider institutional factors such as a culture of violence and easy access to weapons, patriarchy, austerity and other social ills that contribute to and reinforce violent crime, criminal profiling focuses almost exclusively on individual experiences and psychological makeup. Meanwhile, it categorizes “criminals” not as people who've been shaped by this social conditioning, but as neuro-deviants whose psychological anatomy is just different from yours or mine. On this episode, we examine the history of the practice of criminal profiling in the West; how the FBI and entertainment industry work in tandem to glamorize the profession, despite its harms; what the actual effectiveness of profiling is; and how it serves as yet another form of Hollywood copaganda. Our guests are Thomas MacMillan and Chris Fabricant.
"NFTs May Seem Like Frivolous Fads. They Should Be the Future of Music," argues Rolling Stone magazine. "How to Buy Bitcoin and Other Cryptocurrencies: A Guide for New Crypto Investors," advises TIME magazine. "'I had $10 in my bank account': This 36-year-old went from living paycheck to paycheck to making over $109,000 selling NFTs," proclaims CNBC. Over the past couple of years, U.S. media have been breathlessly hyping a new economy of digital "investment opportunities" and asset speculation. From cryptocurrency to NFTs, sports betting to online streaming casinos, business rags and legacy papers alike extol the virtues of a financial climate in which seemingly anyone with an internet connection, a smartphone, and a few bucks stands a chance of striking it rich. It's what we're calling "The Last $100 In Your Bank Account Economy." Somewhere, somebody thinks there's too much idle money sitting in working and Middle Class people's bank accounts that isn't being properly exploited. This, to them, is a crime, and increasingly sleazy verticals are emerging to make sure it doesn't stay there for too long. After all: Don't you want to make your money work for you? Don't let it sit there and collect dust. Get in on the action, fortune favors the brave, the next frontier, you can hit a 10 way parlay, don't be an idle beta, get in on the action!! Since the onset of the pandemic and the evaporation of government aid like unemployment and child tax credits, new gambling markets have exploded, filling the financial voids suffered by working people. Meanwhile, news outlets and sports networks have been at the ready, using the same old aspirational advertising tactics for lotteries, betting, and casinos. And it's not just about paid ads, the media companies themselves––from Disney to Fox to Comcast are in the sportsbook business, and every outlet from Rolling Stone to the Associated Press are hawking NFTs, creating new frontiers of conflicts of interests. On this episode, we detail the history of media's water-carrying for lotteries and other forms of gambling; how the press primes the public, especially the poor, to accept new forms of gambling and speculation tools like NFTs and cryptocurrency as normal, inevitable, and full of promise; and the ways in which they are cashing in on this cynical, infinitely regressive universe of extracting the last dollar out of your bank account. Our guest is Motherboard's Edward Ongweso, Jr.
"Is it a higher compliment to be called a) a person of real feeling, or b) a consistently reasonable person?" "Are you more successful at a) following a carefully worked-out plan, or b) dealing with the unexpected and seeing quickly what should have been done?" "Which word in each pair appeals to you more? a) scheduled, or b) unplanned?" Questions like these are posed to millions of current and prospective workers and students every year. They come from personality tests, whether the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, Clifton StrengthsFinder, or other surveys purporting to assess personality traits and job aptitude. Through a series of tens to hundreds of questions, personality inventories claim to identify qualities like dominance, neuroticism, or introversion, synthesize a user profile, and determine that user's fitness for a given job. But beneath this ostensibly neutral goal of matching a person with their ideal form of employment lies a much more sinister aim: Identifying and weeding out would-be dissenters, labor organizers, and union sympathizers. Additionally, studies have shown repeatedly that commercial personality tests like the commonly used Myers-Briggs have little to no scientific value. Why, then, does their use continue–with anywhere from 60 to 80% of prospective workers taking a personality test–and given their anti-labor history, what harms do they pose? On this episode, we examine the history of personality testing used in military, educational, and corporate settings; the relationship between personality assessments, labor law, and the corporate consultancy class; how personality testing threatens the livelihoods of people based on race, disability, and other factors; and media's role in laundering tests as benign instruments of self-realization. Our guest is writer Liza Featherstone.
In this Citations Needed Live Interview with Luke Savage from 3/22, we discuss his upcoming collection of essays, "The Dead Center: Reflections on Liberalism and Democracy After the End of History," the abandoned hopes of the Obama era, the rise of Trumpism and the inability—or unwillingness—of Liberalism to offer a moral and more just vision for the world.
"It is safe to say that almost no city needs to tolerate slums," wrote New York City official Robert Moses in 1945. "Our ancestors came across the ocean in sailing ships you wouldn't go across a lake in. When they arrived, there was nothing here," Ross Perot proclaimed in 1996. "We proved we can create a budding garden out of obstinate ground," beamed Israeli president Shimon Peres in 2011. These quotes recurring themes within the lore of settler-colonial states: Before settlers arrived in the United States, Israel, and other colonized places throughout the world, the land was barren, wild, and blighted, the people backward, untameable, and violent; nothing of societal importance existed. It was only when the monied industrialists and developers moved in, introducing their capital and their vision, that civilization began. This, of course, is false. Indigenous people inhabited North America long before Europeans did. Poor, often Black and Latino, people populate many neighborhoods targeted for gentrification. So how do these people–inhabitants of coveted places who prove inconvenient to capital–become erased from collective memory? And what role do media like newspapers, brochures, travel dispatches, and adventure books play in their erasure? In a previous Citations Needed episode (Ep. 155: How the American Settler-Colonial Project Shaped Popular Notions of ‘Conservation'), we discussed the erasure of indigeneity, we explored the colonialist and racist foundations of conservationism in the US and elsewhere in the West. On this episode, follow-up to that episode, we explore how images and narratives of barrenness and blight are manufactured to justify the settler-colonial project, from 15th Century colonial subjects of Europe to urban neighborhoods of today. Our guest is scholar Stephanie Lumsden.
"Let the Culture Wars Begin. Again," The New York Times announces. "How the ‘Culture War' Could Break Democracy," warns Politico. "As The Culture Wars Shift, President Trump Struggles To Adapt," NPR tells us. "Will Democrats Go on the Offensive in the Culture Wars?" Vanity Fair wonders. Over and over, we're reminded that so-called culture wars are being waged between a simplified Left and Right. Depending on who you ask, they tend to encompass issues under very broad categories: “LGBTQ rights,” “abortion,” “funding for the arts,” “policing,” “immigration,” “family values.” While there is some validity to the label of “culture war issue” – say, Republican opposition to an art installation, or tantrums over the gender of M&Ms – most of the time, the term is woefully misapplied. Despite what much of the media claims, LGBTQ rights, police violence, abortion, and so many other issues aren't just “culture war” fluff in the same league as the latest Fox News meltdown about a cartoon character. Nor are they both-sides-able matters of debate. They're matters of real, material consequence, often with life-and-death stakes. So why is it that these are placed under the “culture war” umbrella? And what are the dangers of characterizing them that way? On this episode, we discuss the vague nature of the term “culture war”; how this lack of clarity is weaponized to gloss over and minimize life-and-death issues like police violence and gender-affirming healthcare; and how the only consistent criterion for a “culture war” seems to be issues that impact someone other than the media's default audience, i.e., a white professional-class man. Our guest is The Real News Network Editor-in-Chief Max Alvarez.
"Investigative journalism." It's a term that conjures imagery of committed, industrious newsrooms like those in the Oscar-winning films All the President's Men or Spotlight, filled with intrepid reporters dutifully scouring documents, scrutinizing photographs and taking secretive yet explosive phone calls at all hours of the night. It's a rallying cry for TED Talkers and Brookings Institute essayists, many of whom extol the virtues of scrappy and scrupulous reportage that succeeds in taking down a crooked politician, exposing a company's abusive policy, or otherwise changing the course of history. It's common to think of investigative journalism as an honorable line of work - after all, investigative reports have exposed powerful misdeeds, labor abuses, air and water pollution, and racism in healthcare. But this isn't the only form of investigative reporting in the United States. Too often, stories characterized as well-meaning investigative reports - local news pieces alerting viewers to the “dangers” of bail reform, or New York Times scoops on government “leaks” demanding billions more for military spending--end up reinforcing the very power structures they're supposed to be challenging. While the title of “investigative journalist” is so often used as a catch-all term for a noble tireless, truth-seeking, deep-digging reporter who, like a determined fictional detective, follows a twisted trail of breadcrumbs to their blockbuster end, why should we assign valor to what can often merely be the lazy practice of government and corporate stenography? Or laundering intelligence or pro-police propaganda? On this episode, we discuss the ways in which investigative journalism is portrayed as an inherent good even when it serves powerful interests, how professional norms in the journalism industry seek to remove power dynamics in deciding what leaks are important and who is leaking them, and why investigative reporting without politics isn't an inherently subversive or moral enterprise. Our guest is Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting's Jim Naureckas.
“Among these central ranges of continental mountains and these great companion parks…lies the pleasure-ground and health-home of the nation,” wrote journalist Samuel Bowles in 1869. “Mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life,” mused naturalist John Muir in 1901. “National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst,” opined writer Wallace Stegner in 1983. North American and European traditions of conservationism, especially those in the U.S., are endlessly celebrated in Western media, with figures like Teddy Roosevelt and John James Audubon placed at the forefront. They're not without their merits, especially at a time when some of the world's most powerful countries refuse to take action on climate change. What often goes underexamined or ignored, though, is the deeply racist, settler-colonial history–and very much still the present– that has informed the “conservationist” movement in the US and much of the North Atlantic. What have been and still are the ecological and human costs, particularly for Indigenous and Black people in the US, of this settler-colonial ‘conservation' movement? Why, in the American collective memory, is the ‘conservation movement' often credited to powerful white figures of the 19th and early 20th centuries, despite the extreme environmental and social destruction that they helped caused? And why should there be a need for a settler-driven conservation movement when the original inhabitants of, what we now know as the US and Canada already very often already had systems of ‘conservationism' in place? On this episode, we study the racist origins of Western conservation movements, primarily in the United States; how the conservation movement and romanticization of nature have served the settler-colonial project; how these histories continue to inform certain currents of the mainstream climate activism of the present; and what an inclusive, decolonial understanding of environmental conservation can look like. Our guest is UConn professor Prakash Kashwan.
In this News Brief, we are joined by friend of the show Zachary A. Siegel to discuss the extremely effective, extremely racist rightwing outrage over drug kits and how the Democrats refusing to defend the policy on its merits sets back harm reduction efforts.
"Let's get this guy off the streets before he targets another innocent person." "If you've seen any of these fugitives, call our hotline now." "Thanks to a courageous tipster who did the right thing, this criminal won't be bothering anybody else for a very long time." For decades, local and national media - from nightly news broadcasts partnering with Crime Stoppers to primetime TV shows like America's Most Wanted - have warned consumers of dangerous criminals on the lam, lurking outside our neighborhood grocery stores. The FBI and police departments throughout the country, the public is told, are doing everything they can to catch The Bad Guys—they just need a little help from concerned, responsible, and vigilant citizens like you. Cue the calls to action imploring people to submit tips through hotlines, law enforcement websites, and social media. But what are the effects of this model, and how effective, really, is it? How does it shape the ways in which the US public understands crime? And why, after all of the scholarship documenting how police do little to make us more safe does this vigilante television addiction persist? On this episode, we examine how news and pop cultural media deputize and urge listeners, readers, and viewers to act as neighborhood vigilantes. We study how this instills a climate of constant, unnecessary fear; presents the current US and criminal legal system as the only option to reduce crime; excludes crimes against the poor and working class like wage theft, food and housing insecurity, and lack of healthcare; and how these systemics can inflict unjust harm upon the subjects of these anonymous tips. Our guest is journalist Tana Ganeva.
In this Live Interview from 1/11, we talk with Derecka Purnell, author of 'Becoming Abolitionists: Police, Protests, and the Pursuit of Freedom' about her new book, her personal journey of embracing an abolitionist model and how, in the midst of a full blown reactionary moment over a rise in murders, activists can address legitimate fears of crime and provide an alternative vision to the cruel, failed "lock em up" approach.
In this New Brief, we discuss the Winter of Labor Discipline and why holding the line against teachers unions is essential to establishing the "new normal" of working while sick with COVID for American workers.
In this follow up News Brief to our Christmas-themed episode on Hallmark, we discuss an angle we glossed over in our episode: the anti-labor business model of Hallmark films and how they portend a trend in the film industry more broadly. After our episode was published, a screenwriter with experience working with Hallmark and Hallmark-adjacent production companies reached out to us, sharing content guidelines and other materials about their creative and labor practices. On this Very Special News Brief, we chat with this anonymous screenwriter about the labor side of all the snowy, warm and fuzzy content churn.
A blast from the past teaches a town to embrace tradition and believe in miracles we simply can't explain. A cynical urban professional finds kindness and purpose while traveling through the heartland. Two old flames living in the fast lane discover, amid the magic of Christmas, that they were meant for each other all along. These loglines describe the plots of countless movies made for and broadcast by Hallmark, the famed greeting card company-turned-media conglomerate that has become synonymous with made-for-TV Christmas movies. The Hallmark Cinematic Universe is one in which the fantasies of conservatives everywhere are played out: everyone in town is part of a white nuclear family, bartenders and waiters are happy to be of service, single women are emotionally unfulfilled, police and the military are uniformly viewed as heroes, and the largesse of the wealthy brings joy to wholesome small towns. While it's easy, and of course fun, to dunk on Hallmark and Hallmark-inspired Christmas movies, it's also worth examining the political currents of Christmas movie schmaltz. What ideological precepts are their themes of nostalgia meant to reinforce? And what tropes do they perpetuate behind the cozy iconography of fuzzy sweaters and snow-lined sidewalks? On this episode, we seek to answer these questions, focusing on four movies: Journey Back to Christmas (2016), The Christmas Train (2017), Entertaining Christmas (2018), and Operation Christmas Drop (2020). We'll dive into the ways in which nostalgia for an imaginary MAGA-style past informs their character development, settings, and plots, leaving little room for messaging other than ‘Let's go back to the good old days.' Our guest is writer David Roth.
"Deregulation will make the economy more efficient and stimulate GDP growth," insist think tanks like the Brookings Institution and American Enterprise Institute. "Fiscal hawks," claiming to be worried about the deficit, demand austerity measures to reign in government spending. When it comes to "entitlement programs," we hear that "there are always tradeoffs." Time and again, the media and policymakers spew the same tired recitations meant to convey the seemingly natural, immutable laws of economics. The economy, we're told, is thriving when business owners and hedge fund managers are making record profits, yet failing when investments in social programs have gotten too big. And that's just how it is. Terms, phrases, and sentiments like these are part of a lexicon of economic euphemisms, cliches, and other forms of business-school speak designed to blur class lines and convince us all that our current economic system - entirely a result of policy choices largely designed to further enrich the wealthy at the expense of the broader welfare - is merely a function of cold, hard science, with rules and principles no more pliable than those of physics or chemistry. But why should we be expected to accept that a news report that “the economy” is on the upswing means the average worker is doing any better, when all evidence is to the contrary? Why should our media's economic "experts" come from a pool of elite economics departments beholden to corporate donors and right-wing think tanks? And why must "the economy" be defined in terms of whether the Dow is up or down, rather than whether people have food, housing, healthcare, and job security? On this episode - Part II of a two-part series - we'll examine another five of the most popular cliches, jargon, and rhetorical thingamajigs that economists, economic reporters and pundits use to sanitize, obscure, and provide a thin gloss of Science-ism to what is little more than power flattering cruel, racist austerity ideology. Our guest is writer Hadas Thier.
“Supply and demand.” “It's just Econ 101.” “Most economists agree...” “There's always trade offs.” Over and over, media and policymakers spew the same tired recitations meant to convey the seemingly natural, immutable laws of economics. "The economy," we're told, is thriving when business owners and job creators are making record profits, and failing when investments in social programs have simply grown too high — and that's the way it is and will, and should, always be. These terms, phrases and sentiments are part of a lexicon of economic euphemisms, cliches, and other forms of business-school speak designed to blur class lines and convince us that our economic system — entirely a result of policy choices largely designed to further enrich the wealthy at any the expense of the broader welfare — is a function of cold, hard science, with rules and principles no more pliable than those of physics or chemistry. But why should we be expected to just accept that a news report that “the economy” is on the upswing means the average worker is doing any better, when all evidence is to the contrary? Why should our media's economic so-called “experts” come from a pool of elite economics departments beholden to corporate donors and right-wing think tanks? And why must “the economy” be defined in terms of whether the Dow is up or down, instead of whether people have food, housing, healthcare, and job security? On this episode, part one of a two-part series, we examine the first five of our ten most popular clichés, jargon, and rhetorical thingamajigs that economists, economic reporters, and pundits use to sanitize, obscure, and provide a thin gloss of Science-ism to what is little more than power-flattering, cruel, racist, austerity ideology. Our guest is writer Hadas Thier.
A character played by an actor in a fat suit shovels food in his face, unable to restrain himself in a fit of rage. Another falls, too lazy and out-of-shape to get up without the aid of others. And yet another loses weight and avenges the anti-fat bullying she faced growing up, finally earning respect as a thin person. We see all of these tropes ad nauseam in film, television, literature, and other forms of arts and pop culture. They're a manifestation of a deep cultural hostility toward fat people - one that perpetuates a centuries-long stigma that both reduces them to their size and their eating habits, with little curiosity about any other facets of their lives, and equates their bodies with the sins of sloth, greed, and gluttony. The results: degradation, dehumanization, and a constant, unrelenting message that fatness is a moral failure. Whether in 19th Century sideshows and cartoons presenting fat people as the object of humiliation and scorn, sitcoms and movies of the 1990s using fat suits for a cheap laugh, or new dramedies that continue to miss the mark, the characterization of fat people as sin incarnate has hardly changed, thanks to a virulent and complex nexus of racism, classism, and misogyny. On this episode, we explore how mass media perpetuate anti-fatness in Western, and especially American, culture, examining the ways in which imperial conquest and capitalist development laid the foundation for hostility toward fat people; how even supposedly enlightened liberals use the thin patina of public health to mask routine anti-fat bullying; and the methods Hollywood and other sources of cultural products use to present fat characters as punchlines and nuisances who can only be kooky best friends or degenerate villains. Our guest is Professor Amy Erdman Farrell, author of Fat Shame: Stigma and the Fat Body in American Culture.
“The elites are out to get you and your hard-earned pay.” “We're spending too much on protecting foreign nations and not enough defending our own borders against immigrant invaders.” “China is taking your job and will soon take over your phone.” We are consistently fed this type of “rightwing populism” –– sticking up for the working man against an array of villains: coastal elites, liberal media and foreign boogeymen - but replete with seamy audience flattery, xenophobic and anti-Semitic dogwhistles and confusing, ever-shifting definitions of what exactly constitutes “the elite” and “the media.” With the rise and eventual presidency of Donald Trump there's been no shortage of pontificating and reporting about the appeal of “rightwing populism” but one aspect worth dissecting is the way in which wealthy Republican-funded media deliberately seeks to win over confused and sometimes lefty media consumers with a clever mix of faux class warfare, vague appeals to post-partisanship and piggybacking off legitimate discontent with the Democratic party to sow nihilism and suppress voter turnout. From Jacksonian "Producerism" to Trump's fake anti-imperialism to the shameless grifts of today's billionaire-backed hucksters like JD Vance, the right has long tried to soap box about the beleaguered working man and rail against the mysterious - often urban, black, brown or Jewish - authors of his pain and suffering. In this episode, Part Two of our two-part episode on right-wing populism, we dissect three more tropes of "right-wing populism," detailing the ways the Republican messaging apparatuses seek to rebrand their stale platform every 10 years with a new, tweaked version of warmed over John Bircherism. Our guest is Poor People's Campaign co-chair Reverend Dr. Liz Theoharis.
“It's not about right vs left, but the people vs the elites,” “Wall Street and the media are leaching off hard working Americans like you and me who play by the rules.” “Our elite have sold us out to China.” American media consumers are routinely fed, a particular, and often confusing brand of so-called “rightwing populism” –– nominally taking on “elites”, “the media,” and “bankers” and standing up for the every man but with a suspicious mix of xenophobia, self-help audience flattery, anti-Semitic dogwhistles and a semantics cup-and-ball game about how exactly, the speaker defines “elite” or “the media”. With the rise and eventual presidency of Donald Trump there's been no shortage of pontificating and reporting about the appeal of “rightwing populism” but one aspect worth dissecting is the way in which wealthy Republican-funded media deliberately seeks to win over confused and sometimes lefty media consumers with a clever mix of faux class warfare, vague appeals to post-partisanship and piggybacking off legitimate discontent with the Democratic party to sow nihilism and suppress voter turnout. From President Andrew Jackson and Alabama governor George Wallace to today's billionaire-backed charlatans like Tucker Carlson, Saagar Enjeti, JD Vance and Josh Hawley, there is a longstanding effort to take the working man and insist the author of his suffering isn't a class of people marked by a concentration of wealth and power, but a deliberately ill-defined “elite” of snot-nosed, overeducated liberals, immigrants, Jews, secularists, women and academics out to undermine their culture and way of life. On this first part of a two-part episode, we focus on the many ways that “rightwing populism” operates to confuse and distract, to pick off independents, liberals and even leftists, exploiting real failures of the Democratic Party and use fake class war to muddy the waters of real class war. Our guest is Daniel Martinez HoSang.
In this News Brief, we recapped how, in the face of a once in a generation opportunity to relieve poverty and address curb climate change, US media largely gave us personality, Horse Race coverage, and defensive snark–– aiding conservatives efforts to winnow down the bill to a fraction of its original size.
"Feed the world." "We are the world." "Be a light to the world." Every few years, it seems, a new celebrity benefit appears. Chock full of A-listers and inspirational tag lines, it promises to tackle any number of the world's large-scale problems, whether poverty, climate change, or disease prevention and eradication. From Live Aid in the 1980s to Bono's ONE Campaign of the early 2000s to the latest Global Citizen concerts, televised celebrity charity events, and their many associated NGOs, have enjoyed glowing media attention and a reputation as generally benign, even beloved, pieces of pop culture history. But behind the claims to end the world's ills lies a cynical network of funding and influence from predatory financial institutions like the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, multinationals like Coca-Cola and Cargill, soft-power organs like USAID, and private “philanthropic” arms like the Gates Foundation. This arrangement reached its high point at the turn of the 21st century and continues today, largely in response to outrage from anti-Pharma and anti-poverty activists from the global south and anti-globalization protesters in the 1990s. This Bono-Bill Gates-World Bank model has gained virtually unchallenged media coverage as the new face of slick, NGO "activism," in opposition to the unwieldy, anarchist-y and genuinely grassroots nature of the opposition it faced on America's television screens each time there was a G7 or WTO meeting. While this celebrity-NGO complex purports to reduce suffering in the Global South - almost always a monolithic and mysterious place called "Africa," to be more specific - suffering on a grand scale never meaningfully decreases. Rather, it adheres to a vague “We Must Do Something” form of liberal politics, identifying no perpetrators of or reasons for the world's ills other than an abstract sense of corruption or "inaction." Meanwhile, powerful Western interests, intellectual property regimes and corporate money - the primary drivers of global poverty - are not only ignored, but held up as the solution to the very problems they perpetuate. On this episode, we study the advent of the celebrity benefit and the attendant Bono-Bill Gates-Global Citizen model of "activism," examining the dangers inherent in this approach and asking why the media aren't more skeptical of these high-profile PR events that loudly announce, with bleeding hearts the existence of billions of victims but are, mysteriously, unable to name a single victimizer. Our guests are economic anthropologist Jason Hickel and Health Action International's Jaume Vidal.
In this News Brief, we recap the recap of Powell's life, from the handwringing over his Iraq War UN speech to the erasure of his role in covering up My Lai massacre to training rightwing death squads in Central America and the central importance of "Good Intentions" when venerating our beloved, bipartisan war-makers.
In this recording of a Live Interview for Patrons from 9/22, we speak with The Nation sports editor Dave Zirin about his new book, The Kaepernick Effect, and how a series of protests in youth sports, namely among black youth, set off firestorms and backlash in dozens of small towns throughout the country. And what the "leave politics out of sports" ethos says about the evergreen importance of racial disciplining in sports media.
“The eviction moratorium is killing small landlords” CNBC cautions. "Some small landlords struggle under eviction moratoriums,” declares The Washington Post. “Economic Pressures Are Rising On Mom And Pop Rental Owners,” laments NPR. ”[Landlords] can't hold on much longer,” cries an LA Times headline. Throughout the course of the pandemic, we've seen a spate of media coverage highlighting the plight of the small or so-called “mom-and-pop landlord” struggling to make ends meet. The story usually goes something like this: A modest, down-on-their-luck owner of two or three properties — say, a elderly grandmother or hardworking medical professional — hopes to keep them long enough to hand them down to their kids, but fears financial ruin in the face of radical tenant-protection laws. But this doesn't reflect the reality of rental housing ownership in the United States. Over the last couple decades, corporate entities, from Wall Street firms to an opaque network of LLCs, have increasingly seized ownership of the rental housing stock, intensifying the asymmetry of landlord-tenant power relations and rendering housing ever more precarious for renters. In the meantime, the character of the “mom-and-pop landlord” has been evoked nonstop — much like that of the romantic “small business owner” — in order to sanitize the image of property ownership and gin up opposition to legislation that would protect tenants from eviction moratoria to rent control. On this episode, we explore the overrepresentation of the “mom-and-pop landlord” in media, contrasting it with the actual makeup of rental housing ownership. We'll also examine how the media-burnished image of the beleaguered, barely-scraping-by landlord puts a human face on policies that further enrich a property-owning class while justifying the forceful removal of renters from their homes. Our guest is Alexander Ferrer of Strategic Actions for a Just Economy (SAJE).
“Write from experience.” “Show, don't tell.” Self-knowledge. Self-discipline. Well-known conventions like these, whether delivered in classrooms, writing seminars or simply from one writer to another, often anchor traditional writing advice for literary authors and journalists alike in the United States. While they may seem benign and often useful, they also have a history of political utility. Thanks to a network of underwritten cultural projects and front groups, state organs like the CIA and State Department collaborated with creative-writing programs like the Iowa Writers' Workshop and publications like the Paris Review to cultivate and reinforce writing tenets like these. The aim: to focus literature and journalism on the individual, feelings, and details, rather than on community, political theory, and large-scale political concepts. This, of course, isn't to say subversive literature cannot be first person and sensory, or that these modes of writing are per se conservative––but there is a long and well-documented history of conservative, anti-Left institutions pushing them because, on the whole, they veered (or at least were thought to have steered) writers away from the dot-connecting, the structural and the collective. On this episode, we discuss the ways in which first-person journalism, solipsism and creative nonfiction, as taught and prized in the US, reinforce existing power structures, exploring how a Cold War-era history of state- and state-adjacent funding of literary journals, educational programs, and other cultural projects taught writers to center themselves and inconsequential details at the expense of raising urgent political questions and notions of class solidarity. Our guest is author Eric Bennett.
In June 2020, founders of the ride-request app Lyft announced that they had launched “allyship dialogues“ and were committed to fighting “systemic racism” which they said is “deeply rooted in our society.” The same month, an Uber marketing campaign proudly recommended to “racists” that they should “delete Uber,” as they were unwelcome customers. At the same time, the food delivery service app DoorDash announced a series of initiatives to “support Black-owned restaurants.” Everywhere we turned, as popular uprisings against police violence and white supremacy filled the streets, Silicon Valley gig app companies that rely on and profit from the labor of predominantly Black and brown workers, insisted they too were committed to fighting racial injustice. But something curious was unfolding at the same time these multi-billion dollar companies paid lip service and made token donations to bail funds and civil rights groups: they were simultaneously pumping tens of millions more on pushing support for Proposition 22 –– a ballot initiative in California — that would exempt app-based transportation and delivery companies from a state law that required them to classify drivers as employees, permitting those companies to not provide essential benefits like healthcare, paid time off, and unemployment insurance. With 78% of ride-hail app drivers in San Francisco being people of color and 55% of Uber drivers in California identifying as such, the law would overwhelmingly impact nonwhite, disproportionately immigrant communities. Knowing this, and compelled by the broader corporate efforts to exploit the George Floyd uprisings as a branding opportunity, companies like DoorDash, Uber, Lyft and other app-based employers rushed to present the diminishment of worker protections not as manifestly anti-Black and anti-brown anti-labor laws, but actually empowering to drivers of colors. Spending millions on advertising, a patchwork of large donations to community groups planting op-eds in Black and Hispanic press, and focus-grouped language about employee “freedom,” “independence,” “being your own boss,” “flexibility” and general rise-and-grind framing, Super PACs alongside Bay Area and LA-based marketing firms aggressively targeted minority communities to back Prop 22, despite all independent analysis and labor organizations insisting it would be bad for workers of color. On this Season 5 Premiere of Citations Needed, we detail how this plan played out –– and ultimately won, how corporations buy off organizations and adapt nonprofit speak to harm communities of color, and how the idea of “third worker categories” –– like the ones pushed by Uber and Lyft are suspiciously similar to Jim Crow-era efforts to strip black and immigrant workers of the rights white workers were winning under the then-New Deal. Our guest is Veena Dubal, Professor of Law at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law.
"Concerns rising inside White House over surge in violent crime," CNN tells us. "America's Crime Surge: Why Violence Is Rising, And Solutions To Fix It," proclaims NPR. "Officials worry the rise in violent crime portends a bloody summer," reports The Washington Post. Over and over this summer we have heard – and will no doubt continue to hear – the scourge of rising crime is the most urgent issue on voters' minds. Setting aside the way media coverage itself shape public opinion, the rising murder rates in urban areas is indeed very real and its victims disproportionately Black and Latino. In response, like clockwork, Democrats and Democratic Party-aligned media have allied with conservatives and right-wing media are rehashing the same tired responses: more police, longer sentences, and tougher laws. But this time, they assure us it will be different: it won't be racist and overly punitive. Instead, in addition to the return of 1990s Tough On Crime formula. we will get enough nebulous reforms and anti-bias training that it will somehow be enlightened and consistent with the demands of Black Lives Matter. But everything we know about the past 50 years tells us this will not be true. Indeed, if more policing and prisons solved crime, the United States would be the safest country on Earth, but, of course, it is not. According to The American Journal of Medicine, compared to 22 other high-income nations, the United States' gun-related murder rate is 25 times higher despite imprisoning people at rates 5-10 times what other rich nations do. So why do lawmakers and the media always reach for the same so-called "solutions" when it comes to crime? What are the assumptions that inform how we respond to an increase in homicides and other violent crime? How can the wealthiest nation in the world throw billions of dollars, more police, longer sentences, and tougher prosecutors at our high murder rates only to continue to wildly outpacing the rest of the so-called developed world on this, the most urgent of metrics? On this episode, we explore the origins of "crime," what crimes we consider noteworthy and which are ignored, how property rights and white supremacy informed the crime we center in our media, how the crimes of poverty, environmental destruction, wage theft, and discrimination are relegated to the arena of tort, with its gentle fines and drawn out lawsuits – while petty theft and drug use results in long prison sentences. We'll study how these bifurcations inform both media accounts of crime and how we respond with more police, and longer sentences the second we are faced with so-called crime waves. Our guests are Civil Rights Corps' Alec Karakatsanis and sociologist Tamara K. Nopper.
In this recording of a Live Interview for Patrons from 7/22, we discuss the scheduled shock doctrine of global sporting events like FIFA and the Olympics and how they use the PR spectacle of sports––and the emotional blackmail of "supporting athletes"–– to enhance security states, displaced the poor, loosen environmental and labor restrictions, and, above all, serve the interests of large corporate advertisers and real estate developers. with guests Shireen Ahmed and Jules Boykoff.
"America's 50 best cities to live in," reveals USA Today. "These rising U.S. cities could become the top places to live and work from home," reports CNBC. "The best U.S. cities to raise a family," lists MarketWatch. Over and over again in American media we hear stories centered around ranking, judging and analyzing the rather vague concept of a city. But who is being discussed when we talk about "cities"? How are "cities" a meaningful unit to understand a given space, especially in a country marked by runaway inequality and segregation? When we're told Johns Creek, Georgia, is the best city for "young people," or Carmel, Indiana, is the most "livable," whose lives and experiences are the media really talking about? Who is the audience for these reports about the best cities for families, for nightlife, for safety, for education, for happiness? The criteria most U.S. corporate media uses centers a very particular constituent: Your average homeowner or prospective homeowner, usually white, upwardly mobile, namely, those who marketers, investors and real estate agents most want to reach. Cities then, aren't deemed livable for their fair labor practices, but for their business-friendly policies. They're not worth moving to for their abundance of free public space in low-income neighborhoods, but for their charming boutiques and chic restaurants. They don't rank high for their strong rent-control laws, but for their ability to attract tech companies and they capture attention not for their excellent mental-health statistics, but for their "booming economies". On this episode, we parse the ways in which media coverage of cities and urban living — often crafted by white professional-class writers for white professional-class audiences, and funded by faceless parent companies and corporate advertisers — centers the most powerful while ignoring the needs of the working class, the homeless, people with disabilities, and the vast majority of Black and brown residents. Our guest is VOCAL-NY's Jawanza James Williams.
"Beef. It's what's for dinner," the baritone voices of actors Robert Mitchum and Sam Elliott told us in the 1990s. "We're not gonna let Joe Biden and Kamala Harris cut America's meat!" cried Mike Pence during a speech in Iowa last year. "To meet the Biden Green New Deal targets, America has to, get this, America has to stop eating meat," lamented Donald Trump adviser Larry Kudlow on Fox Business. Repeatedly, we're reminded that red meat is the lifeblood of American culture, a hallmark of masculine power. This association has lingered for well over a century. Starting in the late 1800s, as white settlers expropriated Indigenous land killing Native people and wildlife in pursuit of westward expansion across North America, the development and promotion of cattle ranching — and its product: meat — was purposefully imbued with the symbolism of dominance, aggression, and of course, manliness. There's an associated animating force behind this messaging as well: the perception of waning masculinity in our settler-colonial society. Whether a reaction to the closure of the American West as a tameable frontier in the late 19th century or to the contemporary Right's imagined threats of "soy boys" and a U.S. military that has supposedly gone soft under liberal command, the need to affirm a cowboy sense of manliness, defined and expressed through violence and domination, continues to take the form of consuming meat. On this episode, we study the origins of the cultural link between meat eating and masculinity in settler-colonial North America; how this has persisted into the present day via right-wing charlatans like Jordan Peterson, Josh Hawley and Tucker Carlson who panic over the decline of masculinity; and the social and political costs of the maintenance and preservation of Western notions of manliness. Our guest is history professor and author Kristin Hoganson.
In this public News Brief, we discuss a recent advice column in the New York Times advocating upwardly mobile professionals dump their fat and depressed friends and how it's part of a much broader trend of pop sociology repackaging cruelty and soft eugenics as "science-driven" self improvement.
"Oligarch". "Hardliner". "Regime". All common terms seen in Anglo-American media when describing politicians and power structures in official villain states; yet - mysteriously absent when talking about ourselves or our allies. This Part II of our Citations Needed countdown of the Top 10 "Enemy Epithets," derisive descriptors that are deployed to smear enemies without any symmetrical usage for U.S. officials, policy or imperial partners. Designed to conjure up nasty images of despotism and oppression, often pandering to Orientalized prejudice, these epithets demand people shut off their brains and have the label do the thinking for them. We are joined again by FAIR's Janine Jackson and Jim Naureckas.