Investigative Journalist David Sirota discusses the media’s role in the time of Trump, and holding Democrats accountable while Republicans are in power
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Speaker 1: What does a progressive resistance to Trump look like? Oh, man. I mean, I’m saying this … To be clear, I am a journalist. I am a journalist who covers these issues. I’m not playing political strategist here. My view is that a progressive resistance to Trump is one that you would think by its very terms, would mean a resistance to the policies of Trump, not just to Trump, the human being. I think right now, what you’ve seen is a policy-free resistance to Trump, a political resistance to Trump, based more on enmity against Trump as a person than necessarily Trump as a vehicle for policy. I think frankly, that kind of resistance is safer for Democratic politicians, that it’s easier politically oppose Trump on issues like the Russia situation, on allegations of foreign influence, even potentially on allegations of conflicts of interest with his business, and to be clear, I’m not saying any of those issues are not issues. They are legitimate issues, but it is easier to make those kinds of issues central to a resistance than making, for instance, his particular policies on infrastructure, his particular policies on healthcare, his particular policies on fossil fuel development, the centerpiece of a resistance, because a resistance based on resistance to those kinds of policies potentially antagonizes big donors and big money. The big donors and big money are not threatened by a resistance to Donald Trump that is predicated on allegations about Russia, that are predicated on allegations of incompetence and mismanagement. To be clear, in the Russia case, yes you could argue there’s some money issues at work there with the oil interests and the like, but in general, that is a fundamentally different form of opposition and resistance than saying, “We are going to fight Donald Trump’s healthcare plans and propose an alternative,” because by proposing an alternative, you are potentially alienating a huge amount in that case, of healthcare money. I think the long-term shortcoming of a resistance that’s based primarily on a political resistance rather than a policy resistance is if Trump is disempowered or impeached or thrown out, that process hasn’t birthed necessarily a mandate for or momentum for a new set of long-term policies. Speaker 2: So is it also going to be important to wage resistance to the moneyed interests, the oligarchy like Sanders said, within the Democratic Party as well, if people are going to fight for something rather than just resist Trump? Speaker 1: Well I mean, you’ve got to ask the question why hasn’t there been more of a forceful, coherent policy resistance to Trump? I think it’s because the Democratic Party is constantly caught between knowing what it should do to win elections, which is propose a positive policy vision on issues that are popular. They’re caught between that and their donor class, and so there is this constant search by Democratic operatives and pundits and politicians to try to find on the Venn diagram, some middle ground. “Where can we satisfy the public and also appease our donors?” That crossover in the Venn diagram is getting narrower and narrower because what the public wants is becoming in direct opposition to what the donor class wants. It’s becoming a narrower and narrower area, if that is your formula, for Democrats to operate. I think what Bernie Sanders represents threatens that formula, because what it says is you can run winning campaigns or at least almost winning campaigns, and certainly he didn’t lose for lack of resources, you can run competitive campaigns with a completely different paradigm, where you don’t have to answer to a donor class, and which frees you to run on issues that are wildly popular with the public. I mean, I said on something on Twitter recently, I was kind of joking but I was like, “If you want to understand Democratic politics and the problem with it right now, in terms of its political success, is if you take the idea that healthcare should be a basic human right, and you blast it through a windscreen of corporate donor money, on the other side what you get a policy that says, ‘We should subsidize private insurance executives’ salaries.’” The policy impulse may be right, but when you’re filtering it through, “We need to appease our donors,” on the other side comes a policy that doesn’t necessarily solve the problem, isn’t politically popular, and essentially leaves everything the same. It’s a status quo policy. Speaker 2: On that issue, would you agree that that is what the Democratic establishment wants? They want to maintain the status quo, and so we saw that with the fact that Jarrett Messina, as you’ve written about, he went to go work with the Conservatives, the Tories in England, against a progressive, socialist challenger with a vision that was starkly different than what his own party had done in the past, support foreign wars, erode the social state. Speaker 1: I mean, I don’t know … I mean, Jim Messina ran Barack Obama’s campaign. You can’t attribute what one person decides to do to the whole party, but I think it is emblematic of one idea that on economic issues, and the British election was a lot about economics, that on economic issues the corporate wing of the Democratic party is not that far away from, for instance, the Conservatives in Britain. I think that example confirms some people’s fears, and suspicions that the corporate wing of the Democratic Party, if forced to choose, would choose the Democratic Party losing to a Republican rather than winning with a socialist, or somebody who was a true progressive. I think that it’s not … We’re talking in general terms here, but I think for instance, now when we talk about the Democratic Party, I’m not even necessarily saying we’re talking about the Democratic rank and file electorate. I’m saying if you look at the [inaudible 00:07:49] of insiders who runs the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party is run by operatives, it’s run by activists, it’s run by lobbyists, it’s run by donors. If you look at that core of the machine that we know, that we call the Democratic Party, there is not an insubstantial number of people in that machine who if forced to choose, would probably be more comfortable in opposition to a Republican president than having to support a Democratic Party’s very progressive or socialist presidential candidate. Speaker 2: To what extent do you think our obsession with celebrities and wealth enabled Trump’s presidency? How should progressives push back against celebrities and pop culture appropriating and driving the Trump resistance. You say that with that Pepsi ad, you see it with celebrities who really don’t know about politics, but are using it to market themselves. Speaker 1: Look, I mean, I’m of two minds on this. I think Trump used his celebrity to … I mean, obviously Trump’s celebrity was a huge force in at least putting him on the presidential map. That is what put him on the presidential map. It wasn’t his business acumen. I mean, this was not … Back in the ’80s there was a rumor that Lee Iacocca was going to run for president. I mean, Lee Iacocca was both a celebrity but also like ran an actual giant company. Donald Trump, I don’t think most people think that Donald Trump, his business acumen qualifies him to be president. I think his business dealings made him famous and the fame put him on the presidential map. Those are two different things. I think that celebrities using their platform to speak out, by the way on both sides, speak out for Trump, speak out against Trump, I think people who have platforms have every right to use those platforms. I am not a person who thinks that … I’m not a “shut up and sing” kind of person. I think that we need more of our politics to be expressed in our civic lives, in our day to day lives, that I think for a good long while, everything was far more depoliticized than it should have been. I mean, in the 1990’s and in late ’80s, there was this sense that society had become depoliticized, that after this era … Sports is a good example. After this era of the ’60s where you had a lot of sports, athletes who were activists. The ’80s and ’90s, it was a very depoliticized sports world. I’d rather have a society where people are politically engaged. I mean, they may not be right or intelligent or informed, but at least they’re following and engaged. That’s better for a democracy. I think, though, you’re also right to say, “How much does the resistance get appropriated as a cultural symbol devoid of political meaning?” I think that’s a fair question. Does resistance to Trump just become a slogan, a pop culture slogan that doesn’t mean anything? Yeah, it’s possible, and that goes back to what we were talking about originally, which is that a resistance that’s devoid of any meaning other than “Anybody but Trump,” if the resistance is, “Anybody but Trump,” or, “Anything but Trump,” then it I think misses an opportunity of political awakening to actually make that political awakening mean something for the policies that will govern us for the next many decades. Speaker 2: As an investigative journalist, I wanted to ask you a question about just the media and their role in this. What have been effective strategies in exposing those rifts between corporate politicians and their rhetoric, and the actual impact of their policy? Speaker 1: That kind of investigative journalism, accountability journalism, is just not rocket science. What is a politician saying? Who’s that politician taking money from? Did that politician therefore not do what they promised? That is a formula and an important one. You could do a story like that every day, and in a perfect world, a story like that would come out every day. Or, maybe in a perfect world, stories like that wouldn’t exist because that dynamic wouldn’t happen, but in a perfect journalism world, we would be focused on doing those stories every day. I am focused on doing those stories as much as I can, and I think an effective strategy when it comes vis-a-vis the Democrats is to simply be willing to tell those stories about Democrats, because those stories exist about Democrats. I think there’s this subtle pressure to say that in the era of Trump, by some would say that those kinds of stories aren’t important because they’re not about Trump or they’re not about the Republicans. “Why are you reporting on both Democrats and Republicans? Why aren’t you reporting only on Republicans?” I think there’s a case to say, “Well look, Republicans are in power so that’s an important thing to keep in mind,” but it’s also important to remember that if the Democratic Party, at least right now, is the primary empowered vehicle in the short-term, to provide opposition, then you’ve got to ask questions of that vehicle of opposition and whether it is fundamentally compromised or not. Speaker 2: You’ve gotten a lot of criticism online from people saying, “Oh, you’re pro Trump.” What would you say to push back against those criticisms, and how do progressive cut through that like, “Vote blue no matter who” blind loyalty? Speaker 1: It’s a tough one. I mean, I’m not in the business of telling people who to vote for, who not to vote for. That’s not the work I do now. I would say that if the Democratic Party and progressives are proud of a politician, then they shouldn’t fear that politician being scrutinized, that I reject the idea that doing investigative scrutiny on a public official is attacking that official. I reject the idea that if you like a politician, it means that anybody who reports in an accountability journalism fashion on that politician, anybody who does that is a bad person, or is unnecessarily harming the candidate you like. Journalism is not an attack. Accountability journalism is not an attack. Even adversarial journalism is not an attack. If you perceive the facts to be an attack, what you’re really asking for, what you apparently really desire is propaganda. That is a different thing than journalism. Journalism reports facts without fear or favor, and if people have a problem with my journalism in the sense of they think I got a fact wrong, I want to hear about that. I need to hear about that. That’s important to me, that is my job, is to be accurate and report the facts. If people have a problem with the political ramifications of the facts that I surface, that this fact came out and therefore it was bad for a politician, if they want to say that makes me bad, they can feel that way, but I reject that. That’s not something I can worry about. I have to worry about my job is to report the fact, and to report the fact pattern wherever it leads to, and without regard for whether it serves one political party or the other. Speaker 2: How do you hold the media accountable to cover stories? Like, you mentioned that, Ken Salazar in Colorado, everything happening there, the Denver Post, local outlets are ignoring it. In Connecticut, with Dan Malloy, I think they were a little bit better but in doing that, the mainstream media really ignored what was a big story. Speaker 1: Yeah I mean, look, I used to worry a lot more about who was covering what and who wasn’t covering what. I’d worry about it, and it’d be on my mind, and I’m not saying it’s not an issue. But I think the media ecosystem has changed significantly, even in the last five years, where if something doesn’t get covered in the Denver Post, or it doesn’t get covered in Connecticut or wherever, there’s now new avenues to get that story out. That has made me less obsessed with lack of coverage from other places, because I feel like more and more there are ways to get information to people that don’t have to rely on legacy media middlemen who omit the story, that there is a way to get to an audience. Maybe it’s not as big an audience, but there’s a way to get to an audience. Yeah, I mean, where I live, the Denver Post in a lot of ways doesn’t do a very good job on a lot of political issues. They do some good reporting on some issues, some really good reporting on some issues, but on a lot of political issues they just … A lot of that is not nefarious. They just don’t have the resources anymore. I mean, they’re owned by a hedge fund, or the financial industry players. They’ve had budget cuts. I get less worried about it. I mean, I don’t like it, but I get less worried about it because I feel like there’s a way to find an audience in the community outside of that. Speaker 2: How should think tanks be held accountable for pushing propaganda subtly and for hiding behind curtains of dark money where you don’t know where the money is coming from? Speaker 1: I mean, I would say that’s the same thing as a politician, which is that basically I think that you always need to scrutinize … You scrutinize a politician, where is that politician getting money from? You have to scrutinize, where is my information source getting money from? Doesn’t mean their information is wrong, doesn’t mean their study is wrong, it just means that especially if you’re getting opinion from a “expert” at a think tank. That is distinct from empirical data. I mean, if a think tank you don’t like or is funded by somebody you gives you basic, indisputable data, their funding doesn’t affect the data. It may affect the presentation of it, but it’s a lot different when you see, “This expert from this think tank has this opinion on this bill.” It’s important to ask, “What forces are shaping your opinion?” I think that kind of accountability, I mean, that is accountability. That’s what those operations don’t want. I’ve done a lot of reporting on the use of think tanks to move quasi corporate propaganda into the mainstream, under the guise of academic research, and I think it’s a hugely under reported set of stories, and it requires from scrutiny.