On George Floyd, leaving DC and recovery – Fourth Watch “BCC Interview” with journalist Ana Marie Cox

This week’s BCC Interview is with Ana Marie Cox, who I’ve gotten to know over the years and have tremendous respect for. She currently hosts the excellent “With Friends Like These” podcast at Crooked Media.

We don’t agree on everything – but we got pretty deep in this one. We talked a lot about George Floyd coverage (Cox lives in Minneapolis) and what comes next in the media, as well our mutual trip out of the journalism “Acela Media” world. And then, with all BCC Interviews, I published it in full, below. Check out past BCC Interviews with Fox News’ Greg Gutfeld or Ben Smith of the New York Times, and subscribe to Fourth Watch here. Read the full interview below…

From: Steve Krakauer

To: Ana Marie Cox

Hey Ana-

Well you and I have never really talked, and I think despite our lengthy occasional DM conversations we’ve never really emailed either. I’ve wanted to talk with you since I started these BCC Interviews because I love your “With Friends Like These” podcast and it’s (I think?) mission to talk to a variety of voices that you don’t necessarily agree with and do so respectfully and from a position of curiosity and not judgement. We need that in America more than ever. That said, the past few days have shifted Minneapolis, where you live, into the country’s spotlight. So let’s start there – how are you? How are things there? And how do you think the national media who have descended on your city in the wake of a horrific murder by a police officer of George Floyd are doing covering the aftermath – protests, riots and violence?

What is the media not showing – or are people who spend way too much time arguing on Twitter missing about the story? And, you know, how do we come out of this better as a country? Something Killer Mike said in his much-watched speech in Atlanta Friday night has stuck with me – he implored the media to “stop feeding fear and anger every day.” I wonder if that message resonates in newsrooms in our old homes of NYC and DC. I really don’t know. I think fear and anger as a media business decision – frankly, on both sides of the journalistic aisle – may be too ingrained to change. And the only way to fix things is to disrupt from the outside (like with Joe Rogan, or say, Friends Like These).

Feel free to throw any questions my way…


From: Ana Marie Cox

To: Steve Krakauer

First of all, many apologies for how long it’s taken to get this kicked off. It has been an odd week or so here, which gets us to your first question: How am I?

I’m… ok? I’m sober, which is the first priority in my life. I’m healthy. My loved ones are safe and healthy. My work is compensated at a reasonable rate. I am a relatively wealthy straight white woman who has never known real hunger or need, and statistically probably never will. 

I go through the days mostly feeling like an observer rather than a participant, in a literal way because almost all of the unrest is happening miles away from where I live and, more figuratively, my life circumstances insulate me from ever having to feel too much of other people’s pain if I don’t want to. The George Floyd uprisings have led me to question where exactly the pain I do feel comes from. Is it the human horror of seeing someone die who shouldn’t have to die? Is it the grief over rift in my city? Is it guilt over how much I still take for granted the fact that I can call the police any time, that my husband — a recovering drug addict, with more brushes with the law than he can count — never once had a police officer treat him as less than human?

I know I’ve felt the most anger when, as you imply, people from the outside have come into town — or written about the Cities — as thought what’s happening is a surprise. I had a funny/sad conversation with a new neighbor — a 50s white guy who moved downtown from the burbs — who told me (even as we were still under a 7pm curfew, post-precinct-sacking), “I’ve never been to a protest in my life, but I’d be willing to join this one if I knew it’d be safe. Even I know how bad the MPD is, and if I know that, then they’re *really bad.*”

Maybe taking a little time to get back to you has been for the best, too, because it seems clear now that the spasm of violence here was just that — a spasm. And the generosity and decency of the people here has emerged in still-circulating waves — the clean-up crews on the South side have asked people to stop coming. The campaign to recall Mike Freeman (the county AG who was reluctant to “speed up” the investigation) has its petition drive (literally, doing a drive-through, for Covid reasons) volunteer slots taken through next week. Community organizations are directing money elsewhere. Donations of food and household goods are coming in so fast that one organizer I know stopped accepting them for a day just so they could do inventory.

I think some people have seen some of that on TV and Twitter; those stories are telegenic in their own way.

My concern now is what will happen when all the cameras are gone; when the outsiders have left and turned attention away — along with my fellow well-meaning white people right here in town. What changes? What actually changes? 

The current season of With Friends Like These, as you may know, is about coverts and conversion experiences. “White light” moments work, you know. People can have a singular profound experience that changes them forever. Cultures, no so much.

From: Steve Krakauer

To: Ana Marie Cox

Hey Ana-

While glad you’re doing well, considering. You talk about what changes, real change, when the cameras are gone. I’ve been thinking about that too in the broader media landscape. Even as we enter a scenario in the near term where protests are peaceful but riots and looting have subsided, will the media remain? What kind of bigger, broader issues will the media take from this when it comes to stories that matter (and representation too)? Or, as Killer Mike said, will there be less “fear and anger” and more listening, and learning? I hope so.

You mention recovery, and I want to ask you about that in the context of something else. Your journalistic journey, I’d imagine, has not been altogether untied from your recovery journey? I first came to know of you when you were running Wonkette, as a Gawker property. What was that experience like, in the moment, and also looking back at it now? How do you think that helped shape and define your career, and the choices that came next? All things considered… what are your thoughts on the death of Gawker?

And sticking with Wonkette – do you ever miss the DC media scene?


From: Ana Marie Cox

To: Steve Krakauer

I was just thinking about the question of not just the “media remaining” but also the more general question of what it would mean for “this” (however you define it) to “end.” Apologies for all the scare quotes, but not sure how else to signify how these words and ideas are all — as we used to say in grad school — contested. 

But I’ll get to my question, which I think also gets to yours: What would it even mean to have “this” “end”? At the broadest level of analysis, the struggle against injustice will end with the return of Christ. But I know that’s not what you meant.

What you mean by “this” is, I think “what the mainstream media thinks people want to watch” — on-camera fires, overt looting, police violence, violent interactions with the police, large protests, confrontations with elected officials, emotional rants by people who have had enough. It’s a smart-ass answer but a true one to point out that only a few of those things are really going to go away: large-scale protests, and on-camera mass vandalism and robbery. Everything else (police violence, confrontations, emotional rants) will continue, there just won’t be as *many* cameras to capture them and without the eye candy of violence and/or scale, not many people be interested.

The question of *when* the interest wanes — on the part of the marchers, the viewers, and assigning editors… The unrest in Ferguson went on for 14 days, which we’re coming up on here in Minneapolis. AND the city council is about to do thing the protests have come to be about, defunding the MPD. AND some organizers have started to weigh the risks of the coronavirus more heavily than what the protests could further accomplish.

I could see the community leaders wrapping up after the city council vote, and thus everyone else moving on, too. I know Sharpton is planning a march in DC in August. An audacious bit of timing that suggests he’s forgotten what DC is like in August—and might bode ill for coverage.

And people get bored. Everyone gets bored. I worry that this amazing outpouring of energy on behalf of ending white supremacy is going to be a fad and not a movement. Remember the summer of 2020? Everyone was on TikTok and we protested police brutality!

I’ll at least touch on one more thing: I do think something about what’s happening has changed the way the mainstream media *operates,* which ultimately does change the tone and message: the assigning of black reporters, and other people of color, to cover and comment on issues relating to race. Not to do punditry, to report.

I haven’t done a quantitative analysis but my sense is that the major outlets sent out more diverse crews than they have before. Maybe they felt shamed into it, maybe it was some kind of virtue signaling BUT I think this moment has made them figure out that diversity in assigning is a good unto itself! They’ve finally learned that if you send a white person into these environments means you will never get the whole story. 

Not that sending a black reporter means you get the “whole” story either, but you get a different story, because everyone (no matter what their color) will behave differently toward and say different things based on the skin color of the person asking the questions. Recognizing that different reporters will necessarily produce different stories isn’t about achieving a certain tone or slant to the actual news product, or even about proving you’re woke with your hires, it really is about getting at much of the truth as you can. 

And, to be perfectly crass about it, the police will treat a black reporter differently than a white reporter and it turns out that makes for good television.

But there’s a good chance that outlets internalizing that lesson — hiring AND UTILIZING THE SKILLS OF black people and other minorities is a *sound business and journalistic practice* — might be the real legacy here. Editors might stop thinking in terms of tokenism and start thinking about the actual monetary and journalistic (as well as social) value of attacking a story with as many tools as you have handy, diversity of background being one of them. 

Ok that’s way too much; I’ll get to some sobriety shit next time, maybe!

From: Steve Krakauer

To: Ana Marie Cox

Hey Ana-

Last email from me – and let me start with one thing I totally agree with you on. I do hope, and think, this will change the way the media views “diversity.” If it was at one point seen as a sort of pro forma box-checking – like the NFL’s Rooney Rule perhaps – I believe there will be a real effort to substantively change and become more fully inclusive of a diversity of experience, seeing that it really can contribute to the depth of coverage.

Now, I imagine we’ll have growing pangs here – I think the uprising and subsequent purge at the New York Times over the Cotton op-ed as an example of the pendulum swinging too far the other direction – but I do think there will be real, positive growth also. Newsrooms will give more of an opportunity to younger, hungry, people of color to have positions to succeed in big ways. That will lead to a more systemic change as they are promoted and have added power.

At the same time, I hope though we don’t start seeing this as being dictated by Twitter, as I believe so much of the media instinctively rushes to. It’s so unrepresentative of reality. Do you worry about the effect Twitter has on this process, both in terms of policy but also media change?

Let me focus my last question on what I think matters most from my previous question – a brief look at your journalistic journey from Wonkette (under the Gawker umbrella) to now, and leaving DC. I am curious about that shift…which feels to me both big and small, and one I think for many younger journalists is worth looking at (and, I’d say, potentially emulating). But that’s me projecting. What do you think?

Thanks for doing this, and stay well.Steve

From: Ana Marie Cox

To: Steve Krakauer

I’ll start with something I think we probably agree on, too: I love Twitter, it’s exposed me to a ton of different voices, and it’s a very easy way to see the most immediate happenings in the world. That said: If you are relying on on Twitter to understand how the world looks, and what people think, you are a terrible journalist. 

Right now, yes, I think it does have too much sway, especially with journalists, who love Twitter because it scratches all of our journalistic desires (IMMEDIATE PUBLISHING WITH NO EDITOR). It’s the bubbliest of all the bubbles and its media-centricness creates more issues than any political sway. Because even if you follow a wide array of voices (and I do), you’re still only seeing what THEY argue about. You’re seeing what people who work in the media care about, and… our concerns are not the concerns of most Americans. So many of us realize that intellectually and yet… 
It’s the virtual version of living in the Acela corridor, compounded if you are, in fact, living in the Acela corridor. If you live in DC, it’s quite possible to go days or weeks primarily interacting with other people who are part of political/journalistic/media borg. A lot of us are (or, uh, were) married to other borgs, and go to borg social events, have children who go to school with the children of other borgs, etc.

And that gets us to me, I think. Because while there have been many changes in my life in the past 16 years, one of the most powerful forces has been simply not being in DC. I am fortunate enough to be unable to avoid the “civilian” world in my everyday life. Very few of the people I talk to on a regular basis work in the media. My husband is an insurance broker. I am extremely close to the people in my home group AA meeting — we know each other’s deepest, darkest secrets. But I have little-to-no idea what most of them do for a living (imagine!).

I was going to say something about how having a diverse set of friends gives me a better sense of what “real people” are thinking these days but I’m not sure that’s exactly true…the ones whose political opinions I know (imagine not knowing someone’s political views!) are all bleeding heart liberals; my Trump-supporting in-laws might actually be the better view into the politics of everyday Americans. 

I am suddenly taken aback by my impulse to evaluate my friends by how much they improve my work. That’s the DC in me talking (you can take the girl out…). The real value of that diverse set of friends is more personal: I have a life outside of my job. As simple as that. I have a life outside my job and I know I have value outside my job. Before I got sober, before I moved here, I didn’t believe that. And it almost killed me.

Living in DC, being a part of the borg, creates incentives to think of your value only in terms of the borg. I certainly did. So, weirdly, my career advice — such as it is — for young journalists is explicitly unrelated to “having a career.” My advice is to find people and pastimes that remind you that you are someone worthy of love outside your job. AA is one of those things for me. My friends. Service work. My husband! My faith.

I think that knowing you are the recipient of unconditional love might also make someone a better journalist — less inclined to make compromises out of professional expediency, for example — but the trick is know you are loved even if you never work again. I forget and then remember that every day.