Ezra Klein, of new venture Vox. Photo: Getty
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Laurie Penny on the real outsiders in New Media: not the white guys who look like the old guard, just younger

From Vox to 538, white guys get feted as the future of journalism while everyone else gets attacked and dismissed.

Yesterday, I was contacted separately by two distressed friends, both writers, both women. One is famous, successful, hard as diamond under glass and trying gamely to brush off fantasies of personal and specific violence being sent to her by people nominally on the left. She is discovering that as a woman writing and speaking about serious politics in public, it’s not enough just to be good – you also have to deal with the overheads of abuse, bullying, dismissal and disrespect, all while smiling and being nice and pretending as hard as you can that it doesn’t get to you.

My other friend is just starting out, is very young and very talented. She was in tears, wondering if she should just kick it in altogether because of all the people writing in complaining that she’s “all me, me, me” and a “careerist”. “Careerist” is usually used an insult against women and people of colour – the type of people in media who are not supposed to have careers. If you’re Ezra Klein, careerism is fine – you’re expected to be proud of your work, to promote your brand of journalism, to behave as a professional would. “We have to work on your sense of entitlement,” I told my young friend. “It needs to be bigger.”

Right now, there’s a big global conversation going on about journalism and diversity, but we’ve only just started to realise the scale of violence at play.

A month ago, journalist Emily Bell observed in the Guardian that the hot new media startups, backed by serious investment, look a suspiciously large amount like the stale old media establishment in terms of demographics. She pointed out, quite reasonably, that the projects that have everyone talking about the “future of journalism” – Ezra Klein’s Vox, Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight, and The Intercept, helmed by Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras – have not hired very many women or people of colour. They certainly haven’t been hired in huge numbers in editorial, decision-making roles. The piece prompted a great deal of impassioned response on both “sides”, the best of which has been Julia Carrie Wong’s new series at The Nation, in which she takes apart “Old Problems In New Media”.

To my mind, the real question is: what does an organisation or individual have to do to get feted as “the future of media”? What gets to be a startup, and what’s just one woman, or one black kid, or a whole bunch of angry queers shouting? There’s a magical process whereby an individual or group of individual media workers get transformed from frightening and/or uppity women and people of colour to the next hot thing in the future of publishing. The whiter and maler you look, the more it seems the magic happens.

The magic is to do with being white and male and having various other markers of privilege while still defining as a scrappy outsider, to quote Nate Silver, responding to Bell’s piece: “The phrase ‘clubhouse chemistry’ is an allusion to baseball, but the idea that we’re bro-y people just couldn’t be more off. We’re a bunch of weird nerds. We’re outsiders, basically. And so we have people who are gay, people of different backgrounds. I don’t know. I found the piece reaaaally, really frustrating. And that’s as much as I’ll say.”

Outsiders. That, as Zeynep Tufeci observed at Medium, gets to the nub of startup culture’s intransigent sexism, racism and classism. Those who have the power right now, in tech but also to some extent in media, see themselves as rejects, weirdos fighting for their place, and there are reasons for that. The emotional patterning laid down in puberty is hard to shake. If you got used to being excluded, being left out, having to fight to survive because you were smart or nerdy or different or all three, that’s a mentality that stays with you. That sort of trauma can be useful later in life – it gives you stamina, drive, a determination to carry your ideas through against the odds, a hunger to prove yourself, fierce dedication to your fellow oddballs and weirdoes, and I could go on. But it is still trauma, and it comes with baggage. Part of which is that long after you’ve stopped being an outsider and instead become a privileged pillar of the new establisment, not only do you fail to notice, but when someone points it out to you, you get angry – you get reaaaally, really frustrated – because being an “outsider” has always been a forming part of your identity, and being told there are people further out than you is hard to handle.

These, it turns out, are the kind of “outsiders” the old guard can cope with: outsiders who look almost exactly like them, except younger and cooler. The question the media startups and most critics are still asking is: why the new flagship organisations are so lousy with white guys, whereas the more interesting question is: why do these people still get to set the terms of what “the new media” is? Don’t we live in one of the most exciting times in the history of journalism, and isn’t that change being driven, out of necessity, by women and people of colour? Aren’t the most popular, most viral articles on most mainstream websites – although not necessarily the most prominent or well paid ones – consistently being written by women and people of colour? Take a glance down the top articles on the New Statesman, on The Guardian, on Salon, and you’ll see what I mean.

My qualification to talk about all this is that I’ve spent five years working, largely as a freelancer, sometimes within mainstream publications like this one and sometimes outside them, to change how journalism and commentary was done. I’ve been doing this along with hundreds of women, people of colour, trans people and allies who saw a media world that was closed to them and only spoke to them to tell them lies and thought, fuck that, we have the technology to do better. So we did. Except that when we did, we weren’t called ‘the future of media’. If we got hired by establishment outfits it was intitially as mascots, performing seals who weren’t trusted to cover “real journalism”. I’m thinking of the newspaper that hired me on a promise that it would let me do serious long-form reporting and then pressured me to cover only “fluffy” women’s issues, sending me to cover precisely one story in nine months: the Women’s Beach Volleyball at the Olympics. 

Modelview. Racialicious. Colourlines. Writers Of Colour (now Media Diversified). The Vagenda. Meta. Novara. Trans Media Watch. Those are just the first few names I’ve plucked out of the air in terms of exciting new outfits that, whatever you feel about their content, are real journalism and criticism and commentary, and are undeniably startups, changing the way media is done. They’re just not considered “startups”, not considered “serious” journalism because, as I wrote at Jacobin last year, “objectivity” and “seriousness” are often presumed to be a function of privilege, of whiteness, of maleness, or all three. When Jacobin was profiled in the New York Times, its founder, Bhaskar Sunkara, was rightly hailed as a representative of the future of left media. But when The New Inquiry, the online magazine for which I am an Editor at Large, which was founded by two women, is run by a woman and features a lodebearing amount of serious writing by women and people of colour, was profiled in the same paper, it was relegated to the “Style” section.

There are two problems with the mainstream media for women, people of colour, poor people, disabled people, queers – well, actually, there are quite a lot more than that, but let’s start with two. First, the media misrepresents, throws out lazy stereotypes that perpetuate oppression. And then it shuts us out, denying us a voice, allowing us to speak only as token demographic representatives rather than as reporters, writers, authors, columnists, critics. The media is an industry that produces culture, and both of those elements need taking apart and ramming back together in a way that works for more of us who actually create and consume it.

As Wong writes: ”A journalism more aware of the intersections of race, class and power will be much better equipped to ask the questions that might not even occur to reporters who have never interacted with the state from a position of weakness—whether that’s as a person of color subject to intense police repression or a woman whose access to reproductive health care is increasingly under attack.” And yet this is precisely the sort of journalism that is being dismissed as “unobjective”, relegated to the style section, to the “women’s” section, written off as marginal because it has been pushed to the margins of an increasingly spiteful, embattled white patriarchal establishment.

This is why, whenever I am asked if I’m “really” a journalist rather than “just” an activist or “just” a feminist, I never have an uncomplicated answer. Because the simple act of doing my job as a reporter, critic, commentator and author would be a feminist act even if I never wrote another word about reproductive justice or consent culture, which is not my intention. Being in the media, making media, changing media, creating culture, activism – these things are not the same, but they are part of the same sphere of activity. We are here because we have to be, and we’re changing the game.

Yes, it’s fucking political. For me the politics are in the stories I choose to cover, the perspective I bring, and the fight I have to engage in every single day to stay present, aware and professional whilst trolls and harassers attempt to bully me off the internet just for daring to be female with a public platform. That harassment is an overhead that women and people of colour, and particularly women of colour, have to face in a quantity and quality that those who do not experience it often find difficult to comprehend, especially from their own ‘side’. Whatever you think of Suey Park’s work the backlash against her has been terrifying in the scale of its racism and sexism – she told Salon that she has had to stop her speaking work because of the threats she’s getting.

Technology was supposed to help us move beyond all of this, and it has. If there’s one reason that women, people of colour, queers and everyone else on the margins of the mainstream press have been able to build their own future and set the agenda so successfully, that reason is the internet. And the reason the internet has become so fraught for women and people of colour attempting to carve out public careers or just do some decent journalism and criticism is that the internet is where we’ve been changing the world. Challenging power.

My biggest fear is that old-school media bros, making the jump to digital-only ventures years after the rest of us set up shop here, will decide they invented it, and that everyone else will agree. That Ezra Klein, Nate Silver et al will get to be the pioneers, sticking their flags all over the vibrant existing ecosystems of online journalism. Preventing that from happening is about more than just lobbying for shiny new startups to hire more women and people of colour. It’s about getting the media that women and people of colour are already making properly recognised, properly remunerated, given the respect and credit it deserves for creating the future of journalism – because we have, and we are.

 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

Photo: Getty
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Ken Livingstone says publicly what many are saying privately: tomorrow belongs to John McDonnell

The Shadow Chancellor has emerged as a frontrunner should another Labour leadership election happen. 

“It would be John.” Ken Livingstone, one of Jeremy Corbyn’s most vocal allies in the media, has said publicly what many are saying privately: if something does happen to Corbyn, or should he choose to step down, place your bets on John McDonnell. Livingstone, speaking to Russia Today, said that if Corbyn were "pushed under a bus", John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, would be the preferred candidate to replace him.

Even among the Labour leader’s allies, speculation is rife as to if the Islington North MP will lead the party into the 2020 election. Corbyn would be 71 in 2020 – the oldest candidate for Prime Minister since Clement Attlee lost the 1955 election aged 72.

While Corbyn is said to be enjoying the role at present, he still resents the intrusion of much of the press and dislikes many of the duties of the party leader. McDonnell, however, has impressed even some critics with his increasingly polished TV performances and has wowed a few sceptical donors. One big donor, who was thinking of pulling their money, confided that a one-on-one chat with the shadow chancellor had left them feeling much happier than a similar chat with Ed Miliband.

The issue of the succession is widely discussed on the left. For many, having waited decades to achieve a position of power, pinning their hopes on the health of one man would be unforgivably foolish. One historically-minded trade union official points out that Hugh Gaitskell, at 56, and John Smith, at 55, were 10 and 11 years younger than Corbyn when they died. In 1994, the right was ready and had two natural successors in the shape of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in place. In 1963, the right was unprepared and lost the leadership to Harold Wilson, from the party's centre. "If something happens, or he just decides to call it a day, [we have to make sure] it will be '94 not '63," they observed.

While McDonnell is just two years younger than Corbyn, his closest ally in politics and a close personal friend, he is seen by some as considerably more vigorous. His increasingly frequent outings on television have seen him emerge as one of the most adept media performers from the Labour left, and he has won internal plaudits for his recent tussles with George Osborne over the tax bill.

The left’s hopes of securing a non-Corbyn candidate on the ballot have been boosted in recent weeks. The parliamentary Labour party’s successful attempt to boot Steve Rotheram off the party’s ruling NEC, while superficially a victory for the party’s Corbynsceptics, revealed that the numbers are still there for a candidate of the left to make the ballot. 30 MPs voted to keep Rotheram in place, with many MPs from the left of the party, including McDonnell, Corbyn, Diane Abbott and John Trickett, abstaining.

The ballot threshold has risen due to a little-noticed rule change, agreed over the summer, to give members of the European Parliament equal rights with members of the Westminster Parliament. However, Labour’s MEPs are more leftwing, on the whole, than the party in Westminster . In addition, party members vote on the order that Labour MEPs appear on the party list, increasing (or decreasing) their chances of being re-elected, making them more likely to be susceptible to an organised campaign to secure a place for a leftwinger on the ballot.

That makes it – in the views of many key players – incredibly likely that the necessary 51 nominations to secure a place on the ballot are well within reach for the left, particularly if by-election selections in Ogmore, where the sitting MP, is standing down to run for the Welsh Assembly, and Sheffield Brightside, where Harry Harpham has died, return candidates from the party’s left.

McDonnell’s rivals on the left of the party are believed to have fallen short for one reason or another. Clive Lewis, who many party activists believe could provide Corbynism without the historical baggage of the man himself, is unlikely to be able to secure the nominations necessary to make the ballot.

Any left candidate’s route to the ballot paper runs through the 2015 intake, who are on the whole more leftwing than their predecessors. But Lewis has alienated many of his potential allies, with his antics in the 2015 intake’s WhatsApp group a sore point for many. “He has brought too much politics into it,” complained one MP who is also on the left of the party. (The group is usually used for blowing off steam and arranging social events.)

Lisa Nandy, who is from the soft left rather than the left of the party, is widely believed to be in the running also, despite her ruling out any leadership ambitions in a recent interview with the New Statesman.However, she would represent a break from the Corbynite approach, albeit a more leftwing one than Dan Jarvis or Hilary Benn.

Local party chairs in no doubt that the shadow chancellor is profiling should another leadership election arise. One constituency chair noted to the New Statesman that: “you could tell who was going for it [last time], because they were desperate to speak [at events]”. Tom Watson, Caroline Flint, Chuka Umunna, Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham and Liz Kendall all visited local parties across the country in preparation for their election bids in 2015.

Now, speaking to local party activists, four names are mentioned more than any other: Dan Jarvis, currently on the backbenches, but in whom the hopes – and the donations – of many who are disillusioned by the current leadership are invested, Gloria De Piero, who is touring the country as part of the party’s voter registration drive, her close ally Jon Ashworth, and John McDonnell.

Another close ally of Corbyn and McDonnell, who worked closely on the leadership election, is in no doubt that the shadow chancellor is gearing up for a run should the need arise.  “You remember when that nice Mr Watson went touring the country? Well, pay attention to John’s movements.”

As for his chances of success, McDonnell may well be even more popular among members than Corbyn himself. He is regularly at or near the top of LabourList's shadow cabinet rankings, and is frequently praised by members. Should he be able to secure the nominations to get on the ballot, an even bigger victory than that secured by Corbyn in September is not out of the question.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.