A New Era, a New Resistance: Reflections on the Inauguration & the Women’s March on Washington, From Me to You

Gloom and doom. For many Washingtonians, this was the unpleasant sentiment that had descended on their capital, much like the clouds that had begun to settle above the city. I had arrived the day before the inauguration of President Trump, hoping to catch up with a few friends before the Women’s March on Washington. But I wasn’t prepared for how the city had changed since I left it last May — what seems like an eternity ago. At that time, it seemed all but assured that we would soon have the first female president of the United States sitting in the Oval Office. How very quickly the tables turn.

Many old friends and colleagues had already hightailed it out of DC, hoping to escape the wave of Trump fanfare that had besieged the city. For those that remained, I asked friends how they planned to spend the inauguration, given that most of them were decidedly not fans of the new administration. Most planned to hunker down as if a tornado was descending on the capital, turning their cozy pads into bunkers that they’d use to ride out the inauguration with the comfort of food and booze. If much of liberal America was in mourning, nowhere was this more evident than in DC.

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Attendees of the inauguration gathered on the South Lawn of the White House.

I thought I would spend part of the day wishing Obama a farewell in front of the White House on his last full day in office. I wasn’t exactly President Obama’s biggest fan when it came to some policies like mass deportation and going after journalists under the Espionage Act, and thought that he could have done a better job of rallying Congress to get its act together, but I do think that ultimately, he did some great things that benefited some of the most vulnerable people in our country, and did it with dignity and aplomb — a measure of reserve that is unlikely in the next four years given Trump’s tendency for bombastic comments. For that, Obama deserves a strong measure of gratitude.

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A display posted inside the window of store in the Cleveland Park neighborhood of Washington, DC.

And yet, I didn’t get that opportunity. ‘Make America Great Again’ had hit the capital in anticipation of the inauguration with a sea of crimson MAGA hats, ‘Welcome President Trump’ signs, and misogynistic anti-Hillary buttons peddled by street vendors. Obama’s presence had already been vanquished from the capital. Most inaugural attendees were respectful (apart from a few misplaced yells of ‘Good riddance Obama’), but it was still a still strange spectacle to behold in a city that I once though I knew very well. Wealthy and elite Republicans — the kind who find MAGA hats tacky but attending inaugural balls glorious — muttered ‘rednecks’ at the newcomers who came to Washington on motorbikes and in jeans to welcome their new president.

And then, now former-President Obama was whisked away to St. Andrews Air Force base, and President Trump was sworn in. Much has already been said about the inauguration, from Trump’s post-apocalyptic speech to the minimal number of attendees compared to the throngs that attended both of Obama’s inaugurations — a number which Trump later decried as spin doctoring on the part of the media — to the administration’s wiping of civil rights pages on whitehouse.gov to the anarchists that shattered windows to former President George W. Bush’s inability to handle a poncho.

All in all though, by Trump standards, the number of bellicose comments made were kept to an expected dozen or so, and his first day got underway with as little hubbub as could be expected for such an unorthodox and polarizing president. I watched Trump being sworn in on Spanish television while eating pupusas at a restaurant where Salvadorian music was blaring over loudspeakers and hardly anyone spoke English. It was a glorious contradiction of everything Donald Trump has claimed to stand for, and the dramatic irony was almost too strong for me to handle.

It wasn’t all bad, those first few days. I caught up with friends and sought comfort in Georgetown cupcakes, a talk with fabulous females authors at the beloved Politics & Prose bookstore and a solidarity beer at Comet Ping Pong (the place which sadly became a site of unwarranted infamy when a man followed a trail of fake news to the restaurant, armed with a gun). These were just a few of my old haunts when I lived in DC and nostalgia was a wonderful coping mechanism as we entered the new, uncertain era.

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But then, it happened. 1.21.17: the Women’s March on Washington. Overnight, the city had transformed from crimson red caps to vivid pink hats in the shape of cats. It was a brilliant symbolic effort to take back a term that the-then presidential nominee Trump had made vulgar — to say the least — through a now-infamous Hollywood Access video.

The phrase ‘pussy grabs back’ was boldly playing out not only through these iconic knit hats, but also in the signs that plastered the streets of DC. The signs ran the gamut of emotions, from virulent rage to punderful slogans to empowering feminist iconography. The signs also reflected the diversity of issues and interests of women all over the country: climate change, immigrants’ rights, criminal justice reform, you name it. Intersectionality was in full speed at the march, and it was a welcome sight to behold.

My sign of choice? “Journalists rights are human rights.” I’ll confess that I just found it in a set of pre-made signs that some of my Amnesty International friends had made, but I knew the sign was meant for me. Photojournalists shouted in solidarity as I passed by them during the march, and I never felt more at home in defending the need for freedom of the press. Some might say that a journalist should not participate in a march of this scale. I couldn’t disagree more. Journalism is under attack, even though it is needed more than ever, and female journalists particularly so under this new era. We need look no further than what happened to Megyn Kelly to offer proof of that danger. It’s great to have activists on board in solidarity, but if members of the press — especially female journalists — don’t stand up for our rights, no one will.

I had gathered with friends at the start of the march not far from the National Mall — along with the 500,000 some estimated other women and men from across the country that had gathered in the nation’s capital. We waited with bated breath for the speeches to commence, but we didn’t have to wait long. America Ferrera. Gloria Steinem. Janelle Monae. The mothers of Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, and other young black men lost too soon to police brutality. California Senator Kamala Harris. Representative Maxine Waters. Angela Davis. Michael Moore. Scarlet Johannson. And the march’s main co-organizers Linda Sarsour, Tameka Mallory, and Carmen Perez — along with countless other activists, organizers and celebrities who helped make the march possible — were some of the fierce ladies who spoke at this historic gathering. They agitated, they united, they inspired us. All of us.

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My favorite speaker though might have been young Sophie Cruz, who was wise beyond her years when she boldly got up on stage with her family to encourage — in both English and Spanish — children to stay strong in these frightening and uncertain times for immigrants: “Fight with love, faith and courage so our families won’t be destroyed…I am here to tell the children, please do not be afraid. We are not alone.”

Was the rally perfect? No, there were some pretty big logistical issues, the primary one being that since there was no designated lane for emergency vehicles, we had to part like Moses and the Red Sea every single time an ambulance or police car passed through the crowd, pressing up against each other like sardines. But then again, the march’s undoing was in its own success. The main organizers had been hoping for 250,000 attendees, and got more than twice as many participants as expected. That’s a very, very good problem to have.

But eventually, after three hours of robust speeches and performances and exhausted cries of ‘Start the March! Start the March,’ we did just that. We took off in all directions, and I got separated from my friends at some point along the way, but we women converged on downtown DC like no other force in recent history, chanting down Constitution Avenue, gathering in unity circles on the National Mall, and finally, culminating in peaceful protests outside of the White House. The message to Donald Trump was loud, clear and beautiful. And despite the enormous number of participants, not a single person was arrested. That’s an incredible testament to the power of peaceful protest, and the wonderful cooperation of DC law enforcement. I was never more proud of DC than I was that day.

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And it wasn’t just DC. 250,000 showed up in Chicago, between 500,000-750,000 in Los Angeles, and countless thousands more in sister cities across the nation. In total, an estimated 1 in 100 Americans showed up to march across the U.S., and hundreds of thousands more across the globe in Paris, London, Mexico City, Delhi, and more. And with a small contingent in Antarctica, the women’s march came to every single continent on the world. Now that is empowering.

But, in Donald Trump’s belittling of the march the very next day (though perhaps recognizing his mistake, he quickly turned around and expressed his support for the right to peacefully protest…though how genuine that subsequent tweet was, I cannot say), I was reminded of the very important work that needs to be done to turn the goodwill and camaraderie of the march into concrete action.

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For some, that next step is running for elected office as a local school board or city council member. For me, it’s rolling up my sleeves as a reporter and tackling hard-hitting issues to inform the public at a time when the administration openly lampoons and derides the media. Journalists will need to be more ethical, more representative, more accurate, and more bold than ever before. It’s certainly not going to be easy for any of us, especially in this climate, but there’s no time like the present to get to work.

In sum: we are loud, we are nasty and we will not go quietly into the night.

 

 

 

 

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And Here We Are Now: Looking Back on the Media’s Coverage of the 2016 Election with Michael Calderone

Editor’s note: With less than ten days to go until the inauguration of President Donald Trump, I thought that I would share an interview that I did with Michael Calderone, Senior Media Reporter for The Huffington Post, looking back on the media’s – oftentimes deeply conflicted – role in the 2016 election. You can read some of Calderone’s articles here, or find him on Twitter @mlcalderone

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The Smith restaurant, where I met with Michael Calderone, Senior Media Reporter for The Huffington Post. Photo courtesy of thesmithrestaurant.com

I’m huffing and puffing as I rush over to The Smith, a restaurant in the East Village. I’ve just committed one of the rookie mistakes of a journalist, which is arriving five minutes late to a pre-scheduled meeting – a meeting in which you only have an hour to spare because the interviewee has to jet to another rendezvous. I attempt to fix my tousled hair, hoping I don’t look like a train wreck, before spotting Michael Calderone casually waving at me through the glass doors opening into the restaurant.

Calderone is the Senior Media Reporter for The Huffington Post, and before that, he worked at the New York Observer, Politico, and Yahoo News. “Media reporting” is a broad term that covers everything from the robber barons of media like Jeff Bezos to the press’ coverage of trending topics, namely, politics. He’s also been honored with the National Press Club’s Arthur Rowse Award for Press Criticism for writing about the media’s treatment of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

We had met a few weeks beforehand at a conference hosted by the New York Press Club, where he participated in a panel on the media’s coverage of the 2016 election. He was just a friendly reporter and NYU adjunct professor and I, a confused NYU graduate student eager to make contacts in the media world. Then, the election – otherwise known as the Apocalypse of 2016 – happened, and the media world threw itself into a frenzy. And here we are now.

Like many other journalists, I was reeling after the election, and in need of answers. How did the media get it so completely, arrogantly, wrong? New York Times column “The Upshot” reported at 10:20 p.m. on election night that Hillary Clinton had an 85% chance of winning. The Huffington Post practically laughed in Nate Silver’s face, even though his calculations were rather conservative, predicting that Trump had a 35% chance of winning. For all of its incessant, 24-7 election coverage, the media had failed to anticipate the very real possibility of Donald Trump becoming president, had failed to cover him with this in mind, and had failed to take him seriously. I was hoping Calderone might have some thoughts on what went wrong and the future of journalism after this divisive election.

Calderone sports a relaxed look, a boyish grin, and a pair of dark, round librarian style glasses. He’s cheerful, despite my tardiness. He dons a grey sports jacket and a button-down shirt with no tie – a traditional look for many male journalists in the city.

For all his coverage of the intersection of media and politics, Calderone started off on a different beat: real estate. He was an intern at the New York Observer – before it came under the ownership of Donald Trump’s famous son-in-law, Jared Kushner. At the time, the Observer was known for its in-depth forthright coverage of politics, real estate and New York society at-large. Calderone describes it as: “Really covering the power elites of Manhattan in a weekly chronicle. The late Peter Kaplan, who used to be an editor there, used to describe it [as] almost a nineteenth century novel, where you’re covering these powerful figures.”

There aren’t many media reporters now, and there were even fewer in the mid-2000s when Calderone began writing about the industry for New York Observer’s storied “Off the Record” column. Calderone was the first media reporter at Politico, Yahoo News and The Huffington Post. He says as we receive our meals: “One of the upsides of being the first media reporter was that you can’t really screw it up.”

We dive right into the election madness with Calderone’s forays at the Observer. Despite president-elect Trump’s deep chagrin towards the press now, at the time, Calderone wryly notes, Trump was more than cozy with the media: “He was – in my view – the most accessible famous person in New York City. He called me back numerous times at the New York Observer – I don’t think he had any idea who I was.” For Calderone, Trump is an “interesting figure” that “simultaneously attacks the media and also craves the adulation and the coverage that comes along with being a media and entertainment star.”

But was it more than ego – was it also creative genius? Did Donald Trump manipulate the media through his self-adulation, thereby scoring himself some sweet coverage during the election? Calderone characterizes it as more of a “symbiotic relationship” between Trump and the media, but says that Trump took advantage of the media’s desire for titillating stories, calling in to stations three or four times a day from Trump Tower.

In turn, the media would generate a dozen roundtable discussions about the latest outlandish thing that he’d said. Calderone puts it bluntly: “…[Trump] recognized early on that he could dominate the media conversation from his apartment.”

The news media used to be reluctant to allow presidential candidates to conduct interviews from their home – until Donald Trump came along. Calderone is careful to note that these same news outlets also extended the courtesy to Hillary Clinton, but she was never interested in having such a direct line of communication with the media. He continues: “And so he got significantly more attention than anyone on the Republican field, and that helped elevate him throughout the primaries.”

So that’s strike one against the media: its excessive coverage of Donald Trump. Okay, but with a confused look on my face, I ask, don’t we already knew all of this? Isn’t there more to it? Oh, there is. Calderone is more than happy to give me his take between forkfuls of an egg-white omelet.

“If you want to put him on air a lot, that’s fine, but you need to treat him like a presidential candidate.”

Over clashing forks and knives, we talk about how the media for far too long enabled Donald Trump’s dog-and-pony show – all the while treating his candidacy like some big joke. It wasn’t until later, when it became clear that Donald Trump was a frontrunner in the Republican primary, that reporters realized the error of their ways. They started producing more serious coverage, doing exposés in The New York Times about what building a wall along the U.S-Mexico border might entail, and fact-checked him more than possibly any other presidential candidate to-date.

And yet, the media persisted in the idea that there was no way that this man could possibly ascend to the highest office in the land, given his track record of crass, misogynistic, and racist statements that sounded abhorrent to many Americans. A lack of imagination – or childish blindness, perhaps – in part, doomed the press.

But does part of the blindness stem from the much-maligned “liberal” bubbles that the media and Trump supporters have pointed out again and again? It was supposedly from their newsrooms in New York and DC that members of the mainstream media mocked, and thus, fundamentally failed to understand the Rust Belt Trump supporter. Wiping his mouth with a napkin, Calderone shakes his head, firmly concluding that it would be wrong to say that the media didn’t try to cover the Trump voter, given that news outlets sent countless staffers to report on his rallies and supporters.

But he does concede that there is a risk in “sending a reporter out to Appalachia for three days, and them coming back with some report that looks as if they’re a stranger in a strange land, sort of they’re visiting a foreign country, and what are these weird customs? And that could be a problem with not having reporters based in some of these areas, or not having the experience of growing up there …”

Part of the problem, Calderone says as he lowers his fork, stems from the shuttering of local newspapers across the country, leaving large swathes of the country without solid reporters from those areas. Back in the good old days, newbie reporters would write for a local newspaper as a way to work their way up the ladder. But now, journalists come straight out of J-school and go work for The New York Times, thus furthering the divide between mainstream media in the major cities and the rest of the country.

The last, and perhaps most important issue, that Calderone brings up as we scrape off the last bits of egg from our plates is the “normalizing” of Trump’s views “as if they’re acceptable policies” – such as the proposed Muslim ban – in the pursuit of journalistic principles like neutrality and fairness. For Calderone, that was a huge failure in reporting – something that outlets like The Huffington Post repudiated, unlike many legacy news organizations. He says animatedly: “…there’s this idea that…by saying that [it] isn’t an acceptable position, somehow you’re being partisan. My view is – that’s not partisan. We always said that – The Huffington Post always said that. ”

But too often, not enough legacy news organizations did the same, according to Calderone. The reality was that this election was like no other before it. The news media just didn’t grasp how they couldn’t cover Trump’s campaign as politics as usual. And here we are now, with the general public’s trust in the media shattered.

As Trump appoints Steve Bannon, formerly the head of Breitbart News – a haven for the growing alt-right movement – as his chief advisor; ditches the protective press pool that normally accompanies president-elects to grab a steak dinner with his family; and berates journalists in official meetings for doing their jobs, what does the future of press freedom look like? Pretty bleak, according to Calderone. In addition to having questionable actors like Bannon “whispering in the president’s ear” there are significant First Amendment concerns for journalists:

“…what’s being taken for granted by journalists is not law – it’s precedent. It requires a White House that is committed to First Amendment principles to believe that the press has a reason to be in the White House…and if Donald Trump has shown throughout the campaign, he hasn’t respected that role at all.”

His parting words do nothing to soothe my fretful mind: “I think journalists have a lot to fear over the next four years.”

As we get the bill and reach for our credit cards, I realize that there’s something that bothers me. For all his scorn for the media coverage writ-large, Calderone tiptoes around any direct criticism of The Huffington Post. I want to push back on this – weren’t they also guilty of many of the media’s failings?

After all, The Huffington Post announced in 2015 that it would no longer display articles covering Donald Trump in the political section, but rather, in its entertainment coverage. Their reasoning? “Trump’s campaign is a sideshow. We won’t take the bait. If you are interested in what The Donald has to say, you’ll find it next to our stories on the Kardashians and The Bachelorette.”

Ouch. I wonder if the editors at The Huffington Post are regretting that statement now.

But alas, Calderone has to head to another meeting at The Huffington Post’s office. Drat. Saved by the bell.

Looking back on the conversation afterwards, I wonder if The Huffington Post will modify its editor’s note at the bottom of its Trump articles, given that Trump is no longer a buffoonish nominee that could be dismissed, but the person who would soon be in charge of running the most powerful country in the world?

For context: early in 2016, The Huffington Post began adding a not-so-subtle anti-Trump disclaimer at the bottom of all of its coverage of the then Republican nominee. It was a bold move by The Huffington Post, one that surely did not improve its blacklisted status in the eyes of Trump and his supporters. The postscript read:

Editor’s note: Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liarrampant xenophoberacistmisogynist and birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims — 1.6 billion members of an entire religion — from entering the U.S.

As I was writing this article, I looked up Calderone’s latest piece on Trump. Sure enough: the editor’s note had completely vanished. And here we are now.

“Hillbilly Elegy:” A Book Review. Does J.D. Vance succeed in explaining the Rust Belt to the rest of America?

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Photo credit: Goodreads.com

Rating: 3/5 stars

Like many folks in the past few weeks, I stumbled upon J.D. Vance’s nonfiction book and memoir Hillbilly Elegy on a list of ‘best books to understand the 2016 election’ written likely by The New York Times or another similarly eminent publication. In reading it, I hoped to glean an unfiltered, insightful perspective of someone who is from and still holds a deep emotional attachment to his home in Appalachia.

By that metric, the book succeeded — with a few disappointing caveats. Vance gives a honest personal account of everything from witnessing his mother’s drug abuse to the screaming fights of his neighbors to the enduring love of his Mamaw (grandma) that gave him a pathway to great success as a Yale Law student. (Mamaw is awesome and by far the best character in the book, by the way. I would have read this book just to hear her swear like a sailor; gruffly, yet lovingly push Vance to become educated and achieve something more than a hillbilly life; and threaten those who dared hurt her family.)  The book offers both a deeply unflattering and at times, heartwarming look at the people that he calls his friends and family as an insight more broadly into the culture of white working-class Appalachia.

The writing isn’t earth-shattering by any means, but then again, I didn’t open it up expecting literary flash, but rather, interesting substance. As a minor critique: the book can get a little repetitive at times in its storytelling. But I think I was more disappointed in the content, in part because I was hoping for something more than memoir. Had the book combined his powerful story with compelling academic analysis, it might have been more well-rounded and meaningful than a simple narrative account.

The book wasn’t written with the intent to explain the ‘working class Trump voter’ to the liberal masses — even though it’s since been interpreted by much of the mainstream media to be just that — but Vance did seek to shed light on the culture of Appalachia, of how people who live in the Rust Belt behave and why, even if their behavior seems to run counter to their best interests. I would say he succeeded somewhat in making us more aware of and empathetic towards working class Appalachia. However, the end result is often a one-note picture of people who often act in horrible ways to those around them, entrapped by the harshness of their circumstances and being unwilling to rise above them. Still, it’s hard to dismiss, because it is Vance’s own lived narrative.

True, Vance does offer some answers to questions like ‘how do we help ameliorate the situation in Appalachia?’ with some no-nonsense talk against condescending paternalism — which white-collar America is all-too prone to offer up in discussions of blue collar workers — and failed, if well-intentioned, government policies to help the poor. And yet, he offers no tangible solutions as alternatives to the government policies that he bitterly derides.

For example: I almost laughed at his chiding of politicians who set forth legislation to curb payday lending — predatory loans offered at exorbitantly high-interest rates to primarily low-income folks that often leaves them trapped in spiraling debt. He justifies his support of a horrible practice like this by citing how payday loans helped him get over a short-term economic windfall without any long-term debt. This is a case where anecdotal evidence slips dangerously into a generalization that I would strongly wager is not true for many working class individuals — something which Vance tends to do throughout the book.

The biggest critique though: At the end of the book, you’re often left with the feeling of despair; this is just the way it is in this part of the country, and absent the love and support of key familial figures that Vance was lucky to have in his life, most young working class people in Appalachia have little chance of making it out of there. And that’s a tough, maybe overly simplistic pill to swallow for most readers — especially for a policy wonk like me fresh out of Washington, DC — even though it’s the primary takeaway from the book.