The Year of Living Dangerously

By Sacha Zimmerman

Sidwell Friends alumni journalists balance ethical reporting and critical thinking as they discuss covering the extraordinary events of 2020, while, like all Americans, living through them.

2020 will be one of those years that will be etched in American history,” says Asawin Suebsaeng ’07, a senior political reporter at The Daily Beast and the co-author of Sinking in the Swamp. “You say, ‘1968,’ and so many people know what you mean by that. Looking back decades from now, when you say, ‘The year 2020 in American life,’ people will know exactly what you mean.” It means COVID-19, of course, but “2020” also conjures up so many other flash points. Author and journalist Anand Giridharhadas ’99, who was once an ardent Horizon reporter, put it this way on the Sidwell Friends Lives That Speak podcast, “Five synchronous crises came to a head” in 2020: “coronavirus, the economic crisis, the racial uprising, the hovering crisis of the climate, and the democratic crisis.”

Those crises took a toll on all Americans: The pandemic deaths kept ticking upward and information about COVID-19 seemed to change daily; the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and many subsequent visible acts of brutality gave the Black Lives Matter movement an immediacy that drove protests for racial justice to a fervent pitch; wildfires scorched the West Coast, leaving millions in a haze of smoke for months; businesses shuttered, unemployment soared, and the economy seemed to hit a new low every day; and, of course, it was a presidential election year, featuring a partisanship so piercing and bitter that truth itself became tribal. Though technically occurring in 2021, the insurrection of January 6 acted as a natural bookend to 2020, an awful exclamation point to a strikingly trying year. And through all of these unprecedented events, reporters leapt into action, often struggling to keep up as the ground shifted beneath them, attempting to ascertain where to look or what to write first.

What gives some websites, magazines, television stations, or newspapers some standing is that they correct mistakes. They fact check.”—ANNE APPLEBAUM '82, staff writer at The Atlantic

Ericka Blount Danois ’90, a professor in the Media, Journalism, and Film Department at Howard University and a fellow in the Sundance Episodic Makers Lab, was reporting on the prison- industrial complex for a film project when COVID-19 hit. “We had so many different stories just within the prison system, it was overwhelming,” Blount Danois says. “Journalists had to figure out, What news do people need immediately? Then they had to balance that with analysis: Where will we be in a week? And we had to do both on the daily and the weekly.” For Zeeshan Aleem ’04, a freelance political journalist, a contributing writer to Vox, and the publisher of the weekly newsletter What’s Left, that meant learning to acclimate on the fly. “We’re observing and trying to make sense of a world that is rapidly changing and evolving and rupturing in ways that we couldn’t really even have fathomed just a couple of years ago,” Aleem says. “When borders of reality and norms are overturned, we have to rapidly adapt to new ways of being in the world.”

“It almost makes you numb,” Suebsaeng says. “And sometimes you have to make yourself numb to maintain some degree of sanity, when there are so many objectively horrifying and appalling things happening right around you. With this past year, where to even start? You have the massive death toll and suffering and families ruined from the global coronavirus pandemic that is still raging. There was the racial and civil unrest, and the administration’s counterproductive, ham-fisted response to it. You have the cratered economy that continues to ruin lives and make things harder for god knows how many families. And there’s all the people who are suffering from mental health issues, which can be exacerbated by the nature of having to social distance. It got to a point where there was just so much of it.”

Of course, in addition to covering the news of the day in 2020, journalists were also living it. For many, it got personal. “You’re in the midst of it,” Blount Danois says. “When you’re at Black Lives Matter protests, when you know people with COVID, objectivity is almost impossible.” Meanwhile, she says, reporters’ offices have been closed just like everyone else’s, and they have to learn to do everything via Zoom, too. “We’re all in the middle of it!”

For Anne Applebaum ’82, a staff writer for The Atlantic and the author of Twilight of Democracy, being in the middle of it meant a dose of international intrigue. Her family lives in Poland, a nation that closed its borders just as the pandemic was becoming big news in the United States. Unfortunately, her son was en route to Europe from Johns Hopkins, where he’s a college student. He got as far as Berlin, Germany, when Poland shut down. So, Applebaum says: “He took a train to the border, he got off the train carrying his luggage, and he walked across the border into the country. There were big signs on the border and people in chemical uniforms. It was a very dramatic moment.” Luckily, he made it. “My husband picked him up on the other side,” Applebaum says, “and that’s how he got home from college this year!”

Sometimes in this dark year, there were also moments of transcendence. Blount Danois credits media coverage in 2020 with bringing Black Lives Matter out of the fringes. The media’s treatment of the movement and their “awareness of language” now as opposed to where it was in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, is dramatic. What’s more, people are watching more closely. “Everybody’s home!” she says. “They have time to pay attention in ways they wouldn’t have before. Plus, with the national existential crisis we’re in, everyone has a degree of suffering—and so empathy builds. We have to rely on each other in ways that we hav- en’t. People realize that divisiveness is not what is going to get us through.” She cites the on-air arrest of a Black CNN reporter, Omar Jimenez, as he reported live from Minneapolis as further evidence of how people can be viewed a certain way. “That incident awakened people, too,” she says, “and changed their perspective.” Aleem had a similar reaction to last summer’s activism.

Social media platforms, who have a lot of say over what can be published and how far it can reach, have raised really pressing questions about regulation of speech.”—ZEESHAN ALEEM '04, contributing writer at Vox

“I really was moved and excited by a number of the protests,” he says. “I’m based in Brooklyn, which was one of the epicenters of protest activity on the East Coast and the remarkable ideas that were being discussed, which really ended up going significantly beyond the set of demands that we saw during the Black Lives Matter protest in 2014.”

Suebsaeng, on the other hand, is less optimistic. Viewing the world day in and day out through the prism of the president will do that. “My beat during the past five years has been covering Donald Trump, his apparatchiks, his lieutenants, his administration, his inner circle,” Suebsaeng says. “To watch all of this happen to the country, when the person ostensibly managing all the crises, is not only making the situation demonstrably, horrifically worse, but is just trolling and laughing and demagogue-ing his way gleefully through the entire thing—it’s wrenching.” He says that the feeling hasn’t left him, either. “Now that the Trump era has technically concluded, I do not feel like we’ve left it. The devastating reality right now in American political life, of political violence and mass deaths, still remain, have not left at all, and those are the two defining characteristics of the Trump era. So, until that stuff is vanquished or at least dealt with to certain degrees, to me as a political reporter, it doesn’t matter if Joe Biden is the hood ornament, we are still very much living in Donald Trump’s world.”

That trolling Trumpian worldview is all too familiar to Aleem, who found himself the object of a social media maelstrom last summer in what he calls “an attempted triple cancellation.” It all started when the internet’s zealous political left tried to get an abrasive Costco employee in Florida fired for refusing to wear a mask. “I critiqued the idea of immediately trying to take the job of someone who is at the center of a two-minute hate video on the internet,” Aleem says. “I thought what this guy was doing was reprehensible and dangerous, but I was also trying to prompt reflection. I made an argument for why, for the left, it’s not the best way to go about pursuing justice.” It hit a nerve. “This alt- right troll retweeted it, and I end up going completely viral among all these people who think that Trump country is being persecuted by the fascist left,” he says. “They don’t agree with any of my principles.They took my argument completely out of context, but it was tactically convenient for them.” People also were not engaging with Aleem’s ideas at all. To wit, the far-right group that took Aleem viral “ended up forming its own mob of online vigilantes,” Aleem says. This group targeted the job of a man on the left who had loudly denounced the Costco anti-masker. Though the right had initially heralded Aleem’s view about not going after people’s jobs, they were now doing exactly that. The irony, of course, was lost on the social media hordes careening down the Twitter rabbit hole. Ultimately, and perhaps inevitably, some on the alt-right then turned on Aleem and attempted to put malware on his computer. “I was inadvertently caught up in this bizarro world of people trying to dox each other and take each other’s jobs,” he says. “I was really shocked by how quickly I switched from observer to inadvertent participant in this.”

We are so tribal and taxonomized now in the American political landscape. I have for years believed that we are at the point of no return on that.”—ASAWIN SUEBSAENG '07, senior writer at The Daily Beast

With so much bad faith, how do publications convince the world of their journalists’ objectivity? “I’m kind of a borderline nihilist on this question,” Suebsaeng says. He points out that the truth isn’t about ensuring a publication has, say, an equal number of left and right voices. It’s about facts versus the “complete breaks with reality that some people have taken,” he says. “We are so tribal and taxonomized now in the American political landscape. I have for years believed that we are at the point of no return on that. When Americans are asked, ‘Do you trust the media?’ The numbers are through the floor. It’s consistently lower than even Congress. And you’re not going to solve the problem by hiring 12 more conservatives for your newsroom at the Los Angeles Times.”

When asked how she convinces her readers she’s an honest broker, Applebaum says, “I don’t convince them.” All one can do, she says, “is try to provide evidence for your statements and rely on the reputation of the places that you write for. What gives some websites, magazines, television stations, or news- papers some standing is that they correct mistakes. They fact check.” And that, says Blount Danois, is critical. “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” She says she tells her students to read several sources from around the world about the United States to round out their perspectives. “It’s more important now than ever that people have trust in the news.”

Unfortunately, social media platforms can obscure trusted sources, allowing content to be manipulated and weaponized. “We are developing new sets of norms regarding the value and the nature of free speech,” says Aleem. “A lot of that is being fueled by the changing contours in our immediate political environment. The rise of big and sometimes monopolistic social media platforms, who have a lot of say over what can be published and how far it can reach, have raised really pressing questions about regulation of speech.” In other words, how do platforms reduce speech that can “incite violence, harassment, and abuse but also not create the effect of ideological censor- ship or narrowing the range of acceptable ideas.” Trump’s track record of disinformation, Aleem says, has also prompted people to think about whether or not internet publishing platforms should be devoted to monitoring the spread of disinformation and misinformation.

It’s what Suebsaeng calls “the beauty and the terror” of the internet. “With the liberalization and democratization of media, if you don’t trust The New York Times or The Daily Beast, you can easily get your news and commentary from a whole other bunch of sources.” So, does the reputation and accuracy of the media even matter if people only read things that validate their own worldview? “There is very little that The New York Times or The Washington Post could do at this point to prove to the right that they aren’t liberal or left- wing hacks,” Suebsaeng says. “So, if you are a head honcho in legacy media wondering, ‘How do we fix this trust deficit?’ My personal opinion is there is no problem to solve; that ship has sailed long ago. They think you’re the enemy. Internalize that. And I bet the product you produce will be better off for it.” The mandate, he says, is to report the news—and that’s not a political mandate. “It does not matter if the people you are trying to break news and do reporting with sit ideologically to the right or left of you. It’s the same mission,” he says. “Some of the very best, most tenacious, and most accomplished and impressive journalists who I have had the pleasure of working with are oftentimes center right or people significantly politically to the right of me.” (That includes his co-author, Lachlan Markay. Their book was featured in “Fresh Ink” last spring.)

Still, 2020 had its excitements. “It is inherently intellectually stimulating to try to make sense of the world when the world doesn’t seem to make sense anymore,” Aleem says. “It’s pretty easy to keep yourself wrestling with the big questions these days.” Blount Danois agrees. She says 2020 brought big questions to America’s doorstep. “Is there such thing as too much freedom when it comes to the common good?” she wonders. “People use ‘America is the land of the free’ to their own advantage.” She thinks that 2020 heralds the end of American exceptionalism. “If they weren’t before, people around the world are now aware that we are not exceptional,” she says. “You can’t say, ‘America first,’ after2020—because we are not that.” Unless, she quips, you mean first in rates of COVID-19.

Isn’t it going to be a little boring with 2020 over, though? “No!” Suebsaeng says. “Print that before you even finished the question, I just shouted the word no multiple times. I’m a human being firstand a journalist second, and both as a journalist and also as a regular human being, I pride myself on not being a sociopath.”

I'm glad 2020 is over. But I feel good about the fact that so many students are still interested in journalism despite all the bad-mouthing it gets.”—ERICKA BLOUNT DANOIS '90, professor at Howard University

“I’m glad 2020 over,” Blount Danois agrees. “But I feel good about the fact that so many of my students are still interested in journalism despite all the bad-mouthing it gets.” She should feel good. Student journalism can be transformative. According to Baratunde Thurston ’95, an author, podcast host, and Daily Show contributor, being involved with Horizon at Sidwell Friends changed the entire trajectory of his life by jump-starting his writing instincts. Blount Danois sees that same fire in her students today. She says 2020 has actually motivated young people to get involved in this vital component of democracy. “Kids realized we need it,” she says of journalism. “We need to know what’s happening.” That’s true especially now. “We’re at an existential moment as a country,” she says. “Who are we going to be?” For her part, Blount Danois is optimistic. After the travails of 2020, she says, the good news is: “Empathy has kicked in.”

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