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From why in Philadelphia, I'm Terry Gross with Fresh Air Weekend.
Today, why America can be described as having a caste system with your caste determined by your race.
We talk with Isabel Wilkerson, author of the new book Caste.
She compares America with India's caste system and writes about her Nazi Germany borrowed from American laws and practices. She writes, Many people may say I have nothing to do with the sins of the past, but she adds, Here we are and it's our responsibility to fix it. Also, Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan on the alarming decline in local news coverage in the U.S., she says when local coverage collapses, communities suffer.
Politicians and government officials get less scrutiny and democracy is undermined.
And book critic Maureen Corrigan recommends two books for summer reading. Support for NPR and the following message come from our sponsor, the House of Roll, whose shores sinks are individually handcrafted.
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When my guest, Isabel Wilkerson, was writing her book, The Warmth of Other Suns, about the great migration of African-Americans from the south to the North, looking to escape the lynchings, the cross burnings, the terrorism and the lack of opportunity in the South. She says she realized she wasn't writing about geography and relocation. She was writing about the American caste system. Now she's written a new book called Caste that explains why she thinks America can be described as having a caste system and how, if we use that expression, it deepens our understanding of what black people have been up against in America.
She compares America with a caste system in India and writes about how the Nazi leadership borrowed from American racist laws and the American eugenics movement. Wilkerson won a National Book Critics Circle award for her book about the Great Migration called The Warmth of Other Suns. And she won a Pulitzer Prize when she was a reporter at the New York Times.
Isabel Wilkerson, welcome back to Fresh Air. It is really a pleasure to have you on again and congratulations on the book. 10 years ago, when you wrote The Warmth of Other Suns, you used the word caste system to refer to the segregated South. And you wrote, In the decades between reconstruction and the enforcement of civil rights laws, nearly every black family in the American South had a decision to make. The decision was to stay in the South segregated caste system or make the pilgrimage north or west in the hope of escaping racism and having more access to jobs, housing and other opportunities.
What made you think of using the word caste system to describe America as a whole? In that paragraph you used it to describe the American South. Well, I found that the word racism, which is often applied to discussions of interactions among and between African-Americans and other groups in this country, I found that term to be insufficient to capture the rigid social hierarchy and the repression that they were born into and that, in fact, everyone in that regime had to live under.
And so I turn to the word caste, which is a word that had been used by anthropologists and social scientists who went in to study the Jim Crow era in the 1930s in particular, and they emerged from their ethnographies or they emerge from their time there with the term caste as the language to use to describe what they found when they went there. And so I came to that word, as had they. That is the term that is more precise, it is more comprehensive, and it gets at the underlying infrastructure that often we cannot see.
But that is there undergirding much of the inequality and injustices and disparities that we live with in this country.
What do you think the differences between using the word caste system or systemic racism?
Well, it's the difference in some ways between what one would consider caste versus race to begin with. I think of caste as the bones and race as the skin, and that that allows us to see that race is a tool of the underlying structure that we live with. That race is merely the signal and cue to where one fits in the caste system and caste system is actually an artificial hierarchy. It's a graded ranking of human value in a society that determines the standing and respect of the benefit of the doubt and access to resources, assumptions of competence and even of beauty through no fault or action of one's own.
You're just born to it. And so caste focuses in on the infrastructure of our divisions and the rankings, whereas race is the metric that's used to determine one's place in that or one's assignment in that caste system, so that while there's an interaction between the two of them, caste is the much older term. It's a term that's been around for, you know, for for thousands of years, predates the idea of race, which is a fairly new concept.
It's only four or 500 years old dating back to the transatlantic slave trade. And so race is the newer concept. And it was in some ways created to delineate, categorize and create the caste system that underlies our society.
We know about the laws on the segregated South that kept black people separate from white people and defined what they could do. But during them, like the great migration of black people, many, like six million black people, migrated north in the hope of better opportunity. What are some of the laws and regulations that they found in the North that prevented them from realizing the opportunities that they sought to have in the north?
Oh, exactly. In fact, they left one hierarchy, rigid, formal hierarchy known as Jim Crow and went it was against the law for a black person and a white person to merely play checkers together with all of the restrictions that attended then and also the enforcement that was often brutal. But then they migrated away from that and found and discovered that actually caste shadowed them wherever they went and that the response to their arrival was, in fact, the methods.
It became known as northern people at the time called a James Crow, in which there were restrictive covenants that meant that that white homeowners, even if they wanted to sell to to black people, black potential buyers, were prevented by the restrictions that were embedded in their in their deeds. And also, of course, redlining, which meant that the government would not back mortgages in neighborhoods where there were where African-Americans lived, which meant that it was exceedingly difficult for African-Americans until the 1960s to merely get a mortgage, to buy a home, which is, of course, one of the most prominent and relied upon methods of building wealth in America, which means that there had been continuing generations long disparity in access to the most basic American dream.
And so that is what they discovered when they got to the north. And in fact, these apparatus of control and delineation and segregation were created in the North as a result of the response to the Great Migration.
You were talking to a Nigerian born playwright and that playwright told you there are no black people in Africa. Africans aren't black. What did they mean?
Well, it's it's so shocking to our ears because, of course, we say that there is an entire subcontinent of people who we would view as black. But what she was saying was that. Till you come to the United States, they themselves do not see themselves as black, they are ebow or they are into ballet or they are Uraba, whatever it is that they are in terms of their ethnicity and identity. It is only when they enter into a hierarchy such as this do they then have to think of themselves as black.
But back where they are from, they do not have to think of themselves as black because black is not the primary metric of determining one's identity.
If you see America as still having a caste system, where do you see people of color fitting in?
Well, there was a tremendous churning at the beginning of the 20th century of people who are arriving in these undetermined or middle groups that did not fit neatly into the bipolar structure that America had created. And at the beginning of the 20th century, there were petitions to the Supreme Court, petitions to the government for clarity about where they would fit in. And they were often petitioning to be admitted to the dominant caste. One of the examples, a Japanese immigrant petitioned to qualify for being Caucasian because he said, my skin is actually whiter than many people that I identified as white in America.
I should qualify to be considered Caucasian. And his petition was rejected by the Supreme Court. But these are all of examples of the long standing uncertainties about who fits where. When you have a caste system that is bipolar, such as the one that was created here, bipolar.
You mean black and white? Yes. What impact do you think that that had or has on white people who are poor or who are in the lower part socioeconomically of the working class?
Well, it creates a false pedestal of standing that has nothing to do with what one does. It's what you're born into. It also creates an invisible false pedestal. It's a pedestal that people cannot see as we can as I speak about the caste system itself is is like a building and the building has joists and beams and the structure that we cannot see. But the building is there. And what makes it especially troubling is that if one cannot see that there is a pedestal that one may be standing on, that was that you had nothing to do with and that was created well before you were born, then you may not even recognize the advantages that you actually were born to.
The other thing is that it can create easily activated resentment at anything that does not track with how one perceives oneself. In other words, the perception that someone who has been deemed lower or that that one perceives to be lower than them, any advancement by someone in that group can be seen as a greater threat than it otherwise would be. There would be a greater investment in maintaining the caste system as it is in maintaining the hierarchy as we have known it to be.
And I think that one way that it shows up a lot is that we often say and in our era that, you know, people say that white working class voters will often be acting against their own interest in opposing policies, for example, that may be geared toward working people like universal health care, for example. But from the lens of caste, it would not be surprising that they might oppose policies that they fear could threaten their own status by assisting those that they perceive as being beneath them.
And so, from a caste perspective, it could be argued that they are actually acting in what they perceive to be their best interests. If their best interest is maintaining the hierarchy, as it has always been. In the comparisons that you make between the Nazi regime and the caste system in America, you describe like what qualified in each country as being white, like how much cold blood, non-white blood did you need to have in your system in order to disqualify as being white?
Would you compare the two countries in defining that?
Well, that was a source of tremendous debate. I came to discover I had no idea how they had arrived at their delineation of people, and they sent people to study the United States and how it had defined and codified, categorized and subjugated African-Americans and delineated who could be what in the United States. They studied the also studied the marriage laws, intermarriage laws. And in doing so, they debated as to who should qualify to be considered Aryan in Germany at that time.
And in studying the United States, they were they themselves were stunned to have discovered the one drop rule. That was the common distinction in the United States for determining whether a person could be identified as black or African-American. At that time, I would have been called colored or Negro. That idea of the one drop rule was that was viewed as too extreme to them, that extreme to the Nazis.
Stunning to hear that. I mean, it's stunning to see that. Stunning to discover that the Nazis, in trying to create their own caste system, what could be considered a caste system, went to great lengths to really think hard about who should qualify as Aryan because they felt that they wanted to include as many people as they possibly could.
Ironically enough, in in trying to define who could qualify to be Aryan, the Nazis were more concerned about making sure that those who had Aryan blood would be protected, that a person who had a significant amount of Aryan blood should still be considered Aryan. They actually had greater latitude in defining who could be Aryan and who would qualify as Jewish than the United States had determined with who could be African American or who could be white. My guest is Isabel Wilkerson, author of the new book Cast.
We'll hear more of our conversation after a break. And book critic Maureen Corrigan will review two novels she recommends for summer reading.
This is Fresh Air Weekend.
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Let's get back to my interview with journalist Isabel Wilkerson. Her new book, PCAST, suggests that we look at America as having created a caste system to keep down African-Americans.
How do you see yourself within the caste system in America?
I was asked that by an Indian immigrant in London once he did not he was an immigrant to to England, born in India, and he asked me that. And I found that question to be a stunning one because I did not know. It was surprising to me that he was not aware of the dynamics in the United States. He was not aware of of what the messaging might have been exported to to the world about the role and the ranking of African-Americans.
So I answered the question by indicating to him that described to him the caste system, the United States, to describe the hierarchy. And I said to him that I was born to what would be considered the subordinate group in the United States. And so that is what people like me have been born to. It does not mean that that is actually who we are. It just means that that is what society has assigned people who are of African descent.
African-Americans have been categorized from the very beginning as being at the very bottom of the hierarchy, bottom of the caste system. But although you see yourself as having been defined as a member of the lowest rung of of the caste system in America, I mean, you're a successful author. You won a Pulitzer Prize when you were a New York Times reporter. You won a National Book Critics Circle Award for your book about the Great Migration North in America. And now you have a new book.
So like you have, I think, by anyone standards like your very successful. So how do you reconcile that with thinking of yourself as being on the lowest rung in a caste system? And caste systems by definition, don't allow you to move up higher?
Well, that's where the issue of class comes in. So if caste is the bones and race is the skin, then class is the you know, the clothes, the diction, the accents, the education, the external successes that one might achieve. But that does not protect a person from the intrusion of caste, the intrusion of boundaries, because caste is essentially, you know, it's an effort to control and restrict and to tell people where they belong.
It's a it's a focus on this autonomic impulse to keep people in their place no matter what. And it's you know, and that is fueled by, you know, unconscious biases that kick in before a person can even think. And so people like myself might move about the world, as, you know, as objectively successful people. But that does not protect against the intrusion from others who might try to put someone in their place by setting boundaries, suggesting or responding as if they actually don't belong where they are.
I mean, I had this experience in Chicago years ago when I was reporting a story that was was fairly routine. I made arrangements to interview all these people. I made the arrangements over the phone to interview a number of people for the story. And all the interviews had gone well until I got to the last one. It was the last interview of the day. I was very much looking forward to it. The person that I was speaking with or going to speak with had been very excited to talk with me over the phone.
But when I got there, he happened not to have been there at the time. And the place that I went to was an establishment. A retail establishment happened not to have other people in it. And so I was waiting for him to get there. The door opens and this man comes in. He's very harried. He's got this coat is overcoat on. He's he's he's late for an appointment with ultimately with me, but he's harried, he's he's frazzled.
He's anxious. And the the clerk who had helped me earlier told me to go up to him and that this was the man I was there to interview. And I went up to him and he said, oh, no, no, no, no, I can't talk with you right now. And I was flummoxed by that. I mean, here we're here for the interview. Why are you why are we why are you saying you don't have time to talk?
And he said, no, I can't talk with you right now. I'm getting ready for a very, very important interview. I cannot talk with you right now. And I said, well, well, I I'm I think I'm the person interviewing you. I'm Isabel Wilkerson with The New York Times. He said, oh, he said, well, how how would I know that? How do I know that you're Isabel Wilkerson? And I said, I am here.
This is the time. This for 30 here. We're here for the for the interview. And he said, well, do you have a business card? And I said, I actually happened not to have had any because I it was the end of the day and I'd been interviewing people all day. And this was the last interview which I was very much looking forward to. And I said, I'm sorry, I'm out of business cards right now.
He said, well, do you have something that do you have some ID? Can I see some ID? And I said I shouldn't have to show you ID where we're already into the time that we were to have the interview. We should be talking right now. Is that well, I need to see some ID. And so I pulled out my driver's license to show it to him and he said, you don't have anything with The New York Times on it.
And he said, I'm sorry. I'm going to have to ask you to leave because I have a very important interview coming. She'll be here any minute. I'm going to have to ask you to leave. So I was actually accused of impersonating myself because I was not perceived as being the person I was not perceived as being someone who should have been in the position of a New York Times national correspondent there to interview him.
Who do you tell after an incident like that? Did you talk to your editors about it? Did you just share it with friends and family?
It seems like it's been such a maddening episode.
I have to say that I would share it with friends and family, but would not have shared that with editors because I would not want it to be seen.
You don't want to emphasize the barriers that you face. In other words, you don't want to suggest an. Any way that you're not able to do your job, you just have to find other ways to do it. And so that's something that I shared with friends and family, people who are close to me. But then I just soldiered on in order to get the work done. I mean, I wrote the piece. The piece was fine. No one needed to know the editors.
No one else needed to know the trouble that I had to do. And in fact, we don't really like talking about the challenges to what we do. We want to just focus on getting the job done like anyone else. I know a lot of people say I'm not responsible for racism in America. My family was immigrants or I always lived in the North.
I've never owned slaves. I'm not a racist myself. What do you say to that?
I say that when you buy a house, you are not responsible for how it was built unless you had to build yourself. If you buy an old house, you are not responsible for how it was built. You did not build the beams and the posts and the pillars and the joys that may be now askew, but it's your responsibility. Once it's in your possession, it then becomes a responsibility to know what it is that you now occupy and it's your responsibility to fix it.
No one had anything to do with the creation of the caste system that we've inherited. But now that we are in it and we recognize it and we are here, however we got here, whether we were brought over in and where we came over in ships, either of our own choice or not, whether we have recently arrived, we are now in the structure in the old house that now belongs to us. And it's our responsibility now to fix it.
It's our responsibility to to deal with whatever is within it. Whatever is wrong with it is now our responsibility, those of us who live here today. Isabel Wilkerson, thank you so much for coming back to fresh air and talking with us. Thank you. It was a pleasure. Isabel Wilkerson's new book is called Cast.
A young Bengali bride bullied by a ghost and a good man who's taken a wrong turn down a road of crime. Those are the premises of two new novels our book critic Maureen Corrigan recommends for summer reading. Here's her review of the aunt Who Wouldn't Die. And Blacktop Wasteland.
Let's cut to the chase. I have two novels to recommend. They have nothing in common apart from the fact that at first glance they're easy to underestimate. The aunt who wouldn't die is a short 1993 novel by the Bengali writer Shandu Mukhopadhyay, dubbed a modern Bengali classic. It's just been published for the first time in the United States. The novels Flip title was a draw. Its plot summary wasn't a heartwarming, multigenerational tale of three Bengali women. Sounded to me like a variant on a lot of mass market women's fiction.
But there's nothing cande about this story which has the allure of a feminist fractured fairy tale. The central character here some. Lata is an 18 year old woman from a poor family newly married to a handsome, blissfully unemployed older man from a once wealthy clan. Soon after the wedding, some letters mother in law tells her it's her job to reverse the family's fortunes by pestering her husband to work. Easier said than done. Stuck inside the crumbling family compound, some later decides one afternoon to climb to the roof for air.
To do so, she has to pass the open door of the apartment of her great aunt in law, a bitter dragon who is married at seven and widowed at 12. Tiptoeing past, she peers in and realizes that Aunt Peshimam, who's as usual sitting glaring in her chair, is stone cold dead. That's when the eerie ruckus begins. Peshimam is a mean and jealous ghost, popping up to, for instance, urge frightened some later to put more salt into the meal she's preparing, thus rendering it inedible or to indulge in an affair at night.
Some later awakens to the voice of Yima wandering around her room, muttering, Die, die, die, become a widow. May you have leprosy. What makes this little novel so memorable is the generous and expansive way that some laughter meets this malevolence, as the mindfulness coaches are always advising some responds rather than reacts. Instead of remaining a pushover, she pushes back without malice against the ghost as well as against the constraints of her life. This is a story that lycanthropy Peshimam lingers.
Blacktop wasteland by, say, Causby, opens on a scene familiar to us lovers of hard boiled crime stories, heavy on cars and gambling. It's a nighttime drag race on an isolated road, this one in rural Virginia. Our hard luck hero is named Beauregarde Bug Montage. He's a married African-American father of three who's been in the life, but that's behind him these days. Bug is struggling to make the rent on his failing auto repair shop. His estranged daughter needs college tuition, his sons need braces and glasses, and his cranky mother is being kicked out of her nursing home because her Medicaid benefits are being revoked.
So Bug, once a crack getaway driver, settles in behind the wheel of his father's old duster to win that desperately needed prize money. It's only a small exaggeration to say that I felt like I read the rest of this marvel of a souped up crime novel with the same intensity and speed that bug drives that muscle car. Fate is always a major, invisible player in stories like this, and Causby does an exquisite job of Slowly Heming bug in by bad brakes, a not so invisible player.
Here is racism, which fuels bugs determination to give his kids a better chance. Cosby has garnered attention for his short stories, but this is his first novel with a major publisher and he's a great new noir voice in the Gary Phillips George Pelecanos mode. Like those writers, Cosby gives readers a panoramic vision of a. All in America, for instance, rural Virginia's empty industrial parks steadily being reclaimed by honeysuckle and kudzu. But Causby is also a master of the small moment.
Here's a scene subtle and tense, where Bug visits the nursing home to try to talk the director into letting his mother stay. He knocked on Mrs. Talbot's door. Please come in, Mrs. Talbot said. Beauregard did. As he was told. The slim and neat woman sat at a glass top desk. She stood and extended her hand. Mr. Montage Beauregarde gripped her hand lightly and shook it. Mrs. Talbot. She gestured toward the chair and Beauregarde sat down.
It struck him how many times his life had been changed by sitting across from someone at a desk like the aunt who wouldn't die. Blacktop Wasteland could be initially mistaken for the same old, same old. But it's the kind of novel that wises a reader up fast.
Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed the aunt who wouldn't die and Blacktop Wasteland. Coming up, Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan talks about the decline of local news coverage. It's a crisis that she says is as serious as the spread of disinformation on the Internet. She's written a new book called Ghosting the News. This is Fresh Air Weekend.
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Ownership of other papers has led to sharp budget cuts and reduced local coverage due to competition from the Internet and other pressures. More than 2000 American newspapers have gone out of business since 2004. Financial stresses from the coronavirus pandemic have only made things worse. Our guest, veteran journalist Margaret Sullivan, believes the decline of local news coverage is a crisis every bit as serious as the spread of disinformation on the Internet. In a new book, Sullivan argues that when local news fails, citizens lack critical information to make good decisions and democracy is weakened.
Margaret Sullivan is the media columnist for The Washington Post, the former public editor of The New York Times and the former editor of The Buffalo News. Fresh Air's Dave Davies spoke to her about her new book, Ghosting the News, Local Journalism and the Crisis of American Democracy.
Well, Margaret Sullivan, welcome to Fresh Air. Good to have you. Thank you very much. Dave, it's great to be with you and your listeners. The decline of traditional media organizations, especially daily newspapers, is not a news story. Why did you want to sound the alarm about it now?
Well, it's it is an alarming situation, but one that most members of the public don't seem to be very tuned into. In fact, there's research that's been done that shows that, you know, some 70 percent of Americans think that local news organizations are doing pretty well financially. That's not the case, especially when it comes to newspapers. And after spending most of my career at a regional newspaper in Buffalo, I know how important that is to the community and to sort of as an underpinning of our democracy.
And I thought it would be important to show people the connection between the decline of local news and what's happening in our society at large. And it's it it means less political engagement, less voting across party lines, the possibility of more corruption at the local government level. And I think the weakening of community ties in which we all kind of relate to each other based on a shared, you know, group of facts that we may want to do different things with or interpret in different ways, but we all can sort of agree on what's happening.
So I see it as a real crisis. And I wanted to let people know what the price of it is before it's entirely too late.
One medium sized newspaper that you write about is the Youngstown, Ohio Vindicator. Just tell us briefly its story and what it meant to the community and what happened. So last summer, there was a surprise announcement that The Vindicator in Youngstown, Ohio, which is a substantial city, was going to close its doors the next month, that the announcement was in July. They would their last day of publication would be in August. And it was a shocker to the community.
The paper had been around for over 150 years, mostly family owned during that time and still family owned, and people just couldn't believe it. So I actually went off to Youngstown and spent quite a bit of time chatting with people and trying to spending time in the newsroom there and trying to understand what had happened and what the cost of it would be. It's a it's a very disturbing story because it would leave a pretty decent sized city without its own newspaper anymore and one that had been a real part of the community.
Everybody called it the Vendee. Everybody had, you know, had a story about delivering it or your mom's obit had been in it or they covered my sports event or whatever it was. This was going to go away. I attended a community meeting and people were in tears about it. But a one of the editors who I spoke with later said, well, that was very poignant. But I wonder if we had had a show of hands about who among the crying audience had actually been seven day a week subscribers.
I wonder what that would have been. And his theory was that not not very many circulation had gone way, way down.
So what was the impact when The Vindicator went under in Youngstown?
Well, since The Vindicator close, of course, there's a loss to the community and there's no doubt about that. And people are feeling it. But there have been some things that have kind of come in to help to fill the gap a little bit. There's a new digital only organization that McClatchy and Google are involved in called Mahoning Matters with the Mahoning Valley is the larger area around Youngstown. I think they have four reporters and a couple of editors. So that's, you know, maybe six people.
That's a far cry from the 44 member Vindicator NEWSROOM, but still a good thing. A neighboring news chain has started to put out an addition in Youngstown that, again, isn't really a folia Youngstown paper, but it it it does something they do still. And they took on the Vindicator name. So there is still something called the Youngstown Vindicator. It just isn't what it once was.
And ProPublica, the great and much esteemed digital only investigative journalism organization, has put a reporter in Youngstown at one of the TV stations to help do some of this enterprise investigative coverage. So, you know, I think it's a great little laboratory there. There was a big loss and people feel it and the community feels it.
And yet there are some bright spots, too.
You cite an example of the impact of the decline of many small newspapers in the case of a congressman from western New York, Chris Collins, who was indicted for fraud as he was running for re-election. And this gave his opponent seemingly a huge advantage, a guy named Nate McMurry. What did McMurry find when he sought to raise this as a campaign issue?
Well, McMurry, who was a Democrat, running in a very red district, in fact, it's New York State's most Republican district and one that spreads across eight counties, found that when he went out to some of the more rural parts of the of the district where there was less local news coverage and where newspapers had gone under, that, you know, he told me that when he would start to talk to people about Chris Collins's indictment on insider trading charges, that some of them said, what are you talking about?
We you know, they did not know about it. And when he tried to inform them about it, they would, you know, sort of shout back that this was fake news. And in fact, Chris Collins was fundraising from the reports of his indictment that the Buffalo News, my old paper, had been writing about a lot. So in the parts of the district that had more local news and were more sort of immersed in local news coverage, a lot of people across the aisle to vote for the challenger people who normally would we can say, I think confidently would have voted Republican, but in the parts of the district that had far less local news.
One of which is termed a news desert that didn't happen nearly as much and McMurry said that, you know, he was really surprised, but he could understand it because he thought that people were getting a lot of their information from less dependable sources, social media, talk radio and just what he called rumors. So there you know, it's impossible to say exactly what would have happened if there'd been a great local newspaper in those parts of the district. But the sort of anecdotal evidence suggests that it really did have an effect.
Right. So McMurry, the challenger, lost the primary. The congressman ultimately resigned, right?
That that's right. McMurry lost by just a whisker, one half of one percent, which was far, far less than what would normally have happened. And, you know, he would say that if there had been great local news coverage in in the further out parts of the district, including this news desert area, he believes he would have won. And then ultimately, Chris Collins, the case went to trial and he was sentenced to a jail term.
You know, another point you make is that the loss of local news coverage isn't just about watchdog reporting and investigations into local government and officials. As important as that is, there was also a way in which they knitted communities together. So what's the impact when the paper closes? Well, I mean, this is something that I feel so strongly about, because part of a big chunk of my time at the Buffalo News was that that was as the features editor.
So the people who I was dealing with every day and supervising and whose work I was lucky enough to edit were, for example, the book critic, the movie critic, the pop music critic, people who wrote feature stories about local people. And, you know, this was in a daily section called Life and Arts. And when that section and when those jobs go away, which they have in Buffalo, I think that we we lose something.
We lose that connection that has nothing to do with corrupt local officials. It has to do with how we relate to each other as members of a community, our arts and our culture. And, you know, sort of our our society as a community, I think becomes less knitted together and and weakened.
How has the coronavirus itself and the you know, the the economic slowdown affected the viability of local news organizations?
Well, it's been another really, really difficult blow for four local newspapers and for local news organizations, because the economic downturn that's come as a result of it has, you know, taken the legs out from under whatever print advertising was still left, which actually was sustaining a lot of places. So there have been many, many more layoffs and and furloughs of reporters and editors over this time. And there have been a lot more closures of newspapers since the pandemic started.
So an industry that was you know, you could have described it as in free fall before. Now that free fall has accelerated and it's pretty scary to see.
So let's talk a bit about some of the attempts to do something about this and some new models. You know, some news sites have had a tough go at trying to generate enough digital ad revenue to sustain a real newsgathering operation. And one thing they're trying to do is to get voluntary reader revenue, people who will feel strongly enough about their operation to contribute through digital subscriptions, et cetera. How's that going?
Well, it's going slowly for a lot of news organizations. And, you know, of course, we're talking in this in terms of the local news sort of ecosystem. We're not just talking about newspapers. We're talking about some of the newer things like digital startups and non-profits, which depend far less on advertising, if at all, and and depend on membership and philanthropy. And, you know, some of them are doing really well. The Texas Tribune in Austin is doing really well.
Others struggle more. And, you know, it's a really mixed bag across the country.
You know, you note that Google and Facebook, which have done so much to undermine the financial stability of newspapers, have devoted some resources to support local journalism.
What do you make of their efforts? You know, I'm happy to see them and at the same time, I don't think they really begin to make up the difference. And Google and Facebook are, you know, extremely well-funded, extremely profitable, and the efforts that they've put into helping local journalism, I don't find them to be particularly substantial. However, I have talked to editors at newspapers who say that Google has helped them with their sort of technology and their efforts to sell digital subscriptions.
And it has been very helpful. So I don't diminish that they're making these efforts. I just don't think it's enough or really you can't create any kind of a balance between what has been taken away and what's been supplied on the other end.
I want to talk about a couple of issues that are confronting American newsrooms today.
I mean, you know, the nation is confronting its own legacy of slavery and racism. And a lot of newsrooms are hearing the voices of African-American staffers about about shortcomings and lack of diversity in hiring and issues about content. You had a moment when you were the editor of the Buffalo News in 2010 when you had to deal with a lot of anger from the African-American community in Buffalo. You want to describe what provoked this and how you responded?
Yeah, I mean, this is something I feel and I wrote a column about it recently, really, I think on an error in judgment on my part, there was a mass shooting in Buffalo. And in reporting about it, we didn't know who the gunman was. We didn't know who the perpetrator was in trying to put the pieces of the puzzle together. We put emphasis on the people who had been at this event, which was a sort of on a wedding anniversary party in a restaurant.
And, you know, we talked about we reported on the the crimes, the the criminal backgrounds of some of the people who had been at the party, including some of the victims and the African they everyone at the party was black. The African-American community was justifiably upset about this and saw it as victim blaming. What what we and I would say I saw as important newsworthy information they saw as victim blaming. And I think they were right. I, I ended up having a big community meeting with a couple of hundred people who were pretty angry at the paper.
And it was upsetting and very growth producing for me. We ended up doing a lot of training afterwards, sensitivity training. We ended up changing some of our coverage of some of the African-American communities. And I recently talked to one of the black pastors who had helped convene this meeting, and he said that that that that get together and sort of the aftermath of it was really an important healing moment between the paper and the community. So, you know, live and learn.
Unfortunately, we hurt people as we reported the news. And that's that's a balance that you have to strike. I don't think I struck the right balance at that time, but I learned something from it. And I think a lot of a lot of us did.
So what's your sense of where major media organizations are going here and how will this new awareness affect and what will it lead to?
Well, I think they're all having kind of a moment of truth. It's they are listening to their to their people, the people of color on their staffs. And they're hearing the message come through loud and clear that we don't think we've been well represented. We don't feel like we've had the opportunity. You haven't treated us right and you haven't treated our communities right. And so as a result, we're seeing some real changes. The The Washington Post very recently appointed a new managing editor for diversity and inclusion.
Her name is Chris Thompson. Terrific 41 year old African-American woman and the first African-American woman to be a managing editor at The Washington Post. So that's just one example. But we're seeing some changes so that people can have more representative coverage and smarter coverage, really, of diverse communities. And it's it's really an overdue and a good thing.
Well, Margaret Sullivan, thank you so much for spending some time with us. Appreciate it. Thank you. It's been a great conversation and I appreciate it.
Margaret Sullivan is the media columnist for The Washington Post. And author of the new book Ghosting the News, Local Journalism and the Crisis of American Democracy, she spoke with Fresh Air's Dave Davies.
This week's edition of Fresh Air Weekend was produced by Heidi Saman, Fresh Air's executive producer is Danny Miller, our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham.
Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Teresa Madden, Thea Challoner, Seth Kelly and Joel from Molly KVI. Necessar is our associate producer of Digital Media. I'm Terry Gross.