Pundit Jess McIntosh on Why Twitter and Cable News Are Actually Good
Like so many of us, Jess McIntosh is having trouble sleeping. Granted, pre-quarantine, the indefatigable political strategist and radio host was only averaging about four hours a night, traveling the country with CNN’s politics team to cover debates in battleground states while hosting her SiriusXM show Signal Boost from the road. “There were days I couldn’t see straight, but we were in action,” she says. “It’s an election year. You sign up for that.” Isolation and social-distancing, though, have brought on a different kind of restlessness; these days she feels antsy and anxious, inspired by the protests but wary of the pandemic. Her block in the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn has transformed into an organization hub for the Black Lives Matter movement, and when we catch up one morning in June she is stenciling a giant sign in her garden. “I was in awe of the people who were immediately willing to put their health at risk to protest,” she says. “I’ve since made it out, but it took me a few days. I was scared.”
McIntosh credits social media for powering this movement: For those who are able to get out and protest, it’s a source for marching orders, and for those who can’t, it’s a place to make their voices heard. “I don’t think a lot of white people instinctively went, "We’d better donate to bail funds!’ you know?” she says. “But black leaders on Twitter told us to, and then we went and did it. That’s new. That’s progress.”
As someone who has spent the past 15 years intimately involved in D.C. media—working on campaigns for Mike Bloomberg, Al Franken, and Hillary Clinton, before running communications for the pro-choice political action committee Emily’s List—she is acutely attuned to the discrimination entrenched in newsrooms and admits she often feels cynical and hopeless. But she has never seen anything like the watershed moment we’re in now. “Media has changed more in the last 48 hours than it has in the last two years,” she says when we speak on June 11. “Representation, diversity, equality... for so long, these were just buzzwords. Now, maybe, they’re not.” Here, she opens up about fighting her fears, shaking off trolls, and the crucial six months ahead.
What’s the best advice you got early on in your career?
I sat next to a really smart woman on a panel once who was a pollster. And she said, "If the thing that you like doing and do well is something that scares other people, you’re golden. You will be hired to do that thing.” Now, she was someone who did math for a living, and I was sitting there thinking, "Man, I wish the thing I liked doing was scary, but I can't do math!” Later, when I repeated her advice to my ex, he was like, "Are you kidding? You talk to reporters for a living. That's terrifying.” And I realized they were both right. Debating, speaking in front of a crowd, these are things campaigns pushed me to do because they scare a lot of people, and everybody needs a good messenger.
After working on so many campaigns and spending years with Emily’s List, why did you decide to transition into TV and radio?
In all of those positions, my job was to work with the media. I was everything from a press secretary to a VP of communications, and the media was my beat, so to speak. When Hillary lost, that was a big soul-searching moment for everybody. For me, I went to the place where I thought the most work needed to be done, and where I thought I could have the biggest impact. Our media landscape is a huge part of why we're in the crap that we're in right now. We have this weird both-sides-ism disease, our newsrooms are incredibly non-diverse, we lose all kinds of important perspectives, and we prioritize the wrong things. It's almost impossible as a consumer of news to get an accurate picture of what a piece of legislation would actually mean to you, as opposed to what it will mean for Mitch McConnell. So I wasn't going to go from Hillary Clinton to yet another campaign because I felt like I’d been doing that for so long. The real issue, to me, was that Democrats needed to be telling better stories.
"I was not prepared for the actual men who were most responsible for shaping [misogynist] coverage would lose their jobs because they were sexual predators. That was a bit too on-the-nose."
What were some of the weaknesses that you saw?
It wasn’t bad intentions so much as a lack of accountability. The media needs to be more accountable to accuracy, and like, genuine accuracy, where priorities and moral obligation are considered in how you cover a piece of news. I read an NPR study about the use of the term "unarmed black man” and how detrimental it is despite its good intentions. The reporter may want to indicate that this black man posed no threat, and on the surface it feels like a neutral phrase. But NPR did an internal review and found they used it like 86 times in a couple of months and zero times for "unarmed white man.” Well, if we keep seeing the phrase "unarmed black man,” it implies that the natural state of black men is to be armed, and if one is unarmed, that's worthy of comment. But it’s not like a reporter decided they wanted to be racist and use the term. They were probably trying to do the opposite, which is exactly why it’s so important to understand the implications of our behavior.
That feels especially true for how we talk about women, which I’m sure you experienced on the Clinton campaign.
Oh, Jesus, yes. The way women are written about, the way abortion is written about... Prior to working for Hillary, I spent five years running the communications department at Emily's list [a political action committee for women in politics], so I had a little bit more of a runway than most as to how truly maddening and difficult it was to get women elected to executive positions. I went in knowing that we were going to have a major feminist reckoning, and that there would be significant misogynist backlash to Hillary’s candidacy reflected in every level of our media. But what I was not prepared for was that the very next year, the actual men who were most responsible for shaping that coverage would lose their jobs because they were sexual predators. That was a bit too on-the-nose. It showed just how problematic it was that they’d been given such outsized control of the narrative in the first place.
Have you seen any improvement?
Yes. Media organizations are having conversations now that they were not having five years ago. I’ve had conversations about the women running for president in 2020 that I never could have had in 2016. For example, about the use of phrases like "likability” and "electability” and whether or not they’re sexist. (They are.) It would have been really hard in 2016 to make the case that those terms were gendered. And in 2020, it’s almost a given.
"Progressives do an excellent job of explaining what's wrong, but that tends to leave people feeling disillusioned and hopeless. We try to focus on the solutions."
What are some of the biggest misconceptions about the current media landscape? Is it actually changing as fast as it feels?
Up until two weeks ago with the Black Lives Matter uprising, I would have told you it’s changing way too slowly. It has changed more in the last 48 hours than it has in the last two years, so I hope that continues. But the biggest misconception right now is that newsrooms are diverse. They're not. And even if you have black talent on air or in bylines, that doesn’t often extend to the people producing the segment, editing the layout, and filling out the mastheads. We need to understand that staffing has a direct impact on the media coverage itself. It matters when you send a white reporter to cover Kamala Harris at the AKA meeting and she doesn't understand why everybody's whooping because that's their sorority chant. If you’d sent a black woman, she would have gotten that. It matters when you have Mark Halperin covering sex assault. Somewhere down the chain, the perspectives of the people you are reporting on must be represented. And I don’t think we fully understand how entrenched this imbalance is.
So after the 2016 election, how did you resolve to create change?
On the campaign, my colleague Zerlina Maxwell and I had run an influencer program where we worked to share stories that wouldn’t otherwise break through. The media was so obsessive about Hillary’s emails that it was difficult to surface the interesting policy things that were happening, or the joyful moments with people who loved Hillary Clinton, because there were tons of them despite the fact that we kept hearing there weren't. After the election, we started a newsletter highlighting all the new progressive initiatives people were starting in its wake. Zerlina named it Signal Boost because she was sick of watching the same white guys who all went to the same schools signal-boost each other in the media—retweeting only each other's articles, etc. After a few months, SiriusXM approached us about turning it into a radio show, and in 2017, we started a Saturday morning show about activism. We took over the morning slot last November, which I believe makes us the only explicitly feminist, prime time morning show in the country.
How do you differentiate yourselves from the constant flood of content and noise?
Progressives do an excellent job of explaining what's wrong, but that tends to leave people feeling disillusioned and hopeless. We try to focus on the solutions. We talk to people who are running organizations. We tell people where to donate. We tell people how to call their legislators. We do a lot of activist education.
"Tribal lines are something D.C. media has always done. The difference is that now someone can say 'Hi, I’m a white supremacist,' and we can respond and tell them to go to hell."
Can you talk about your contract with CNN? What drew you to cable news when there are so many other, arguably more modern platforms with equal or growing impact?
I’d been appearing on network news for years, but after the election, I signed onto CNN as an [exclusive] contributor because I felt like they were doing strong, solid news coverage of the moment. They were interested in bringing in young, diverse voices and feminist perspectives. I’m not even their number one reproductive rights expert. I love that. And to me, the power is in the scope of the audience. I get to bring my perspective as a young, outspoken, millennial feminist to an audience of people who might not otherwise hear it. I love my Twitter feed, but when you’re on national TV, you’re reaching outside your own circles.
Social media has become rather niche in the last few years. Has it become more or less integrated in your own political communication?
More. Completely. It just is. Social media used to be one arm of what I did, but now there isn’t even a need to separate it. It is the way you get your message out.
But it has a way of caricaturing politics––Bernie bros, the dirtbag left, neo-nazis, and so on––which seems to further the divide. Isn’t that a problem?
Tribal lines are something D.C. media has always done. That part isn’t new. The difference is that now someone can say "Hi, I’m a white supremacist,” and we can respond and tell them to go to hell. That is helpful. I’d also argue that this moment we’re in wouldn’t be happening without social media because it has allowed us to be in constant communication––to experience the incessantness of discrimination as videos are posted in real-time, and to respond by organzing in real-time. And the thing that is absolutely mission critical for social justice work is that it allows white people, even those who don’t have black people in their immediate lives, to listen to black voices. The way I see it, the agents of chaos and evil are organizing regardless of the platform, so at least Twitter gives us the option of organizing in return. And also, I should add, of watching them. The really scary stuff happens on Discord and 8Chan and we never see until Charlottesville.
"Every white person who feels like they want to do something in this moment needs to avoid performativity. What you say or do has to have substantive good."
How have you felt over the past few weeks as you watch this overwhelming example of social media power?
I was in awe of the people who were immediately willing to put their health at risk to protest. I've gone since, but it took me a few days. I did not make that immediate decision to get in the streets. I was scared. To watch the same community that is being disproportionately affected by the pandemic further risk their lives to march, it’s moving. I’m also in awe of all of the people who have to have to stay home or choose to stay home for very valid reasons but are still doing everything they can to help. Social media means that they're able to get their marching orders really quickly. I don’t think a lot of white people instinctively went, "We’d better donate to bail funds!” you know? But black leaders on Twitter told us to, and then we went and did it. That’s new. That’s progress.
What would you say to white digital creators who want to engage in this moment but don’t know how?
Every white person who feels like they want to do something in this moment needs to avoid performativity. What you say or do has to have substantive good. You have to be able to ask yourself, what does this action do to benefit black people? And if you can't answer it, maybe don't participate. The black squares was a perfect example of what not to do––performative activism that helped no one, and actually silenced people. It was so silly. And I saw so many of my well-intentioned white friends doing it.
Social media can be so volatile and toxic, but you’ve been steadfast in your opinions. Do you feel like you've been a target of both the right and of the left? How do you navigate that?
I’ve been a target for the right for sure, and interestingly, it seems to depend on what I'm talking about. When I talk about race, the threats and attacks from the right are markedly worse than when I talk about abortion or anything else. So yes, I’m a target. However, it’s nothing compared to what black women saying the exact same things get. From the left it's, it's tougher because I'm really freaking liberal. I've never met a socialist policy I don't like. So the way I wind up arguing with the left is saying, "No, I'm not for Hillary Clinton because I like a compromise position, I think her agenda is the progressive one, and here are all the reasons why.” So I definitely get it from the left, but I'm also more comfortable taking it from the left. It’s more respectful. It’s more of a conversation.
Has it ever gotten so bad that you thought about pulling away from the public eye?
Oh sure. There was a nice gentleman who called me a “ham planet” in 2012, which remains my favorite Twitter insult even though I really can't see the resemblance. And I know that my nose is crooked because like 25 percent of my trolls tell me that it is. But it’s like, okay, they're right, I just don’t give a shit. To be honest, it isn’t the insults but the volume that’s crushing. Even if all of the insults are as ludicrous as “ham planet,” seeing them by the tens of thousands hour after hour, day after day, that takes a toll. Those are the genuinely tough ones to come back from. My partner is good about knowing when something like that is happening because I tend to get a little withdrawn, I'm snappy, I drink more. One time I showed him my feed during a bad spell and he just sat there scrolling through, speechless. But again, I have it way better than my black counterparts. What they often do is tag in a friend to read through the comments because they so often contain actionable threats that need to be reported. So I’ve been that person.
What do you think about the fact that Democrats weren't able to produce a nominee that's non-white, female, young, all the things you stand for on your platforms. Is that a failure of the party? Of the current political system?
It's a failure on so many levels, particularly the media’s. I hate to say it's a failure of voters but I do think they lacked a little imagination this time around. However, I think the conversation was immeasurably changed by the diversity of the field at the beginning of this year. And it’s like we said when Hillary was running: Even if she loses, the next time will be easier for the next woman.
Do you feel like we’re in the middle of a real civil rights movement? Something we’ll look back on in 20 or 50 years as a true turning point?
I’m not the person who gets to decide whether or not it's a sea change because I'm not the people closest to the pain right now. But I have been asking every black leader I’ve spoken with this question and gotten a resounding yes. So I'm finally starting to feel like it's okay to say this moment is different. That we're living through history.