Transcript: Leighton Woodhouse
My interview with the independent journalist and documentary filmmaker
But for the month of December, we’ll be focusing on one of the bright spots of the media landscape — and that is the independent press. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be speaking with some of the journalists that I most admire, who are doing fantastic work, at Substack and elsewhere.
We kick off this series with Leighton Woodhouse. He’s an independent journalist and documentary filmmaker in Oakland, California. His Substack is called Social Studies. (This episode was recorded last week, before the Twitter Files revelations.)
This is an edited transcript for paid subscribers. You can listen to the episode for free here.
TH: Leighton, welcome to Lean Out.
LW: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
TH: Really nice to have you on. Your body of work as a journalist is quite diverse. You have covered everything from factory farming and immigration to the alt-right, crime, drugs, addiction. You’ve published everywhere from The Intercept and The Nation to Newsweek. But I first came across your work at the Bari Weiss Substack — a piece titled “Cory Bush Wants to Defund the Police. My Neighbours Have Other Ideas.” It was really striking because it complicated the narrative so profoundly. Walk me through what you were hearing and seeing in your own neighbourhood in Oakland that led you to report out that piece.
LW: So, I believe that piece was written in 2021, and it was not too long after the summer of the BLM protests. And so there were these calls to defund, or even abolish, the police everywhere. Keep in mind, I’m here in the Bay Area. So while there were calls to defund the police nationwide, around here there were also vocal voices going in an even more radical direction, calling for the end of police altogether.
Meanwhile, what I was seeing in my neighbourhood — I live in East Oakland, it’s traditionally an area with a pretty high crime rate — at that particular time, which was towards the end of the pandemic, or towards the middle of the end of pandemic, I should say, the violent crime rate was really surging. And it was surging in the lowest income, least white areas of the city.
I interviewed a ton of people, including violence interrupters, including my city council member, including folks at a Black barber shop. By the way, all of the people in the barber shop had been — because I asked them — all had served prison time. And they were all of the same opinion that most people in the neighbourhood had. Which is that scaling back the police in this area would be crazy. I point out the fact that they had all served time to emphasize the fact that these were not fans of the Oakland Police Department. But nevertheless, I asked them, “What would happen in your neighbourhood if we cut the police by 50 percent?” At that time, there were calls in Oakland from city council members to cut the police budget by 50 percent.
I said, “What would happen if the police presence was cut by 50 percent in your neighbourhood?” And they said, “It would just be what you would expect. It’d be crazy. It’d be for free-for-all.” So what I was seeing from these calls of performative progressive Democrats to defund the police — members of The Squad, et cetera — I was seeing the exact opposite coming from the constituents whose interests they purport to stand for. From low income non-white Americans, who are calling for a greater police presence. And whose fear was of crime, not the police.
I mean, sure, there’s people who, if they are stopped by a cop, or if they are around a cop, might get a little bit nervous that they might have an encounter with the wrong cop who might hassle them up. I’m not blind to that threat. But when people in my neighbourhood leave their house, if they have any anxiety, it’s not about the cops, it’s about — well, at that time in particular when the crime rate was really surging, it was about being jacked up by some criminal. So that’s what I wanted to write the piece about. To reflect the fact that that was really what was coming out. And polls have borne this out. That was really what was coming out of the low income communities in America. Not this radical “defund, or even abolish, the police” message.
TH: It’s interesting. It was one of the first pieces that I read that unpacked this. At the time, I was in the mainstream media, and it was a really difficult thing to even touch as a topic. So, I think it’s a really good one to look at in terms of how the media works — and how it operates. For people outside the press, it’s sometimes hard to understand the exact mechanisms that drive this phenomenon a groupthink. You had a great Tablet piece recently on how the media manufactures consent, in reference to the controversy over John Fetterman and Dasha Burns at NBC. Walk me through your central argument in that piece, and the role that you see journalists playing.
LW: Well, what we saw with that interview — for folks that don’t recall this — was when, after many months of John Fetterman refusing to be interviewed or make public appearances, he granted an interviewed to NBC News. And this young reporter, Dasha Burns, was the one who conducted the interview. It was a big score for her. And she reported it as I would expect any self-respecting journalist should. Which is that she called it the way that she saw it. And what she saw was that this was a guy who was still suffering acutely from the effects of his stroke. During the pre-interview banter, it wasn’t clear whether he understood the words that she was saying, the sentences that she was was putting together. Because he didn’t have a teleprompter in front of him — or a whatever it’s called, the transcription service, in front of him. So, she said so on NBC News.
Of course, you can imagine that if the shoe was on the other foot, and if it was Dr. Oz or some other Republican, coming out of a stroke and a reporter noted that they seemed to be cognitively impaired, it’s hard to imagine that the media would have reacted in the way that it did. With Dasha Burns echoing a line of attack on a Democratic politician who the mainstream media was clearly in favour of, clearly in his camp, the response was just a pile-on social media. And so the point that I was making from that is that Twitter has become a disciplinary mechanism for media. For journalists who get out of line.
Journalism has become — this is no secret — a much more activist profession over the last five, six, maybe 10 years. So, within the profession, there are those who seek to discipline their own colleagues who step out of line, stray from the party line. Twitter is a place where they are able to find, and collaborate, with folks who are not in the media profession, who can echo that critique. So, if you get out of line, you find yourself dog piled in an instant. Oftentimes, as it was the case with Dasha Burns, the call to arms is initiated by fellow journalists. The call to action is initiated by journalists.
That’s not to say that they literally say, “Hey, let’s all pile on Dasha Burns.” But a media consensus forms — in this case it was Kara Swisher and a couple of other journalists who gave voice to it. [Rebecca] Traister. And once that media consensus forms, oftentimes their followers join in. This is a known phenomenon on Twitter, and it becomes a way for way for wayward journalists to be brought back into line with the consensus of the journalism profession. It’s disturbing. In the piece, I compare it to Noam Chomsky’s now-outdated model of manufacturing consent. This is the digital era’s way to manufacture consent, self-censoring, among journalists.
TH: Yeah, it’s striking. And you had a really good tweet related to this recently, with your colleague Lee Fang. He drops this blockbuster story for The Intercept on leaked DHS documents, and its plans to police disinformation. And, as you pointed out, the extent that the left-leaning mainstream media paid attention to it, it was to scold Lee for going on Tucker Carlson. What was going on in that instance?
LW: Yeah. So, Lee is a good friend. He was invited on Tucker Carlson. I can tell you firsthand — because I know it from Lee — that it’s not as if he was refusing appearances on other shows. He simply wasn’t invited. He wasn’t even invited on Democracy Now. I think they may have had him on later. But at the time they had not. So, look, he’s going to go on. Tucker Carlson is the most pop popular cable show in America. He went on because he had an important story to tell.
It was just another example of what I'm talking about. Aaron Rupar, I believe may have been the first to initiate this dog pile. He tends to take on the role of Twitter journalist disciplinarian. And then this pile-on ensued. Instead of journalists paying attention to these profound revelations in Lee’s story — or hey, secondarily to that, they could have focused on the fact that he somehow wasn’t being invited on these other news outlets. Which is another important phenomenon that was happening at the time — that his story was being memory holed. Instead, they piled on him for being a horrible human being. For having gone on Tucker Carlson.
And, by the way, even the co-author of that piece, Ken Klippenstein, sort of renounced the importance of his own story on Twitter. I think, because Josh Hawley, I believe, had pointed to — some disfavoured politician had said, “This is a very profound story.” Or some disfavoured pundit. And Ken’s response to it was, “Oh, I wrote this story and even I don’t think it’s that important.” To me, it was just another — it was like, “Okay, well, he saw which ways the wind was blowing. He saw what was happening to Lee and he didn’t want to get on the wrong side of that. So he threw his own story under the bus.” Which I thought was just crazy.
TH: So wild. I’m curious about your experience. I mean, we’ve just lived through this Covid era. I’ve been a journalist for 20 years. It’s both one of the biggest stories, and one of the most extreme stories, that I’ve ever been involved in covering. How do you think this era has impacted the media — and the way the media operates?