“Ralph who?” my teen asked the other day as I waited on hold to be connected with Ralph Nader. I wasn’t too surprised—it’s been a long time since Nader helped launch the modern consumer advocacy movement, starting with the revelation that the auto industry was cold-bloodedly prioritizing profits ahead of drivers’ lives. Nader was perhaps at his change-making peak about the time a small and scrappy magazine named Mother Jones was getting started, also aiming to expose corporate wrongs that were not getting scrutiny from the corporate media of the time.
By the 90s, when I was cutting my teeth in journalism, Nader had become the avatar for a whole movement fighting the influence of big money, and he was a hero to baby muckraker me. He’s become a more complicated figure since then, especially because of the 2000 presidential run that some blame for the tight result that produced Bush v. Gore. But at 88, he’s also someone who has a long, deep perspective on what it means to fight for change against powerful interests—and win.
“Let’s talk about empowerment,” he said when we finally got on. “I’ve noticed that the better you get at investigating corporate evil, the more you turn people off after a while. Not people like me”—he chuckled—“who have an endless appetite for corporate evil. But a lot of people want to know, is there any hope?”
This is a hard question for investigative journalists. We pride ourselves on finding out how the powerful manipulate the system and how self-proclaimed authorities lie. We expose corruption, dig into duplicity, and uncover inequities. We do it to make things better. But are we ultimately leaving people feeling that the system is so corrupt there’s no hope of changing it?
That’s what the data suggests. Confidence in authorities of almost every kind has declined, and few institutions have lost trust faster than the media—which probably helps explain why people are paying less attention to the news these days.
I wanted to talk to Nader to see if he could help me answer the question that’s always been at the core of Mother Jones: How can journalism actually earn trust and catalyze change? And, since my job as CEO is to keep this (still scrappy) nonprofit newsroom going, how can journalism do all of that and… survive? Yes, it’s our fall fundraising drive, and while many of us are laser-focused on the midterm elections and the endless barrage of important stories they bring, I wanted to look at the bigger picture as part of asking the MoJo community to support reporting that brings about accountability and change for the long run, and help us raise the $325,000 we need right now.
The Way Things Were
“It used to be that the Times, the Post, the Wall Street Journal, they would put out a story that we investigated,” Nader said. “Then television would pick it up, then there would be a congressional investigation, there would be legislation, and bingo—we had safer cars, safer products, a better country.”
It didn’t work every time, of course, and a lot of unglamorous organizing went into that “bingo,” but that was definitely the model I absorbed when I first got into journalism: Expose wrongdoing, get mainstream media gatekeepers to pay attention, and hope that institutional accountability mechanisms kick in.
But that transmission belt between truth and change has gotten pretty frayed. All you need to do, it seems, is lie big, and demonize those challenging you as “vicious monsters” and “fake news.” This way you inoculate your supporters against the truth; make targets of investigators and journalists; and even get the media—especially outlets with sympathetic owners and investors—to amplify your lies.
That’s the story of the Trump era, though of course he didn’t invent this style of propaganda: He stole it from corporate America. Big Tobacco executives famously declared that “doubt is our product.” So long as they could convince people that the truth about tobacco was just one side of a debate, they were winning.
So, too, for Trump. Mainstream networks are no longer airing his increasingly terrifying rallies live, and they do more often call a lie a lie. But they still far too often fall for the fallacy that truth is found in the precise middle between two “sides.” Even if one side is authoritarian extremists and the other is the vast majority of Americans. (Witness the pearl-clutching over “semi-fascism” or the fretting about how the FBI searching Mar-a-Lago might “re-elect Trump”).
Here’s where we get back to Nader’s warnings about corporate power. Media, in America, is a corporate business, dominated at the local level by predatory hedge funds, and by billionaires and their platforms on the national level. Corporate media produce a lot of damn good journalism. But when the going gets tough—and in an uncertain economy, the going gets tough fast—the owners’ financial goals win. It’s just simple math.
Case in point: CNN, whose corporate owners are in the process of reshaping its content. Back in 2016, CNN’s parent company, Warner Media, announced that it was merging with AT&T. The Trump administration sued to block the merger. AT&T stood its ground, and the merger went through, but the signal did not go unheeded in media executive circles. AT&T then turned around and sold Warner Media to Discovery, which is partly owned by cable billionaire John Malone. And Malone has let it be known that he would very much like CNN to be more like Fox News because Fox News has “actual journalism.”
What that meant became clear when CNN’s new CEO, Chris Licht, dumped Brian Stelter, host of the network’s longest-running show, Reliable Sources. Stelter is no partisan firebrand, but he has been one of the most prominent journalists to shine a light on attacks on democracy, urging his own network and others to rise in its defense. Conservatives cheered Stelter’s firing. So did Malone, who pointedly reiterated that he wants “the ‘news’ portion of CNN to be more centrist.”
In fact, Stelter’s show was very centrist, in the sense that it bent over backwards to present opposing points of view. When he recently invited MoJo‘s editor-in-chief, Clara Jeffery, on the show to talk about our decade-plus investigative reporting on gun violence, her counterpart was Stephen Gutowski of the gun-rights newsletter The Reload. An odd equivalence, but there it is.
The thing is, you can’t balance an unbalanced problem. Stelter’s reporting about attacks on democracy were focused on the right, because that’s where the attacks on democracy are coming from. Blaming him for that is like blaming a firefighter for dousing the burning house rather than turning the hose on the building across the street.
Yet that’s the direction CNN chief Licht seems to be heading in. He has told his staff to avoid the term “Big Lie” because it’s Democratic “branding.” He went on what conservatives gleefully called an “apology tour” among Republican US senators. Soon after firing Stelter, he dumped the network’s White House correspondent, John Harwood, to more right-wing gloating. In Harwood’s last on-air appearance, he issued a stark warning about media missing the true danger to democracy right now: “We’re brought up to believe there’s two different political parties with different points of view and we don’t take sides in honest disagreements between them… But these are not honest disagreements.”
Why does Licht feel a need to clean house? It’s not complicated: CNN, like every other news outlet, is struggling with declining viewership, and Warner Discovery has tasked him with turning the business around. That means drawing more corporate advertisers—and if there’s one thing advertisers hate, it’s being associated with “controversy.”
There’s a whole other column to be written, some day, about corporate politics in America—how companies make public statements supporting Black Lives Matter or reproductive freedom, only to turn around and fund politicians intent on destroying both. For now, suffice to say that even when it comes to a fundamental, violent challenge to democracy, the response from corner offices and board rooms seems mostly ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. Less than two years after announcing that they could no longer support candidates embracing the Big Lie, many corporate political action committees are back throwing money at election deniers—because in the end, democracy matters less than the bottom line. Big money is the ultimate bipartisan constituency.
Journalism for Change, Not for Profit
Corporate media, corporate power, corporate politics. It can feel like an overwhelming triad, and that was why Nader had called me up. He worries that people are losing sight of their own power because of what they see in the media. So much news, Nader complained, is journalists “dittoing each other. They are all going after the same stories. Don’t do that.”
Don’t worry, I thought. Mother Jones doesn’t have to cover the same headlines everyone else is going after—the stories most worth investigating are all about the forces behind the headlines. Like Noah Lanard’s in-depth profile of Blake Masters, the right-wing Senate candidate bankrolled by his former boss, Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel. Or the special reporting project we dedicated six months and a full issue of our magazine to, exploring one of the most powerful—but mostly hidden—forces in the global economy: private equity. No one yanked the chain to pull us back from these stories that get at how the powerful game the system.
But if all you do is expose the bad stuff, people can lose hope. And hope is what’s required to make things happen. So how can journalists—as cynical and hard-boiled as we often are—help make that change possible? I thought about that recently as I sat in a MoJo planning session where we were asked to imagine a few different future scenarios. It was easy for us to sketch out the ones that involved a rise of authoritarianism and all-powerful monopolies. But we struggled with envisioning a trajectory where democracy expands and corporate power wanes.
Why is it so hard to picture a world where voting is as easy in Texas as it is in California? Where unions don’t have to fear intimidation and the ultrarich can’t buy tax breaks? Where schools, libraries, and—hell yes—news are recognized as critical infrastructure? Progress in this direction has been made throughout American history—often right after a cycle of chaos, violence, and polarization. Why should we be stuck in just the dark part of the cycle? What if there’s also a path toward people power, people-powered media, people-powered politics?
Mother Jones, after all, is living proof that people power works. Our co-founders knew corporations and billionaires wouldn’t fund the type of journalism we set out to do, but they bet that people would get behind no-BS, no-false equivalency journalism. And in the last 20 years, we’ve grown from that scrappy print magazine to a still-scrappy digital, print, video, and social media newsroom that reaches about 9 million each month.
It’s not been easy, and right now with all the attacks on truth-telling, it’s possibly harder than ever. We run up against the power of big money at every turn, from endless litigation against our journalists to the tech platforms that can suppress our reporting with the flick of a switch, to the skyrocketing cost of paper (because, ironically, paper mills are booked up making Amazon Prime shipping boxes).
And as stressful as it can be needing to raise $325,000 in donations from our community of readers over the next month, there’s no way we’d rather have it. The only reason Mother Jones can stay independent is because hundreds of thousands of you donate or subscribe, providing more than 70 percent of our revenue. That’s what lets us say no to corporate overlords and skittish advertisers. That’s what lets us do journalism for change, not for profit, and it’s why so many of you give us your trust.
So despite all the challenges, I’m able to remain hopeful. Because every day I see our team and our readers doing something that creates change. So that’s what I’m focusing on right now in trying to scrape together the money it takes to keep our team charging hard. No matter what happens with next month’s elections, no matter what happens in the courts or with the various investigations into Trump, I know reporting like Mother Jones’ will be urgently needed.
Update: October 24, 2022. Our fall fundraising campaign is more than halfway over, and we’re well off the mark for the $325,000 we need right now.
So we’re asking for your advice. Am I making the case well enough? Is journalism far down on your list with the midterms? Did I explain why independent journalism can’t be allowed to dwindle at this moment in history? Did I do a good enough job showing how fearless reporting really has an impact? Do we send enough emails to make sure they don’t get buried in your inboxes? Do we send too many and turn you off?
If you’ve supported our work before, thank you—can you tell me why and what convinced you to do it? If you’re not able to or just haven’t yet, I’d love to know what draws you to our reporting and why you think it matters. If you’ve given in the past but not anymore, can you say why?