For one of the last stories I wrote for Westword, which laid me off last week, I spoke to a coworker of a Walmart cashier who died of COVID-19 last month. Sandy Kunz was 72 years old and on supplemental oxygen because of a lung condition, but she had no choice but to keep going to work as the pandemic worsened; her husband, Gus, was at home, injured and out of a job, and the couple needed to pay the bills. Both ended up contracting the virus. Gus died on April 18. Sandy died two days later. On April 23, local health officials shut down the Walmart where Sandy worked after confirming one other death and at least six more positive cases linked to the store.
I still cannot think of this story without feeling a visceral, physical sensation of anger — a fist-clenching, pulse-quickening, breath-shortening anger that I have to consciously pull myself back from. Sandy and Gus Kunz died needlessly. They died because our cruel, corrupt and incompetent federal government failed to intervene early enough to contain the virus, downplayed its spread out of vanity and stupidity, and left us unequipped to deal with the consequences. They died because we live in a country that makes a sick 72-year-old woman work to survive. There are tens of thousands of others just like them, and by the time this is over, there will be hundreds of thousands.
These are the lines along which the pandemic has proceeded: a rolling nightmare of death and suffering caused not only by the high-wattage fuckups and glib acts of fraud perpetrated by the Trump administration but by decades of quieter, less controversial forms of American failure. To the extent that this crisis will end at all, it will end predictably: Everything that was bad about the world six months ago will be much, much worse. The virus is devastating immigrants, people of color and other vulnerable communities, deepening longstanding social inequities. The resulting economic cataclysm is leaving the working class ruined while the rich quickly recoup their losses. Small businesses are facing mass extinction while predatory corporate tech and finance oligopolies consolidate their control of the economy. Fascistic ghouls are further fanning the flames of xenophobia and militarism while a pratfalling Democratic establishment doubles down on hedged, blinkered, brutally inadequate half-measures.
As I spent the last two months trying to keep up with all the ways the world was suddenly changing, all the pain being inflicted that we couldn’t see, it was anger that kept me going. I held on to anger like a lifeline thrown into a sea of fear and despair that was otherwise going to swallow me whole. Like everything else happening right now, this isn’t a story that began in March. I felt angry in January when I sat in the kitchen of a house in Commerce City and listened to a mother describe the headaches and nosebleeds her children started getting after they moved into their home near the Suncor refinery. I felt angry in February when I sat in the EPA’s regional headquarters watching Trump officials prepare to weaken another bedrock environmental law, and at the state health department two weeks later as I watched regulators slow-walk new greenhouse-gas rules. I felt angry every time I heard young people talk about climate change with more urgency and moral clarity than their elected leaders ever had, every time I talked to working mothers who couldn’t afford child care or teachers who had to take second jobs, every time I listened to someone describe being trapped in the labyrinthine horror that is the American health-care system.
Of course, these things are not just enraging, but heartbreaking and confounding and grotesque and exhausting and paralyzing and darkly hilarious and bone-chillingly terrifying, too. Everyone has to find their own way to cope with the kaleidoscopic emotional distress of the current moment, but if we’re to salvage something from all this to use as motivation, a feeling to wield as we climb out of the wreckage, I see no other choice but anger. Despair and cynicism fade too easily into resignation and defeat. Grief, anguish, sadness at things beyond anyone’s control — that’s a conversation to be had between you and your higher power of choice. But the world we all live in is broken and powerful people broke it. They’re still at it, adding hour by hour to the harm they’ve already caused, and they’re not going to stop until they’re treated with the contempt they’ve earned.
We face an enormous amount of cultural pressure not to be angry — in media, in entertainment and in various strains of self-help spiritualism and pop psychology that permeate the way we talk to each other. Even now, as the bodies pile up, the surest way to earn censure from the mainstream political press is to be uncivil. Young people are urged to resist the temptations of snark and negativity. Among the lowest uses of Twitter or Facebook, it’s agreed, is to partake in social-media outrage. We’re told by nearly everyone with a voice loud enough to be heard that anger is cheap, childish, unserious, ineffective, a dead end.
All of these people are wrong. The writer Jack Newfield, a longtime reporter for the Village Voice in its heyday, was right: “Compassion without anger can become merely sentiment or pity,” he wrote. “Knowledge without anger can stagnate into mere cynicism and apathy. Anger improves lucidity, persistence, audacity, and memory.”
Staying angry isn’t easy, not least because it can be personally and socially debilitating, and it certainly isn’t easy for journalists. Anger isn’t easy to render in the written word, much less fit into the rhythms and conventions of daily news reporting. Even when covering infuriating stories of injustice and suffering, reporters are guided by the rules of their profession through an assembly line of anesthetization meant to soften the edges of their work: the practiced equivocations and soothing assurances of born politicians, the litigious hair-splitting and cover-your-ass qualifications, the access trading and the scoop-mongering and all the spokespeople and comms staffers and public-affairs strategists you need to preserve relationships with.
For these reasons and others, you will find little real, sustained expression of anger in traditional media — least of all on television, still the place where Americans get most of their news. Anger needs a target, and the steadfast aversion of most mainstream journalists to anything that can remotely be construed as picking sides puts it out of their reach. Far beyond a mere unwillingness to tell viewers who to be angry at, though, broadcast media tends not to acknowledge the existence or even the possibility of anger at all; for all its gestures toward conflict and debate, it doesn’t tolerate genuine antagonism or challenges to power. At best, your typical local newscast prizes a kind of accountability theater — kayfabe verbal skirmishes where all the participants understand their roles and the simple performance of Asking the Tough Questions matters much more than any substance or context.
The overriding market logic of ad-supported broadcast media — more or less the only for-profit newsroom model that’s still viable — is to produce content that advertisers want to put their messages in the middle of, and AstraZeneca doesn’t want you pissed off while they’re selling you gastrointestinal medication. Negative emotions don’t sell ads; it’s not that you’ll never see an outraged or fearful or desperate person on the evening news, but rarely are these feelings validated or reinforced by the framing, tone, editorial voice or follow-up coverage. In the long run, everything on television must be metabolized into a bland, deadening positivity, a hopefulness without any real shape or affect to it. To understand how TV news sees its role in the current crisis, you need only look at the stunted self-promotional spots running regularly throughout many newscasts right now, right alongside those Big Pharma ads, in which a horrific, preventable public-health disaster and world-historical economic collapse are being fashioned into just another feel-good story about your community’s resilience in the face of adversity. The tone is as if a particularly nasty tornado came through town last week. They have no other script to follow.
Things aren’t much better in print media, where, outside of a handful of large publications with a national audience, the industry is in tatters, a few bloodsucking private-equity concerns finishing the job that Silicon Valley’s digital advertising monopolies started two decades ago. Before long, the nonprofit model will be the only one left standing; indeed, it’s almost the only thing that has kept print from disappearing completely, and written coverage of current events already feels largely like a philanthropic endeavor, a nationwide constellation of new-media outfits with mission statements and funding streams of varying opacity, but broadly dependent on an affluent subscriber-donor base and the largesse of corporations and the ultra-wealthy.
These outlets are, by necessity if not by design, deeply embedded in the existing power structures that make the world the way it is. To the extent that good journalists can still do good work within them, work that challenges those structures, it’s only because they’re getting away with it, and they won’t be able to forever. When they’re not counting on grants from Facebook and Google to keep the lights on, they’re still at the mercy of their algorithms, and even the best-funded print publications are able to capture only a small fraction of the attention and audience share they used to. Over time, nonprofit journalism will bear a closer and closer resemblance to other cultural institutions that rely heavily on high-minded philanthropy and networks of the civic elite; its patrons will congratulate themselves on reading a longform investigative series the same way they do after attending the symphony or a museum fundraiser or gallery opening. Print journalism won’t die off so much as it will be carefully conserved and encased in glass. Inside voices. Please don’t touch.
It’s obvious who profits from a news media that has grown increasingly sanitized, under-resourced and afraid to be seen as antagonistic or unruly. If you believe at all in the power of the press to make the world a better place, it comes as no surprise that its decline has corresponded with the rise of entire rotten generations of new or newly re-emboldened villains: megalomaniacal tech billionaires and unabashed white-nationalist demagogues, economy-crashing Wall Street robber barons and planet-burning climate deniers, an ever more cartoonish and more powerful tableau of ruthless plutocrats and conspiracist grifters and mercenary political operatives and, not least, the dodderingly despotic reality-television star currently presiding over it all.
Jack Newfield’s advice to young journalists was direct and uncompromising: “Pick an issue. Study it. Figure out who the decision makers you want to influence are. Name the guilty men. Make alliances with experts. Combine activism with the writing. Create a constituency for reform. And don’t stop till you have achieved some progress.” Telling stories with villains — not two sides endlessly counterbalanced in a futile search for “objectivity” — was central to Newfield’s theory of change, and he spent 25 years at the Village Voice crusading furiously against New York City’s crooks and petty tyrants and corrupt machine politicians.
Today the Village Voice is gone, and so are many of its counterparts in other cities. As too many young journalists have learned over the last couple decades, and I got reminded of when I received a termination letter from the zombie corporate parent that bears the Voice’s name last week, there are vanishingly few places where today’s writers are given the freedom to follow Newfield’s advice. The spirit of the alternative press survives, but the institutions that nurtured and sustained it have all but collapsed, and nothing has come along to replace them.
The billionaires and tech giants and milquetoast charitable foundations that will underwrite the news business of the future have no interest in a style of journalism that is inherently skeptical of the establishment and the status quo. Almost none of the hundred or so alt-weeklies that applied for grants from the “Facebook Journalism Project” got them, Westword included; I got laid off a day later. Again, there’s no great mystery about the motives behind, or the consequences of, the death of the “rude press,” as Alex Pareene dubbed it. “If your local media has no place for people who voice contempt for your city’s police chief, say, or your state’s attorney general, or the publisher of your city’s largest newspaper, all of those people will feel more comfortable in abusing their power,” Pareene writes. “They will grind you down, and in the process, they’ll tell you to be civil about it.”
I spend a lot of time thinking about the media, its role in the world and how it should adapt to all this, and more time than I probably should heckling journalists who think differently on Twitter. This is a difficult, complicated profession to try to make a living in, and everyone has their own set of decisions to make about how they’ll do it. But I’m coming to believe that the running debates among journalists about personal worldviews or reporting styles or editorial sensibilities are all just proxy fights over a single, crucial question that we should all have to answer: Aren’t you fucking angry? Does it make you mad that hundreds of thousands of Americans are going to die from a public-health disaster that other countries have proven was largely preventable? Does it bother you that tens of millions of people are out of work and broke while capital markets enjoy record-setting rebounds and billionaires grow unimaginably richer? Do you get incandescently furious when you remember that two sitting U.S. senators profited off of privileged information about the seriousness of the virus in its early stages while downplaying the threat in public, and haven’t faced any repercussions for it? Does your vision blur with rage when the federal government orders predominantly immigrant and nonwhite meatpacking employees back to work in unsafe conditions and for poverty wages, then blames them for contracting the virus and threatens to police their communities even more aggressively in response?
It is, in a societal sense, pretty much an existential question, because if our collective answer is “No,” none of us really have anything left to talk about, only a series of endings to make our individual peace with. Answering with a resounding “Yes,” however, requires not only loosening the professional constraints by which many journalists still feel bound but unlearning a lot of ingrained cultural assumptions about the wisdom of getting mad and staying that way. As the human costs of the pandemic and all of the disparities and injustices that predate it continue to add up in the coming months, the stakes are only going to get higher. “The rage that is coming is like nothing I’ve ever seen,” a source told me last month, speaking about the untold millions who are facing financial ruin or putting their lives on the line as essential workers. If you need a bit of pop psychotherapy to ponder, ask yourself: What will happen if all those enraged, desperate people come to feel ignored by a news media whose instinct is always to soothe and counterbalance and explain away their anger? What other, unhealthier outlets will their rage find if journalists — charged, if nothing else, with mediating the conversation between the powerless and the powerful — repress rather than validate and respond to it?
Of course, we’ve already seen what happens when genuine anger is harnessed and misdirected by all the wrong people. Though they probably come to mind when many journalists think of outrage in politics, the pampered millionaires of Fox News and the rest of the right-wing media-industrial complex are not truly angry, and mostly not even superficially so — in tone, they’re more often ponderously solemn or weepily sentimental or unsuccessfully comic. But over the last few decades they’ve constructed an entire parallel information ecosystem for their audience to inhabit, aping the style of a truth-telling, adversarial press with none of the substance, guiding lost and alienated people towards a counterfeit set of ideas about who to blame for their problems. It will be no surprise when many of the people devastated by the pandemic choose the right’s simple, compelling lies, stories that give purpose and direction to their anger, over the chief alternative on offer: hedged, bloodless both-sidesism and feel-good nostrums about Coming Back From This Stronger Than Ever. Plenty of others — perhaps the largest group of all — will just burn themselves out entirely, joining the ranks of the perpetually beaten down and voiceless.
A real alternative would not mean wholesale abandonment of bedrock journalistic principles of honesty, fairness, editorial independence and fact-based reporting. It wouldn’t mean creating a left-wing analogue to the conservative disinformation machine, and it certainly wouldn’t mean swearing allegiance to the Democratic Party or any other political entity. It could be as simple as following Jack Newfield’s advice, embracing the power of anger to produce journalism that is more lucid and relentless, less prone to amnesia and lazy equivocating, unafraid to declare itself as engaged in the project of making this a better, more equal, more just world — and to invite its audience to be a part of that project, too.
The staggering toll this crisis has taken is only beginning to be felt, and without massive, transformative policy interventions the catastrophic trajectory of the economic fallout seems clear. The people suffering through its most devastating impacts, now and in the future, are entitled to cope with it however they want. But those of us who find ourselves healthy, housed, financially sound and otherwise fortunate have an emotional obligation to all the people who are not. We owe it to them to get angry on their behalf. If we don’t, if we keep running from rage and calling it wisdom, one day we’ll look back and realize that it’s stopped chasing us, because somewhere along the way we stopped believing in our own power to change anything at all.