An NPR affiliate’s recent story hinting that a prominent black activist was an unwitting pawn for Russia is just the latest example of white liberals suppressing the voices of marginalized people harmed by an unsustainable status quo.
While Russia is the latest boogeyman, white liberals dismissing the concerns of people of color is nothing new. In his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail, Dr. Martin Luther King condemned “white moderates” who only pretended to care about civil rights as more harmful to the movement than hooded Ku Klux Klan terrorists:
“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice… Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
On Wednesday, Atlanta NPR affiliate WABE ran a story by reporter Johnny Kaufman entitled “Atlanta Activist Uses Russian-Backed Media to Spread Message.” The story referenced how local activist and lawyer Anoa Changa appears on podcasts like “By Any Means Necessary,” hosted by journalist and activist Eugene Puryear, and “Loud & Clear” with antiwar activist Brian Becker of the A.N.S.W.E.R. coalition, as a means of expanding her platform and reach. Both of the shows are carried by Radio Sputnik (which is funded by the Russian government), though each show is independently produced.
The overall narrative of Kaufman’s article was that Changa was playing into the hands of the Russian government in its efforts to exploit divisions in the American public. Kaufman interviewed George Washington University assistant professor Robert Orttung (described by journalist Ben Norton as a “rightwing hawk”) for the article, who described Russia’s strategy as a “zero-sum” game in which activists speaking out about American issues on Sputnik helps the Kremlin “create as much chaos as possible.”
“[A]nything that weakens us is going to strengthen them,” Orttung told Kaufman.
The response to Kaufman’s article was nearly unanimous in its disapproval. In both instances WABE tweeted Kaufman’s story from its official account, it was subjected to “the ratio,” meaning that replies to the tweet were far greater than the total number of retweets and likes, indicating widespread condemnation from the internet (Kaufman did not return Grit Post’s calls requesting comment).
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Glenn Greenwald described Kaufman’s depiction of Changa as a Russian pawn as “grotesque.” Media analyst Adam Johnson of Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR) called Kaufman’s article a “hit piece.” Journalist Torraine Walker called the article “a throwback to the McCarthy/HUAC era.”
Read @TheWayWithAnoa's reply to this horrible smear on her in her time-line. She's a very smart and critical thinker whose voice is really valuable. Smearing her as some sort of Russian tool is grotesque but now a very standard & acceptable part of American political discourse: https://t.co/wwFu94tmVo
— Glenn Greenwald (@ggreenwald) April 18, 2018
— Adam H. Johnson (@adamjohnsonNYC) April 20, 2018
This headline is a throwback to the McCarthy/HUAC era. Why haven't you asked yourselves why foreign media does a better job covering American social issues than mainstream domestic ones? @TheWayWithAnoa does real work. Do better. https://t.co/htttxaB7bU
— Torraine Walker (@TorraineWalker) April 19, 2018
However, a Russophobic hit job from an NPR affiliate aimed at smearing a prominent black activist comes as less of a shock when taking a closer look at NPR’s audience demographics. According to NPR’s own data from the network’s February 2018 audience profiles report, a large majority of NPR’s listeners and website visitors represent the most elite groups of American society.
The “business leader” profile shows that NPR’s listeners are 129 percent more likely to be top corporate management, and 114 percent more likely to be C-suite executives. NPR website visitors are 49 percent more likely to be Chief Operating Officers of companies.
The “educated lifelong learner” profile shows that NPR listeners are 242 percent more likely to have a post-graduate degree, and are 380 percent more likely to have a doctorate degree. The average cost of a Master’s degree is anywhere from $30,000 to $120,000. A 2014 article from the Chronicle of Higher Education profiled Ph.D graduates whose doctoral education cost as much as $140,000.
The “cultural connoisseur” profile shows that most NPR listeners have enough disposable income to attend two or more live concerts per month (130 percent more likely), and take at least three vacations per year (77 percent more likely). To compare, 56 percent of Americans hadn’t taken a vacation in at least a year, according to a 2015 report from TIME.
In a phone interview, Changa said her father told her that as an outspoken black woman, mainstream media outlets whose audience consists of wealthy white liberals will always seek to reduce her activism to a simplified caricature in order to satisfy a pre-conceived narrative.
“They just want us to shut up. Let’s be real. That’s really what it is,” Changa told Grit Post.
“White supremacy gets a massive platform across the board. It’s not impugned, it’s not challenged,” she continued. “It’s the status quo. And everyone is committed to upholding that.”
Changa mentioned that while she has “no illusions about Russia being this wonderful place that loves free black people,” WABE oversimplified her work as an activist bringing attention to important issues that have long plagued people of color to merely doing the bidding of the Kremlin.
She added that if mainstream American media outlets were willing to seriously address injustices prevalent in American society like white supremacy and police brutality, there wouldn’t be anything for Russia to exploit.
“They’re calling these things divisive, as if we’re all equal rights supremacists, like that’s a problem,” Changa said. “We’re never going to deal with these issues if they’re always telling us to just be quiet.”
“We’re so focused on protecting the free speech rights of predominantly angry white men, who feel like their voices aren’t being heard or whatever, and yet the rest of us either do not have the same venues, vehicles, or respect for our voice and experience.”
A popular trope trotted out by both white liberals and conservatives on social media is that the Black Lives Matter movement was a tool of Russian propaganda agents to divide Americans. While Russians certainly attempted to exploit the movement for its own agenda, the implication that a movement that spawned from police killing black people with impunity was a Kremlin operation demeans and degrades black activists who have been fighting police brutality for a lot longer than Russians have been sowing discord.
— Kambree Kawahine Koa (@KamVTV) September 29, 2017
You were the one duped, so I’d say it’s a problem of yours. Russia was also behind Black Lives Matter- why do you support Putin?
— Brandon Drake 👌🐼🐸 (@Got2LuvTheDrake) April 12, 2018
Russia was also used as a scapegoat by mainstream media to downplay the activism of the Standing Rock Sioux, who endured extremely cold weather and brutal police crackdowns in an attempt to halt the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. Reports by the Washington Post, BuzzFeed and the Daily Beast about Russian troll farms posting about the pipeline protests were tweeted by white liberals convinced that the historic protest was simply a stunt by the Kremlin to divide Americans against each other.
Stop believing the Russian trolls, please. https://t.co/lPzv7bTAk8
— Amy Fries (@amyfries) March 2, 2018
They’re doing it a lot with BLM, too.
— Deborah 🏳️🌈 (@RobertaSaidThat) October 24, 2017
That’s the point. You agree with a bunch of their posts and then you start to see everything they post as credible. Textbook confirm. bias.
— Pepys’s Carré de l'Est (@cromgood) October 24, 2017
Just know, there will always be useful idiots volunteering to be manipulated by anyone with a political ax to grind.https://t.co/Oh2oMacFjE
— Bansi Sharma (@bansisharma) October 29, 2017
It goes without saying that Russian agents meddled in the 2016 election, based on the conclusion of multiple U.S. intelligence agencies, and that those same intelligence agencies are warning that Russia will likely meddle in the 2018 midterm elections.
However, It’s also true that mainstream media outlets can easily make the mistake of overplaying the influence Russian trolls had on American political discourse, so much so that any and all leftist activism on any issue can be chalked up to Russian interference and summarily dismissed. Never mind the fact that police brutality, violation of indigenous sovereignty, and other injustices have been around a lot longer than Russian troll farms.
If well-intentioned white liberals truly want to see an end to injustice in America, their first reaction when confronted with uncomfortable truths about American society should be to listen, rather than to demean activists as Russian pawns.
Carl Gibson is a politics contributor for Grit Post. His work has previously been published in The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Houston Chronicle, Al-Jazeera America, and NPR, among others. Follow him on Twitter @crgibs or send him an email at carl at gritpost dot com.