An Agency Series: Interviews with Radical Journalists
For the second installment of Agency’s series: Interviews with Radical Journalists, we are excited to bring you our recent conversation with Natasha Lennard. Natasha’s writing appears in publications including The Intercept, The Nation and The New York Times. She has written two books, including the recently published Being Numerous: Essays on Non-Fascist Life (Verso Books 2019). We talked with Natasha about working as an explicitly leftist journalist, their thoughts on engaging with the mainstream media, and the importance of leftist publications.
Keep an eye out for more interviews with radical journalists over the coming months, and if you haven’t already, check out last month’s interview with journalist Dan Arel.
Agency: Why did you decide to become a journalist, and what were the first steps you took to get work in the field?
Natasha: I became a journalist somewhat by accident, by which I largely mean I didn’t have childhood dreams of journalism. My background was in analytic philosophy. I was on the edge of pursuing a PhD, and realized I didn’t want to spend more years invested in the equivalent of advanced Sudoku. So, I applied to Columbia Journalism School, got in, moved from London to New York, and everything followed from there. It was only really during Occupy that I first began appreciating (but also appreciating the limits of) the sort of leftist, advocacy journalism I could do.
Agency: You are a freelancer for a number of publications at a time when there is a lot of organizing around unionizing freelance journalists. Are you involved with any of this organizing, and do you have any thoughts on how freelance workers might be able to achieve fair treatment in the workplace?
Natasha: I recently joined the Freelance Solidarity Project, which is now a part of the National Writers’ Union. They’re doing great work fighting to establish industry standards as a bulwark against the absolute precarity in which we all work. I feel like this sort of collective work has the potential to make some significant improvements for freelancers, but doubt that this will amount to “fair treatment,” given the nature of the industry. Above all, I think creating sites of solidarity, which these sorts of efforts definitely do, is crucial.
Agency: You seem to be able to write about issues in a way that aligns with your personal politics. Has it been very hard carving out this niche for yourself?
Natasha: I’ve been very lucky on that front. For the vast majority of my career, since I publicly wrote about my support, as a journalist, for Occupy and my rejection of what passes for “objectivity” in journalism, I’ve been able to work as a columnist and political essay writer. It’s not always been stable or financially secure work, but there’s been a major expansion of sites for explicitly leftist writing — even while conservative and far-right opinions get far more purchase than the far left in publications like the Times and the Washington Post.
Agency: For a variety of reasons, many anarchists and radical leftists refuse to engage with mainstream media. This sometimes leads to situations where, for example, during a recent counter-protest in Portland, OR, a CNN reporter was easily able to find a member of the Proud Boys to interview but couldn’t find a counter-protester who was willing to talk with them. How do you feel about this dynamic?
Natasha: It’s a difficult one. I entirely respect the radical leftists who refuse to speak to mainstream publications. Venues like CNN have institutional interests in presenting far-left protesters in their vile “both sides” narratives, drawing false equivalences with the far right, and there’s every reason to refuse to participate in that. Most mainstream journalists won’t, for example, respect an anti-fascist protester’s (understandable) desire for anonymity. I think leftist narratives are better served by leftist, or at least left-leaning publications. Equally, leftist activists who choose to engage with mainstream journalism, write op-eds for the Times, etc., can do great work in demystifying leftist positions for a broader public. I guess my advice, for what it’s worth, is that engagement with an outlet like CNN, or even MSNBC, should always be cautious. Of course, I draw the line at leftists who pretend they’re doing useful, interventionary work by engaging with (and thus legitimizing) fascists like Tucker Carlson, or fascist rags like Quillette.
Agency: Do you write for radical publications, and do you have any concerns that writing for radical publications could impact your ability to freelance for mainstream publications?
Natasha: I do write for radical publications. I’m currently a contributing editor for the brilliant Commune Magazine, where I’ve also written. I’ve also been a part of The New Inquiry team, and written for them, too. This has never been a barrier to me writing in mainstream publications, from The Intercept to the NYT Opinion section; I’m known as a left-wing opinion writer, so it’s not considered a conflict.
Agency: Do you have any advice for anarchists who are considering engaging with mainstream media to highlight radical ideas or a current issue?
Natasha: I think finding sympathetic publications and editors is the best way “in.” Beyond radical leftist publications like Commune and Pinko, there are a lot of more mainstream places with allegiance to the left and an interest in writing and reporting beyond the remit of democratic socialism. The Nation, The Intercept, The New Republic, even Teen Vogue (where the wonderful Kim Kelly has a labor column) have made some room for these sorts of ideas in recent years. If you mean “engaging” in terms of being willing to speak with a journalist, I’d say: be cautious and do enough research to know what a given media institution/journalist’s agenda and modus operandi tends to be. You don’t want to find your words mangled and decontextualized, or your comrades put at risk.
Agency: Aside from mainstream media, what do you think are the most effective platforms for anarchists to utilize in sharing ideas and information with the broader public?
Natasha: In terms of print publications, I’m really excited and impressed by Commune Magazine. Pinko Magazine, a gay communist publication, has just finished a successful crowd-funding drive and I’m sure will be a great place for revolutionary content. There are really crucial sites like It’s Going Down and podcasts like the Antifada … and no doubt many more I’m failing to mention. All social media platforms are necessarily constrained by form, and produce a vast array of problems and harms, but (responsibly) sharing information, making connections, building communities through Twitter and YouTube (where the right gains major ground) strikes me as important. There are probably some rad-as-hell teens on Tik Tok, too; let’s hope! And, of course, the streets.
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Natasha Lennard is a columnist for The Intercept and her work has appeared regularly in The Nation, Esquire, The New York Times and The New Inquiry, among others. She teaches critical journalism at the New School For Social Research. She is the author of Violence: Humans in Dark Times (with Brad Evans, City Lights 2018) and Being Numerous: Essays on Non-Fascist Life (Verso Books 2019).