Jamil Smith is a few months into his new gig at The New Republic after working as a producer for Rachel Maddow and then Melissa Harris-Perry at MSNBC. Much of his new gig is focused on covering race in America in a way that many magazines, let alone the New Republic, haven't in recent memory. He grew up in Shaker and still has many ties, and opinions of, home. We chatted for a few minutes about TNR, coverage of minorities in Cleveland, and why people get pissed when you point out the city’s negatives.
Vince Grzegorek: Hey there, sir. Thanks for taking a few minutes to chat.
Jamil Smith: Of course. I’m actually coming back there soon. I was part of – in the very early stages – of a group called Minority Achievement Community in Shaker. You take a group of young black male students, juniors and seniors, with a 3.0 GPA or above and work with them and you advise freshmen and sophomores with below a 2.0 GPA. That program is still rolling some 25 years later. There’s going to be an award program in May and they asked me to speak at it.
VG: That is a tremendous program.
JS: By the way, I grew up reading Scene. It’s cool to do this. I was telling my mom and my editor-in-chief.
VG: Me too, which is amazing to me now that I work here. It’s been around forever. And, perfect segue here, speaking of places that have been around forever: Tell me a little bit about why you decided to take the senior editor position at The New Republic, which has been around for far longer than Scene, after the upheaval that took place on the masthead, and specifically why you took the job to do the sort of coverage on race that you are doing.
JS: Well, I’ve always been interested in exploring the ideas and experiences and covering the news related to race and gender and identity politics. So I saw an opportunity at The New Republic to cover those things, first of all, but I also saw an opportunity to open the door for other writers of color that the magazine hadn’t been very welcoming to in its history and recent history. When I first spoke to the editor-in-chief, Gabriel Snyder, in December, I saw a lot of potential for growth, I saw the chance to not only do the kind of coverage I was interested in, but also to experiment with emerging mediums. We’re trying to launch a podcast, we’re trying to do more video, and he’s enabled me to captain all of that.
VG: It’s very much needed. For the lack of a better way to put this: What can we, and by we I mean everyone in the media, especially those who control hiring and freelance assignments and green lights on stories, do better? There’s probably not a short answer to that question. Here at Scene, we definitely don’t do as good a job as we should covering race nor do we devote as many resources to the neighborhoods where those conversations are taking place. There are whole swaths of the near east side that don’t get coverage here or anywhere else in town.
JS: First things first: Too much when people think about covering race they think about covering racism and incidents of racism. There’s a lot of attention paid to police violence, paid to poverty, paid to income inequality and overt acts of bigotry. There’s so much about the experience of being a person of color that isn’t reflected in newspapers. When I say that, it’s so much of the positive experience. Especially in a city like Cleveland, it’s frankly… it’s as segregated as people want it to be. If you’re a person of privilege or a certain socio-economic level, it’s an easy city if you want to only be around people that look like you or think like you or are the same socio-economic background as you. It’s a pretty easy thing to do in Cleveland. Every community has people that struggle, and I don’t want to brand certain communities. Growing up in Shaker, you had people who took an interest in a diversified city and you had people who took no interest. In order for journalists to reflect the real character of the city, they have to get in the neighborhoods, they have to make allies, they have to convey that they are going to reflect those specific people’s experiences that they’re covering. As long as the community understands that journalists are out there trying to tell their side of the story, that’d be a big step in terms of broadening the scope of coverage.
VG: That’s obvious and yet a path not taken by many.
JS: I think the New York Times, which I wrote about in the New Republic, I think they did a good job until they eliminated their race beat in January. They looked at race not just as a vehicle for strife – the more melanin you have the more problems you have, right? – but as a uniquely American experience. They examined race not just in the viewpoint of violence and unfair treatment, but also in a “What can we joke about?” sort of way. What are some fun things about being black or latino? That stuff changes in the media, the kind of coverage, when people take an active interest in telling those stories. I think that’s what’s missing in Cleveland and other cities. I think the key for the media to understand… well, you understand if you’re making a movie and you want to appeal to a black market you hire Tyler Perry to direct the movie, you tell stories that appeal to a black audience who also have technical skills to do that well. That said, it’s not as easy in journalism – you’re dealing with real life. When it comes to Cleveland, you have certain realities that only come to light when tragedy happens. The media, it’s not purely their responsibility, but it’s part of their responsibility to make sure these stories are layered, to make sure they’re well told. I really truly believe in the power of storytelling. If people tell these stories the way they’re supposed to be told, ways that appeal universally, and you approach race as you would any other subject, like economics, the better off it will be. It’s simplistic, really: If you treat economics in an unlayered fashion, if you only cover Wall Street, that doesn’t hold people’s interest very long. People have to think about race like anything else, like they think about the business section, for example. Once people start to understand the fundamental American dilemma, that it’s worth the coverage we so freely give to other things, we’ll see an improvement in the coverage, no matter how monochromatic the newsrooms remain.
VG: It’s almost like this is what you do professionally, but I appreciate how much thought goes into that and what it means to take that and make it a part of the New Republic’s foundation.
JS: I think the February essay [on the magazine’s historical problems publishing and covering minorities] was good to do off the top, not only to bring something important to light, but I felt like it helped me really grasp what part of my mission is here. My mission is to reflect the experiences of and tell the stories of people who have been ignored and erased. And I think that’s a big deal and a big responsibility. It’s not all me. My colleagues, whether they’re white, black, Asian, latino, etc., all should have that responsibility. But I feel like I had a special calling to that. That doesn’t mean I’ll only be writing about race. I like the breadth of what the New Republic offers. This issue, we have the Cornel West essay, we have a report from Texas on the cattle industry, etc. It’s only going to keep growing. We’re going to keep adding to our masthead and the newsroom. The sky’s the limit for the magazine.
VG: Are you at a point now a couple of months in at the New Republic where you can appreciate that the fervor and anger that followed the changes at editor and the host of departures from the staff has maybe died down and people are again just looking at the New Republic for its stories and appreciating them?
JS: Perhaps I didn’t have the same perspective before – you’re busy doing the work and you know how it is with deadlines and closing an issue. It’s interesting to know some people feel that way from the outside. I have noticed how the tide has turned a little bit, from people wondering what the direction of the New Republic would be to really grasping what that vision is just by watching what you’re doing. I can’t count how many people have reached out to tell me they’re interested in understanding what it’s all about, or telling me they didn’t used to read but now they do, in part because of what we’re doing.
VG: The Cornel West essay was great. What do you think spurred some of the negative responses? I know you addressed some of this in a followup piece some people might have missed.
JS: I think there was an element of folks simply believing or being stuck in the past of what conceptions of what the New Republic was, but now they’re getting used to this, getting used to what the New Republic is about now. I can’t say I was really surprised by the reaction. I definitely knew the essay would inflame a lot of folks, especially those in black academia. I understood there were going to be activists who feel a certain feilty to West and his work – he’s been a hero of mine too, when Race Matters came out when I was in college, it was a fount of ideas. Which is why when Michael [Eric Dyson] wrote this it wasn’t just to get even on a personal level, but to challenge West to go back to the idea creation that made everyone love him in the first place, the stuff that got us all so excited about who Cornel West was. He’s entitled to say whatever he likes, but I think Michael is correct in saying that we can criticize without dehumanizing or decolorizing. In any matter that deals with race, that’s an essential thing to remember.
VG: You are still an active reader of and participant in Cleveland news. We’ve got one big news outlet here, Cleveland.com. We here at Scene are media critics of them, to be sure, and otherwise people that live and work in Cleveland and it’s hard not to get too far down the rabbit hole of discussing their coverage of certain events. That being said, from a semi-outside perspective, when big national events happen in Cleveland and Cleveland.com’s coverage goes out, what’s the reaction to their reporting, especially when it comes to matters of race?
JS: First of all, when I read the Plain Dealer or Scene or any local journalism, it takes me back home. But, trying to take a step back, looking at what the Cleveland coverage has signified, I feel like the one thing that stands out to me unfortunately is a negative. There was an article about Tamir Rice’s father that got a lot of press. I just thought, of all the different angles, of all the complex things that go into what happens those two seconds between when the cop gets out of his car and when he decided to fire his weapon at a 12-year-old, all the things you could write about, and it’s that? The media in Cleveland to some degree is stuck in an old paradigm of how to cover a story. I think that’s something that happens in New York and other places too – it’s not endemic to the hometown – but that said, I definitely found some of the coverage lacking. Now, I don’t know their internal dynamics or resources, but I do know that it doesn’t take much to cover a story with compassion, to think about whether a father’s record has anything to do with his boy being dead. We need to be really thinking about how we cover stories and what cultural sensitivities we come to bear when we do that.
VG: The other thing, in a completely separate tonal direction but very much related, is how angry people get when you talk about negative things happening in the city. It’s not to contradict everything that’s great – we love good things happening – but just that sometimes the things that make all these lists from all over the country are fine for outsiders and tourism needs but do not serve those who live here and need to know what’s happening outside of a few square miles downtown.
JS: For a city like Cleveland that too often has its narrative written for it, it’s essential to have a local media that is really in touch with everyone in the city and what everyone is feeling and going through, and reflecting that in an artful and professional way. Frankly, that’s not always going to be positive. My big problem is that, listen, it’s okay… for certain people. It’s even great… for certain people. It’s rebounding… for certain people. And the idea that we have to promote this comeback to bolster whatever our insecurities that we seem to perpetually suffer from, it’s ridiculous. There are problems in Cleveland that are present everywhere. If the problems that afflict New York City made it as insecure about itself as Cleveland seems to be, you’d have people running around the streets with anxiety attacks. Cleveland should not be ashamed of itself because it’s had issue in the past. You’re not on-guard here. The city is beautiful. It was the best place I could imagine to grow up, and it makes me sad on any number of levels that if me and my wife have kids, they won’t grow up there. I can do something at a national level to reflect what cities like Cleveland are going through. I went to Ferguson for five days to cover their city council elections. The key is to talk to people. You can’t be worried about narratives and all that garbage. I thought about this in a way, at a very strange time, when I saw the Browns unveil their uniforms. Okay, you can debate about the shadow on the numbers or the Browns wording on the pants, but the fact that you have Cleveland on the front of the jerseys… I just think it’s unnecessary. The colors tell you who we are. The helmet says who we are. I just feel like there’s an attitude that we have to prove something to somebody. We don’t have anything to prove. Just do your best. Don’t worry.