Multiple Mainstreams

Multiple Mainstreams

Only public investment will deliver a media that can serve the news needs of our time.

Illustration by Molly Crabapple

This article is one in a series of arguments on class and race in our summer issue.


I suppose I’m meant to care how “the left” talks about race and class. I fit the profile; I’m a black female journalist. My stories since the early 2000s have featured men and women made invisible or marginalized by society, sometimes by their own communities, and certainly by newsrooms. But as a news gatherer, I’ve always tinkered on the borderlands of mainstream and progressive journalism, the left’s gathering space. I never fully committed. That’s because early in my career I settled on an important distinction: it’s not how you talk about class and race that matters; it’s to and for whom. Audience determines how.

Left conversations about race and class rarely center my folks as their audience: the precarious middle-class, working-class, and working-poor residents of my Brooklyn street; recent immigrants; and native-born Americans like them. Left conversations seem unaware of the value of redistributing news media power such that non-whites and working people construct their own left conversations about race and class. This, to me, is the problem—not how the left’s well-educated upper-middle class, unharmed and unbothered by journalism’s poverty wages, talks about race and class.

As a journalist I always conceived of my role as working for folks who are not in the room. I don’t view the progressive or liberal journalist’s pursuit of news about marginalized people as progress. From my view in the borderlands, the progressive mission should be to expand the production of news (about race, class, and gender) for these audiences. It should be to create multiple mainstreams strong enough to compete with the mainstream. Producing news about low-wealth people for a better-off, highly educated audience carries a high civic and socioeconomic cost for folks on the losing side of economic inequality and those of us driven to expand democratic participation.

It never made sense to me to believe that a shooting in a New York City outer borough has gotten sunlight because a white guy in Greenwich, Connecticut, read about it in an issue of the New York Times. What does informing him have to do with journalism fulfilling its public service for the people living in that outer borough? Where is their trusted mainstream for surfacing debate, sifting truth from misinformation, and building consensus?

I come from city blocks that at one point seemed to be losing one member of every five households to Rikers and to prisons upstate. No mainstream outlet has ever covered that phenomenon commensurate to its effect on generations of families in the sending and receiving zip codes. The affecte...