This is Mediaquake, our regular interview series with journalists, activists, and scholars, asking big questions about journalism, capitalism, and the future of both.
In 2022, Brandi Collins-Dexter published Black Skinhead: Reflections on Blackness and Our Political Future, an examination of Black political and cultural identities in the United States—and the interplay of these identities with voting patterns—drawn from deep research as well as personal experience.
Collins-Dexter is the associate director of research at the Technology and Social Change Project (TaSC), an initiative of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center. A longtime advocate for media justice, she led media, cultural and economic justice campaigns at Color of Change, a racial justice organization. She holds a J.D. from the University of Wisconsin Madison Law School.
I got together with Collins-Dexter to talk about the relationship between media justice and economic justice, reparations, and the possibility of a media system, or a world, outside of capitalism. This interview was edited for clarity and length.
Kate Harloe: You spent years at Color of Change before arriving at the Shorenstein Center. What brought you to this work?
Brandi Collins-Dexter: Broadly, my work has always focused on what is both a personal and a community problem: What does it mean to be free outside of a framework of civil liberties or even civil rights? What does it mean to have a free society? Particularly for me—for Black people: How do we get to liberation and freedom?
Part of the reason I’m a lawyer by trade is that, when I went to college, I had questions about the ways in which systems seem to work against women, against Black people. I wondered: What ideas are these laws constructed on? How is the Constitution a living document that works either for or against us?
When I started doing policy work around job placement for people with criminal records, I realized that it doesn’t matter what laws or policies are in place if we haven’t shifted the narrative landscape, the way in which people are able to tell their own stories and plead their own cause. The field of media justice was relatively young, and primarily based out of Oakland. D.C., Albuquerque, and Detroit, back then.
Through that process, I learned about super wonky regulatory mechanisms like the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the Communications Act, and Section 230. Color of Change approached me to lead their new media justice department.
How do you define media justice?
It’s relatively easy for people to understand criminal justice, economic justice, and environmental justice. But if you don’t understand how cultural production and media shape our capacity for understanding, we cannot win in those broader fights.
The confines of our collective imagination are dictated by flawed media systems. But also, [when we expand those confines], it unlocks a number of other strategies in many other fights that then become possible for us to win.
What brought you to the Shorenstein Center, and what are you working on there?
I met Joan Donovan, who heads up the Tech and Social Change Project (TaSC), where I’m the associate director of research, around late 2016. She was studying early white nationalist groups online, like Stormfront, and challenging people to understand how all of this has been happening for decades: [organized groups] using independent media systems to attack institutions and forward the agenda of white supremacy.
Her research helped us develop a campaign at Color of Change called Blood Money that called on credit card companies and third party platforms to forbid payments to hate groups.
That was still early in Trump’s presidency. We spoke with PayPal, Eventbrite, Visa, and all the credit card companies. These organizations had understood their role to be neutral. They were like, “hey, we operate these payment systems,but it’s not our job to determine what is and isn’t reputable about how they are used.” There were significant moral decisions, actually, in the choices that they were making. I personally think the policing of sex work through their platform is extremely misguided, for example. And you didn’t necessarily see an ISIS pop-up shop: “here are some ISIS T-shirts.” So you’re explicitly identifying white supremacy and hate groups as not quite rising to the level of some of these other perceived threats to society.
We built a site called bloodmoney.org, and then Charlottesville happened. Eventually we got over 100 hate groups defunded.
This work raised many questions for me—about the construction of algorithms, about the power of tech companies like Facebook, and so on. I took a sabbatical from Color of Change, which led in time to my book. By the time I was sunsetting writing the book, Joan was at Harvard, and she approached me about a more permanent position at the Shorenstein Center. We’ve been told that we need to sunset our work at TASC. We can speculate on a bunch of different reasons why, but part of our work now is ramping down, and figuring out the next steps.
In the day-to-day, though, one of the things that we’re doing—and that I’m really excited about—is piloting a new model for how we frame or talk about disinformation.
One of the case studies I’m working on now focuses on the tactics that Walgreens used to “trade up the chain” with the manufactured crime wave. We were able to show that Walgreens executives planted stories that misrepresented statistics about the causes of profit loss as well as the scale and scope of “organized retail theft.” They were able to do this without needing confirmation via filed police reports because they were often sharing those numbers on shareholder calls that were then reported, uncritically, by business and trade publications in the Bay Area. The numbers then were re-reported in mainstream publications without scrutiny, often based on anecdotes, viral one-off stories, or “first hand” testimonials by local business owners.
We’re also doing one on Damar Hamlin and the NFL, one around racist pseudoscience, and one on the ways in which copaganda is used as a form of manipulation, to take the wind out of the sails of movements around reformation or abolition of prisons and policing.
Your book touches on a number of problems with the media system: Questions of ownership, of which communities get access to the capital needed to tell stories, and of editorial control or who is telling the stories that currently dominate the system.You also go into the history of what effectively amounts to a war against Black people owning media.
What are the biggest problems with the media system in the U.S. today?
One question to start with is: Who is, or can be, considered a journalist? What is journalism supposed to do? What we’re experiencing now is a radical shift in journalism via web 2.0, which displaced the traditional gatekeepers and definers of journalism and media.
Today, people don’t necessarily have to go to j-school or work as a journalist for 20 years to be published at the New York Times, or to call themselves journalists.
Then there’s the journalism-school definition of journalism that’s based on a pretend notion of neutrality: the idea that, to be a journalist means that you’re outside of the story and that you don’t have a side, or that journalism requires reporters to avoid taking sides. That antiquated idea does a disservice to folks like Ida B. Wells or journalists at Black papers, who always had a view or perspective on what they were offering. But also, it’s revisionist history; the New York Times and the LA Times, historically, have published according to intentions far beyond just selling papers. For example, gossip columns were used as a way to promote the Red Scare.
The idea that journalism could be “neutral”—and that the current breakdown comes from the failure of those traditional systems or gatekeepers—misdiagnoses the problem. The real problem is, first, the role of capital in the production and distribution of knowledge.
The people who run the newsrooms still tend to look a certain way. They have a certain education, often a j-school education. We’ve created this standardized model for understanding knowledge production, including journalism and news, and even what is categorized as “left” or “right” in media. This model has also churned out an executive class that are gatekeepers of capital, first and foremost.
Take the introduction of paywalls. That changed access to critical information for communities, as we saw firsthand with COVID. When I was still at Color of Change, one of our major campaigns involved telling newspapers to take down their paywalls because they had stories up about what was happening with COVID, but you had to pay $2.50 or whatever to read them.
Fox News and the Daily Mail, you’ll notice, don’t put paywalls up. They put all of their content online, and there’s intention behind that. They want it to be as publicly accessible as possible, because they understand that cultural change precedes political change—cf. the late Andrew Breitbart’s remark, “politics is downstream of culture.” These are different aspects of a single phenomenon.
If you aren’t actively shaping the culture, but you define yourself as a gatekeeper of culture, then what you have is a romanticized 1950s style fantasy of the media system. Certain players in the system are trying to get back to that instead of understanding that the media system must be transformed to protect against people with ill intentions.
What are some of the things you would like to see, moving forward?
There are a couple of things. A conversation anchored in antitrust and anti-competition. What good is it talking to Facebook if you can’t regulate them, if you can’t legislate against their transgressions? In the U.S., we’ve had a harder time catching up to that idea than in Europe or elsewhere.
We have a non-functioning FCC, and we still can’t get Gigi Sohn onto it. [Sohn has since withdrawn her nomination.] Regulatory agencies don’t have the resources to address these problems meaningfully. That’s to say nothing of how divided Congress is, because now, access to information is an openly political issue.
Then, the development of local information ecosystems. This is part of the point of my book: what keeps us moving towards freedom and collective abundance is community. The obligations that we feel to our fellow people—that’s what makes a community. I’m going to go on an old lady rant, but everybody’s in their car, and they don’t know how to be in a train. We see all these signs of the decline of community.
That’s why the work of Free Press is so interesting—not just the work that Mike [Rispoli] is doing, but the media reparations work which acknowledges that it’s not just about the future, it’s about reconciling the past. We can’t pretend that damage hasn’t been done by traditional media systems or actors who—we still give prizes out in their name, whose j-school curricula we follow, in buildings named after them. We have to address the ripple effects of damage that began in the past.
Freeing ourselves from the past allows us to reimagine the future in a way that isn’t yet possible. I don’t know what kind of media ecosystem I would imagine in 2075, but I know we can’t get there until we have a real understanding of the harms of a media ecosystem built on the idea of maintaining power for those who have always had it.
Do you have a definition of capitalism that you use in your work or research?
This is where my lawyer hat comes in. It’s almost like the Supreme Court definition of porn: I know it when I see it. One aspect of this I think about a lot is the monetization of work, goods, and services in a way that does not distribute wealth, but concentrates it instead.
Slavery was meant to create a caste system dividing those who could work their way to freedom, versus those who were never meant to be free—a caste system built to maintain class outside of post-feudalism.
That leads to a larger question. On the one hand, capitalism is an exploitative system, inherently harmful, and especially so toward the most vulnerable according to race, class, gender, and other categories. That fact is in tension with the fact that accumulating capital can serve as a protective shield for individuals and communities trying to survive within that harmful system, which also happens to be a white supremacist system.
Your book examines that tension. In a previous conversation with the journalist Carla Murphy, she put it this way: “Ever since the founding of the first Black outlet back way back in 1827, news outlets have also been economic engines. They’ve created entrepreneurs within communities that were targeted for economic marginalization. This complicates the [anti-capitalist] critique, as well.”
How do you navigate that tension when you think about media justice?
That’s a good question. I do think that people jump to anti-capitalism and anti-capitalist mechanisms for economic autonomy. For me, I don’t know if it’s high Capricorn energy or high NTP if you’re into Meyers Briggs…all of those things…
I love it.
But it’s like: we can’t get to a conversation around what it means to exist in a society free of capital until capital is redistributed.
The talking heads of anti-capitalist rhetoric, oftentimes—and I say this across race—are people of a certain class. They tend to be college-educated. We have this whole so-called leftist, anti-capitalist movement built on the back of Patreon subscribers and people in their lofts in Brooklyn doing podcasts, with no understanding of what things mean to the people who are actually living under the weight of capitalism.
It’s like that quote: “It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism.”
That doesn’t mean we can’t get to the end of capitalism, but either through antitrust, independent media creation or other mechanisms, we need to redistribute capital before we can even imagine what anti-capitalism means for us at scale.
That’s why the media reparations fight is so important. That’s why the general reparations fight is so important. Because we can’t even have the other conversation, if we don’t have these things first.
The other, broader fights for justice you mentioned—I do have a question related to that.
In the book, you wrote: “Without media justice, there is no chance for criminal or economic justice.” And you argue that the media and the narratives that powerful journalistic organizations create are essential to, and even an essential precondition of, these other fights for justice.
Why has the media system been so sidelined when it comes to these broader fights for justice? Why does the fight for media justice feel so separate from these other fights, particularly on the left?
First: it hasn’t always been that way. Have you talked to Joe Torres?
No, but he’s on my list.
I love him, and love his book, [News for All the People], which talks about the early days of radio creation and how it was leveraged by Indigenous and Latino communities. Also about the fight for civil rights and the creation of Black culture in this country. The creation of Black culture came from Black papers, post-Civil War, defining for us what that meant in all the big and small ways—whether it was fights against lynching or showing Black people having tea parties, or whatever.
I love going to museums in other countries. I recently returned from Ireland, where I visited exhibits examining the development of the Irish revolution, and the role of newspapers in that. I also went to the labor museum in Manchester, where I learned that newspapers were smuggled in coffins because all of the papers had to be taxed, and had to get the Queen’s seal on them. One way they built the Labour party and the Labour movement was through smuggling newspapers in coffins, so they could get information to people.
For most of history, I would venture to say, we have understood the importance of communication as a tool for liberation. The reason why that has gotten lost is, in part, the loss of media spaces. A lot of local media has disappeared, and we didn’t fully understand the value that it brought, beyond the words on the page.
Then there is the matter of disinformation and misinformation. In the early days of doing media justice work, when I was still on Facebook, I would post my little campaign or whatever, and I would receive a bunch of comments that said things like, “Why do you care about this? This is not important. That’s why I don’t read the media, because I already know.”
Few people understand our susceptibility to what is said in the media; even if you never pick up a newspaper, or watch Fox, there are still people who are making decisions about whether or not you can stay in an apartment, or whether or not you get a job, who are understanding who you are, through these media systems.
We may like to think that we’re individual people who just come out into the world and make up our minds. But we don’t always respect the role of the media in defining that world for us.