Six Questions for Reporter Tana Ganeva on Criminal Justice and the Cancel Culture Bros

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Tana Ganeva (@TanaGaneva on Twitter, where she is occasionally argumentative) is a criminal justice reporter whose work has appeared in outlets such as the Washington Post, The Intercept, The Nation, The Daily Beast, Rolling Stone and Teen Vogue. I recently asked her six questions about criminal justice reporting and, it’s related even if it doesn’t seem so at first glance, Cancel Culture Bros like Glenn Greenwald; the great reporter Matt Taibbi, who lamentably has jumped aboard this whiny bandwagon; and the insufferable Michael “Dick” Tracey.

How are the topics of criminal justice and Cancel Culture related? I don’t want to spoil anything but as Ganeva says towards the end of the interview, “My grandfather was in a Bulgarian gulag in the 1950s, so I don’t really like it when they [the Cancel Culture Bros] deem some irredeemable human rights abuse by The Woke as ‘Hitlerian’ or like ‘The Stasi.’ I mostly cover prisons. I cannot think of a more cancelled person than someone locked up by the armed state for decades to life, for something they did when they were 17.”

You’re in for a treat with this one, read it all.

1. Criminal justice has become a much bigger beat in recent years, not just at non-mainstream outlets like The Intercept and ProPublica, but also at the New York Times, the Washington Post and other major outlets. When it comes to mainstream publications, how would you rate their coverage? Do you see any notable shortcomings in how they cover criminal justice, either substantively or in terms of framing? 

I sure do! I can find fault with anything. The New York Times‘ reporting on the opioid crisis for years was basically a rehash of the crack baby panic, suggesting babies were getting born addicted, etc. I don’t know any babies who buy street fentanyl in an alley. Also this is one funny example, but a few years ago, I went to a small town in North Carolina where activists had introduced really progressive treatments to combat opioid misuse. And the whole time, any time I told anyone in the community I was a reporter, they were like “UGhhhh that New York Times story!” 

Turns out, this NYT reporter [Richard Fausset] had gone to the town. All these really hard working advocates went out of their way to show him anti-poverty efforts and their fight against opioid addiction and all the strides these groups, specifically Project Lazarus, had made on alleviating poverty and addiction in the county. And the NYT reporter set the ENTIRE story in a vape shop and made it seem like this Appalachian community was just young people who’ve given up, who spend all day not working and blowing vape smoke in their children’s face. Classic hopelessness/poverty porn. The Washington Post is surprisingly better. Radley Balko is one of the best criminal justice journalists and they gave him his own blog. 

2. There are so many tragedies when it comes to criminal justice and the Prison-Industrial Complex, from lengthy sentencing for minor crimes to entrapment to prison brutality, private prisons, overuse of solitary, the death penalty and on and on. Are there issues that you think are especially important to cover? How do you find stories or pick what to write about?

Well, I try to keep in mind what topics are already being really well covered and prioritize others. Liliana Segura at The Intercept does the best work on the death penalty; CJ Ciaramella is a whiz at FOIA (yes, I work with dreaded libertarians sometimes); Zachary Siegel is great about opioids and addiction. If I really want to do a story on one of those beats, I will, and usually check in with them for reporting advice. But I’ve focused mostly on gruesome in-custody deaths, insane sentencing, police abuse, particularly the NYPD, and drugs. I also like to cover immigration, but am a big dummy who never learned a useful second language for that beat so I’m careful about what stories I take on. I’m lucky. At this point, advocates and families come to me with stories and I work with a handful of regular editors who usually greenlight my pitches.

3. Can you describe a story of yours that you are particularly proud of, and was especially impactful?

Yes! I was the first and only person to write about Michael Thompson for years after Rolling Stone assigned me a story about pot prisoners, and I got in touch with activist Deedee Kirkwood, who put me in touch with Michael. He was serving 40 to 60 years in Michigan for selling weed to a police informant, while also happening to be a gun owner. That allowed prosecutors to stack charges. I wrote about it for Rolling Stone in 2017, then did a series of follow ups for The Intercept. One of them caught the attention of activist Shaun King, who started a truly amazing pressure campaign on Governor Gretchen Whitmer, and as of last December, Thompson (who’s like a dad to me at this point, chiding me to drink tea with honey when I have a cold) is a free man, devoted to speaking out about prison and sentencing reform. Pretty happy about that one. I will add that Michael is a genius at building relationships and promoting causes, so his freedom/activism on criminal justice issues will make a huge impact. 

Photo from Ganeva’s Rolling Stone article.

4. The general scenario in the country is pretty grim, as noted above, and we’ve got roughly 2 million people locked up in prison and jails, more than any other country in total and per capita. Is there anything encouraging going on in the criminal justice world?

Yeah. The First Step Act. The fact that reform is truly a bipartisan issue (except for Senator Tom Cotton, who’s a total asshole). The rise of progressive prosecutors like Larry Krasner and Chesa Boudin. Drug legalization and decriminalization. Moves to decriminalize sex work. Attention to police abuse. Cell phones! Without that badass 17-year-old who filmed the death of George Floyd we’d have had a “Man dies in police custody—family seeks answers” headline and “The coroner found meth in his system” as the deck, and nothing more. 

But you also see a massive backlash, from less progressive prosecutors, the shitty tech bros trying to sink Boudin in San Francisco, to self-styled lefty contrarians that are like, “Guys! Violent Black-on-Black crime!” Like, yes, those of us who write about police defunding are pro violent crime. And in fighting for the rights of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people, because we’re pro-murder and rape.

And there’s the unfortunate fact that many Democrats are cowards. When Andrew Cuomo was riding high as America’s Governor at the height of Covid in NYC, he never once, to my knowledge, voiced concerns about how fast the pandemic was tearing through US prisons, and how that endangered prisoners, their families, corrections officers and their families and communities. 

5. Joe Biden recently took office and he of course has a very negative past when it comes to criminal justice, playing a major role in the passage of the 1994 Crime Bill — sometimes called The Biden Bill or The Clinton Bill — and the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996. What do you think of what he’s done so far and what do you expect from the Biden administration? When it comes to criminal justice, are the Democrats notably better than Republicans? I’d note here that both the bills I mentioned were signed by Bill Clinton with a lot of Democratic support.

See above, the Democrats are notably not better overall than the Republicans. As you probably know, in the ’90s Democrats actually tried to outflank Republicans as “tough-on-crime.” I think it’s promising that Biden, as a Catholic, opposes the death penalty. But I don’t see him doing anything super bold like a mass, retroactive clemency program. 

Obama has been lauded for his clemency initiative, a legacy Biden often cites. But, I’m going to be the annoying contrarian on this one, and say that SO many eligible people were turned down for clemency without being given any reason, that despite good intentions, I see it as more accidental psychological torture of thousands of people than some glorious act of justice and redemption.

6. On another topic, though perhaps not entirely unrelated, I’ve noticed on Twitter that you’ve been a critic of journalists complaining about Cancel Culture and who are anti-Identity politics? You’ve jokingly said that these people — i.e. Tucker Carlson fanboy Glenn Greenwald, Matt Taibbi, who I’ve long admired despite agreeing with you on this issue, and sad sack Michael Tracey act as if they’re being persecuted by the Stasi for their bold critiques of what they describe as a stifling culture of “political correctness.” Care to elaborate? What’s your take on this crowd?

Yep. I spend way too much time fighting about this on Twitter (something my mother, fiance, and several editors have spoken to me about). But that attitude offends me on several levels. First, my Grandfather was in a Bulgarian gulag in the 1950s, so I don’t really like it when they deem some irredeemable human rights abuse by The Woke as “Hitlerian” or like “The Stasi.”

Second, I mostly cover prisons. I cannot think of a more cancelled person than someone locked up by the armed state for decades to life, for something they did when they were 17. So it’s frustrating that “cancel culture” in media circles is the issue for so many prominent journalists, especially ones, like Taibbi, who know quite well the horrors of the US criminal justice system but spend their time squabbling on Twitter about the latest abuse perpetrated against successful media people by, like, trans kids. 

People can write about whatever they want, obviously. I just wish they’d admit they’re fixated on this issue because it primarily impacts members of their professional and social class. The anti-Woke warriors are always on the search for examples of “normal people” being sacrificed on the altar of Wokeness, but with the exception of a few prominent examples—which, imo, tells us more about the problem of at-will employment—it’s mostly media people who have to worry they got drunk and said something stupid on Twitter in 2011. 

It’s similar to MeToo. All these dudes all paranoid they were “misunderstood” or whatever. Frankly,  again, with a few exceptions, it sticks if there’s good reason for it to stick. And, for that matter, a seasoned, middle aged New York Times reporter should know you don’t say the N-word. My 85-year-old grandmother knows this. Or, the freakout over David Shor’s firing. I think that was a mistake. But as far as I know … he’s doing quite well? 

And then on a pettier level, the general attitude I get from that cohort is this smug positioning of themselves as brave tellers of uncomfortable truths that undermine hypocritical progressive pieties … and it’s like … get over yourself. I also thought the Russia story in the Trump years was badly reported, and that most cable news is trash. I also don’t think these are the issues of our time. Like, we get it: the pee tape and “Mueller time!” were absurd liberal mental health breakdowns. You made that point. Why now transfer the same skepticism verging on paranoia on some lady who wrote a dumb book about anti-racism? (Robin DiAngelo).

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