News Brief: Defensiveness and Demagoguery in East Palestine

Citations Needed | March 1, 2023 | Transcript

Citations Needed
25 min readMar 1, 2023
Officials clean Sulphur Run, a creek that runs through East Palestine, Ohio. (Maddie McGarvey / New York Times)


Nima Shirazi: Welcome to a Citations Needed News Brief. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: You can follow Citations Needed on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, and become a supporter of the show through All your support through Patreon is incredibly appreciated as we are 100 percent listener funded. We do these News Briefs in between our regularly scheduled full-length episodes when there is either breaking news or something really important that we’re seeing across media, and we really just want to tackle it in a way that is slightly different than our regular episodes, and we are actually really honored today to be joined by Matthew Cunningham-Cook, a reporter at The Lever, a writer and researcher with deep expertise in healthcare, retirement policy and capital markets. Matthew has been one of the most reliable and dogged journalists covering the February 3 Norfolk Southern train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio. It’s a town in northeast Ohio, close to Youngstown and the Pennsylvania border and the site of a recent train derailment, which then precipitated a real-life airborne toxic event, and so we are thrilled to have you with us, Matthew, welcome to Citations Needed.

Matthew Cunningham-Cook: Thanks so much for having me on.

Adam: Yeah, thanks so much for joining us. So, it’s been, give or take, three and a half weeks, we’ve had the initial sort of coverage, then the meta-coverage, and the meta-coverage of the coverage. We’re now on, I think, our fifth or sixth date of meta-coverage. This is a media criticism podcast. So we will largely talk about media, we have the undignified task this evening of discussing kind of where the “narrative,” quote-unquote, sits now with respect to what the actual facts are, how it’s being exploited by cynical parties, how it’s being obfuscated by other parties. But before we do that, I want to kind of go back to square one here, if you would indulge me, to the initial days after the accidents, the controlled explosion immediately after. For the publication you work for, The Lever, they’re kind of thinking about what to ask, how to ask it, the story had been kind of developing on social media since the explosion, the day of explosion for obvious reasons, which looked like something out of a science fiction movie, and it is true that my documentation, ignored for 10 days by MSNBC, ignored by the Sunday morning shows for two weeks, it was reported on here and there but it was largely kind of Norfolk Southern press releases sort of qualitatively, and so it wasn’t so much that it was ignored is that it wasn’t really part of a political debate in Washington, and I think that’s the thing that The Lever tried to do, tried to sort of make it about accountability. So if you could, I want to sort of begin by talking about why that kind of adversarial approach was missing, what The Lever tried to do. Obviously, other publications kind of did it as well, I know Lever was one of the first, can you sort of talk about the initial thinking behind that editorially and what you thought was kind of missing from that first wave of coverage?

Matthew Cunningham-Cook

Matthew Cunningham-Cook: Well, we had been covering rail issues since August of last year, and I’ve been thinking about logistics my whole career as a reporter and as a union staffer.

Adam: Right, to be clear, I want to be clear, you weren’t just some Insta pundit, you don’t do what Nima and I do where something pops off, you actually know.

Nima: I’m now an expert on Norfolk Southern train derailments, by the way.

Adam: Clearly, but you’ve done actual reporting, right, on rail, so you had the breadth of experience, right?

Matthew Cunningham-Cook: Yeah, well, and we had been covering my kind of personal hobbyhorse, I salted in a, very briefly, but was involved in a bunch of stuff in a Walmart warehouse.

Adam: You want to explain what salting is real quick? For those who don’t know?

Matthew Cunningham-Cook: Salting is when you start working for a workplace with the intent to unionize it, and so I very briefly salted for this campaign to organize a Walmart warehouse in Elwood, Illinois and Joe DeManuelle-Hall, who’s a writer at Labor Notes, he was there much longer than I was, but we were part of that kind of initial wave, and Joe has done some really fantastic coverage of rail union issues as well. But I wrote about logistics in the aftermath, and the stories when I was young, you know, got a bunch of attention, and it was always something that I was pretty aware of that this was a really under-covered section of the US economy, these choke points. I basically think about American capitalism that way, you know, as a logistics system, there’s all of these choke points where workers have a ton of leverage, and for the most part, that leverage is not being used strategically for one way or another, and there’s a great book called The Forces of Labor by Beverly Silver, that goes into some of these questions in more detail. But yeah, when it derailed, it really seemed like a big opportunity for us to both kind of really dig into this story, but also to really tell a broader story about the American economy with strong ecological components. So it really seemed like it was an opportunity for us to converge on different threads that we’ve been thinking about but also to really expose this issue as one of regulators asleep at the wheel, which is whenever rail is a highly tightly regulated industry, arguably one of the tightest, even though it was deregulated, there still is the empty shell of the Interstate Commerce Commission, which was at one point, the most powerful federal regulator, it’s now the Surface Transportation Board, but it basically exists to regulate railroads, and then the other Federal Railroad Administration under the Department of Transportation, and you have all of these different agencies, you know, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Security Administration.

Adam: So yeah, you guys had sort of, much of this had been anticipated, right? And other accidents have happened, as you talked about in the New York Times, and I y’alls sort of Lever op-ed y’all did. Can you sort of drill down and maybe give me one or two sort of main headline things that the current White House, the Democratic Department of Transportation Secretary Buttigieg, as well as the White House itself, what they could have done that they sort of didn’t do to give a sense of what the primary criticism is here? Because I think there’s been an effort to call it Monday morning quarterbacking or nitpicking or kind of blaming decades of neglect and union busting on one poor former McKinsey consultant. Can you talk about sort of what those main kinds of entry points into your reporting were and why you thought it was important?

Matthew Cunningham-Cook: Yeah, I mean, so we found out, I believe it was Rebecca who found this, Rebecca Burns, my colleague, who found that Norfolk Southern had been championing these new brakes, called electronically controlled pneumatic brakes, that allow every car on the train to stop at the same time, and that was really important, because the current technology that the overwhelming majority of freight train uses comes from 1868, and it’s basically like a ricochet effect for braking. So the engine stops, and then the first car stops, and then the second car stops, and then the third car stops. The story that I always tell about it is this is technology that was really designed to be used for a much larger railroad workforce. So 70 years ago, there were about a million people working on the railroads. Now there’s a little bit over 100,000. And the reason why a bigger workforce is really needed when you’re using this ancient technology is because it’s really bad to have larger, heavier train cars bumping into lighter train cars. So if you have uneven loads across the cars, you really want them in order. You don’t want a heavier car bumping up at a lighter car, that creates what’s called in-train forces that can destabilize a train. So as railroads have pushed this precision scheduled railroading, which is basically just how can we extract more revenue off of the back of our workforce, they have cut back on the workers who would set the cars in the right way and then have also aggressively resisted implementing these new brakes because of the expense involved, and so the rail unions have championed these new brakes, they got a modest expansion in terms of a modest mandate in a 2015 rule under the Obama administration that would not have covered that Norfolk Southern train, it would have only covered even higher risk trains, but which nonetheless would have kind of set a marker that this was the gold standard technology that should be used for rail safety. The industry and congressional Republicans fought this very modest rule tooth and nail, Trump repealed it. Millions of dollars flowed into Republican campaign coffers from the railroad industry. So we think, and all the experts we’ve talked to think this as well, that Pete could have started this rulemaking again right away. But he hasn’t done that in terms of rulemaking to expand the usage of ECP brakes and rulemaking to expand the definition of this high-risk train, high hazard flammable train. Yeah, Pete absolutely could have done it starting on day one, and he hasn’t, and it’s still not totally clear, we haven’t gotten a clear answer as to kind of why that’s the case. Pete initially tried to or his people originally tried to say, well, we’re constrained, and then the Biden administration, basically, the White House basically contradicted that, and now it looks like the rulemaking is going forward, but on what timeline? That’s totally unclear.

Nima: Yeah. So Matthew, you’ve done so much stellar reporting on this in the past few weeks, really incredibly illuminating, so much more helpful, I think, to read your stuff than a lot of the corporate news reports on the train derailment. I’d love to hear kind of the way that you think a lot of the major media has been framing the story, and then how The Lever has approached us differently, and this kind of gets back to what Adam was mentioning earlier about, there’s an accountability angle here, there’s something different going on than just that there’s this horrible tragedy with terrible ecological and environmental consequences, but you know, if you could just talk to us not only about what framing you’ve seen from the mainstream, which is different than some of the other reporting, namely like yours, but also how you have then been able to dig into, and you were just kind of getting into this, these relationships, which are often not put front and center in the reporting, namely, say the relationship between the railroad company, Norfolk Southern, and Ohio’s own governor, Mike DeWine. If you could just tell us about how you’re seeing those framing differ from outlet to outlet, but also then what you’ve really discovered as you have dug deeper than I think a lot of other folks have.

Matthew Cunningham-Cook: Yeah, I mean, I think that there’s two kinds of reporters, you know, I mean, there’s the stenographers basically, and then there’s reporters who ask tough questions, even at the most mainstream outlets, you’ll have reporters who will ask tough questions. I think the framework that we’ve been able to do at The Lever is really, because we’re independent and reader supported, we’ve been able to kind of devote, I mean, number one, every single one of us, I mean, all four of the reporters at The Lever, the ask-tough-questions style of reporter, and two were able to kind of devote our entire newsroom to covering this issue and this event and uncovering the hidden networks behind power and behind the response to this disaster. So yeah, I have an article that came out Friday, or Thursday, that was just looking at the fact that Norfolk Southern has been a donor to DeWine, they’ve been a donor to groups and committees supporting him, their lobbying firm on retainer in Columbus is incredibly close to DeWine, and is actually caught up in a major separate scandal regarding a bailout of the state’s nuclear power plants, and that that could potentially explain why DeWine has refused to declare disaster which would allow FEMA and other federal programs to step in and provide additional assistance to the families, and there’s all kinds of horrible stories about the consequences of the failure to make this disaster declaration. But one of them that I just saw on Twitter, I think, that’s really sad is that there’s special provisions for people being able to get their pets after a disaster declaration, and so a bunch of pets went a week or longer without food, being in a totally poisonous environment, and because DeWine had refused to issue this disaster declaration which would allow for protocols for people to go and get their pets, that didn’t actually exist. So that’s just one example of the consequences of this. I think in terms of the broader media coverage, yeah, I think we’re going to be talking about Politico a little more down the road, but you saw it from some people at the New York Times too, I think you see it all over the media is there’s been this part of this story where it’s like, well, the left is mad at Pete, you know, and that’s why this is a story or the right is mad at Pete, and this is why that’s the story, and I mean, that’s really, I mean, not surprising that that’s kind of what the more stenographer kind of groups of journalists will go to, it’s still horseshit. I mean, all we’re asking for is for Pete to do his job and do it quickly. We think that’s a very logical response to this disaster. If the right decides to use our reporting to score political points, in my view, that’s incumbent on Pete and the Biden administration to pull the rug out from underneath them, and really kind of move forward very quickly with rulemaking that will prevent disasters like this from happening in the future, and I think that that just kind of really rubs up against what centrist Democrats kind of view as the job of the federal government where, you know, I think, in terms of the fundamental precepts that they operate under are no different than the right where it’s the job of the government to ease the business environment. It’s not really the job of the government to protect citizens from rapacious corporate power, and I think you can see that in the Biden administration more broadly outside of a small group of interesting people in antitrust, the administration’s approach to federal government regulation has been functionally the same as every president since Carter.

Adam: Yeah. So it’s the Hillary Clinton, I went down Wall Street, and I told him to cut it out, right? It’s like there’s a stern talking-to, whether it’s a congressional kind of dress-down, or Buttigieg showing up and doing a thing where he’s like, ‘You guys really got to stop pushing back on regulation.’ It’s like, okay, and, again, regulation-wise, we want to be fair to the Biden White House, they’re obviously preferable to Republicans, right?

ABC News headline, February 20, 2023

One of the really major things when people say the parties are the same, I think it’s actually fair to say that, like your sort of average regulatory bureaucrat is just better than Republicans, but they’re still not very good, because they sort of institutionally don’t have a lot of power. There’s no real sort of motive to aggressively lobby these things. One theory I heard proposed, and I want your opinion on it, was that, this is also true of the Biden White House union-busting last November and December by basically making it illegal for railroad workers to strike preemptively before they got any of the concessions they wanted in a really cynical way that really turned people off, and that there was this idea that because of the election, but also kind of broader supply chain issues and inflation issues, that capital could punish, they can punish a Democrat whenever they really want, and they were going to have a laissez faire attitude about safety and environmental issues, because they needed the trains and trucks, and they were going to, you know, they supported certain parts of the Labor Department and other parts of the White House and congressional Democrats, you know, even supported easing rules about, you know, 18 year olds driving semi trucks, all this other stuff, because they kind of, they didn’t want another inflation punishment scenario where capital was being petulant, and so there was kind of it seems like a pretty hands off in the early first couple years of the Biden White House. Can you talk about that being one of the motivating factors here, obviously, ideologically, former McKinsey consultants aren’t really out to get corporate America, right? They’re there to polish resumes and cut ribbons and whatever. So when you hire people without any ideological commitments to environmentalism or labor, that you’re going to sort of get what you pay for. But can you talk about the kind of obsession with supply chains now that’s kind of let corporations get away with this kind of thing, including, of course, busting up rail strikes?

Matthew Cunningham-Cook: I mean, so much of the administration’s response to rail issues generally is, ‘The unions don’t do themselves any favors.’ I mean, the whole reason why our buddies in Railroad Workers United exist is because they recognize that it’s totally insane that rail workers are in 14 different unions across nine different international unions and in some unions that just are totally illogical places for small groups of rail workers to be, and with only 100,000 workers, you know, I mean, they shouldn’t really all will be in the same union with probably the Teamsters union, and then they would have one rail director at the Teamsters who would speak for the entire industry, that I would say, more than fear of corporate pushback, the total disorganization in rail labor, in my view, even despite the fact these unions are strong, they occupy a major strategic, as I said, a major strategic choke point in the economy, having this workforce be totally disorganized.

Adam: Well, and there was also if I’m not mistaken, as we discussed in our News Brief on this, there was a real distinction between the union leaders of the major unions and the rank-and-file, which is why they would they put things up to vote, and then they would overturn the will of the union leaders who were, I think it’s fair to say, traditionally more conservative, more close to the White House, more partisan.

Matthew Cunningham-Cook: Yeah. And that I mean, the President of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, which is one of the larger rail unions, was actually defeated shortly after this contract was implemented, basically, because of the way that things went down, and it looks like there’ll be kind of more upheaval to come for sure in the coming months in the rail labor scene, but there’s definitely a much higher consciousness of rail workers that the contract is a shitty deal. I think or not, I mean, you know, in the grand scheme of union contracts, it’s not actually that shitty, but considering the sheer power that these workers have when 40 percent of long haul freight in the US is transported on the rails, yeah, you know, it’s a shitty deal in terms of the understanding that across craft and class and, quote, “skill level,” unquote, that rail workers need to be in the same union, I would say there’s less of that, you know, I mean, that’s the level of sophistication that Railroad Workers United, it’s kind of working to build and I do think that that explains a great deal the Biden administration’s response. I think, to the other point is, you know, we cover this too, is that, I mean, Jay Powell has enormous amounts of leverage and power over the Biden administration and can really make or break the President’s reelection campaign, and for whatever reason, the Biden administration has chosen to not confront Powell about it. I think mainly because Trump, who was the first president since Nixon to really complain about the Fed’s actions, it didn’t really do anything for him. Now, the Fed still, Trump kicked and screamed about the Fed raising interest rates, and they still did it anyways.

Nima: Just to note for listeners that Jay Powell was the chair of the Federal Reserve, just in case not everyone has Jay Powell’s name at the tip of their brains.

Adam: So I want to ask about this ascendant kind of quote-unquote “white genocide” narrative from Tucker Carlson, from J.D. Vance, who’s now turned this into a reelection campaign, where he’s going down and standing in a river for some reason and talking about how it’s “woke Democrats,” I mean, look, I’ve been doing this for seven years, right? I’ve seen it all. This has got to be in the top five, just you’re just like, oh, man, this is of course what they were going to do, they were going to turn this whole thing into, you know, they’ll sort of gesture or make some superficial reference to greedy corporations, but then they pivot to basically, Democrats don’t care, again, never mind that they oppose unions, never mind the Republicans oppose environmental protections, unions, et cetera, right? Forget all that. But woke Democrats are neglecting places like East Palestine and other sort of rural, predominantly white places, because they want to kill white people basically. Sometimes they’ll sort of say on Fox News they’ll say they want to kill Republicans to make it seem less overt but that’s basically what they mean. It’s kind of a white genocide narrative. And one thing I argued in my piece I wrote for The Real News, which is basically like Democrats, Buttigieg 10 days to really say anything at all substantive. MSNBC, of course ignored it for 10 days, a lot of, we would say, generally, centrist media, which is, I think, fair to say generally pro Democratic, all their pundits, the older punditry, right, which is the kind of moral language we discuss policy and completely ignored it for 10 days, that in that vacuum, and of course, Biden didn’t really say anything for a very long time, in that vacuum, you sort of create the opportunity and open up space for these dark, cynical worldviews, was kind of my argument. Not a particularly original point, but I thought it was very acute in this particular moment, and if you could, as someone who’s trying to sort of, again, doing the reporting, to push Democrats to do better, to own these issues to talk about things like union busting, which of course they can do credibly, but to talk about corporate greed, to talk about the sacrifice zones that exist all throughout our country, not just in white areas, but of course, in poor Black areas, poor white and poor Black alike. Can you talk about how this became the ascendant narrative, and turned into this kind of partisan pissing match, and where you see how moving forward, people in your position sort of of the left to try to sort of create a counternarrative, what that kind of counternarrative should look like and what the reporting focus should be on?

A recent Fox News headline invoking the “white genocide” panic.

Matthew Cunningham-Cook: Yeah, there’s both kind of this immediate, rapid-response factor where, you know, the administration’s just total inability to see that Americans will be pissed about the fact that a totally preventable railroad accident resulted in an entire town of 5,000 people being poisoned. There’s that, but it’s like, yeah, you know, Joe Biden voted for that bullshit piece of legislation, and the whole failure to address issues of media concentration is a major part here where Fox News is, there are no constraints on its power, there are no constraints on the lies that they propagate, and so yeah, you know, what’s going to make money for them? Yeah, you know, East Palestine as a white genocide kind of zone. It’s absolutely the case that the Biden administration created the conditions for this to happen, and I hope that we can continue to break through it a little bit and provide kind of this analysis, that it’s really a bipartisan disaster, it’s something we try and do all the time. It’s always really hard. You know, I think it’s, it’s really easy for people to just kind of fall in well, you know, one party is at fault here, and not see kind of the bipartisan nature of the assault on the regulatory state and kind of the consequences that that’s had for ordinary people.

Nima: As you’ve said, kind of who’s been able to fill the void here and really shape the narrative, or at least, you know, exploit the lack of a central narrative here, lack of a kind of media focus, and as we’ve been saying, a media framework, I think has really allowed the right an opportunity to frame this the way they want to, I want to actually kind of get us back to your reporting, and actually how, because of the work that you’ve been doing, and that your colleagues have been doing, you know, and of course, I should say some other folks who have been doing some really stellar writing on this, has actually led to the US Department of Transportation, feeling compelled to respond to what you have been writing about to these kinds of, you know, yes, there’s a way to report on this where then it’s, oh, well, the Trump administration did this thing, it’s not really our fault, yada, yada, yada. But I think that you’ve really been able to put a lot of pressure on these organizations, these government officials, and Transportation Secretary Buttigieg himself. Can we talk about kind of what your reporting and reporting of some other folks has led to in terms of the response that now you’ve gotten, and that we’ve all gotten from the US Department of Transportation, and how kind of defensive they have been, can you talk to us about kind of what you have seen from them, and then I think we can also pivot into some of the media’s most shameless supporters of the government narrative, which is definitely tied to this as well?

Matthew Cunningham-Cook: Yes, I mean, I guess it was about 10 days ago, the Department of Transportation’s Twitter account just started arguing with our official account, saying that our reporting was false without providing any evidence to support that conclusion whatsoever. I’ve never seen it before. I mean, I definitely have had flats for governmental officials call me up to scream at me, but I have not had the experience of having an official government Twitter say that my reporting was false. I feel pretty confident it was Pete behind that.

Nima: Tweet Buttigieg.

Matthew Cunningham-Cook: Yeah, I mean, I think that, you know, we were able to get a response, frankly, because basically, nobody outside the trade press and The American Prospect and us cover the Department of Transportation. The sheer amount of federal rulemaking that gets no coverage at all is, I mean, it’s shocking. There’s major stuff that we would like to cover, but we just don’t have the resources to be able to cover, you know, Biden just proposing these great new rules on nursing home ownership. We’re like a four person news team, so we’d love to cover that but we just don’t have the bandwidth to both do that and trains this point.

Nima: And respond to the Department of Transportation Twitter account.

Matthew Cunningham-Cook: Yeah, you know, it’s good that they finally responded.

Adam: Pete needs to respond. You can tell he’s just a frustrated poster. He wants to be a poster. He should just be a poster and just respond.

Matthew Cunningham-Cook: I know. Yeah.

Adam: 2023. We don’t need all the, we don’t need the, you know, kind of detached voice from nowhere politician thing especially because, you know, that may knock against him as inauthentic so post, post, post in your own voice.

So one final question, and speaking of Secretary Buttigieg, he has been somewhat strangely, this is kind of a little petty, but I actually think it’s a really interesting sort of lesson in how Washington political media works, and again, as we are a media podcast, it seems relevant, Secretary Buttigieg has been leaking, very obviously, extremely transparently to the point where it’s, I don’t even think the guy denies it, leaking spin to Adam Wren of Politico.

Matthew Cunningham-Cook: Yeah.

Adam: In a way that seems very defensive and desperate and is based on trying to frame his critics as the Republican Party. This is a classic tactic where you sort of, if you have attacks from both, MAGATrumpBoner68 on Twitter and some erudite leftist making nuanced critiques and deeply researched, also a classic tactic, you only respond to MAGABoner420 or whatever, right?

Matthew Cunningham-Cook: Yeah, yeah.

Adam: And he’s kind of doing a version of this, where he’s responding to the bad faith Republican criticism, but really not addressing criticism coming from places like The Lever or even the New York Times or The Guardian, New Republic, et cetera, to sort of paint his critics as a bunch of slack-jawed yokels, and one thing that Adam Wren did that was very controversial, it caused a lot of outrage on both left and right media and central media everywhere else, whereas he posted these pictures of what had to have been $15,000 homes or mobile homes with Trump 2020, and, you know, F*** Biden on it or whatever, saying, you know, scenes from East Palestine, the implication being, of course, rather cheekily even, not so subtly, the implication being that the reason why Buttigieg is getting heat is because this is hostile Trump country, and the implication, of course, from that being is that these dumb yokels kind of had it coming anyway. For liberals who sort of don’t believe in anything other than partisanship and being smarter than dumb ass Republicans, this is kind of the holiest of holy criticism, basically, like, ‘Oh, Republicans, you know, they voted for these deregulations, they voted for Republicans, this is what they do, reap what they sow.’ It’s all very nasty stuff. So can you kind of dissect the leaks that have been coming out of the quote-unquote “Buttigieg world,” which is what Adam Wren calls it, which is Politico for Pete Buttigieg? Can you talk about the leaks that have come out of Buttigieg world and how you sort of view them as being perhaps not very, they don’t necessarily portend a shift in tone here?

Matthew Cunningham-Cook: My boss would view it as, I think, that’s like the interpersonal kind of component about Pete is mad at us, you know, and so —

Adam: Hold on. I want to talk about it real quick if you don’t mind.

Matthew Cunningham-Cook: Yeah.

Adam: I feel like in full disclosure, we have to note that your boss David Sirota was the chief speechwriter for the 2020 Bernie Sanders campaign.

Matthew Cunningham-Cook: Yeah.

Adam: It’s fair to say, especially with the Southwestern coverage, he’s been criticized as maybe being a slight tinge of personal kind of grievance or animus, I know that that’s not in any way question the actual journalism, which has been, again, no one’s even found anything wrong with it substantively, but he’s been criticized as having a grudge against Mayor Pete because of the Iowa primary. Could you kind of comment on that? Because I do feel like we have to sort of mention that, I think Buttigieg world would think that was unethical if we didn’t, so can you talk about that, and how they’re trying to also spend it as that?

Nima: No one in Buttigieg world was listening.

Adam: No, not a chance in hell they listen, but I’m just saying. I’m trying to be intellectually honest.

Matthew Cunningham-Cook: Yeah.

Nima: (Laughing) In case this leaks.

Matthew Cunningham-Cook: Yeah. (Laughing) I mean, my feeling is yeah, we disclose kind of our backgrounds. Yeah. I mean, I’m sure all of us supported Bernie in 2016 and then 2020. I don’t think, you know, just like, the entire media class outside of us supported everybody besides Bernie in ’16 or ’20. I think it’s, you know, if they find a factual error with our reporting, they’re welcome to bring it up with us,, and we’ll make a correction, if we get something wrong. We’re very careful that we avoid mistakes as often as possible. But yeah, I mean, I think that the bigger thing is, I mean, just to go back to the earlier question, is just that, yeah, you know, I think that there might be this kind of tendency to see it as this people being mad at us because we’re telling uncomfortable truths, you know, that’s our narrative or their narrative, you know, we’re mad but about the 2020 primaries, and my view is more that Politico is owned by Axel Springer, which is an extreme right-wing German publishing house that makes its German employees sign loyalty oaths to the Transatlantic Alliance and NATO specifically I believe, and Israel, and in turn Axel Springer’s majority stockholders KKR, we just published a very critical article on KKR’s labor practices a week before our Pete coverage started. We’ve been incredibly aggressive about covering private equity, probably more so than basically any other publication around, and, yeah, that, to me is kind of my more thing, you know, it’s like, even if there’s not an explicit directive from KKR that they don’t like us, employees of Politico know that they are owned by private equity firms, and they know that we’re relentless critics of private equity, and I think that that leads itself to, and not just that, you know, we’re also relentlessly critical, and we have published a ton of articles on branded content and newsrooms.

Adam: Yeah, they’re notorious for doing oil companies, climate polluters have been funders of Poltico at some point.

Matthew Cunningham-Cook: Yeah, Pharma publishes their health newsletter. Yeah, you know, I mean, we’ve been, yeah, we’ve been very critical of those practices, and so I kind of see it as more than anything else it’s just really a clash of cultural norms, you know, between us who sees journalism as a way to hold people in power accountable, and others who see it as an opportunity to ingratiate themselves with people in power.

Adam: Yeah, it’s almost as if the candidate loyalties of 2020 are indeed proxies for ideological commitments rather than just arbitrary personal grievances. Right.

Matthew Cunningham-Cook: Exactly. Yes, yes. Very well said.

Nima: Well, I supported John Delaney ‘til the very end, so…

Adam: That man was yoked. Did you see his gym routine? He had arms for days.

Nima: Well, we always like to end our News Briefs with an obscure John Delaney reference, so we will do the same this time. Thank you so much for joining us. We’ve been speaking with Matthew Cunningham-Cook, a reporter at The Lever. Matthew is a writer and researcher with deep expertise in healthcare, retirement policy and capital markets and has been, as we’ve been saying, one of the best reporters covering the Norfolk Southern train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio this past month. So Matthew, thank you so much again for joining us today on Citations Needed.

Matthew Cunningham-Cook: Thanks so much for having me on.

Nima: And that will do it for this Citations Needed News Brief. Of course you can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, and become a supporter of the show, if you are so inclined, through All your support through Patreon is incredibly appreciated as we are 100 percent listener funded. But that will do it for this News Brief. We will be back very soon with more full-length episodes of Citations Needed. So thank you again for listening.

Our senior producer is Florence Barrau-Adams. Producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Newsletter by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks again, everyone. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: We’ll catch you next time.


This Citations Needed News Brief was released on Wednesday, March 1, 2023.

Transcription by Morgan McAslan.



Citations Needed

A podcast on media, power, PR, and the history of bullshit. Hosted by @WideAsleepNima and @adamjohnsonnyc.