Journalist Michelle Goldberg recently joined The New York Times as an op-ed columnist. Previously a longtime columnist at Slate, Goldberg has also contributed to The New Yorker, Newsweek, The Nation, The New Republic, The Guardian, and many other publications, and reported from countries including Argentina, Egypt, India, Iraq, Nicaragua, and Uganda.
She is the author of three books: Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism (2006); The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power, and the Future of the World (2009); and The Goddess Pose: The Audacious Life of Indra Devi, the Woman Who Helped Bring Yoga to the West (2015). Her first book was a finalist for the Helen Bernstein Award for Excellence in Journalism, and her second won the Ernesta Drinker Ballard Book Prize and the J. Anthony Lukas Work-In-Progress Award.
We spoke to Goldberg about her new position at the Times, political journalism in the age of Trump, and the changing media industry.
Congratulations on your new position at the Times. What has the transition from Slate been like? How does the culture differ at the Times, and does that affect what you write about or how?
Obviously at the Times I am very aware of being a part of a venerable institution. Slate’s been around for twenty years but it still has a little bit of the feeling of a startup. I was one of the older people in the circle I worked with at Slate and I’m one of the younger of the people I work with at the Times. Slate is still a “new media” company. I’m still getting used to the “grown-up-ness” of the Times, let me put it that way.
In terms of coverage and style, the sensibilities are different. At the Times there is less of a “knowing” sensibility than at Slate. You have the privilege of this incredible reach, and your audience is a lot more heterodox, which means that at the Times you are more likely to be presenting a story to readers who wouldn’t otherwise know about it. I think one example is my writing a few weeks ago about the Jane Doe abortion case in Texas, about a 17-year-old migrant girl from Central America basically being held hostage by the Trump administration.
What is like to be a political journalist, especially a commentary writer, in the Trump era?
Being a human being in the Trump era is a fucking misery. But being a journalist and commentator in the Trump era is, in some senses, a privilege. I’ve never had a week at the Times—it’s early days yet, of course—where I have a column coming up and I’m casting about for something to write about. There is always something to write about—more things than any one person could write about.
I don’t think there’s much use in trying to persuade people, except perhaps on the margins, but I do think there is value in helping people think through this calamitous place in which we have found ourselves. To show those who are grieving and discombobulated that they are not alone and their reactions are valid.
How would you describe the overarching themes or preoccupations or intellectual questions that drive your writing?
For a long time I was interested in the changing role of women in society and the connections between that and modernity and the backlash to modernity. Now, to be honest, I feel like I have one subject, like everyone else, and that is the dismantling—whether temporary or permanent—of American democracy under Donald Trump.
One of the major subjects of your writing is sexual politics. Your book The Means of Reproduction, for example, looked at the international battle over reproductive rights and the legacy of the emancipation of women. Where do you see sexual politics going after Harvey Weinstein?
I think it is hard to say because the situation is strangely bifurcated. You have all this accountability in liberal institutions where it is possible to hold people to account mainly because they are acting hypocritically. Harvey Weinstein was espousing a certain set of values while acting in a starkly different way. Eventually the tension between what people are saying they believe and how they are acting becomes too much to bear. And in this case it gave all these brave women and journalists leverage and a way to force change. You don’t really have that with Trump and the Republicans. They don’t espouse women’s equality and they don’t enact women’s equality. I think that’s one reason for the disappointment among the people who have been harassed by Trump—this apparent new age of accountability and progress hasn’t extended to them.
There has been a lot of debate lately in liberal circles about identity politics and their role in progressive politics. What are your thoughts?
It’s a broad question. I think it’s misleading to act like there’s a bright line between what we call “identity politics” and economic issues. A lot of the things that we think about as identity politics—reproductive rights, pay discrimination, family leave, civil rights protections in employment and housing—are all economic issues.
I think it is a mistake to think that the future of the Democratic Party lies in trying to win back a white majority. Obviously the Democrats need to speak to all of the working class, including the white working class. But I think one of the lessons of Trump’s election was that, actually, a lot of the white working class is also driven by “identity politics” and cultural concerns. I think the Left should be willing to meet all the economic demands of the white working class and basically none of its cultural demands. But everything we’ve seen so far suggests that that’s not a bargain the white working class is interested in. My sense is that the future of Democratic politics lies in reanimating the Obama coalition.
The media industry has changed a lot during the course of your career. Where do you see journalism going? What advice would you give to young journalists trying to break into the field today?
The media industry is in such dire straits right now that I don’t think I can even venture a prediction. I also don’t think I can really give advice about the business side of it. I’ve been so lucky. The one constant in my career is this amazing good fortune. For that reason I sometimes feel that to give advice would be like thinking you can give investment advice because you won the lottery.
Are you working on any projects you can talk about? You’ve already written three books; is there another one on the horizon?
I was about to start work on a book about the aftermath of the election, and I put it on hold briefly so I can devote all my attention to the Times. But I plan on revisiting it at some point. I think it will be a book about what we’ve lost in this disastrous period, and if and how a democracy can recover from what’s being done to it right now.
Interview by J. Oliver Conroy
Photo by Matt Ipcar