There was no obvious moment when the torch passed during host Jeremy Scahill’s interview with Seymour Hersh on a recent live episode of Intercepted, but it wasn’t difficult to imagine one.
Like Hersh, Scahill was born on the south side of Chicago, and his worldview was partially shaped by his family’s experience in the city he calls “this amazing place filled with contradictions.”
The 43-year-old investigative journalist and editor of online news site the Intercept is also following in the formidable footsteps of his Pulitzer Prize-winning forebear in his choice of career. Both men have made their marks unmasking corruption and abuses of power at the highest level of the U.S. government—especially in the domains of wars and foreign policy. For Hersh, it was exposing the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam war, the torture of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib, and the CIA’s secret surveillance programs. Scahill’s reporting helped uncover ugly truths behind Blackwater, the private mercenary army employed by the Bush administration during the Iraq war, and shone a light on the U.S. military’s bloody covert operations and drone assassinations during the Obama years.
But whereas Hersh found a home at bastions of the establishment like the New Yorker, the New York Times and the Associated Press, Scahill has remained an outsider in more ways than one.
Raised by activist Catholic parents, Scahill took to political agitation himself at a young age, notably working as a student organizer at the University of Wisconsin-Madison before dropping out in 1995. He hitchhiked east and spent a year working with the radical anti-war ex-priest Philip Berrigan at a religious community in Baltimore. A year later, he was one of 11 people arrested in Chicago (along with Chicago Seven figure David Dellinger and Andrew Hoffman, son of Yippie leader Abbie Hoffman) for protesting the imprisonment of Leonard Peltier, a leader of the American Indian Movement.
Scahill moved from activism into journalism without abandoning his progressive politics. He started as a volunteer with Amy Goodman’s show Democracy Now! in 1997, and in the two decades since has had stints with muckraker Michael Moore, The Nation magazine, and now with the Intercept, the website that describes its work as “fearless, adversarial journalism.” That career of working for left-leaning outlets is what has led some critics to dismiss Scahill as an advocate or ideologue who, as City Journal, the magazine of the conservative Manhattan Institute, once put it, has been waging “one long war on America and capitalism.” It’s an accusation Scahill scoffs at, saying rather, “I’m at war with all of the ideals that American exceptionalists promote.”
Scahill returns to Chicago on October 9 for a live taping of an episode of Intercepted, the Intercept’s weekly news and political analysis podcast—as part of Third Coast International Audio the Fest. The Reader spoke with him about Trump, police violence, mainstream media, and much more.
So you were born in Chicago but grew up in the Milwaukee area?
My mom is from Aurora, and my dad is from Hyde Park. His parents were Irish immigrants that came here on the boat and ended up settling, like a lot of Irish did, in Chicago. He grew up in the neighborhood and went to Saint Thomas the Apostle Church. When the civil rights movement started and then came north to Chicago, my dad got politicized. There was the famous march in Cicero where Martin Luther King said we didn’t bring the violence, we just exposed the violence that’s always been there. He heard that and I think that was a turning point in my dad’s life, and he became part of what became known as the Catholic left.
At the time I think he was planning on going to the seminary to be a priest. But long story short—my dad met my mom, and that definitely threw him off the tracks of the priesthood. They eventually settled in Milwaukee.
So we have deep ties to Chicago. I spent a lot of my life there and remember when my old Irish grandmother would walk us down to Harold Washington’s house, and sometimes he’d be coming down the stoop and she’d wave at him and tell us, “That’s the mayor.” I have a lot of fond memories of Chicago and the Catholic Church, and the battle for whether it was going to be a liberation theology church or an in-state institution definitely shaped who I became as an adult.
You and Sy Hersh are from different generations, but I see a lot of similarities—he also grew up on the south side, and his journalism was shaped by some of the political developments that were going on.
Yeah, isn’t Chicago this amazing place filled with contradictions? You have this incredible history of worker rebellion, of poor people’s rebellion. You have the stories of the stockyards and labor struggle and the plight of workers and the fight for an eight-hour workday. And then you have the political machine that famously unleashed the Chicago police force against protesters during the 1968 convention. I mean, Chicago had this prominent African-American mayor at a time when racism was very acute.
In Chicago, you have, really, both big parts of the United States. On one hand, you have the power elite that supports the existing power structure and toys with elections and keeps the same politicians in power. And then you have a story of fierce resistance. In preparation to come back to Chicago, I’ve been reading some of the original reporting of Ida B. Wells which, unfortunately, has become so relevant again in the era of Trump where you have very overt fascist, neo-Nazi, white supremacist ideas. Those ideas have never gone away in America, but they’ve been empowered in a public way from the most powerful podium in the country, and everywhere you look for historical context, you find flashes of Chicago in that story.
Do you think that one side breeds the other? Does the authoritarianism fuel the radical tradition?
The thing you have to remember: Chicago was a laboratory and a model for how African-Americans were going to be treated in the “new civil rights era,” with people stacked up high in the sky in public housing and this entrenched legalized form of servitude or imposed poverty.
The way African-Americans were treated in the postindustrial foundation of Chicago has everything to do with why this fierce resistance movement rose up under fertile ground. Also, Chicago has a history of racism. Martin Luther King chose to go to Chicago as a political statement. He wasn’t just taking on right-wing racists, he was taking on a power structure in a city that was largely run by white northern Democrats. I think it’s oversimplifying it to say that there are two paths. The short answer to your question is, yes, one side has fed the other. But both of those are ingrained in the DNA of the city.
Do you think that we’re at a turning point in Chicago history right now? Between the Laquan MacDonald trial and Rahm Emanuel’s announcement that he isn’t running for a third term—
Look, the Chicago police force is one of the most notorious, racist, organized crime gangs in modern U.S. history. When you talk about policing in Chicago, you are talking about a war, a war against the poor; a war against African Americans. This has become one of the main talking points for the president of the United States.
He talks about Chicago in a way that’s not a dog whistle—it’s a foghorn to say, “The black people with the guns? They’re the problem.” You can’t talk about why there is gun violence in Chicago without talking about the history of economic violence in the city. You can’t talk about the killing of unarmed young black men without talking about the way that black people were warehoused and stripped of any economic independence.
It’s like vacuuming away all historical context and saying, “Let’s just look at these things that happened yesterday.” History doesn’t work that way. Facts don’t work that way. This is very much a semi-apartheid state for many of Chicago’s residents.
And I should note that Jon Burge—one of the most notorious thugs to ever wear the badge of the Chicago Police Department—just died, but his spirit lives on with cases like Laquan McDonald. Burge was a guy who was engaged in systematic torture of black men. He had cut his teeth, so to speak, doing special operations in Vietnam. He came back to Chicago and unleashed those same tactics that were deployed against Vietnamese people on African-Americans in Chicago. That history should never be forgotten when we listen to politicians talking about the “unfair” bad reputation the Chicago Police Department has gotten. No.
Meanwhile, there’s been plenty of resistance in Chicago from organizations such as Black Lives Matter, Black Youth Project 100, the Democratic Socialists of America. I noticed that [Chicago writer, poet, and sociologist] Eve Ewing is a guest on your upcoming show . . .
One of the reasons why I’m so excited about having Eve is she’s been so deeply rooted in the experience of the Chicago public school system and the apartheid state of public education, but also the fierce resistance of the teachers’ union. CTU stands out nationally as a fighting force for fairness and for the most disenfranchised children in those schools. She can connect the dots to the modern context for what young African-Americans face in this country but also she’s brilliant. She’s one of the most dynamic, young minds that we have in this country and I think that she should be heard on a much wider platform.
After Rahm announced that he’s not running again, I wrote that it might be a sign that the age of the neoliberal Democrat is on the wane in Chicago. Am I overreaching?
Rahm Emanuel represented a modernization of the old-fashioned machine politics in Chicago. Let’s remember, he went to Washington when Obama was elected and was Obama’s chief of staff. One of the things Emanuel became absolutely famous for within the administration early on was kneecapping or threatening to kneecap Democrats who didn’t toe the line on right-wing or militarist legislative efforts emanating from the Obama White House. He was known as one of the most fierce haters of progressives in Congress.
Right now in this country, the institutional party that Rahm Emanuel is part of is in a crisis, and the Left is at a crossroads with the victories of Democratic Socialist candidates. It may be an outcome of the Trump moment where socialism is no longer seen as a subject of the Soviet Union but actually a serious set of ideas or concepts that you can draw inspiration from to address racial, political, economic inequities of this country. It may not happen in this election cycle—that’s a huge, huge battle—but Chicago, I think, would be ripe for shaking the foundations of this kind of municipal power broker in this country. If Chicago somehow elected a leftist as mayor, I think it would send shockwaves through the institutional Democratic Party.
But people to the left of the Democratic Party are going to have to decide: “Are we going to take on the Democratic party machinery, or are we going to take some crumbs off the table in return for a seat at that table?” And the verdict is still out on that. If you want to boil it down to a micro level in Chicago, I think a lot of it depends on how many young people, African-Americans, immigrants, and working people realize that the Democratic Party, throughout its history, exploits the very people it claims to represent.
Meanwhile, Rahm just landed a book deal, and he’s writing about why mayors are the big power brokers in American politics now.
Rahm is right—mayors are very powerful. District attorneys are very powerful. I think a lot of times in politics we think about the House and the Senate. Obviously, that’s very important to everyone’s lives, but Rahm Emanuel is right—mayors are basically kings.
I dug up a hit piece about you that describes your career as one long war on America and capitalism. Is that accurate at all?
First of all, what is America? Am I at war against that claims it’s the exception in the world? Am I at war with that has billionaires with 20 houses and homeless people? Am I at war against that believes it has the right to invade and bomb other countries? I’m at war with all of the ideals that American exceptionalists promote, not the entire country.
We’ve just been talking about a history full of so many contradictions, so many heroes and villains. I align myself with those people who recognize the potential that exists in this country to build something that is unique in the world. There are so many aspects of the aspirations of this society, the claims of what America is that are worth fighting for. I’m a journalist, and the First Amendment is important. But if we’re talking about the actual facts of what the United States has stood for under Democrats and Republicans under Obama and Trump—yeah, I’m at war against that.
As for capitalism, I believe that the rich should pay their share. They thrive on the underpaid and, at times, unpaid labor of the working class. I believe that there should be laws prohibiting homelessness. There should be free health care. There should be education. We should not have a record number of people incarcerated. We should not be locking up nonviolent drug offenders while corporate criminals sell pharmaceuticals for an enormous profit and walk around scot-free and get professional awards.
These people want to force you to accept the ahistorical and inaccurate portrayal of what America means and then say that anyone who opposes it and refuses to bow to capitalism or the free market are all traitors. It’s a cliche, but I think it’s true that dissent is a proven form of patriotism in this country. I firmly believe that if Martin Luther King were around today, he wouldn’t even be allowed to speak at his own celebrations. He was a radical. He was a Democratic Socialist. He believed in of wealth. He was against the American imperial war machine. He claimed that the United States was the greatest purveyor of violence on earth.
History is manipulated, sanitized, and regurgitated by the powerful, and it’s part of the sickness that we have in this society. Am I at war with America? Am I at war with capitalism? Why aren’t you at war with the injustice factory run by a bipartisan elite clique in this country? Why are you pleased with that? Well, maybe you’re benefiting from it.
There’s also this very limited conception of what it means to be a journalist. Plenty of people think we’re supposed to play the role of neutral arbiter between our two establishment parties. When people talk about “covering both sides” of a debate, they mean what Republicans and Democrats say. Not necessarily right or wrong.
Noam Chomsky was once on CNN in 2002 for a couple of minutes, and a lot of that interview is him getting yelled at by Bill Bennett, the right-winger. Chomsky is perhaps the most famous living American dissident, and he is never invited on these shows. Who is invited instead? People like David Frum—the “hero” of the so-called political resistance on MSNBC. He’s the guy who wrote Bush’s justification of that fraudulent and murderous war in Iraq. All of the former heads of the NSA, the CIA—they’re all lionized now on the network. They’re never asked about crimes they have committed. They’re just now a part of the main discussion group that’s run by the major networks along with the two major parties.
People say, “Oh, Jill Stein is responsible for the 2016 election.” My god, people are losing their minds in this country as a result of an uncoordinated avalanche of American exceptionalism. It’s like history doesn’t even matter. Let’s talk about how the Chicago police and the FBI that murdered Fred Hampton in his bed in Chicago. Do any of them actually know the history of the FBI campaign against Native Americans and the indigenous people in this country?
To me, one of the great disappointments of the 2016 election is that Bernie Sanders didn’t say, “Fuck it! I’m running as an Independent.” He would’ve been blamed for Trump winning if Trump did win, but he’s already blamed for Trump winning. But that’s the bad thing about this country since the Democratic and Republicans solidified their duopoly—it’s a sadder two-party system.
You never would’ve believed Bernie was going to play the game, but, my god, if he had run as a third-party candidate . . .
Steve Bannon talks about this, and I actually agree with him. The Democratic Party is eventually going to have its own version of a political civil war, and it’s going to be the left lane and the outside-the-left lane. It’ll be painful for a while, but we need to stop voting with fear and start actually voting with what we believe in and fighting for what we believe in.
Often on Intercepted, you describe Trump as this extraordinary crook who is ultimately not a big exception. He has just accidentally exposed the true face of our ruling class and the forces of late capitalism. We’re seeing this now with the Kavanaugh hearing—this is who our ruling class is. They’re power-hungry assholes.
Here’s basically all you need to know about the state of America under Donald Trump. Some months ago you had a huge vote in Congress on authorizing sweeping surveillance powers for the Trump administration. And then more recently you had this record-breaking defense bill named after John McCain, $718 billion. Eighty-five percent of Democrats in the Senate voted for that massive military budget. The most powerful elite Democrats voted for sweeping surveillance powers for Trump.
If he is this grand danger and threat to this country that the Democrats are telling us that he is—and I think in some ways he is—why are they authorizing sweeping surveillance powers for a guy they believe is compromised by a foreign power run by a former KGB agent? It’s bullshit. Trump is this garish crook who beat the most powerful political dynasty in modern American history in the Clintons and beat 16 other Republicans. Did he cheat? Probably, but he beat them! There. He’s in power, and they’re voting to give him more power. Just look at their voting records. It’s true.
Well, and the John McCain funeral was almost like a prom for all of them.
I like that, man. Yeah, it was! It was like an elite Democratic-Republican prom. I think you should run with that.
What I mean is that that funeral was kind of a celebration of someone like McCain, who voted mostly with Trump but was a better statesman who cultivated this reputation of respectful bipartisanship.
Look, if Donald Trump had actually dropped napalm in Vietnam, maybe they’d like him more. America loves a war criminal. It’s like Trump doesn’t have the right resume to run the American empire. He has the white supremacy, but he’s missing the core component of actually mass murdering that makes someone an American hero.
The media—and all of us—do seem to have an atrophied memory about history. Sometimes it seems like the Internet and social media has a way of erasing the past and future. Everything is present all of the time. That seems especially true in the age of Trump.
I mean, look at the attempted rehabilitation of one of the most notorious war criminals in our presidential history, George W. Bush. Because he didn’t support Donald Trump, he is now a #Resistance hero. It’s like, “Oh, he’s a nice painter guy. Look at how he hugs Michelle Obama or gives her a piece of candy at John McCain’s funeral. Oh, I love him so much. Such a sweet guy. Maybe he wasn’t that bad.”
This guy was a fucking mass murderer. A million Iraqis are dead. A million more displaced from home. And that’s just talking about Iraq. That’s not even talking about CIA black sites or opening up Guantanamo and allowing Dick Cheney to essentially rewrite the Constitution with legal interpretations of what torture is.
I can understand how the history of slavery has been sanitized from early American history, but this fucking guy invaded a country less than 20 years ago! He was in the White House a decade ago. How on earth can you rehabilitate someone like that? The only way you can is if you believe in American exceptionalism or the politics of the empire—that the elite never to hold each other accountable. All is forgiven. We move on. That’s the way that they do business.
Someone said to me on the day of his inauguration, “Trump is a fucking circus worker.” But he’s doing much of what the [political elite] want him to do but he’s not doing [it] in a way that they like because it’s so foolish. I mean, Trump just spoke at the UN General Assembly, and literally got laughed at out loud at when he said that he had accomplished more in two years than there has been in any other administration in history. But his speech in substance was about the American imperialist position in the world, and largely what a Democrat or Republican before him would have said, with a few stylistic changes.
There’s a lot to unpack about what happened during Bill Clinton’s presidency—which was overwhelmingly a right-wing presidency and a vicious, hawkish moment in American history.
But you can also go back and trace the legislative history of the Second Amendment and what was happening when we made it. What was its relationship to white racist gangs? What happened when the Black Panther Party tried to exercise its Second Amendment rights in the 1960s? We believe that we can’t talk about what’s happening today in an accurate way without understanding the roots of these battles or the roots of how something became the way that it is.
If you want to just engage in the idea that America’s problems began the moment Trump won or seized power, that’s not a serious discussion. We’re not allowed to have a serious discussion about World War II in this country. America beats the bad guys at the end of World War II. That’s the end of the story. We had to drop the atomic bombs to get Japan to surrender. You want to get into an incendiary conversation on TV in this country, bring up the fact that the U.S. committed war crimes in World War II. It’s like you’re burning the American flag on an MSNBC set.
This is probably the kind of thing that gets you accused of being anti-American.
I haven’t been allowed on CNN since I said live on their airwaves that Fareed Zakaria would have sex with a cruise missile strike if he could. And my phone isn’t exactly ringing off the hook for MSNBC. I do occasionally get invited onto Fox News, and I do always say no. But if I did go on Fox News—which I won’t, because I don’t want to appear on what is basically the official network of the Ku Klux Klan and white nationalism—then I would spend my time on Fox News talking about Fox News.
In the world of the #Resistance, the Intercept is sometimes treated as a branch of Russia Today.
That’s just silly season. The Intercept every day has hard-hitting, in-depth investigating journalism. These people are afraid of the fact that we go after even liberal darlings, and all news organizations, regardless of their political agenda. Yeah, we’re very hard on Fox News. We go in and rip them to shreds. The same is true of MSNBC and CNN.
It’s sort of like being the skunk at the party. When you’re dropping grenades in the backyards of all these powerful people who are all really friends in real life—even if they don’t make it known publicly—they don’t like that. They’re supposed to observe rules of decorum. They’re part of the Washington elite that includes journalists and political figures.
I really don’t give a flying fuck about what people think about the Intercept.
R The Fest Presents: Intercepted Live! Tue 10/9, 7-9 PM, Logan Square Auditorium, 2539 N. Kedzie, $5-$65. Guests include writer Eve L. Ewing, Invisible Institute founder Jamie Kalven, Black Youth Project 100 director Charlene A. Carruthers, educator and activist Bill Ayers.