How to Build the Media Our Movements Need

Bhaskar Sunkara, Founding Editor of Jacobin and President of The Nation, and Alex Han, Executive Director of In These Times, on building left media that can fight the Right’s propaganda machine.

Alex Han and Bhaskar Sunkara

Bhaskar Sunkara, Founding Editor of Jacobin and President of the Nation, and Alex Han, Executive Director of In These Times, in conversation on Wednesday, May 3, 2023 at Starr Bar, Brooklyn, NY.
Bhaskar Sunkara, Founding Editor of Jacobin and President of The Nation, and Alex Han, Executive Director of In These Times, in conversation at Starr Bar in Brooklyn, NY.

It’s a good time to be in right-wing media. 

The Daily Wire brings in $100 million per year. Prager U spends between $25-30,000 per video concern trolling about undocumented people and explaining why income inequality is good, actually. Steven Crowder went public with his disgust over a $50 million contract offer before being outed — to everyone’s surprise — as an alleged abuser.

Right-wing mega-donors aren’t funding these operations out of the kindness of their shriveled hearts. They’re doing so because they expect a return on their investment in the form of tax breaks, loosened regulations, and the mainstreaming of far-right common sense.” (As it turns out, that doesn’t come cheap!) 

How can we build a left media infrastructure that supports movements for justice and liberation? Bhaskar Sunkara, Founding Editor of Jacobin and President of The Nation, and Alex Han, Executive Director of In These Times, sat down to discuss the work of building left media that can fight the Right’s propaganda machine. 

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Bhaskar Sunkara: In These Times was actually the very first publication to ever employ me. I got my first job at In These Times when I was still finishing my senior year of college in April. I basically neglected all my finals and everything else, to the point that I was still like three credits short of my college diploma up until 2015 or so. But that was just really because In These Times was an institution, willing to take a shot on young writers, willing to really look outside the box for people that didn’t have traditional credentials, didn’t go to the right schools, right internships, or whatever else, but that really valued political commitment.

To begin with Alex, I’m wondering whether you could tell us a little bit about your background as an activist, how you came to lead ITT?

Alex Han: I was born in 1980 in Detroit, to parents who had emigrated from South Korea. It was part of one of the first waves of East Asian immigration after the Hart-Celler Act. My dad was a union grievance officer, but I was politicized in a lot of different ways by being a child of immigrants. I was politicized by the union experience, by my dad, by the experience of both my parents. I, really like a lot of people my age, came into activism through the Global Justice Movement in the late 90s, and early 2000s, of protests against the IMF and the World Bank. I didn’t go to college. When I was a teenager, I kind of thought I wouldn’t have a job ever, but at some point I realized I needed to have a job to pay rent. So I found a job canvassing with an organization called New York ACORN. 

I worked as a community organizer, here in Brooklyn and Queens, during the first election cycle of an organization called the Working Families Party, whose office was like six feet away from the desk. That was a really formative experience. After 2001, I went back to Chicago. I found a job at a very small union, at the time, of home health care workers, SEIU Local 880

I worked as an organizer, helping to grow that union from a union of 8000 members to representing over 90,000 workers at its peak. I spent over 10 years as Vice President of a merged SEIU mega local, SEIU healthcare Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, and Kansas, representing health care and childcare workers around the Midwest. As a part of that, I spent a chunk of time trying to build movement politics in Chicago. 

In 2019, I went to work for a young man who you might have heard of, Bernie Sanders, in the 2020 primary. That election didn’t end the way that any of us had planned for it to end, both in defeat and at the beginning of a global pandemic. Since then, I spent a few years working on issues like the Green New Deal, organizing against Amazon, and a whole host of other places.

Bhaskar Sunkara: In These Times, I think really distinguished itself from other publications. I’m the founding editor of Jacobin, I’m now the president of The Nation magazine. Both of those publications are based in New York. Mother Jones, historically a left of center publication is out on the West Coast; what really was distinct about In These Times was that it’s in Chicago, and it was covering things like Chicago Teachers Union well before any of the national media was paying attention. So how does In These Times intersect with your with your work, and when did you first become aware of it?

Alex Han: I think I first read In These Times when I was 16 or 17 years old. I have this memory of a magazine rack in a record store that had political magazines. So we have Adbusters, The Nation, The Progressive, In These Times, all sorts of other magazines. As somebody who was hungry to learn that information, if I had the money, I would grab all of them. In These Times, being based in Chicago, and really focused on labor, it had a really particular impact. When I started organizing in Chicago, In These Times was really an institution. It’s got a big office that’s been the site of a lot of meetings, it’s been a community space. I will admit, the one of the first times I was in the office in my early 20s, the most memorable thing that happened was somebody took me up on the roof of the office and we smoked a joint. And so it just plays a really important role in the life of Chicago movements, both as a magazine and an institution. 

Bhaskar Sunkara: There’s many different ways a publication can relate to the left. My ideal type of publication is both dynamic and open and filled with debate and contestation, but that’s also a vehicle of a party or an organization. We don’t really have that sort of mass party organization in the U.S., even though DSA is great and probably the closest thing we’ve had to it in many, many years. How do you see the role of a publication engaging with movements? Do we just follow them? Do we try to give them direction? Is there something inherently undemocratic about a handful of journalists, editors, ideologues kind giving that direction in the absence of a democratic organization? How do you see those contradictions? Or do you maybe not see a contradiction at all?

Alex Han: When I was an organizer in the aughts in Chicago reading In These Times, reading the labor writing of David Moberg, reading Salim Muwakkil’s writing about Black Chicago, Black politics and its intersection with the left and progressives, I think one thing I learned from that was that when the tension exists is when constructive debate can happen. Where tension exists is where we need to figure out how to live in a sustainable way, especially when we don’t have organs of mass organization.

In These Times was founded in 1976. It was a very particular moment in time. Many of the people involved would go on to found the Democratic Socialists of America. There’s some parallels with a moment now, in that a lot of the energy was about democratizing the labor movement, from the Mineworkers for Democracy in the early to mid 70s, into the United Steelworkers, where there was a campaign for leadership in 1976, that brought in a lot of people from all over the country to Chicago.

So what I think about is, how do we actually have publications that allow for that debate, that kind of live in that tension, and help those movements to grow? Our role is not to direct those movements. Our role is not to cheerlead those movements. Our role is to engage with them, and that’s a messy and complicated process. But it’s that kind of mess and complication that we should be trying.

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Bhaskar Sunkara: What do you see as the short and medium term plan for In These Times? With the United Auto Workers, the Teamsters, there’s a big opening in the labor movement. Is that a point of emphasis? What should readers look forward to from In These Times? 

Alex Han: In addition to what’s been happening with the first democratically elected leadership in the history of the United Auto Workers; the new life and militancy of the Teamsters right now — almost 30 years after Ron Carey won election in the Teamsters and led them into a great strike against UPS in 1997, a lot of parallels there — we just ran a piece about a rank and file reform caucus inside the United Food and Commercial Workers Union. It’s not a union that many of us in the labor movement would have seen as a place that could engage in that kind of internal debate, but they just came to their national convention, and the reformers won an additional seat on delegate body. So there’s progress being made in those ways. 

I do think that we are going to be paying attention to what else has happened — not solely on the UAW, on the Teamsters, on those fights. We’ve also, in Chicago, recently had an election, and that election creates a lot of hope and possibility. But again, it creates some of that complexity: How do you work with movement forces? How do you actually deal with what is going on in the city that was mobilized? 

Bhaskar Sunkara: You have a real base of people that just opposed a right wing candidate, wanting to support a left candidate and it very much mirrored the old Harold Washington base that elected Chicago’s first Black mayor over 40 years ago. Do you see a model in what happened in Chicago? You also lived in New York for many years, and were involved with the Working Families Party. Do you see a contrast between why the New York left has been less successful electorally? 

Alex Han: I don’t think that there’s a set of mistakes that some people made and correct decisions that other people made. There are a set of structural questions that undergird all of the work that we do. We’re dealing in a political economy that does not allow for democratic expression of working class people. That’s the place where we start. 

I can point to one of the differences: the Chicago Teachers Union. Having a major union that is an integral part of the day to day lifeblood of the city, which public school teachers are — there are a few other groups of workers of that size that have the day to day impact and reach around the city as the teachers union. The fact of the democratic takeover of the teachers union and the continued evolution of democratic trade unionism is a really critical part of that equation. 

Something I used to talk about a lot as an organizer was that it’s not about our smart strategies and plans. Of course we have to have those. But one of the smartest strategies and plans is to be able to grab opportunity whenever it arrives. So I can see that is something that’s happened in both places — there are gains being made in New York, there are gains being made in a lot of different places. In Chicago, it’s easy to focus on that mayor’s race. That’s a big deal. But the things that led to that possibility are not so different.

Bhaskar Sunkara: Yeah, it’s really the background conditions of the CTU are really the missing ingredient as something that coheres people and money in a way that few bodies can other than trade unions. 

Our role is not to direct those movements. Our role is not to cheerlead those movements. Our role is to engage with them, and that’s a messy and complicated process. But it’s that kind of mess and complication that we should be trying.

Audience question: What are your visions for the magazine? What are the things you want to change? 

Alex Han: I’m in a really lucky position in that most people who come in to take over any organization, especially after someone has led it for several decades and led it through a lot of really difficult times — through dark times for the left as a whole, challenging times for journalism, multiple economic crises — I’m in the lucky position where there is no emergency at In These Times. In These Times is a healthy publication, and a healthy organization. So what I get to do is think about how we are going to take risks to grow, understanding that we are starting on a solid foundation. That’s very rare.

I’m going to go back again, and I’m going to try to make a more concise comparison. I live in Chicago, I am a Midwesterner. I think what’s just happened in Chicago [the election of Mayor Brandon Johnson] is something that we need to pay attention to, not just for its political and electoral ramifications, but for its ramifications around how we think about movement growth, how we think about additions to a coalition. I have been a big advocate, as an organizer in Chicago, of taking big risks. In 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union was clearly moving toward a strike, their first strike in 25 years and the first large-scale strike in an American big city school district in 20 years — I remember a major local union president asking me after a meeting, Is there anything you can do to get them to not go on strike?” 

We come from a defensive crouch, and that is a lot of us on the left. That’s how we’ve learned. I came up in the 90s. Those were not times of strength. We did not have a Bernie Sanders able to run credibly for president. So the ground has shifted, and our sights need to be set higher. Our horizon needs to be larger, and it needs to be further down. It needs to be something that can actually create the change that we need. That’s the larger vision that I’m trying to bring to In These Times.

We need to think about what risks we can take that are going to help grow the publication, that are going to help sharpen those politics, that are going to help create journalism and media that allows movements to thrive and grow.

Alex Han is Executive Director of In These Times. He has organized with unions, in the community, and in progressive politics for two decades. In addition to serving as Midwest Political Director for Bernie 2020, he’s worked to amplify the power of community and labor organizations at Bargaining for the Common Good, served as a Vice President of SEIU Healthcare Illinois and Indiana for over a decade, and helped to found United Working Families, an independent political organization in Illinois that has elected dozens of working-class leaders to city, state and federal office. Most recently he was executive editor of Convergence Magazine.

Bhaskar Sunkara is the founding editor of Jacobin magazine. Follow him on Twitter: @sunraysunray.
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