From Russia to flyover country, Sarah Kendzior might be the voice we need

Photo by Lyndsey Marie on Unsplash

Sarah Kendzior still has trouble explaining the limousines to her neighbors. Kendzior is a political journalist who works mostly out of her home in University City, a close suburb of St. Louis. But the rise of Donald Trump in 2015 thrust Kendzior into the national media spotlight as one of his most prominent critics. Whenever a national news producer requests her for an on-air panel, the network usually sends a car and driver to pick her up and take her to a TV studio. “My neighbors think it’s nuts,” says Kendzior. “They’re used to seeing me walk my kids to the bus stop. They’re like, ‘Who comes and gets you?’”

One Saturday in late January, the chauffeur is working for MSNBC. A producer from AM Joy called at 6:45am to ask Kendzior to commute downtown, where she’ll be mic’d up in front of a cardboard backdrop featuring a photo of St. Louis’s Gateway Arch. From that Midwestern perch, she will chime in on reports from the previous week that President Trump had planned to fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller back in June, only backing off when Trump’s own chief counsel threatened to resign.

Kendzior’s curbside spectacle first started in mid-2016, when the national media was finally willing to entertain the possibility of a Trump presidency. She had been writing about Trump’s viability as a candidate for months. As the new president came into power and the specter of Russian interference in his victory triggered Mueller’s investigation, the limos started lining up. That’s because, in addition to writing extensively about the middle of the country in her best-selling book, The View From Flyover Country (being released in print by Flatiron this month), Kendzior happens to have a PhD focusing on authoritarian states in the former Soviet Union. She’s also proficient in Russian. “She had to have sacrificed herself to the journalism gods,” says friend and fellow freelance journalist, Linda Tirado. “Nobody gets that sort of insider timing.”

ICYMI: In quest to protect image, NPR tarnished it

The serendipity has come at a cost. These days, any prominent journalist who writes about the Trump–Russia narrative is bait for conservative trolls and Russian bots. And anyone who compares the president’s behavior with authoritarianism, as Kendzior does almost daily, is bound to attract the attention and ire of conservatives brandishing accusations of bias. But Kendzior has taken online rabble-rousing to another level. Her voluminous Twitter presence (nearly 80,000 tweets to 345,000 followers) and blunt, rapid-fire indictment of any and all perceived offenders (from declaring that “corporations are purposefully evil” to calling The New York Times a “white supremacist paper”) have made Kendzior the target of vitriol and even death threats from across the political spectrum.

But her incendiary public persona belies the benign professional demeanor of a work-at-home mom whose neighbors don’t even know what she does for a living. This morning, Kendzior slips out while her kids and husband sleep in, dresses quickly, and slides into the backseat of the waiting limo. She watches through the window as the sun dawns over the familiar crumbling brick and broken glass of troubled municipalities like Pagedale, Wellston, and finally downtown St. Louis—recent drop zones for parachuting national journalists, but part of Kendzior’s adopted home. Kendzior walks into the the green room where, without her regular hair and makeup person (who didn’t get the late notice), she curls her own brown locks with clips and coffee pods. Finally, she’s in a little black room, mic’d up in front of the stand-in Arch, staring into a camera and waiting for her cue from New York.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

 

Photo courtesy Sarah Kendzior

She has worked hard to get here. Whether it’s because she’s a woman, a freelancer working outside the coastal media echo chamber, an academic who sometimes pushes the boundaries between editorializing and straight reporting, or a doomsayer (whose prognostications have just happened to come true), it sometimes seems to her and some of her colleagues that her actual credentials are being overlooked by the mainstream. “What more authority [on despotism] can you possess than she has?” says New York–based freelance journalist Sydette Harry, who has never met Kendzior but considers her an online ally. “There is something wrong with the system if someone with Sarah’s credentials is being ignored. She has all the credentials and experience and until it got very, very real for people last year, they were still dismissing her.”

And unlike some academics-cum-commentators who snipe from behind stacks of textbooks, Kendzior is a diligent reporter, who takes time and care to get to know the places and people around her. It just so happens that those places and people have had a tendency to be staging points for newsworthy tumult, from the Ferguson riots of 2014 to the 2016 upswell in favor of Trump. “Wrong place, wrong time,” Kendzior says, only half-joking. “It’s the story of my life.”

 

Kendzior’s journalism career began as an online editor and writer for the New York Daily News, in September 2000, less than a year before 9/11. When the planes struck the towers, Kendzior was among the first staffers to push for the site, which at that point simply mirrored the daily print paper, to be updated throughout the day as news broke. One of her first writing assignments, and some of the site’s first original content, was an online column about how world media were reacting to the aftermath, the build-up to the “war on terror,” and subsequent action in Afghanistan and Iraq. The research piqued her interest in the region. “I would fact-check my articles on Afghanistan and places where there are US bases, like Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan,” she says. “There was no Wikipedia, it was really hard to get basic information on these Central Asian countries. I kept thinking, there needs to be journalism about these places because America is really invested in them, but no one is covering them in their own right.”

RELATED: A Nebraskan and a New Yorker cross swords over ‘coastal bias’ in reporting

Within two years, Kendzior would have a chance to see this region firsthand. After barely surviving a round of layoffs at the Daily News in 2003, Kendzior and her husband quit the paper and moved to Istanbul, where they taught English. A year later, she returned to the US, earning a Master’s degree in Eurasian Studies from Indiana University and a PhD in anthropology from Washington University in St. Louis. She occasionally freelanced articles on politics for Slate, The Atlantic, and Al Jazeera English while writing her dissertation on the authoritarian dictatorship in Uzbekistan, and more specifically how the regime used the internet to manipulate the media and undermine public trust.  

Kendzior’s incendiary public persona belies the benign professional demeanor of a work-at-home mom whose neighbors don’t even know what she does for a living.

In 2012, with her doctorate complete, Kendzior jumped back into full-time freelance journalism. She found there was plenty to write about in and around Missouri—issues that were being ignored by national press. And she liked the idea of working from home with her new baby. So she dedicated herself to the city. In the winter of 2012, Kendzior contacted Umar Lee, a St. Louis native and a prominent local writer and blogger, through a mutual friend. Lee gives specialty tours of his hometown, north St. Louis County neighborhoods—taking people into the economically deprived and neglected parts of the city, and tying it all into the city’s sociopolitical dynamic. He took Kendzior around the city. “The first time we hung out it was a blizzard,” says Lee, who has since become a friend of Kendzior’s. “But she still wanted to take the tour. I was impressed. She made it her mission to get to know a lot about St. Louis in a way that very few have.”

The result of Kendzior’s commitment to the city was a series of articles for Al Jazeera English spotlighting rampant institutional racism, economic disparity, and gentrification in North St. Louis County cities like Florissant and Ferguson—more than a year before the August 2014 riots. In May 2013, she penned an op-ed called “The view from flyover country,” in which she gave an overview of the city:

On a St. Louis street corner, someone is wearing a sign that says, “I Am a Man.” Like most in the crowd gathered outside a record store parking lot, he is African-American. He is a fast food worker and he is a protester. He needs to remind you he is a human being because it has been a long time since he was treated like one.

Then in “The minimum wage worker strikes back,” April 2014:

To follow a fast food worker’s commute is to trace St. Louis’s long history of racial segregation, economic decline, and fear. Most workers with whom I spoke grew up and still live in North County towns whose populations changed dramatically over the past three decades…Once the suburbs of white flight, these towns are now the destinations of black flight, as struggling African-American families seek a safe and good life outside the crumbling terrain of the inner city.

And in “The peril of hipster economics,” in May 2014:

Gentrification spreads the myth of native incompetence: That people need to be imported to be important, that a sign of a neighborhood’s “success” is the removal of its poorest residents.

Less than three months after the last of these articles, Michael Brown was shot by a white police officer, the black community in Ferguson decided it had had enough, and the world was violently awakened to a conflict that Kendzior had been covering for months.

In 2016, at the behest of some of her readers, Kendzior decided to compile her Al Jazeera essays in The View From Flyover Country. Since almost all of the work was already available online, she decided not to look for a publisher and instead self-published it is an e-book. It moved pretty well at first. But the electronic volume became a bestseller in June 2017, after it somehow found its way in front of Hillary Clinton. The former presidential candidate told a gathering at an American Library Association conference in Chicago that she was “riveted” by the work, which “turned out to be especially relevant.”

By then, of course, the national media and Kendzior had long since moved on from Ferguson.

 

This first time Kendzior got a viral reaction to something she wrote was in 2012, when, just out of grad school, she came under fire for a post on her blog. Liza Long, a fellow mother and blogger, had expanded one of her posts for a Gawker essay entitled, “I am Adam Lanza’s Mother,” referring to the infamous Sandy Hook shooter. Long wrote about her fear that her uncontrollably violent and mentally ill 13-year-old might one day commit a Lanza-like atrocity. Kendzior took to her personal blog to accuse Long of capitalizing on the Newtown tragedy, and destroying her son’s reputation. Kendzior also dug into Long’s history of posts fantasizing about beating her children, locking them up, and giving them away. For this, Kendzior drew the ire of mommy bloggers and online citizens who felt she had overstepped her bounds. The tumult took both Kendzior and Long by surprise and within a day the two bloggers had connected, set aside their differences, and released a joint statement declaring a ceasefire, stressing the need to respect their families’ privacy, and calling for a “respectful national conversation on mental health.”

“I didn’t like what she was doing, but I felt that the media attention was bizarre,” says Kendzior, who estimates her Twitter presence at the time to have been only about 1,000 followers. “We weren’t actually feuding, but the media was trying to create a feud. We were both getting threats. It was the first time I had a viral reaction to something I wrote. It made me think every time I write about a private citizen. Now I punch up, write about people with political power and media power.”

Even heavyweight former employers are fair game. When Kendzior stopped working for Al Jazeera, along with her editor and several fellow contributors, in late 2014, she wrote a scathing thread on Twitter about the publication’s “new rules.” She said opinion writers were now discouraged from researching their op-eds and pushed to offer “hot takes.” “No room for freedom of thought in the new model,” she tweeted. “My heart is broken.”

“Now I punch up, write about people with political power and media power,” Kendzior says.

Most of the heat Kendzior draws is from her own political posts, tweets, and articles. This started during Ferguson in 2014, when she wrote that the Great Recession still gripped some parts of the country—a claim many on the right and left bristled at. She later accused cable networks of distorting riot coverage and being “vultures rooting for blood.” “People were grieving, fighting, running from tear gas,” she tweeted, “and [the] media enjoyed it.”

By the spring of 2016—when most people didn’t believe Trump could win the GOP nomination, let alone the general election—Kendzior was already viewing his candidacy through the lens of economic disparity. In March of that year, she attended a Trump rally for The Guardian. In her article, “Trump supporters in St. Louis: how ‘Midwestern nice’ became a sea of rage,” she wrote:

These Trump fans did not look cruel or stupid or homogeneous in appearance and values, as they are often portrayed. What they shared was a loathing for the rest of the candidatesand an intense, often conspiratorial feeling of betrayal. One of the reasons lines were so long is that the St. Louis area has enough unemployed people to make an overbooked rally, at noon on a weekday, entirely feasible.

Kendzior also began drawing connections between what she was seeing from the future president and what she had studied of authoritarian tactics: The racist and xenophobic rhetoric; the myriad business entanglements; the manipulation of the media—the way Trump was able to sow distrust of mainstream outlets while simultaneously playing them for free and unfettered publicity. She unabashedly called out Trump’s apparent “bromance” with Russian President Vladimir Putin. This was in August 2016, before any formal investigation, before almost anyone took the idea of Russian interference seriously. Kendzior was attacked online by Russian bots, conservatives, and even fellow journalists, who branded her an alarmist. She was called a Russian mole and a Kremlin spy by the left for taking Trump too seriously early on; a henchman of George Soros and a Clinton campaign operative by the right when she mentioned the future GOP nominee’s autocratic tendencies.

At times, the online attacks have been almost too much to deal with. In December 2016, shortly after the election, she tweeted that she received two death threats for posting a link to a 1988 Washington Post article about Trump being sought out by Soviets and invited to the USSR in the late 1980s. She pointed out that shortly after that visit, Trump became an outspoken critic of US foreign policy and advocated a nuclear arms partnership with the Russians. For this, Kendzior was lambasted as a crank—and not just by trolls. “On Twitter, writer Sarah Kendzior tried to claim that Trump was a KGB sleeper cell operative going back to the late 1980s,” wrote Paste journalist Donald McCarthy, extrapolating from what Kendzior actually said. “She then went onto Joy Reid’s MSNBC show to make the same claims with a panel of like-minded individuals. That any of this can be taken as serious is a true detriment to left wing discourse in America.” 

The New Republic has accused Kendzior of taking it too far and being a “pure example of confirmation bias.” “She relies heavily on comparisons that are technically plausible but far from definitive,” wrote author and academic Colin Dickey in June 2017. “For Kendzior, virtually every action taken by the Trump administration is evidence that we’re in the early throes of an authoritarian takeover…She even cited Trump’s speech to Congress last February, during which he managed to sound momentarily presidential, as ‘a technique straight out of the autocrat’s playbook.’ Anything that doesn’t fit the narrative of imminent authoritarianism, in Kendzior’s view, is just a head-fake—a sure sign of a deeper conspiracy.”

“Whether you’re talking about Russia or about her being a writer from the Midwest, her beat seems to be telling people what they ought to hear but don’t want to,” says Tirado. “She’s not telling people that lizard people are coming out of the ground to take over America next week, but she’s telling people what the very real dangers and risks are. Making sure she cuts that line, not unnecessarily alarming people but not covering up for non-truths either.”

For her part, Kendzior is quick to clarify her stances and come to her own defense. When she expresses her opinion, no matter how biting, she feels she backs it up with reporting and her own expertise, and the editorializing is clearly labelled as such. Otherwise, she sees herself as a straight-forward reporter using her background as an anthropologist to take an ethnographic approach to her subject matter. But she also knows that words don’t exist in a vacuum. “There’s no such thing as complete objectivity,” she says. “I believe in the old maxim that journalists should comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. While journalism isn’t activism, you can’t separate what we’re writing about and its effect on politics. In a time when so many people are lying, telling the truth seems like a radical act. Even though it’s not my intent, I’m just trying to be honest.”

“If you want to have a good-faith debate, that’s fine,” says Kendzior. “Otherwise, I’ve got shit to do.”

 

Kendzior has worked her way closer to the mainstream from the fringes of the journalism world—though the journey has been arduous. Last year, Flatiron, an imprint of Macmillan, picked up her self-published e-book and announced a physical release this spring. Major networks were reluctant to take Kendzior at face value, at least at first, only booking her occasionally—until, as with Ferguson, the very things she was warning about came to pass. “Things she was talking about a year ago that CNN wouldn’t touch are now [its] talking points,” says Lee. “She’s led the discussion based on her knowledge and research.”

Of course, it probably doesn’t help that more than a few of her would-be publishers are among her targets. In October 2016, she tweeted that Mother Jones was “embracing white supremacy” by normalizing a white militia’s plot to bomb Somali refugees in Kansas. In January of this year, she pegged The New York Times as “a white supremacist paper” for running “Nazi puff pieces” about mercurial Trump adviser Stephen Miller, one of which was an op-ed published on National Holocaust Memorial Day. She once called NBC’s Joe Scarborough a Trump propagandist.  

“[Kendzior’s] beat seems to be telling people what they ought to hear but don’t want to,” says Tirado.

Part of the mainstream resistance to Kendzior might be resentment over such claims. There’s also likely a fatigue factor over a year into a relentlessly groundbreaking presidency. Some if it is also due to the fact that Kendzior is a woman. “Of course it was because she was a woman,” Harry says. “I am loathe to say it was just because she is a woman, because some of her bullies were women. Journalism has a problem with recognizing authority and expertise if it is not packaged in a particular way. Sarah challenges access and prestige journalism in a way that few do—as a journalist and an academic.”

But perhaps the slight that bothers Kendzior most comes from a misconception that has so bitterly divided the US: provincialism. “I notice when people look down on me,” she says. “I notice when people think I’m ill-informed. There are a lot of times when I’m listed as ‘scholar of authoritarian states’ and over and over people say ‘How is that true? She lives in Missouri.’”

It’s not just coastal academics who forget there is scholarship in flyover country; coastal media elites also overlook journalists who know the places readers and viewers now want to know about. “They need to find reporters who live there day in and day out, who know when there’s something anomalous and who understand the problems of everyday life there,” she says. “But then outlets are like ‘Well, we need people who know how to write.’ And I’m like, ‘You’re talking to one.’”

ICYMI: Women who speak out about sexual harassment are often blacklisted by other news organizations

Correction: This article has been updated to clarify Kendzior’s skill in Russian and the topic of her dissertation, and previously misquoted Kendzior as saying there is a US air base in Turkmenistan rather than Kyrgyzstan.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Tony Rehagen has written for Pacific Standard, GQ, Bloomberg, and ESPN The Magazine. He is based in St. Louis and is on Twitter @trehagen.