September 8, 2022
Journalist and podcaster Sam Sanders joins Jameela this week to share about his conservative Christian childhood, his first experience with a therapist, the pivot point in his journalism career, how the Pulse nightclub shooting helped him open up to his audience, how cultural conversations are great agents of change, finding joy in the small moments, and more.
You can find transcripts for this episode here: https://www.earwolf.com/show/i-weigh-with-jameela-jamil/
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127 — Sam Sanders
Jameela [00:00:00] Hello and welcome to another episode of I Weigh with Jameela Jamil, a podcast against shame. I hope you’re well. I am good because today I got to have a chat with someone who I admire so much and who I think you will love. His name is Sam Sanders and he’s an amazing podcaster, broadcaster, journalist and altogether voice of our generation. And our chat did not let me down. He talks about so many things so openly and just from such a progressive point of view, he he doesn’t manipulate any of his views or opinions in order to placate other people. He just says what he thinks would be the best for all of us to communicate with each other. He just says what he feels and fights for us to find better ways to communicate with each other. And in this podcast, we discuss his conservative Christian childhood and the contradictory experience he had as a gay child in the Evangelical Baptist Church. And it’s not all a horror story. There’s so much love in there that I think is so important to discuss. We talk about the moment he pivoted his journalistic career and started bringing his personal experiences into his reporting and why he thinks discussing art and culture is the best way to influence and change minds. And we got into this because obviously political and social justice discourse has become such a fucking mess that we are running out of ways to be able to reach across to each other. Sometimes it doesn’t even feel like we are trying to reach across to each other. I’ve said it a million times in this podcast. I feel especially the left are seeking traitors, are not converts. And so art really does feel like one of the last ways we have to slip in an important conversation and remind people that we have so much more in common than we have differences. And so Sam really gets into the weeds of this in such an intelligent and humane and accessible way. And I just couldn’t stop thinking about him and everything he said in this chat afterwards. And so I urge you to follow Sam Sanders online and please check out his podcast Vibe Check also with Saeed Jones and Zach Stafford, as well as his podcast Into It, where he talks all things culture. He’s so special. He’s so cool. And he was so illuminating in this chat. This is the excellent Sam Sanders.
Jameela [00:00:30] Beautiful Sam Sanders, welcome to I Weigh. How are you?
Sam [00:00:34] I’m great. It’s so good to be here. I am honored. I’m a big fan.
Jameela [00:00:38] Oh, thank you. Well, likewise. I think you’re such an important voice right now. I’m trying to bring more and more people onto this podcast who I think are progressives who actually believe in progress. And I feel as though when I look back at your CV, there are not just traces but like such strong elements of that throughout your work. You deliver information to people in a way that I guess maybe I’m assuming too much about you, but I imagine it’s the way that you wish that you could yourself consume information. You want it in a calm, organized and hopeful way. And I feel like that’s what you put out into the world. I think you’re such a positive force as a voice in our generation. And so I really thank you for being here today.
Sam [00:01:22] Oh, thank you so much. You know, I heard you say that it’s like a lot of that is like what I want to bring to the work. But a lot of that is also you get this really interesting training when you do broadcast radio, which I did for about 12 years before this. When you’re doing radio, you never know who’s listening. You never know at what point they start listening. And you always have to be ready for anyone to come in at any angle at any moment. And so it makes you get really good at having these discussions be digestible, you know? And so like I think in my career, I’ve kind of started to drift away from that. But like as a foundation doing broadcast radio on a national stage, it just makes you make the stuff accessible, which I appreciate. So it was a good training for a long time. So I have to give some credit to, you know, public radio itself.
Jameela [00:02:19] Yeah, I mean, I did the same. I was a BBC broadcasting radio host for many years. That’s what I did before I came to America. And so it does completely change the way that you put out information because you are so acutely aware of what it’s like to only have someone’s voice to listen to, and you can’t rely on someone’s facial expressions or what they’re wearing or what they look like or how they present themselves in their body language. All you have is your voice, and it is such a personal thing to be in the car with someone when they’re alone or in the house with them during a very personal, private moment. And I think and I guess I feel sad when I hear people use that privilege platform to instill like more fear or more hatred in others. And I feel as though you and I are kindred spirits and that we’re trying to do the opposite of that. We’re still critical thinkers. We still criticize what needs to be criticized. We still raise and discuss important topics. And you certainly have throughout your career. It’s not like you’ve shied away from news. You’ve really like honed in on what we actually need to fully understand. I just. Yeah. Anyway, we get that I love Sam. Okay, that has become clear.
Sam [00:03:30] We’ve got to also change so, I mean, there’s a chat down the road about us just swapping war stories between the BBC and NPR, because I’m sure there are so many similarities.
Jameela [00:03:41] 100% 100%. But I would love to talk to you about mental health, because that is the premise of this podcast. And you’ve had such a fascinating life. And I was wondering if you could tell me what your personal journey has been like with your own?
Sam [00:03:55] Yeah, I think there are two parts of it. I think it’s there’s a way I think about mental health in my work and in my career and the kinds of chats I have and whatever audio I’m doing. Like, I want to be an add to people’s mental health, not a subtraction from their mental health you know so that we can talk about. But in terms of me personally, mental health wise, I think long story short, I was someone who came to the entire idea of taking care of your mental health kind of late in life. I was raised an evangelical Christian. I grew up in Pentecostal and apostolic churches. My mother was the church organist. So my brother and I were in church whenever the doors of the church were open. And it was a pretty strict church. It was charismatic, which meant everyone spoke in tongues and there were a lot of rules and things that we just could not do. So we could not listen to any kind of music that was not Christian. We really couldn’t go to things like school dances or the movies. The women in our church didn’t wear jewelry or makeup or pants or even cut their hair and a good portion of the church, but not all, rejected a lot of the medical establishment. So, for instance, my mother suffered with high blood pressure. Still does. She didn’t take pills for it for a long time. You know, she believed in things like faith healing. Right. So there was a lot of just rigid rules in my upbringing, which meant that something like going to see a doctor to talk about your mental health on a regular basis wasn’t even a part of the equation. Jesus was your therapist. If you needed one, you know, the pastor would help you. Your church folks would help you. So I did not grow up in a world where mental health was even a discussion. And I came to begin my mental health journey in my thirties. An ex-boyfriend of mine. Eric, bless you. Eric is still a good friend of mine. We’re very close.
Jameela [00:06:03] Hi, Eric.
Sam [00:06:04] Hi, Eric. He’s really great. He’s really great. We had been dating for about three months, and at this point, I was probably like. 34, 33. And we’ve been dating for about three months. And one day, he’s like, Sam. Trust me on this, I’m going to find you a therapist because you need one. And I was like, Whoa. And I think your first instinct in a moment like that is to say, what are you saying about me? Do you think I’m bad? Do you think I’m defective? Do you think something’s wrong with me.
Jameela [00:06:38] Is this gaslighting as well?
Sam [00:06:39] Yes. Yeah. But Eric is such a warm soul and such like a true and empathetic person. I kind of had to just trust him. So I said, okay, you find me one, I’ll go. And he did. And I’m still seeing that therapist to this day. It’s been three or four years. And, you know, when I started seeing a therapist, I was like, what is this about? And I remember I would call Erik every time the session ended. When I was in my car driving back home, I’d call and be like, bro we just talked about whatever. And about two or three months in, it clicked and it started to work. And, you know, I mean, this work.
Jameela [00:07:16] What did that feel like? What did that what did that feel like? Like how could you tell it was clicking?
Sam [00:07:20] I told him things. My therapist, Jonathan, love you shout out.
Jameela [00:07:25] Hi Jonathan.
Sam [00:07:25] I told yeah, I told Jonathan some things that I had only said in my head before. I told Jonathan some things that were really only part of my internal monologue and just the process of saying those things to another person. Was such a feeling of catharsis. I think there were one or two sessions when that click began to happen where I felt physically weight leave my body. I felt my shoulders soften. I felt my jaw unclench. And the beauty of this process is that you continue to get those kind of moments. And so for me, a lot of the work in therapy has been understanding the way our mental and emotional health is connected to our physical health and the way that we show up in our bodies. And this is not new. And, you know, you can read the body keeps a score. Other folks have data in science about this. But to realize it and feel it myself was just the biggest, greatest feeling in the world. And, yeah, everything began to shift for me when I started on that mental health journey, which I’m still on. And I’m so grateful for my therapist and for Eric. And as soon as I got hooked on therapy, I became an evangelist. For people who listen to me, who know me, who are in my life, they should do it, too.
Jameela [00:08:57] I mean, I know that a lot of my friends who had evangelical Christian upbringings, there was a lot of talk of the devil, which I’m not sure if happened with you, but I know that there was you’re nodding.
Sam [00:09:07] Oh yeah.
Jameela [00:09:07] Okay, lots of talk of the devil. So there’s a there’s a lot of kind of like being guided by shame and fear. And then I imagine when you grow up as a young black man who is in an evangelical Christian community, who is also gay.
Sam [00:09:21] Yeah.
Jameela [00:09:23] That must have taken fucking years to unpack.
Sam [00:09:25] It took years. I remember as a kid knowing pretty early on that I was gay. I remember in third grade having a crush on one of the guys in class, Ricky Nelson. I thought he was so cute and I just knew. Well, I can’t tell anybody, so I knew I was gay.
Jameela [00:09:40] How did you know? So young? You just already had ingested that.
Sam [00:09:44] I thought he was cute. And then I was like okay.
Jameela [00:09:45] No, no, no. I don’t mean. How did you know you had a crush? I mean, how did you know not to say anything?
Sam [00:09:50] You just knew. And you know my church, which I hadn’t been to in years. They came a long way, even in my youth. But when I was a kid, there were sermons and lessons and teachings about the dangers of homosexuality. And there was it’s there was quite an interesting dichotomy, because on the one hand, it would be safe to say and fair to say that the church that I grew up in was homophobic, but it also was a safe space for me, who was, in many people’s eyes, a queer presenting youth. The church was the one place I couldn’t be bullied for the way my voice sounded. It was the one place they wouldn’t kick me out because I couldn’t play sports like the other boys. So there was always I was always of two minds during my upbringing in the church. On the one hand, I know that they were telling me the scripture says being gay is wrong. But on the other hand, I always felt incredibly loved by the people in my church. You know, and there are members that I grew up with in the church who I still call family. They are my cousins. They are my aunts is there are my uncles, right? So that was the entire tension and struggle growing up. I knew I was gay. They probably knew it too, but they were family and we loved each other.
Jameela [00:11:08] Does that ever split you in two as a person, you know, which kind of maybe almost helps one become a broadcaster or a personality, public personality, because you’re able to so easily split yourself in two. Your you have one for you and one for them.
Sam [00:11:23] Oh, yeah. You if you grow up as a church kid and this is an experience of all evangelical church kids, whether they’re gay or straight, you immediately learn to learn to compartmentalize in every aspect of your life. So, for instance, I loved music growing up, I started playing the saxophone when I was maybe 12. I went on to major in music composition in undergrad, and I wanted to consume all of the music. But the rule in our church and in our home was that you could only listen to Christian music. So as early as like seventh or eighth grade, my mom would take my brother and I to the mall. She’d go off to shop at her stores and I would sneak into the record stores. I would sneak in to Sam Goody or Hastings. I would buy CDs of like the hot hip hop or R&B of the day, and I would sneak it home in the back of my pants, and I would bring these CDs home in my underwear and then secretly listen to them under cover of night in the bathroom with the door locked.
Jameela [00:12:23] In your discman.
Sam [00:12:25] Yes, exactly. In the discman. You know, and so
Jameela [00:12:28] Also that was a rowdy time with R&B and hip hop like that. It’s just suddenly everything became super explicit and it was a joyous revelation for any like any curious kids who want to know what adult life sounds like.
Sam [00:12:42] Oh, yeah, there was so much good shit to consume. Like you think about that golden age of hip hop in the mid to late nineties, kind of anchored by Bad Boy Records and all that they were doing everything around that. You had the Golden Age of Timbaland and his amazing production. You had.
Jameela [00:12:57] and Missy Elliott, yeah.
Sam [00:12:58] You had Busta Rhymes, and I was consuming all of this stuff in secret. And then sometimes at church I also played the saxophone in our church band, a few of the other guys who were also listening to like D’Angelo. We would sneak in D’Angelo riffs into the church music and no one knew but us. And so I grew up knowing how to compartmentalize, knowing how to sneak, knowing how to do that even when it came to music. So when it came to my sex life, you know, I got really good really early on in knowing how to put certain parts of my life in a box, you know, in hindsight, that wasn’t the healthiest way to live a life, but it gave me some skills that I was able to use in my work for many years before I covered politics and then popular culture. I was on the breaking news beat at NPR, which meant I was covering quick hit stuff of the day, which often meant Go fly here and. There was a mass shooting. Go over here. There’s flooding. Go over here. They once sent me to Dallas for a week because somebody’s got Ebola in Dallas. And I was like, on Ebola stakeout for a week. So I was just doing this heavy work for a while. And I think part of why I was able to do it as well as I did for as long as I did was because I just had this lifelong lesson in putting shit in a box. And so I could go cover this death and despair and say, All right, that goes over there. I’m going to happy hour now.
Jameela [00:14:27] Right. But when you say it goes over there. Right. And I’m exactly the same. And my you know, neither of us are trying to say, hey, guys, childhood trauma will help you become a big star in Hollywood. No one’s saying that.
Sam [00:14:39] No ones saying that. No one’s saying that.
Jameela [00:14:40] It’s not worth it not worth it. Like, eject eject. But I will say that, like, you know, I similarly have been able to have the skills of compartmentalizing. And I can stand on stage in front of 100,000 people and feel nothing and no fear or anything because I’m so, like, disengaged as a person. Now, as much as that may be came in handy at 22, 23. It caught up with me by the time I was 26, 27. And I’m still just kind of like pulling, pulling it out of me. So that must have gone somewhere, right? Not just the childhood shame or like kind of almost I don’t know, the, the switching of self you would have had to have done, but. But seeing all that shit so young, going and covering death and trauma and and failure of systems that leave people homeless. That must have been fuckin traumatic. Or has that not surfaced yet? Have I just triggered that now.
Sam [00:15:37] No. No.
Jameela [00:15:38] Okay.
Sam [00:15:39] It’s true. I remember they sent me out to Sandy Hook and a lot of times in these large newsrooms, like NPR or The Times of the Post or whoever, they’ll send out waves of reporters because they they don’t want someone there for too long because the brain will just fry. But I was part of a second wave of Sandy Hook reporters and producers sent out there. And I was covering the week after when they were first beginning to mark the passage of time since the shooting, the first week. And I remember having to like cover that one week of vigil, record the chiming of the bells. Go file my story. And then, like, soon after, get back on the plane and go to the next thing. And I think it really caught up with me that continual exposure to bad things when I was sent to cover the mass shooting at the black church in Charleston, South Carolina.
Jameela [00:16:37] Holy fucking hell.
Sam [00:16:38] I got sent out there. And that was, I think, the first time when I really began to realize you aren’t going to be able to compartmentalize forever, because the people in that church that had been killed looked like my family and looked like the folks that I grew up going to church with. And the songs they played at the services were the songs that we played in my church growing up. And I said that that was the first time I think I had seen a mass shooting that I was covering where I said, that could have been me. And I think after that there was just a continued question I would ask myself when I was in the thick of these events, how do I fit in and how might I be a part of these stories? And I remember soon after that, I want to say just about a year after the Charleston shooting was the Pulse nightclub shooting, which in another way could have been me. I was in clubs like that. I was going out like that. That could have been me. And I remember there was this moment. At that point I was covering politics and we were talking about the Pulse shooting on the NPR Politics podcast, which I helped launch as one of the founding co-hosts. And I had never broken down in a recording in a story. I was talking about the parallels between the Charleston shooting and the Pulse shooting, and I broke down in tears on the microphone in the podcast, and we used it because it was it was worthwhile. But I think that was a moment when I really began to say to myself, I should probably be thinking about my work differently. I think I’m doing a disservice to myself and potentially a disservice to my audience by not talking about the ways these stories and this collective trauma affects not just them, but me. Because when I shared more of myself and that moment on the politics podcast where I was just feeling my emotions.
Jameela [00:18:42] Yeah you were vulnerable.
Sam [00:18:44] We never we had never gotten more feedback on anything that we had done as a team. Hundreds of emails of people saying, thank you for being open. Thank you for being vulnerable. And so at that point, you say to yourself, this really this is about me a little bit, but it’s also about allowing your vulnerability to be a help to other people. I think so much of what journalism needs to be is not just telling people what’s going on in the world, but saying to our audiences collectively, we’re going to have to get through this together. How are you feeling? Here’s how I feel, and I think that’s which began to happen for me in that moment. It’s never just about the news. It’s about how it feels, and it’s about how we get through these things together. And I think that became the North Star of the work after that.
Jameela [00:19:39] Well, then you have seamlessly brought me into the next thing I want to talk about which is so classic of you. Yes, I. I would like to discuss the media and its impact on our mental health and the news specifically and what we have seen in the last two and a half years especially. But also just I mean, ever since I can remember, the news has been absolutely terrifying and as fear mongering as possible. And in spite of the fact that we have such, like firm statistical evidence of people’s mental health declining, the news only gets scarier and more divisive.
Sam [00:20:14] Mm hmm.
Jameela [00:20:15] And I guess that’s why at the top of this podcast, I was so effusive about you, because I feel like you’re one of few people who has been willing to talk about whether it’s about, you know, current pop culture or media or this, that and the other, or you’re talking about the news and what’s happening and breaking that down. I feel as though you are you are looking to give people hope and a bit of empathy and a bit of direction.
Sam [00:20:40] Yeah, no, that’s for sure the goal. You know, I remember feeling as a breaking news reporter, as someone covering this stuff, covering politics, covering the election in 2016. I said this shit is bumming me out. And I would listen to the work of my colleagues on NPR or watch the work of other folks who were on the campaign bus with me on TV or read them in various newspapers and understood why is all this shit depressing? And I remember really starting to feel that after Donald Trump won the election, I think covering that election and all of us covering that election as crazy as it was in 2016, it also kind of felt fun because Donald Trump brought this reality show spectacle to that entire campaign cycle that we all were able to kind of just swallow and laugh at because we assumed he wouldn’t win. Right.
Jameela [00:21:34] Yeah. I mean, that was the danger of it, wasn’t it? Was that no one.
Sam [00:21:36] Exactly.
Jameela [00:21:36] Like the left kind of unfortunately helped everyone not really take him seriously and therefore not really because there was such a kind of you could almost hear the theme tune of Curb Your Enthusiasm, like under all of his speeches. And I feel like nobody took him at all seriously or took the right serious of how many people he had behind him. I’ve spoken about this a lot when it comes to, you know, the right or conservatives that they have almost like deliberately sent out their biggest buffoons. And we see the same thing in the United Kingdom with Boris Johnson, right. We just we send these they send their biggest clowns out. Marjorie Taylor Green or whatever her name is like all these different people who suck up all the oxygen, all the attention. And we sit there thinking these people represent the entire right and they’re disorganized and they’re liars and they don’t know what they’re talking about. They’re uneducated and this, that and the other. All these judgmental things that we look at them as and behind the scenes are these incredibly organized, diligent.
Sam [00:22:36] And powerful.
Jameela [00:22:36] Powerful, financially like and very, very over like overly stable, like wealth hoarders, you know, who are doing everything they can and they’re using these people as puppets. And we don’t seem to understand.
Sam [00:22:49] Oh, yeah. Yeah. And you know, what happened, I think, is after the insanity and sitcom-esque reality show Nature of Election 2016, when Trump won. All of a sudden, these journalistic institutions that didn’t take him seriously enough went almost so hard in the other direction that we got whiplash. And I feel like from the day Trump won the election until now the coverage of the news has gotten darker and more negative and more pessimistic. And some of that is is and was necessary. We lived through one of the categorically worst presidencies of all time, and then we had a global pandemic that happens once every 100 years. So I get that. But there also was this like penumbra of negativity and fear mongering on top of those bad stories.
Jameela [00:23:44] I have a theory.
Sam [00:23:46] And it hasn’t stopped. Tell me your theory. Yes.
Jameela [00:23:47] My theory is the fact that that man created a resurgence in media right. I was in media when media was dying before Donald Trump especially liked news media. No one was interested. Everyone was getting into the avocado toast life of Instagram. We were getting way more into almost like it was the nineties again. We were getting back into celebrity culture and we’re sort of sort of disregarding like the numbers, like the newspapers were dying, magazines were dying, everyone was dying. And Donald Trump kind of his The clownerie reinjected this kind of energy into the media that they were like, right, okay. Well, now we’ve got everyone’s attention. How do we keep people’s attention? And they know that terrifying us makes us more likely to want to be hyper vigilant and therefore keep looking at the news to see what’s coming next. Right. We have we. It’s like they are it’s it’s I’ve said this before that it’s like outrage has replaced sex as the thing that sells the most. And they’ve realized that when we are incensed and when we feel superior and when we are disgusted, we engage more.
Sam [00:24:57] Yeah. Yeah. And I think it’s like, you know, I will say of the news media, there are a lot of trends that my industry takes part in that are negative. But I but I also will say there are no back door meetings. We don’t all get together to like plot, you know, hurt America. But certain things become really easy when you have a president like Donald Trump, matched with the rise of social media, matched with the tenor of the news cycle and the speed of the news cycle. So a few things happened at once.
Jameela [00:25:25] And the like the golden age of reality TV which all of it felt like.
Sam [00:25:30] Yeah, all of it coalesced, all the coalesced. And you had the situation where all of a sudden Trump is president and he becomes not just the biggest story to cover, but the easiest story to cover. If you’re a journalist, covering Donald Trump is very easy because he never shuts up. He never shuts up. He never stops tweeting. So it’s easy to cover him. There are other presidents where you don’t see them every day. I remember when Barack Obama was president, you could forget he was president for a few days because he was just doing the work right. So Trump was an easy story to cover. So that’s part of why he was overcovered and covered the way that he was covered. He also became president at the same moment Twitter really took over journalism, and a lot of the journalism around politics and writ large is basically tweets in story form, and the tweets.
Jameela [00:26:20] Sorry what’s writ large.
Sam [00:26:22] I think for a lot of national news coverage, the things that are sold to us as stories about America are really just stories about Twitter. And they’re pulling from Twitter and they’re coming from tweeters. And we know that that is a self-selecting audience. Somewhere around 10% of the population is regularly using Twitter. It’s not everybody. But if you’re a working journalist and you’ve got to write a story quick, there’s five tweets. It’s a trend piece. Right. And so some of why the news coverage leans so far into the negative was because and is because Donald Trump, the most negative president ever, was easy to cover. And Twitter, the most negative social media space is really easy to pull stories from. Right. So we have that happening. But we also have in general the emotional the emotional weight of most of the stories that we hear or see and read. They’re just negative and dire and dour. And they aren’t tapping into your emotions of optimism or critical thinking or hope. They are tapping into your emotions of fear and anger and nastiness. Right. And that’s happening in media across the world. But it’s happening even more and the most, I think, in America. And we’re still figuring out why. There’s a really good episode of the podcast Freakonomics, where they do like an actual qualitative study of how negative our news coverage is in America compared to everywhere else. Ours is more negative. They argue that in large part it’s because of the financial incentives of our mostly for profit news landscape. I think there are more reasons, but and they’re still being unpacked. But I will say some of why the shifts so negative and news coverage is so negative is because the negative stuff and the negative people are inherently easier to cover. It is easier to cover Marjorie Taylor Green than it is to cover a quiet, moderately progressive Congress person who just does her job right. That’s always a tension.
Jameela [00:28:37] You are now. You know, after years of you know, I would say on your on your last podcast, it’s been a minute being able to break everything down in a way that felt more organized and less chaotic and more sane and and more helpful to so many people that I know who would listen to that podcast. You’re now moving on to a new venture kind of away from all of this. Is this because you feel like it’s imploding? I feel like it’s imploding.
Sam [00:29:03] Yeah.
Jameela [00:29:03] And that’s why I have this podcast where I mostly try to talk about people’s mental health and encourage people to feel better, because I know that that’s not going to happen when they look at the news. Like, I actively encourage people sometimes at the top of this podcast to just switch the fucking news off for a couple of days because it’s it’s harrowing. And it’s also not completely representative of what’s actually happening.
Sam [00:29:24] It’s not it’s not you know, there were some long term studies around the coverage of COVID at the earliest stages and at the peak of the pandemic. And everyone who looked at the data around the types of stories national news media was writing about COVID came to the conclusion that. Mainstream news media covered COVID more negatively than we needed to. And there were moments in the pandemic where the numbers were going down and things were getting better. But the story still was, Oh, my God, can you believe it’s horrible? So, like, for instance, we have some weeks where the death count dropped by 20%. But instead of reporting that first and saying there’s something to be happy about, we say there are, there are thousands of people dying right now. And that’s true, but it’s not fair.
Jameela [00:30:15] Yeah, but also, Omicron was significantly obviously some people were still incredibly sick or I’m sure some people passed away during Omicron, but Omicron was significantly milder than the Delta variant. Significantly, significantly. And most of the people I knew had it, especially, you know, if they were looking after their health in all the ways that you could were two, three days of a cold. But it was being but because it was more contagious. The only thing the news reported as that it’s ten times more contagious than the alpha variant. Without saying that, it’s also milder. We didn’t see much of that coverage. And and I you know, I like I, I get I tend towards a tin hat, Sam, and I don’t want you to judge me for that, but but if we, if we remain in terror and in fear and distracted, we are less likely. You know, it does feel like sometimes the top, top, top people at the media, people who have meetings in rooms that you may not have been in during your time as a journalist, that they work with the government to distract and deflect away from people realizing how fucked everything is and people rising up against the actual powers that be. It’s like if we feel frozen and afraid, then we are easy to guide, lead and control. That’s my personal opinion.
Sam [00:31:30] Yeah. No, I totally hear you. And I think sometimes there are sinister ends at play. And then I think at other times just the entire incentive structure does not orient itself to nuanced coverage.
Jameela [00:31:42] And it’s also supply and demand. Right. You have to like we have to take responsibility as the consumers to understand that they will only ever supply to us what we demand. They are business businesses, first and foremost. And and they are dictated by money more than ever, because now we don’t have hard copies and hard prints where everything’s online. They rely solely on advertising. They rely solely on clicks. So they are noticing what we click on more. We as a nation, we as a generation have to recognize that if we continue to click, if we continue to give them that algorithmic attention, then they will just make more. What is it in us, do you think?
Sam [00:32:22] I think it’s like there this is a thing I’ve wondered a lot as we reached a moment where the pandemic felt manageable and like I felt like it was starting to feel something close to normal again. You know, during the era of Trump, you felt like you had to be glued to the news all the time. At the peak of the pandemic, you felt like you had to be glued to the news all the time. But now it seems like we’re a little more able to just go out and live our lives. And yet there’s still this pressure to watch the news all the time. No one needs to watch MSNBC all day, and yet people do. And they want you to. No one needs to listen to the news all day, and yet we still do. I remember at the peak of the pandemic, some of the mental health messaging that we would have on NPR would be to say to people, please don’t listen to the news all day, because that will be bad for your mental health. And yet people do. And yet we still incentivize people listening all the time and reading all the time. It’s just because it’s a for profit structure. If if most media is for profit and even nonprofits like NPR still need to make enough money on underwriting and ad revenue to survive. We’re going to make stuff that we want you to keep coming back to, but no one wants to say because it’s bad for business consuming too much of what we make is bad for your mental health. What newsroom leader can say that? What journalists can say that it cuts our bottom line. But in actuality, I would say this to myself and my close friends and my family and to you and my listeners, you probably don’t need more than half an hour of news consumption a day. You probably don’t. And yet we can’t say that, you know, because the incentives are perverse.
Jameela [00:34:01] Yeah. It’s also like infused into our social media. You can’t scroll without it being absolutely everywhere. So there’s no hiding from the news. There’s no way to specify only half an hour unless you are staying off social media for the rest of the day, because it’s just infused throughout. And the news has had such a huge comeback. I, I, you know, I say this at least once a month on this podcast because I am obsessed with this fact that, you know, our brains are only built to predict and protect. And so it is a neurological weapon to put out signs of danger constantly, all day on all forms of media, because they know our brains are neurologically more drawn to that, because we are trying to predict in order to protect ourselves, in order to not be surprised when something bad happens. Because surprise is where trauma comes in on a neurological level and then does damage and makes us perpetually afraid. And so to recognize that, to understand that about my own brain has completely changed the way that I consume media and completely change the conversations that I engage in or the debates that I used to be willing to get into with friends. And now I just can’t be bothered anymore because I’m aware that there is something neurologically in me that dates back fucking, you know, 2000 years where we haven’t really evolved past this feeling of like everything is a saber tooth. Like, every danger is a threat to our lives. You know, we have 80% negative thought to start with. I had a I had Poppy Jamie on this podcast talking to me about the neuroscience of the brain. So it’s like we have to strive to find the positive thoughts. And so therefore it makes it so clear to me how there is this cycle of the mental health declining at the same time as the uprising of negative, terrifying news media.
Sam [00:35:52] Yes, it’s so true. And like that was what I was grappling with when I was making the decision to kind of leave, quote unquote, hard news and move to what I’m doing now, which is more culture and pop culture focused. You know, I went through covering the 16 election on the trail with Bernie and Trump and Hillary, and then I was launching my show during the Trump years, and I was making my show during the peak of the pandemic and juggling conversations about news and everything else. But I got to this point, I want to say about a year and a half or two years ago where I just said to myself, what kinds of conversations are actually going to happen in a way is that I can move anything forward. And at a certain point I said, there’s no way that I can really talk about politics that’s going to move any needles. I don’t I don’t know how not in this format. And there’s no way I can talk about the pandemic or vaccines are masking that will really move the needle. You know, we’re preaching to our choirs at this point, usually when it comes to news audiences.
Jameela [00:37:04] So you broke out of the echo chamber.
Sam [00:37:05] Yeah. And so I said to myself, all right, if I want to still have thoughtful conversations that move us collectively forward and have some kind of dialog that feels like it’s edifying and helpful, where are the spaces where I’m most likely to be able to get that done? And I think right now it’s in the space of quote unquote culture. You know, I think that, like, it is rare that you’re going to hear or see or read a story about politics that changes your mind. It is rare that you’re going to see or hear or read at this point a story about climate change or the pandemic that changes your mind. But there are other parts of the culture where pieces are still being moved about. You know, we’re having a chat on my show next week about the rise of the Kevin Costner show called Yellowstone. It’s on Paramount Plus. It’s a big, humongous show, but it never gets any nominations for Emmys. And the creator of it, Tyler Sheridan, has ranted about how this is just elite America being in opposition to Red America. We’re interviewing a New York Times writer who says, actually, the show was much more complex than that. And it represents in some ways the last stand of white America and what we think we want out of the American dream. And then there are other folks in my newsroom at Vulture saying, no, the show actually symbolizes this and those kind of conversations. How does the stuff that we consume for fun, the books, the movies, the TV, the whatever, how do those affect who we think we are? The myths we tell ourselves about what it means to be America and how we move forward? That gray space is where actual change is happening and movement can happen. And I want to spend the next few years of my career in that space because that just feels so much more ripe for nuanced discussion. That can be uplifting ultimately, you know?
Jameela [00:39:08] Yeah, it’s also the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down, right? There’s something about art historically that has united people. Art is a safe way to look at the other experience side. Right. Whereas like politically, a lot of my friends feel afraid to even listen to a podcast that has a centrist or right wing voice on it. Right we’re so echo chamber-y. Or like, I get constantly criticized if I’m even following someone who isn’t 100% on board with the liberal message. And I just refuse to live in a bubble in that way. Right. I want to know what’s happening. I don’t want to be surprised again, I would like to know how everyone feels and I would like to find similarities at best rather than our differences. Obviously, if you want to try and take away people’s human rights, I’m not following or encouraging those people. I am seeking converts, not traitors.
Sam [00:40:01] I like that.
Jameela [00:40:03] And I think that that we can all have so many valuable exchanges that aren’t being had because we feel as though we’re traitors for even looking the other way and finding out what’s going on over there. And art is this kind of safe space where you can learn how to understand or empathize or consider the point of view of the other side without anyone getting mad at you for watching it.
Sam [00:40:24] Oh, yes. It’s so true. I’m like, I’m thinking about just because it’s on my mind, because we taped this chat on Monday, this discussion about Yellowstone. What does this show mean to the idea.
Jameela [00:40:35] And for anyone who maybe doesn’t even know about Yellowstone because the media on our side hasn’t covered it, do you want to break down what Yellowstone is?
Sam [00:40:40] I will, yeah. So Yellowstone is quite possibly the most successful drama on television. It gets millions of viewers every week.
Jameela [00:40:52] I never hear about it.
Sam [00:40:53] This is the thing. It is the lead is Kevin Costner. He is the patriarch of this white family that lives in Yellowstone, owns a bunch of land there with a bunch of cattle, etc.. And basically their domain is under attack by several things. Gentrification, the federal government, climate change. And there’s this ongoing struggle with the that native tribes who actually had that land first. And so in some readings, it is a story about white America’s last stand and them losing an America they think was just for them. But it is also just a fun romp in kind of Succession meets the Farm, right? That level of energy. And so when you start to look at this show, it allows you to have conversations about what we consider prestige or not and what it says about us and the liberal media establishment and the entertainment media. It’s also a question and conversation about whiteness and what it means to reflect whiteness on TV right now, it’s also a conversation about land use and land ownership. It’s also a conversation about the portrayal of Native people on screen. And so this little bitty show, actually very big show that you could say is just a TV show, opens up all these conversations around who we are and identity and politics, and it opens these doors for conversations that you just cannot have when you start talking about Democrats and Republicans. And so this show Yellowstone, I’m so excited to use that as a way into some of those conversations, and that’s just a more fun way to do it. And I can get to folks and reach them in a way where before they even know it, we’re we’re talking about these bigger ideas. But that said, for those who haven’t watched Yellowstone yet, please watch it. Kevin Costner is an American gem. You should watch whatever he does. But if you like succession, you’ll love Yellowstone.
Jameela [00:42:59] I’m going to watch it.
Sam [00:43:01] Watch it. If you watch if you love the soap opera Dallas from back in the day, which I loved, you will love Yellowstone. Yellowstone, whether you want to have a meta conversation about it or not, it’s just a fun romp. It’s a fun romp, so give it a whirl.
Jameela [00:43:16] But it is also just like fucking classic of liberal media, isn’t it, to just erase something, right? They just, they, we have a habit of not walking that line necessarily perfectly of. And by the way that happens on both sides and social media erasure is also part of that. But I feel as though we just put our fingers in our ears and close our eyes and go, la la la la la la la. It’s not happening. It’s not happening. And we we ignore these opportunities for conversations because we don’t even want to acknowledge that they exist. And then that feeds into this idea from the opposition that that we are these smug elites who try to pretend like these coastal elites, New York and Los Angeles is like hyper educated, like hyper access to like government privilege, like more, I don’t know, like more access to to many different things that maybe they don’t have in the middle of this country. They they feel forgotten about, erased, and as if they’re trying to be stamped out. Because if you were to read any of the media, the mainstream media, you don’t see yourself, you don’t see any of the situations that you’re going through. Like climate change is something that we should all be talking about. This shouldn’t be seen as a liberal issue and because we never talk about it from the point of view of the maybe right wing or conservative farmers who are fucking drowning or our crops are drying out like we can all come together on this issue. But because we’ve made it left or right
Sam [00:44:44] Yeah.
Jameela [00:44:45] We haven’t we haven’t been able to bond over the fact that everyone is getting fucked by this. This isn’t it’s not a liberal myth. It’s something that is affecting, if anything, more people on the right.
Sam [00:44:56] Exactly. Exactly. And this
Jameela [00:44:58] Because a lot of the liberals are in these coastal cities now getting their hands dirty in any kind of.
Sam [00:45:02] I’m five miles from the beach.
Jameela [00:45:03] Yeah. They’re going to fucking like, I don’t know, Trader Joe’s to get their, you know, ready picked raspberries.
Sam [00:45:10] Oh yeah.
Jameela [00:45:11] It’s the people who are actually out there in the middle being completely forgotten about in the erased by our media. Who are most fucked by this.
Sam [00:45:17] Yes. Well, and then I think there’s this thing that press.
Jameela [00:45:20] And right wing and left wing media sorry erase
Sam [00:45:22] Totally, totally. Yeah. Yeah.
Jameela [00:45:24] Their issues.
Sam [00:45:25] I also think there’s this thing that’s happening where prestige media, especially prestige entertainment typically ignores the things that are most popular to its detriment. The most popular show on TV every year, in and out. And it’s been this way for decades as some kind of crime procedural, the CSI and all of those ilk, right?
Jameela [00:45:48] Yeah Law and Order.
Sam [00:45:48] Yeah. They are consistently the biggest shows in the country. The award shows don’t talk about that. A lot of TV coverage doesn’t talk about that. But I think so much about the dots that could be connected if we have thoughtful conversations about those types of shows, if we want to have a real conversation about the way Americans view policing, about Black Lives Matter, about police reform, what if the easiest way to have that conversation with the most number of people on all sides of the aisle is a critical consideration of these crime procedural shows. Those shows tell us how to feel about the police. Those shows tell us how to think about how we fit into America’s judicial system. Let’s have a talk about that. You know, and so we ignore these things sometimes to a detriment. Sometimes it’s okay, liberal media to talk about actual popular things. And sometimes that is the best way to move the needle. I think.
Jameela [00:46:49] I think you’re fabulous. I just say you’re so great. I love what you’re doing. I love the conversations that you continue to have. And I love that the same vein runs through all of them, which is just something that I guess you were kind of denied as a kid, was just just straightforward, honest, like conversations that take into account everything and full context.
Sam [00:47:11] And an integration. You know, I think so much of what.
Jameela [00:47:14] You felt so separated and now you’re so dedicated to integration.
Sam [00:47:18] Yeah. Yeah. I think, like, I am grateful for people in my life that have helped me on that journey. I’m grateful to Eric for finding me that therapist and my therapist for helping me do that. But as I learn to better integrate myself into my life, it helps me do a better job in the work of integrating these larger ideas.
Jameela [00:47:40] I also, as a nonreligious person, I also want to give a rare shout out to the evangelical church in which you grew up. While I know it was a hugely problematic and damaging in some ways, I do think within religion in and of itself, there is a feeling of community. And when you talked earlier about the love and the safety that you also felt at times within that within that community, that I wonder if there’s a part of you that also wants to channel that feeling of community and togetherness and is an end to the individualism and the isolation that we are being encouraged towards in our current society. You want people to feel the, the feeling of family, whether they’re chosen. Or, you know, actual relatives.
Sam [00:48:21] Oh, totally. I mean, you know, this is the thing about the church and especially about the evangelical church. It’s often discussed about the rules of the church and who was left out and what is not allowed. But in many faith traditions, and especially in the black church, the rule is the doors of the church are always open. You can always come in. That is part of why the Charleston shooting happened, because you don’t lock the church doors. That shooter have just walked in, sat down and prayed for a bit and then shot that church up. But that is fundamentally what my church family still means to me, an open door. And so that’s what I want to do in my work. If if the shows that I make are a secular church, I want everyone listening to always feel like the doors of that church are open to them. I don’t care how you got here. I don’t care what you think. You’re here. The doors are open. Come in we’ll teach you the songs. Let’s go. And that is directly from the church. That is directly from the church. And I am honored and grateful that my church family taught me that lesson early on. It doesn’t matter. The doors are open and there’s some part of you that we can love and there is some part of me that we can find. And I also think what the church taught me early on is that if we believe that God is real, and if we believe that we all are made in God’s image, we are actually saying there is a potential for the divine and the sacred in all of us. And I want to honor that. I want to have conversations and episodes, and I want to make work that honors and finds and cherishes the divine inside of all of us. So that’s the work. So my work is still always it’s I mean, as much as I’m talking about everything else besides church, it’s still very much got that inside of it.
Jameela [00:50:09] I love that. And I can’t think of a better way to end than that. I just have to ask you before you go, Sam Sanders, what do you weigh?
Sam [00:50:18] What do I weigh? You know, I weigh the small, tiny parts of my routine now more than ever. And there are these little moments in my day that I used to never get excited about that mean more than anything now. So I’ve been working at home primarily and really only for the last three years. So my, my, my work day is mostly in the house. And in that routine, there are just little bits of the day that bring me so much joy. The process of making the coffee in the morning and the stillness while you wait for that cup to be ready. That is joy. Walking the dog in the morning, around the same route, seeing the same houses. That’s joy. So, for instance, today, this morning on my walk with the dog, my boyfriend, he rarely comes with me. He works in an office and he had knee surgery about a month ago, but he’s ready to walk again. And we had our little dog walk together and it was so cute. And we walked by the houses and saw all the things and saw some other dogs. That is better than the best date. That is better than the best vacation. It will power me through my day, through my week. And it’s like really what I’m saying, I guess, is the small stuff is always more important than the big stuff. And what we really are seeking and what we need to give our lives fullness are the small moments of joy and reflection and connection. And so, as shitty as the pandemic was, it taught me more than ever to honor those moments and seek those moments and, like, write them on the walls of your mind and hold on to them because they are so, so special. The little bitty things.
Jameela [00:51:56] Well, I adore you,.
Sam [00:52:00] Oh my goodness, likewise.
Jameela [00:52:00] And I hope we all adopt more of your outlook and come back any time.
Sam [00:52:05] Thanks.
Jameela [00:52:05] And good luck with your new podcast. Whoever wants to go and listen to where all the places you want people to find you.
Sam [00:52:10] Yes. So I have two shows at this point. I have my Vulture show called Into It is a pop culture show about the pop culture we’re obsessed with. It’s me and the wonderful, amazing folks at Vulture, that episode that publishes every Thursday. I’m also doing a fun talk show with two of my best friends, the poet Saeed Jones and journalist, and Tony Award winning producer Zach Stafford. That’s called The Vibe Check and it’s basically our group chat come to life. New episodes every Wednesday beginning August 17th. I’m also on Instagram and Twitter @SamSanders and just come find me and chit chat. I love to talk about anything. We are accepting ideas for any show. You can reach out on any social media platform and find me. And Jameela, this is an open invite to you to come on either of my shows whenever you want, because as I’ve said to you already, I’m a big fan, have been a big fan for a while. Legendary is required watching in my household and we I just love seeing you on that show and your growth on that show and the way that that whole community just loves each other very wholesomely. I don’t know. I love it. So that said, all of my spaces and shows and places. You are more than welcome whenever you want to come swing by.
Jameela [00:53:31] It’s the beginning of a long love affair, I think.
Sam [00:53:33] I love that. Yes, yes. Yes, it is. Yes.
Jameela [00:53:36] Thank you for giving me your time. And I can’t wait to see you soon.
Sam [00:53:40] Thank you. Likewise. Take care.
Jameela [00:53:43] Thank you so much for listening to this week’s episode. I Weigh with Jameela Jamil is produced and researched by myself, Jameela, Jamil, Erin Finnegan and Kimmie Gregory. It is edited by Andrew Carson. And the beautiful music you are hearing now is made by my boyfriend James Blake. If you haven’t already, please rate review and subscribe to the show. It’s a great way to show your support. We also have a bonus series exclusively on Stitcher Premium called Ask Jameela Anything. Check it out. You can get a free month of Stitcher Premium by going to Stitcher.com/premium and using the promo code I Weigh. Lastly over at I Weigh we would love to hear from you and share what you weigh at the end of this podcast. You can leave us a voicemail at 18186605543 or email us what you weigh at email@example.com. And now we would love to pass the mic to one of our fabulous listeners. I weigh hope resilience and empathy. I also weigh motherhood, which has been one of the hardest changes in my life. But I feel it’s also important to weigh my honesty and remind all other parents or carers that this isn’t always easy and that is okay. Amen.
September 21, 2023
Jameela is joined by campaigner and writer Gina Martin, and in this optimistic conversation about creating change for equal rights around the world, they discuss how anyone can show up and support activism (especially offline in real spaces) and what this activism work can look like.