The attacks on democracy, the continued pandemic, reckonings on a litany of civil rights fronts? Or perhaps it was the accompanying trends: We are increasingly polarized and online, amplifying the injustice in our society.
So, how did we get here?
There’s an argument that it’s all driven by one thing: the erosion of trust. A trend so destabilizing that it’s defined this moment and made the buckling of our societal tentpoles feel expected. How do we navigate a world where trust has waned to historic lows? How do we generate impact?
We exist in many concentric circles of community, but as a news organization, we leverage journalism as our primary path for creating change and expanding impact. How does journalism—how do journalists—make an impact in a world destabilized by distrust? So much of a journalist’s job is to make sense of and provide context for the chaos. But in this fragile moment for democracy, journalism is among the primary targets of a distrustful electorate—a critical institution trying to survive in a climate defined by a lack of trust in institutions.
And so it was in 2021, when we experienced historic events exposing and caused by distrust, disinformation, and disbelief, which in turn seemed to confirm the underlying suspicion that our institutions were, in fact, untrustworthy. At Mother Jones, we were confronted with a choice: How do we cover the news in a way that builds trust and spurs change?
Journalism that helps improve the world is journalism that creates conditions for trust.
We set out to do just that—make journalism that generates impact—and we had an advantage off the starting blocks because we have a track record of hard-hitting, deeply researched (and fact-checked) investigative journalism. Consistently delivering on that promise ensured we stood a fighting chance at building that trust. And we exercise the trust we’ve built by being first to a conversation: We’ve been reporting on the threads of extremism, white supremacy, and domestic terrorism for more than a decade. When all of those forces converged on our Capitol on January 6, there was no better place to turn than Mother Jones. Ditto for voting rights, disinformation, reproductive rights, civil rights…when we see injustice, Mother Jones is on the beat.
Then comes the most critical part: helping our readers understand “Why is this important to me?” When we break a massive story like a conservative political action group authoring voter suppression laws nationwide, that it’s bad is self-evident, but why it’s bad and what happens next is what we’re built to help with. And if you, our readers—and lawmakers, advocates, and journalists—can take that information and make a difference because you trust our reporting, that’s how we make impact.
There are so many things journalism can do: report on the significant facts of an event you might have missed or that’s happened in a part of the world you’ve never seen. It can be a deep-dive investigation of a topic we hardly understand or a piece of cultural criticism on the bingefest of the moment. But when a journalist can uncover a critical bit of news—a scoop—that only they can and that changes the conversation or course of events, that’s one of the real powers of journalism, and Mother Jones hit big with political scoops this year, including these three gamechangers.
The Conservative Group Writing Voter Suppression Laws
2021 didn't have a national election but part of why conservatives have been so effective in undermining the franchise is because every year is a good year to focus on voter suppression. That’s why 24 new state laws restricting the vote were passed in 2021 and it’s why Heritage Action, the sister organization of conservative think tank Heritage Foundation, was caught on video boasting to its biggest donors that it was crafting voter suppression laws for states around the country. Even if we suspected it was true, it was shocking to hear the quiet part out loud, as the group claimed, “In some cases, we actually draft them for them, or we have a sentinel on our behalf give them the model legislation so it has that grassroots, from-the-bottom-up type of vibe.”
This story, from Mother Jones’ voting rights reporter Ari Berman and collaborator Nick Surgey from Documented, sparked immediate outrage among lawmakers, journalists, and voters alike. State GOP officials across the country disavowed it, even as an ethics complaint was opened against the state GOP party in Iowa (it was ultimately cleared of wrongdoing). Politicians like Beto O’Rourke, Jaime Harrison, and Julián and Joaquin Castro, and journalists like the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer, the Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler, the New York Times’ Nikole Hannah-Jones, and MSNBC’s Joy Reid shared the story on Twitter. Sens. Jeff Merkley, Sheldon Whitehouse, and Elizabeth Warren all called for the immediate passage of the For the People Act in response to the news. Sens. Whitehouse and Chuck Schumer cited this reporting on the Senate floor. Rolling Stone, the Guardian, and Esquire all wrote about our scoop, which was ultimately picked up by more than 100 outlets. Ari was on MSNBC with Chris Hayes by the next night and appeared all over cable news and radio over the next few weeks, as our accompanying video was viewed nearly 920K times and won a Telly Award. Ari and his collaborator won the prestigious Sidney Hillman Prize in June in recognition of their exposé.
Proving Trump’s Children Twisted the Truth Under Oath
The Trump family is no stranger to legal entanglements; they’ve all sat for countless depositions, so they’re familiar with the expectations of that setting. When a lawsuit was filed in February 2021 against Trump’s inaugural committee and the Trump Organization by the DC attorney general for misuse of funds, there was no question that they would be called in to give sworn testimony. In April, David Corn obtained video evidence that—surprise!—Don Jr. testified inaccurately in his deposition. Within two months, David also found evidence that Ivanka had provided false testimony in her deposition for the same case. And despite their attempts to make it all go away, by November, a judge had ruled the case against them could go forward.
When we broke this news in April, it landed with the exact kind of schadenfreude-fueled rage that news of Trump family malfeasance always does. Our video was viewed nearly 640K times. It was picked up by Vanity Fair and Business Insider, and the story was a trending topic on social media.
Will Joe Manchin Leave the Democratic Party?
With the House, the Senate, and the presidency back in Democratic hands at the close of the endless election of 2020, there was an overwhelming feeling that maybe now we can get some things done. But that optimism met its match in Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia. He has consistently sided with those upholding vestiges of gridlock, like claims of bipartisanship, and the filibuster, in ways that have amount to little more than a massive roadblock at a time when authoritarian impulses are creeping from only one of two political parties.
Working his deep networks in the Democratic Party, David Corn uncovered that Manchin had in fact been considering leaving the party and caucusing with Republicans, even as that would signal the death blow to Biden’s agenda. Reaction was swift, with reporters on Capitol Hill like CNN’s Manu Raju, NBC’s Frank Thorp V, and Politico’s Burgess Everett cornering Manchin at the Capitol and asking for comment. Manchin’s immediate response was flustered, but he quickly recovered, calling our reporting “bullshit”—which is impact enough in our eyes—even as other journalists stepped up to defend David’s journalistic integrity. David appeared on MSNBC to discuss the news, as he and other reporters continued to pursue the story. Manchin tried to reframe his comments, but the bell had been rung. As of this writing, Manchin remains a Democrat but the specter of David’s scoop hangs over Manchin still.
In so many ways, 2021 was defined by its unofficial launch event: the storming of the Capitol on January 6. Mother Jones was on the ground that day and we’ve stayed on the story ever since. But our coverage was different from that of much of the mainstream media. Rather than covering the insurrection as an exceptional event from which politics would soon “return to normal,” our reporters recognized it as the logical outcome of trends that began long before, and that did not end when the insurrectionists left the Capitol.
Mother Jones has covered these trends for a decade, going back to the violent nationalism that emerged from the tea party protests in response to the election of the first Black president. We investigated homegrown extremists from the Oath Keepers to QAnon well before most other journalists took note. Following the insurrection, Mother Jones reporters doggedly tracked the role Oath Keepers and Proud Boys members played that day. With meticulous data reporting, we showed that many of the insurrectionists were armed—giving the lie to claims that they were all mere tourists out for a stroll through the Capitol. This story was picked up by many notable voices on politics and national security, and the House Select Committee investigating January 6 has made use of some of the details we uncovered.
The insurrection led directly to what Mother Jones’ David Corn would describe as a key test of whether “this nation is a democracy that honors principle not power.” It was a test America failed, and Mother Jones was one of the few publications to consistently highlight the resulting crisis of trust—the Senate’s inability to end the filibuster, the ability of individual senators to hold the Democratic agenda hostage, and the GOP’s descent into a politics of authoritarianism and intransigence.
Mother Jones reporters set the tone for the next stage of the story, too—the Trumpification of local politics. Fights over policing, gun rights, pandemic protocols, and school curricula grew from skirmishes into raging battles as conservative media helped nationalize and radicalize them. Reporter Stephanie Mencimer was among those illuminating, with clear eyes but also an important dose of empathy, how this happened. She profiled a pair of tea partiers who laid the groundwork for the insurrectionist wing of the conservative movement; a doctor, Simone Gold, who became engulfed in junk science and ended up storming the Capitol; and a property-rights advocate who sought to navigate the challenges of a movement growing more radical and violent than he'd anticipated.
It’s impossible to decouple the violence at the Capitol from the online communities where the seeds of distrust were sowed. On January 5, disinformation reporter Ali Breland wrote that, based on his reporting in far-right corners of the internet, the next day’s rally was bound to become a violent inflection point.
The next day, he wrote, “The mob that stormed the Capitol manifested years’ worth of posts lodged into unhinged, far-right, conspiracy-laden corners of the internet. Such rhetoric crept toward the mainstream, crossing over into right-wing media, eventually coming out of Trump’s own mouth. It won new converts and spread more widely. It finally broke loose on [January 6], as they did what they’d always said they would.” He reported on the weak responses from mainstream media that allowed hateful rhetoric to run rampant, and on the tech platforms that helped extremists find and grow their audience. Ali and other Mother Jones journalists also recognized the significance and rapid spread of the QAnon movement well before others did, and they exposed apparent links between Q popularizer Jim Watkins and child pornography sites—a bitter irony given the movement’s preoccupation with child abuse. An HBO documentary about the group ultimately cited this reporting, though the film mischaracterized the facts in a way that provided cover to Watkins, highlighting once again the significance of fact-checking and independent journalism.
Isolation and distrust were magnified by the Covid pandemic in 2021, and Mother Jones senior editor Kiera Butler spent the year immersing herself in online groups of moms, nurses, communities of faith, and others to understand how disinformation about vaccines and treatments turned into extremist propaganda and recruitment, and why ordinary Americans were seeking trust from untrustworthy sources. Kiera’s story on how one popular app for churches became a hotbed for anti-vaxxers was cited by CNN in its ongoing vaccine coverage.
For the platforms, despite their nods toward creating a better conversation, disinformation remained good for business. Kiera and other Mother Jones reporters exposed how tech companies, from Substack and Instagram to Twitter and the investing app Robinhood, disregarded the harm being done to users and society as a whole. Mother Jones’ investigation of Robinhood found that its gamified design left users vulnerable to errors and misjudgment, with sometimes deadly consequences. Likewise, our investigation of the crime reporting app Citizen, a story cited by the New York Times Magazine, showed how executives prioritized sensationalism and video views over truth, allowing disinformation and harmful stereotypes to spread. When we mix the amplification of inequity with a deadly reliance on armchair experts with enough of a Twitter following to back up belief in them, we can lose sight of the real levers for justice.
Protecting Our Rights
For Americans, accountability and participation flow from our right to vote. As the election crisis of 2020 crystallized into an ongoing fight to preserve the franchise in 2021, the battle for voting rights heated up in new and unexpected ways, and Mother Jones—which made this vital topic a priority more than a decade ago—set the tone. In the wake of Democratic victories in November and January, Republicans in Georgia led the way with a sweeping measure intended to make it harder to vote and easier to overturn elections.
By April, 361 voter suppression bills had been introduced around the country, and by June, 24 voter suppression laws in 14 states had passed. As senior reporter Ari Berman, who has covered this issue longer and more deeply than any other journalist in America, wrote in a June cover story, the new laws in Georgia and elsewhere sought to end the second Reconstruction that had begun with the 1965 Voting Rights Act: “Once again, the party of white grievance is rewriting the rules of American democracy to protect conservative white political power from the rising influence of new demographic groups.” Mother Jones’ reporting connected the dots to show how gerrymandering of congressional districts in this year’s redistricting process—decisions that will last a decade—along with the Senate’s inability to overturn the filibuster rule, historically rooted in white supremacy, mixed with voter suppression to cement minority rule in America.
All year long, Ari and others appeared on cable news and podcasts and before grassroots groups nationwide. Through these appearances and broad distribution on social media, the reporting of Mother Jones’ democracy team shone a bright light on antidemocratic trends, setting the tone for other media and helping citizens stay informed and engaged.
It was vital to focus on the ways minority rule directly affects Americans’ lives—in Texas, for example, where a severely gerrymandered legislature passed not only another restrictive voting rights bill, but bans on the teaching of critical race theory; transgender athletes; and abortions after six weeks. In a state whose racial and age demographics have changed dramatically, policies like these, Ari pointed out, are possible only when officials choose their voters, not the other way around. And so at the end of a year of chronicling the disintegration of reproductive rights at the state level, reporter Becca Andrews found herself outside the Supreme Court as the judges heard oral arguments on the latest case to challenge abortion rights, and reported: “There has long been an expectation that the Supreme Court may try to be a bit subtle as it works to unravel abortion rights...Today, that illusion was thoroughly shattered.”
These policies, particularly those that undermine equal bodily rights that should be conferred to everyone, are not just bills or legal briefs—they have real-life consequences, and Mother Jones reporters shared the stories of the fallout. Becca investigated allegations of abuse at one of the nation’s most prestigious evangelical colleges, Moody Bible Institute, and found that purity culture often came into conflict with the protections required by federal law. This story was featured by MSNBC and chosen by Longreads as one of the best investigative pieces of 2021. Similarly, Mother Jones reporters showed how the weaponizing of critical race theory targeted teachers such as Rodney Pierce, a North Carolina teacher of the year. After this piece was published, Pierce appeared on MSNBC to discuss the ramifications of these policies.
Policies and practices that disproportionately punish or neglect people of color were uniquely exposed during the pandemic. But as reporter Edwin Rios demonstrated in his story about the successful pandemic response in Flint, Michigan, hard work and a focus on community can yield unexpectedly hopeful results. In San Francisco, reporter Samantha Michaels shone a light on a community’s efforts to protect itself in San Francisco’s Chinatown, an article that was cited by two Asian American members of Congress as they worked on a bill to address crime against Asian Americans. Samantha also reported on a movement to reinvestigate hundreds of Jim Crow–era killings, a piece that was picked up in Italy and added to a curriculum at UT Austin, and reporter Madison Pauly went deep on two murders of Black men by police in Oakland, California, six years apart, with two very different outcomes after the implementation of a training program inspired by community activists. Food and agriculture correspondent Tom Philpott wrote about the movement of Black farmers to reclaim the land their forebears had been forced from, and the traditions of farming lost along the way, a story that was published in this year’s anthology of Best American Food Writing. Yet, by November, he was reporting on a Stephen Miller–backed effort to scuttle plans for debt relief to Black farmers.
Food and agriculture systems were particularly vulnerable to the pandemic’s upheaval, and proved to be just one salient example of the labor reckoning we experienced across industries. Congress finally took action on one of the most egregious workplace situations of the pandemic—meatpacking plants—and one that Mother Jones reported on extensively. Democratic senators introduced a bill to protect workers in the industry and cited our reporting. In collaboration with Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting, our feature “The High Human Cost of America’s Sugar Habit” exposed the horrific working conditions and low pay under the Dominican Republic’s largest plantation holder, Central Romana. After our two-year investigation was published, the company indiscriminately razed workers' homes and Congress launched an investigation. The Overseas Press Club awarded this investigation its 2021 Morton Frank Award for best international business reporting.
Photo editor Mark Murrmann took us inside the growing world of workers’ co-ops, where worker-owners are taking control of their professional futures. This essay was picked up by several other outlets and featured in Photoville in Brooklyn in August, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted the story to her 13 million followers as one of her favorite stories of “democracy working in hopeful ways and coolest evidence based-reporting.” Our labor coverage culminated in the fall with Bad Bosses, a newsroom-spanning package that highlighted both bad actors and bad practices and drew on formal interviews and stories from readers. The package resonated with readers (“My Bosses at McKinsey Made Us Get on 2 a.m. Zoom Calls” was one of our top 10 most read stories this year), but, more importantly, they gave voice to workers who felt deeply unheard. The source for the McKinsey story, and sources for stories about working in a prison, and a nonprofit shared with reporters how their lives had been changed—from one who received an apology from a former supervisor for the harassment they were subjected to, to others who found closure in being able to share their stories with us and the world.
Even in the face of violence, extremism, disinformation, and injustice, Mother Jones managed to unearth stories of communities fighting back and activists driving change. Lawmakers pushing back against discriminatory practices, judiciaries fighting against gerrymandered districts, and journalists looking to call attention to devastating trends have all found faith in our coverage and shared it to make a more informed, more trusting public. But the greatest endorsement of all is that of our 250,000 supporters and millions of readers.
So how are we able to do it?
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