Interview #12 – Jordy Yager

Jordy Yager is a local freelance journalist working out of the Charlottesville area. He has written and reported for The Hill, the Los Angeles Times, WMRA, the Brockton Enterprise, the Union Leader, C-Ville Weekly, and others. His writing has won several awards from the Society of Professional Journalists.

The following has been edited and condensed for clarity. The views shared here do not reflect nor do they suggest the views of the Virginia Review of Politics.

Catherine Huang (Virginia Review of Politics): Welcome Jordy, thanks for being here. Let’s start off - what led you to journalism?

Jordy Yager: Language was probably the base of it all. I studied some pretty dead languages: I studied Latin for a long time, some Sanskrit, both of which are rarely spoken. I realized that if I was going to continue studying them I would probably be relegated to a basement, so I decided to pursue more active language. I’m just a very curious person, so journalism seemed like a really good fit. I got into a masters program up in Boston and that secured my commitment. That was back in 2006 and that’s what led me into it, but it’s been an ever-evolving process since then.

CH: You’ve been writing ever since?

JY: I have, full-time.

CH: Awesome, so following up on that, you’ve been both a national reporter covering national issues with The Hill, and a freelance reporter in Charlottesville, focusing on local issues. To what extent do you think that the national perspective can help your reporting on the local level, and vice-versa?

JY: I think they’re entirely symbiotic. I think when it comes to journalism, there was a move away from localizing stories and really focusing on the national of how, “what are the details of – for example right now – tax policy.” But the devil’s in the details, and those end up affecting real life women and men and children. That is, I think, at the heart of every national story – of how it plays out on a local level. They say all politics is local and that’s very very true. To understand how the mechanisms of federal government works is really important to understanding what federal money cities and jurisdictions and localities receive. Because it is a vital source of revenue and lifeblood for communities. From the local to national, I think that’s coming back into vogue in the last couple years. But for a while there was a dearth of that, and as a result you didn’t have a whole lot of information coming inside the beltway, so you had a lot of political decisions being made in more theoretical or politically calculated strategic terms rather than on the very real effect. Where the rubber meets the road is with votes, and you can vote with your dollars as well so campaign finance. That’s the beauty of a representative democracy. You have a price to pay at the end of all that, and you see how in touch you are with your localities.

CH: Why did you leave your position for The Hill in DC to come back to Charlottesville?

JY: A number of reasons. I guess foremost I found myself complaining about the state of journalism in DC a lot, and I got sick of hearing myself complain. It seemed at the time that there were a lot of very smart people churning out stories that were fairly repetitive. People were really chasing news to try to stay abreast of what was happening on a daily basis, instead of using their talents and time to dig into stories and figure out some of the more nuanced and complicated issues that reside in them. To that extent I realized I was definitely a part of that mechanism, and so finally after a couple years of complaining on barstools to people, I realized that I needed to do something about it, so I moved back home. I think it’s changed – that was four years ago, so I think it’s changed in that time in DC to a certain extent, although I’m not exactly sure. But I think it’s started to shift towards reallocating reportorial resources in a better way. Part of that is figuring out how the internet and money-making machines of journalism work together or not.

CH: Would you ever consider moving back to DC, just working in that area?

JY: I don’t think so. I could spend some time there, a month or two on a project if it warranted it, but no, I don’t think I would move back to cover congress, or any federal agency or government. DC is very much a game of access journalism, of cuddling up to sources, lots of coffees and drinks and really trying to make deep sources on a more, almost social, level. I found that rubs me a little bit the wrong way. I like to keep a divide between my work and my personal life. I don’t really socialize with the people I report on because then it blurs the line of objectivity and fairness and sincerity and genuineness. So no, I’m not good at that, is the other thing. It does not suit me. I think I would definitely report all over the country, but I don't think I would move to DC again.

CH: How does your current position as a freelance reporter affect your choice of stories and how you choose to cover them?

JY: I get to write about whatever I want – choosing stories is an editorial bias right? You can choose to cover one thing or another, and so by the very fact of making that decision, you express some sort of editorial judgement. That’s informed by what you hear, what you feel in your gut, what you read. By and large I try to not do stories that other people are already doing, and so if they’re doing something, that’s great. I’m not trying to do it better or do it different or do another version of it. I’d rather devote time to doing a story that nobody’s doing. And so, I get to choose what that is or what those stories are. For instance, right now I’m working on a story about the police review board that the city is entertaining. It would be a body of individuals that are trying to figure out how much authority to give themselves in terms of overseeing the police department, looking at complaints against the police, looking at the stop-and-frisk data that the police have, and the narratives that come out of those incidents, as a way of overseeing the police department. Unfortunately, we have a daily newspaper, several TV outlets and some radio locally, but no one’s really covered it in depth. And if someone were to [do so], I would move to a different story. But that’s an example of where I see a gap in coverage and kind of want to fill it. And I’m curious about it too.

CH: A focus of your reporting has been on race, poverty, and patterns of inequity at the local level. What do you think are the biggest issues in Charlottesville currently?

JY: With regards to those?

CH: Yes

JY: I mean there’s racial disproportionality at every juncture. There’s healthcare disproportionality, education, criminal justice, income, wealth, housing – every system and structure in our society here has a racial disproportionality. Which means that there’s 19% african american population here and the representation in all those systems far exceeds that. For instance, the infant mortality rate here for white families is about 3 babies [that] die every year for every thousand. If you’re african american, that goes up to about 22 babies for every thousand. That should not be the case, in terms of proportionality. So why is that? And that exists on every level.

I’m convinced, more and more lately, that the basis of all of this is not only historic racism and power divides and structures, but also housing that is used as a tool to implement a lot of these and to restrict people. So housing is the number one way that people could accumulate wealth, and still is to a degree, but if you look at the wealth gaps between african americans and white people, it’s very stark. $17,000 is the median wealth for african americans in the country and $171,000 is the median wealth for white families. So that’s 10% and again, it’s not proportional at all. So why is that? Looking at the structures that have been put in place – this is not just an accidental, sociological phenomenon – this is intentional decisions being made over a period of time. To look at those more in depth I think is the beginning of some sort of acknowledgement and understanding of how we got to where we got. That’s really important to understand if we’re going to make educated decisions about where to go.

CH: That’s a great segue into my next question. In your piece for The New Yorker, Living Next-Door to a White Supremacist, you wrote that “[R]acial disparities can provide a lens.” What can the historic and modern-day racial disparities, particularly in housing in Charlottesville, inform us on?

JY: I think on societal inequities. So you have power structures and divides in Charlottesville that are very stark and yet are relatively under the surface. If you look around the Newcomb dining hall, for instance, the majority of the staff is african american. If you were to go back 160 years and look at who the help was here on the university campus, you would see that most of them were african american. That is not coincidence, and that has not largely changed over the years and the decades. So why is it that most african americans in the employment sector in Charlottesville are making less than or barely a living wage? That itself is a lens into what – any time somebody suffers, there’s someone gaining from that suffering, otherwise it wouldn’t be perpetuated. So to look at that disparity, for instance, in the income or employment sector, you can get a sense of what is being gained by the rest of society, who is benefiting from that, and is that okay? Is that the society that we want to be? And I think that’s a very real question. I think that it’s easy to say you want equity, but most of us don’t want to give up the things that make us comfortable in those positions of control or power. That’s not just race – it’s gender. These different aspects that pop up where control and power is guided.

CH: As a result of the events of August 11th and 12th (with the white nationalist march), do you think that people have been taking a closer look at these issues in Charlottesville concerning gentrification, income inequality, racial profiling, racial disparities, etc?

JY: Absolutely. If there’s any silver lining to that, I think that’s it. Folks have been clamoring about these issues for years, close to a generation, and it’s been largely received with pretty closed ears, or in pieces and morsels. I think that there’s enough force galvanized behind this summer’s events here to really get the powers that be to acknowledge that this is an issue: that there are definitely the swastikas and the KKK robes and that sort of thing, but there’s also the more systemic structures – that a hundred years ago the klan was very active in Charlottesville, it played a large role in some of these policies, and so that legacy is still very much there. Even though we vote 80% for Hillary Clinton in the general election, there’s this kind of doublespeak of liberalism that exists here that is pretty toxic because it allows us to feel as though we're doing good, or we’re progressive or “the capital of resistance,” as our mayor said. It allows for these falsities to be perpetuated.

But if you look at our metrics – if you look at the fact that 25% of our population is in poverty and we have a 3% unemployment rate – that means that people don’t earn a living wage. That’s not the sign of a progressive city, that we have racial disproportionalities throughout all of our structures. That’s not a progressive city. If you look just statistically at our city, we would not be considered progressive, but we definitely like to masquerade as though we are. I think in our hearts we probably are, but again, where does that reality and our words meet? I think that’s something that the summer’s events will hopefully give us some ability to start addressing, and a lens to look at.

CH: How do you think the alt-right and the white nationalist movement’s focus on Charlottesville tie into their national presence?

JY: I don’t know a tremendous amount. I’ve been doing a little bit of research on where they are and what they’re doing, but there are far more educated and knowledgeable people than I on their national trajectory. I think locally what I can comment on, Sons of Confederate Veterans, they're the plaintiff in this lawsuit to keep the statues in place. So the city voted to remove the Lee statue in downtown and a series of plaintiffs, individuals and Sons of Confederate Veterans, they filed that lawsuit to keep it in place. So the SCV, they weren’t out in force on August 12 or 11th, but some of their members are more radical, and they are members of other organizations such as League of the South and other different groups. So there is kind of this – I don’t know if it’s a transitionary period, but it’s kind of murky where people’s allegiances and memberships lie. Things like what happened on August 11th and 12th here, in part galvanized that base. It also really polarizes everybody, and the media plays heavy handed into that. There is a certain inability, or maybe a non-desire, to really scrutinize this situation that there are deeper conversations about race and justice and fairness that should be had in the wake of all of this, that just aren’t. We’re consumed with who did what, when, where, and how, instead of why. And I think that is the more important question.

If we want things to change – and again, I’m not sure that we do. I think perhaps that some people would say they do, but a lot of people benefit from conflict on right and left, and that benefit is something that entitles them to being right, that gives them identity, that gives them life’s meaning. If we were to closely examine that, would get very uncomfortable and it’s easier to shout than to sit down and talk. I’m not saying that you have to sit down and talk with racists, but if we are going to move forwards in society, we need to talk to people who are in positions of power about how this power changes. Part of that is shutting down meetings. I’m not saying that's not important, I’m saying you need to do both. You have two hands, so while one hand is doing this, you need to be using the other hand to do something as well; you can’t be sitting idly by. And I think you’re starting to see that. The [2017] election definitely showed that there’s a movement towards more engagement. It had one of the highest turnouts, and so I have encouragement, but I take the long timeline approach rather than just the short narrow one.

CH: Following up on that, do you think that the Charlottesville city council did enough to address the events either before, or in the aftermath of what happened?

JY: In the aftermath, no. I think it was pretty tone-deaf. In the lead-up, no. Based on what we saw, from what I can gather, I’ve been talking to people who were involved in the decision-making process leading up to it. Unless there’s something that we have not seen yet, in terms of evidence and planning, it seems they were caught fairly flat-footed. That they thought this was going to play out a very different way, they being the city government, but also more specifically the police department. And then the question becomes why. But in the aftermath, no. There’s a definite kind of tone-deafness to the city’s response. The city and the residents here were really, I think, hurt and traumatized, rightfully so, and the city didn’t see that. The first city council meeting back, the council tried to go forward business as usual, and that is not the way to handle that.

CH: Concerning the recent election and victories of Nikuyah Walker and Heather Hill winning seats in the Charlottesville city council, their campaign platforms were largely based on transparency and equity. What do you think that says about what the people of Charlottesville want?

JY: I think they want change. Governing is hard. Campaigning is hard in its own right but it’s a much different beast than actual governance. What that will look like is anybody’s guess. I think Nikuyah and Heather will both have access to a lot of information, now that they’re on council, and the question is, what do they do with that? Do they give it to us, as the citizenry? The journalists? Or do they see that there’s a constant evaluation of when would too much information given to the public be to the public’s detriment? When would it actually hurt the public? And so I don’t know what to expect from that and there’s also the balance – there’s five members of the council. I imagine Heather and Mike will probably vote in much the same fashion, being that they supported one another, and I imagine Nikuyah and Wes probably see more eye-to-eye than anybody else, so that leaves Kathy in the middle of whether to be a deciding vote in one way or the other. It’s going to be interesting what they do officially and also to see if there are leaks or purposeful information seeping out of the council about things that perhaps we didn’t know about, or perhaps were not intended to be told.

CH: You’ve done a lot of work on the issue of local homelessness – this connects to what we talked about earlier: why do you think it’s still such a prevalent issue in Charlottesville despite our purported progressiveness?

JY: I don’t know that you’ll ever get rid of homelessness. I think it’s Kaki Dimock, who ran the Thomas Jefferson Area Coalition [for the Homeless], who said that you have to try to make it as brief and non-recurring as possible so that if you’re homeless, it only happens once, and it only happens for a very small window. That is, I think, where the attention and resources of Charlottesville are really pointed. A lot of the folks who want housing are getting housing, but there’s also the need for wrap-around services. That’s where the city is probably weakest: in giving somebody a continuum of care, so that if you’re in a hospital where you have to deal with three different doctors, and four different nurses, and somebody who checks you in – if you have to go through at every point and tell them your whole backstory of why you’re there or what’s happening, they have a chart and they have your information in front of them. Similarly, I think we’re moving in that direction with homeless prevention and for care such that people are aware of a person’s situation so that they don’t fall through the cracks. That is what are called “soft handoffs” – that if someone is at social services, they get a soft handoff at the downtown job center for instance, or these sorts of things where these entities actually talk to each other. So often we operate in silos and we don’t communicate, but I think there’s a move in that direction.

The other thing is that it’s similar to a city’s design, in that if you widen a road, you’re going to get more traffic on it. If you provide more homeless services you will get more people coming to Charlottesville to seek those services. Same in Roanoke. You have a very large shelter in Roanoke and some good homeless services and as result you have a large homeless population that by and large is not all from Roanoke. The people in Charlottesville who are chronically homeless are not natives of Charlottesville. That’s not unique to homeless population, I think that a lot of people who reside in Charlottesville are not natives of Charlottesville. That is not to say that these are the people that are time and time again underserved. Rather, they are coming here from different places.

The other thing is that some people don’t want to not be homeless. There’s a certain freedom and integrity that they get from being homeless. That’s a small percentage, but it definitely is a reality, that people throughout the winter this year are going to be sleeping outside purposefully. They have tents and they set up camps in the woods. They’d much rather that than sitting in a shelter overnight, in a church where you have to show up at 5:30 to check in, and you know you can’t drink all night. There are certain restrictions that come with seeking homeless services. If you panhandle and you get ten dollars, you can spend that ten dollars on whatever you want. Whereas if you go to a food pantry, you have to pretty much get what they give you. Sometimes you get to choose the items. That personal freedom is something incredibly important but also easy to overlook. You got to choose when you woke up this morning whether you brushed your teeth – all of these little decisions that are slowly stripped away, or are very quickly stripped away for homeless folks. I think that is taken into account.

Then there’s mental health issues. As a country, we need to do a better job of addressing – we don’t really take them seriously, as seriously as physical health issues. That’s a big big problem that I think if we devoted some of the money we spend on wars to that, a lot of our sectors would see benefits, from violence, to housing, to education. I think that would just have a tremendous benefit across the board.

CH: For my final question: you’ve been pretty vocal about mixing journalism and activism. How do journalists balance impartial collection of the news and being able to reach and affect change? Should they?

JY: Information is power, so the more information you have –. I think if you start denying bits of information to promote a side or a cause, then you cease to be a journalist. I would never do that. I see exactly where Jason Kessler is coming from. You have to be fair, and I don’t think that that has to come at the expense of – it’s like the John Oliver bit. Just because one scientist says climate change isn’t real but 99 say it is doesn’t mean you have to weigh those two opinions on an equal scale, but you have to portray that in a very accurate way. Jason Kessler is in the vast minority in this country, and he knows that, but his platform is such that he wants to appear bigger than he is. I totally get that as well. But I think there are many things at play within why he wants to do that, that merit discussion and merit a deeper look. To that I give full credence and reality, and I am one of those people. I think every human being has goodness in them. I don’t think that people are inherently bad, and so in that sense, I’m an activist for human nature.

I’m also an activist for conversation, that if more people talk to one another, that we would have a greater understanding. There’s a reason why xenophobia is less insidious [here], and it’s because people in cities come in closer interaction with one another. Sure, there are disputes and grievances and violence, but a lot of that is borne out of human nature and not racial or tribal lines. Whereas, if you don’t come into contact with folks on a regular basis, then it’s harder to understand where they’re coming from, or easier to pretend like you understand something that’s not accurate.

So I think journalism, as a tool to spread information, is key in that regard, of giving people that ability to see parts of the world and understand parts of the world that would never be understood. I guess I would be an activist for greater information and more conversation. I’m not a progressive, or a liberal, or Democrat, or a Republican or conservative. I covered Congress for 6 years and both parties are really, really raunchy and need a serious overhaul. So I’m kind of disillusioned with both, and found solace within the fact that we can find common ground as human beings.

CH: Thanks for joining me today!

JY: My pleasure.