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Journalismism

What’s Michael Barbaro’s Deal

The New York Times podcaster's framing of the Atlanta shootings is bizarre and troubling.

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I am not a regular listener of The Daily, the New York Times podcast behemoth whose host, Michael Barbaro, is known for his complex personal life, fear of the homeless, dubious ways of defending his honor, and general bad opinions.

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But I couldn’t help but be interested when Harvard student Matteo Wong tweeted this on Thursday morning about the latest episode of The Daily, which deals with the recent shootings in Atlanta:

Wong’s tweet is entirely accurate; Barbaro himself tweeted the script of the intro to the episode on Wednesday night:

If this feels utterly bizarre to you, that’s because it is an utterly bizarre way of framing the ongoing conversation about what caused suspect Robert Aaron Long to kill eight people, most of them Asian women. (Police said that Long denied being motivated by racism and instead said his rampage was fueled by a sex addiction.) It’s even more bizarre because it’s a thread that the rest of the episode doesn’t pick up at all.

The episode features Barbaro’s Times colleague Nicole Hong placing the Atlanta killings in the context of the past year of rising anti-Asian violence, the difficulties that the legal system has in classifying what exactly is happening, and the way that ambiguity is affecting Asians who feel, in Hong’s words, like they are the victims of “gaslighting.”

“Is it racial or is it not when it comes to Asian Americans?” she asks Barbaro rhetorically.

At no point does Barbaro say why, precisely, he framed Long’s sex addiction explanation as more “complicated” than the racism explanation. He really should have.

Putting aside the fact that racism is ever-present in American life even when people think it’s not; or that the person telling the world that there was no racism involved in this rampage just killed eight people; or that the person conveying that message was himself discovered to be partial to anti-Asian racism; or that people can be and very often are targeted in ways that combine racism and misogyny; putting all that aside, what, exactly, is more “complicated” about saying you murdered eight people because of a sex addiction than saying you did it because of racism?

Why is killing women because you have a sex addiction complex but killing them because they’re Asian more straightforward? Is it that sex addiction is supposed to turn Long into a tortured soul, tormented by his demons? Is that what the host of the New York Times’ main podcast is implying? Why is racism in America, something that is rooted in almost every facet of life in this country, not complicated? As smart person Tom Scocca pointed out, on a basic, logical level, removing race from the equation makes something less complicated, not more. So why that word? Barbaro never says, and the podcast never returns to it, as Wong recapped:

Framing the situation this way does a few things. First, it tosses aside the very obvious reality that race and gender and sex collide all of the time. Second, it tosses aside the also obvious reality that an institutionally racist and violent society produces racist and violent outcomes even without a killer shouting slurs. Third, it implicitly embraces this strange, sinister notion that, while racialized violence is simple to understand, gendered violence is knotty and difficult to untangle. Why is the murder of so many women more difficult to put your arms around if you don’t think about race? Shouldn’t the killing of women by men provoke the same outrage no matter what? And why is racist violence not as worthy of complexity? Perhaps Barbaro will explain more in his next episode.