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Anatomy of an Essential Industry: An Interview with Josh Levin ’02

Image Credit | J. Seidman

Josh Levin is Slate’s national editor, author of the book The Queen: The Forgotten Life Behind an American Myth, and the host of Slate’s sports podcast Hang Up and Listen. Earlier this year, Levin hosted Slow Burn Season 4, a podcast series examining the story of David Duke and his political rise in Louisiana in the late 1980s and early 1990s. He graduated from Brown University in 2002 with degrees in computer science and history.

Tucker Wilke: How did you first get into journalism?

Josh Levin: I always loved writing, and I did some writing for The Indy student newspaper while I was at Brown, but I still wasn’t sure what I was going to do and sort of found my way to journalism by process of elimination. I did some computer science research, which I didn’t find particularly rewarding. I did an internship at WPRI, which is a news station in Providence. I enjoyed that, but I found that it wasn’t actually the place in that medium where you could be maximally creative – it was more the producing side of things. My first job after graduating was an internship at the City Paper in D.C., and I really loved it. I hadn’t had any training in reporting or journalistic writing before and just really took to it. I found it to be really fulfilling to move to a place and have my job be to learn about it, talk to people about it, and find interesting things about it. That seemed like a great way to spend one’s life. So what got me on the journalism track is having that first really good professional experience and having great mentors and peers there to learn from.

TW: Slate has clearly made journalistic podcasts a center of their enterprise. How did that develop?

JL: In 2005, a man named Andy Bowers, who did a bunch of stuff for Slate, started our podcast operation by just reading articles and doing spoken editions of things that we had done in print. Then, The Political Gabfest was the first actual show of that type that we did. The idea there was to take the conversations that were happening in the newsroom already and bring them to our audience, and to just be more transparent about the types of conversations we were having. There’s some artifice involved there — obviously it’s not like we were literally sticking a microphone and recording it and putting it out — but the idea was to take away some of the mediation that’s done and bring a more direct, conversational product to people. People really, really responded to it, and then it expanded from there. The whole suite of things we do is kind of an outgrowth of that process. The idea wasn’t that there was going to be a big commercial possibility here — it was just to experiment, try different things, and hope that people would like it so that it would be viable. Ultimately, we developed this competency, proficiency and reputation for being able to do podcasts such that once it became a commercially viable medium, we were very well positioned to take advantage of it. Our strategy wasn’t “this looks like it’s going to be a super remunerative area so let’s just figure out how to do it.” It was more organic than that.

TW: Do you expect the current popular and commercial viability of podcasts to continue?

JL: That’s an interesting question. There’s a lot of interest from both a commercial perspective and an audience perspective right now. But these things can shift – the various places that are investing heavily in podcasting could consolidate in some way. There could always be changes, and we have very limited ability in this field to be able to predict the future. That is something that I am keenly aware of, after being in it for as long as I have been. It does seem true that the experience of podcasts, of having somebody talk to you every day or week or month or just in a narrative series, is very intimate, and is not replicable in print. So however the commercial stuff shakes out, I don’t think that the way the medium works will change. Radio dramas were the way that a massive number of Americans were entertained before television came out, and I don’t think the fact that it died out means it wasn’t popular or that it was broken, but just because something is effective does not mean that commercially it will always remain the number one thing. Stuff changes in ways we can’t foresee. 

TW: Given the financial strain facing many publications, do you think the worker owned model that is being tried out at Defector magazine will pick up steam?

JL: The worker owned model is really interesting, and I’m fascinated to see how it plays out with Defector. I don’t know if that’s going to work out or be something that grows, but I’m sure that a lot of individual journalists and groups of journalists are going to be looking at that to see how it plays out. The more different models that we have and that are being tried out and experimented with, the better it’s going to be for journalism. Given the enormous headwinds that so many places are facing right now, we’ve got to be trying different stuff and experimenting with new ways to do our jobs. It’s a weird situation where journalism has never been more important, and is constantly being validated, yet at the same time is getting the opposite feedback from a financial perspective. It’s a product that’s essential yet doesn’t always seem viable. It feels kind of nonsensical, but that’s the reality that we found ourselves living in.

TW: When you endeavored to tell the story of David Duke’s political rise and run for governor of Louisiana, how did you balance the need to tell the story on its own with wanting to acknowledge the many parallels to our current political moment? 

JL: Well, I think with the actual text of the story, I wanted to focus on just what happened in the past,  to trust the audience and the story itself and that those residences would be apparent, without me putting my thumb on the scale. We take a moment in the past as our narrative present, so given the structure of the show, it never really makes sense to talk directly about what we’re living through now. If you’re taking the past as your narrative present it allows you to focus in on how people really felt at the time and try to maybe strip away some of the 2020 hindsight. With David Duke, if you’re living through it, you don’t know that he’s going to lose the governor’s race in 1991. There’s no need to put a spoiler alert in the show, but we want to give you some of the tension of not knowing what’s going to happen. The people that we’re talking to who were present with these events didn’t know what was going to happen, and their actions in the moment weren’t informed by what the ultimate result was going to be. I feel that being too explicit about what’s happening right now is sort of an insult to the audience, and you’d also just take people out of the story in a way that I think wouldn’t be beneficial.

TW: You chose not to interview Duke for the podcast series about him. What went into that decision?

JL: It was something that we grappled with. The show itself is a large collaborative effort across Slate, and the decision not to interview Duke was the product of a bunch of different conversations as we went along making the show. I think it’s important for me to say that the fact that I made this decision does not necessarily mean that it would have been the right decision for someone else.

First, we gave, I think, an extremely, extremely thorough accounting of what David Duke believed and who he was, in his own words, through archival audio and video. I don’t think there is any lack of explanation, contextualization or refusal to grapple with his views or beliefs, which is an important thing to understand. Second, as we documented pretty thoroughly in the podcast, he is someone who is a known and confirmed liar, and who very consistently distorts and mischaracterizes his record and beliefs for his own personal and political gain. There’s reason to believe that if interviewed by us, he would not tell us the truth. And finally, this is not 1991, it’s 2020, and it’s a time when David Duke, despite his influence in helping to shape some of the rhetoric and politics that we’re living with now, is not personally a figure of any consequence. Today, he’s not running for political office. So giving him the platform of a present day interview felt like it would be elevating him at a time in which he really desperately needs those platforms to stay relevant. The confluence of all three of those factors made me decide that I was not going to interview him for the series.

TW: Does that decision break with traditional journalistic principles?

JL: Yeah, I mean, it’s standard journalistic practice to interview someone when you’re reporting on them, so I understood that this was not the normative move here. But I think it’s important for journalists to question received wisdom like that and not just follow the rules because they’re the rules. When we actually had these conversations and thought about, okay, why would we do this, the only reason I could think of was because well, that’s just how it’s done. And that’s actually not a reason at all.

TW: Is that decision becoming more common? To be more conscious about who journalists are giving a platform?

JL: While different outlets have very different conventions, I do think there is more willingness to question the baseline assumption that we should hear from everyone and everyone should get a platform. I don’t think it’s universal but I think more people are questioning it. We actually got into this to some degree in the podcast. Duke came of age in the late 60s, early 70s, in a moment in American history, when, particularly around the Vietnam War and the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley, there was a very strong sense that open platforms for everyone was an extremely important value to uphold. So you saw that free speech at LSU, where Duke spoke, the idea that if somebody is a Nazi, that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be given a platform to speak, and that we should air all views and have robust counter speech as well. That was the prevailing attitude in America at that time, and I don’t think that it’s the same anymore. It probably requires a dissertation or 12 to explain all the changes that have happened since then. I’m being more descriptive than explanatory, but I think it’s inarguable that we’re in a different time now as far as that stuff goes.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.