Michele Mitchell, journalist/author/filmmaker (The Uncondemned), connects with Brian Smiga, TEDxAsburyPark founder, to talk about the economy of fostering division and untruths in today’s media, versus the Joy of exploring the truth.
Brian Smiga: Hello, Michele, how are you today?
Michele Mitchell: Hi Brian. I’m doing well. How are you?
Brian: I’m great. So this is Brian Smiga at the TEDAsburyPark podcast. We’re here today with Michele Mitchell, who is one of our top speakers when she presented her groundbreaking film, The Uncondemned. And she’s coming back in 2022 for our next all-day sold-out TEDxAsburyPark conference, which will be at the Two River Theater in Red Bank on May 7, 2022. So welcome Michele.
Michele: Thank you. I’m so glad to see your face.
Brian: You too. You look beautiful, and it’s great to be with you. Back in the fall, we talked about your theme, “Joy as a Path Through Trauma”. I so resonated with that, that I can’t wait for you to light that up for us in May 2022. Tell us about the origin story of “joy as a path through trauma” in your world.
Michele: So that came about because in the course of making The Uncondemned, which was a documentary about the first time that rape was prosecuted as an international crime of war, I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. And that was because of vicarious trauma, something we don’t talk a lot about, but we might be in the coming months, where you can absorb somebody else’s trauma in the course of listening to it and being exposed to it.
And I also started paying a lot of attention to how did people, who went through terrible horrendous things, like mass violence, genocide, mass rape, those things, how do they get through that? How do you rebuild? How do you put the broken pieces back together or at least be able to function? And time and time again, the survivors not only made it through, but then had rich and rewarding lives. They kept saying the word joy to me in multiple languages.
And I heard this all around the world. I ended up investigating war crimes in many countries. So this was universal across religion, across different countries and different economic levels. The word “joy” represented different things to different people. In some cases it was dance or singing. Art came up a lot, a form of creative expression came up a lot.
How do you start to feel better or feel more like yourself? And I built a course. I did a fellowship at the Columbia School of Journalism, the Dart Center for Trauma and Journalism. And it was a fascinating fellowship for mid-career journalists who deal with these topics and go to bad places. And there are tricks you can do to make yourself regain who you are or who you think you are. And then through that, there’s something called post-traumatic stress growth, or you actually come out stronger and better.
Brian: So what doesn’t kill you makes us stronger.
Michele: It can, yes.
Brian: Key ingredient is joy on that path out of trauma. Interesting. So you’ve lived this both in recovering from the horrendous stories you witnessed and documented in Rwanda, but now also in the last year. So, I know you have an interesting journey here to share. Maybe you could give us some examples of joy as a growth vitamin.
Michele: I told you that I was going to shake things up and leave New York temporarily. And I told you I was going to go to Napa Valley and wouldn’t that be fun? And you and I had a good laugh about that because as you know, I adore wine. One of the ways we raised money for The Uncondemned was we did a wine auction. We had a wine made for the film.
And so a lot of people thought that was very funny. And I can’t begin to tell you why I felt I needed to just take a break, but I’ve learned through many years of therapy and my own post-traumatic stress growth. And when your gut tells you to go, to leave, you should go.
And so anyway, packed up, literally took four suitcases, moved out to Napa Valley. And at the time I had a great idea for a television show. And one of the things that had increasingly become a concern to me was what was happening with our own discourse in this country. I’ve traveled as we’ve already established many places and seen many bad things. There’s always a pattern. If you want to start a mass violence movement, you start with language, you start with “othering” and then you ratchet it up, and you test the norms.
I was listening and watching this happen here in the US and I thought, “You know what? No, I am not going to allow this to happen in my own country and I’m so tired of what I call the “anger industrial complex”. I am so tired of people in companies making a lot of money off of sowing discord among us and keeping us in a permanent state of fight or flight. I mean, they’re traumatizing us to make money.
Brian: A couple of “terms of art” here. The first is othering. And then the second is yours, the “anger industrial complex”. Expand upon those for a second.
Michele: So when I talk about the anger industrial complex, it’s actually in my LinkedIn, says I’m actively against the anger industrial complex. I probably get more inquiries about, “Well, what is that?” than anything else. There are media companies and political companies, there are some very compelling figures in entertainment and so forth that actually make money off of making you angry, the listener. And you Brian and me Michele freak out. And keep us there.
Michele: A great example of this is now what’s happened to journalism. As you know, I worked at CNN and then I went to go work for Bill Moyers at PBS. And I really saw the arc of how things went from, you practice journalism, to all of a sudden you’re opining, and you’re getting paid for that. There are lots of reasons why that happened, but one of them was that the outlets were no longer owned by families, or there was no fairness doctrine binding it, it became a commodity and what sells.
Infotainment is what sells, right? And it went from being a public service to being infotainment. And now we’re in a world where since, gosh, even in the last year, Brian, so many newspapers are now owned by hedge funds. And if you follow this at all, in many cases, the journalists are only paid depending upon how many clicks they get and what makes people click stuff that freaks them out.
So basically we went from journalism to opining, to othering and fomenting and clickbait, which is about inciting people’s emotions.
Brian: Wow, that’s really interesting. And there’s an economy behind this.
Brian: This is why I think it’s fair to call it the “anger industrial complex”. This is the first, I think we’re hearing about this. It’s profound… Let’s get back to your journey. Clearly, this is a subject matter you’re going to do a lot more work in. So continue with your story. Now I’m jealous. I’ve been to St. Helena. I have friends there….I’m going to introduce you to a couple of them. It was a tough year there, but tell us where you’re going with the Cocktail Conversations.
Michele: Yeah. Well, I thought about how I marketed The Uncondemned, how we crowdfunded that film. And if you crowdfund, it takes about three years if you’re lucky to make a movie. So you have to keep them entertained in the meantime. I wanted to make sure that our donors were also informed and that they all got together. We all talked about these very difficult subjects.
You want to talk about a touchy subject. Let’s talk about rape and genocide. I love talking about these things because I think we have to be comfortable talking about difficult topics. So what I did for three years in multiple cities around the United States is we would have salon discussions. That’s a fancy way of saying for about 90 minutes, we’d have a guest speaker and serve wine. Enough time to have between one and three glasses, depending upon how fast you drink.
And people loved this. And every time it would book out and then when the film came out, depending upon what city it was in, we would build a whole week or a few days of programming around it. So when everything came to an end, lots of people said, “Well, when are we starting these up again?” So it was always in the back of my head that I should be organizing a series like that.
But the urgency came when I just like many people who might be listening to this, I just, my teeth started hurting by listening to the vitriol that is out there that is so pervasive. And people say, “Well, what about this? What about that?” It’s like, look, let’s just start with a baseline.
Everybody has done this, all sides have done this and they are making money off of making people miserable. And that’s just not cool in my book. And I was like, “there’s one talent I have, it is to start a conversation”, because that is the antithesis. If you’re having a conversation, if you’re able to talk to somebody about an opposing view, it’s a lot less likely they’re going to get othered.
Brian: Let’s get into the design of “the Cocktail Conversation”, because you know how to design these experiences and grow them.
Michele: So the idea was I would get together five to six people, a guest speaker and serve them all a drink. And I would moderate the discussion and we would do a deep dive. It wouldn’t be like, just in one episode. I wanted to keep the episodes short, 10 to 15 minutes. About how long you would have a conversation at a cocktail party, right before moving on to the next. And we would have a good time.
In that way, we start to show people that it is possible to not want to kill somebody if you’re having an opposing viewpoint. And I knew how to do it. And I put this together as a beautiful presentation. A major agency took it into Quibi, which was a $1.5 billion startup by some famous people. And they were specializing in short programming. And I thought, “This is a sure thing.” And well, they said no. They said, “We don’t want to do anything remotely controversial. We don’t want to offend our new audience.”
And I said, “Oh really, first of all, it’s 2020. Everything’s going to be controversial this year, number one. And number two, what new audience?” Which was the smartest thing I think I said all year. And then I also said, “We’re going to write it. If you don’t want it on camera, I’m going to do this as a podcast and you guys are going to want it in nine months.” And so in February with nothing else to do, right? Because it’s not like people are beating down my door to go make a movie. I decided to do this as a podcast. And I piloted it at my house here in Napa. And the next day I got sick, probably with COVID.
So, what happened was though, when everything shut down, by the time I emerged, we were all sheltering in place, right? And so that meant that two things, number one, nobody could travel. I originally envisioned this as something where we’d be gathering in different places and maybe we’d have an audience, or maybe not, but there would be that group. And then that couldn’t happen, but Zoom was happening. And I thought, “Well, let me just start expanding who I would have on the show,” because everybody was sitting around wondering what they could do.
One of the things that people say about me is I don’t hear the word, no. And I think by me being very determined to get this thing off the ground, we just went into production. And by we, I mean, me and a couple of interns. And it was already automatically a lot of fun because people did really want to delve into this. Ends up that not just me and you were particularly concerned with what was happening.
There are a lot of concerned folks. And they also all really liked to drink, Because all I ever gave them, I promised them like, “I’ll send you wine, I’ll send you a drink recipe.” And usually we’re working with about four different time zones. So, I’ve been amazed at how many people actually open that bottle of wine, even if it’s nine o’clock in the morning.
Brian: Wow. All right. So how can we participate? Where do we catch “The Cocktail Conversations” online?
Michele: So we are on Spotify, Stitcher, and iTunes. And we are also booked by an Atlanta-based startup LocalPlus. They started up to start plugging the holes of local news being in decline right now. So LocalPlus asked us to do a video version on the Georgia special election this week.
That one was really funny because we had a great cast for that. We had Lauren Anderson, formerly of the FBI. We had Valerie Plame formerly of the CIA, Clarence Page from the Chicago Tribune and Nick Turse, who was a war correspondent and an academic who’s done a lot of work in Congo. And what we delved into with that was this issue of truth and trust, because one of the great problems that’s resulted from the “anger industrial complex” is that nobody believes each other. We don’t have one set of facts that we agree on. And that is particularly dangerous right now.
It means that we’re very prone to believing conspiracy theories. It means that there is no go-to source that everybody can agree upon. And that also makes people very angry and frustrated. And I don’t pretend that we’re going to come up with the solutions, but if we can at least get the dialogue going, that’s already the antithesis of the anger industrial complex. And that makes me very happy. That gives me joy.
Brian: Oh my God. We’re going to have to end here, Michele. What a great taste. Look, you and I have nothing but coffee because it’s 9:45 AM in St. Helena, California. So imagine if we had wine, I could talk to you for hours. Thank you so much. And we’ll look for “The Cocktail Conversations” on Spotify, Stitcher, iTunes, and other audio channels. We’ll check it out. And we will look forward to your Ted talk in May, 2022 in Red Bank at the Two River Theater.
Michele: It better be good since I’ve got over a year to prepare! (laughter)
You can follow Michelle and Listen to Cocktail Conversations on:
Spotify: The Cocktail Conversations
Instagram: @mlmitchell70, @thecocktailconversations