"What scares me the most": Jared Yates Sexton on when history repeats itself 🎃
Viral tweets, haunted houses, equipment nightmares: The Halloween edition of Depth Perception has them all. (Read this one with the lights on.)
The truly terrible tale of Jared Yates Sexton’s viral tweet
Going viral can be a treat, but sometimes it’s a nightmare. Writer Jared Yates Sexton knows about the fun-scary spectrum of internet virality. Parker Molloy talked to him about what it was like becoming a meme, and what really haunts him at night.
As you may remember, on July 11, 2017, in a rush to undercut a soon-to-be published New York Times investigation into his father’s presidential campaign, Donald Trump Jr. publicly posted screenshots of a series of emails between himself and British publicist Rob Goldstone. Goldstone had emailed Trump about setting up a meeting with a Russian lawyer named Natalia Veselnitskaya, to discuss some potential dirt she had on opponent Hillary Clinton. Jaws dropped at what seemed like a blockbuster admission, and Sexton, whose 2016 dispatches from Trump rallies had inspired both praise and outrage, responded to Trump Jr.’s odd public disclosure with a tweet that would turn him into an instant meme.
“I…worked on this story for a year…and…he just…he tweeted it out,” Sexton wrote.
The internet had a good laugh, with people responding to other stories, photos, and odd tweets with some variation on the “worked on this story for a year” line. More than six years later, and people are still meming the phrase, which Sexton certainly doesn’t mind. In a way, he says, that sort of playful teasing is the internet at its best.
“Say what you want about humanity and the fact we’ve done all the worst things, but we’re funny. We’re very, very funny. And that’s one of the things I’ll miss the most about old Twitter.”
It’s the other times Sexton has gone viral that have had a more nightmarish element. He recounts how in just two days he went from just being a guy posting tweets from a Trump rally to writing about the experience in the New York Times to then having neo-Nazis at his front door. Some of the attention Sexton’s work has generated has been organic, but much of it was manufactured and directed outrage coming from high-profile names like Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity.
Listen to Episode Four of Long Shadow: Rise of the American Far Right to learn more about the evolution of conservative media, from talk radio to Fox News’ far-right outrage.
“You would get [put in the] spotlight, and the next thing you know, you were getting unmarked packages in your mailbox or people were showing up and you had to call campus security — that happened,” he says. “There isn’t just a cultural push on this stuff. There’s a political push, too. And there’s an absolute culture of intimidation and attacking people. It really doesn’t matter what you do; it’s omnipresent and it’s always going to be there.”
Sexton’s writing, especially in his fantastic Dispatches From a Collapsing State newsletter, can be just as scary. In it, Sexton highlights threats to democracy and the fate of the future by shining a light on “hypercapitalism, unchecked corruption, white supremacy, patriarchal dominance, and the rise of authoritarianism that is currently threatening us all.”
The newsletter is a heavy lift, but Sexton manages to contextualize complex topics in ways readers who may not be as plugged in to the world of news can grasp. The newsletter is an examination of cause and effect in the sociopolitical world. I’ve personally found it to be a good reality check.
I asked Sexton if there was a single issue that truly scares him and keeps him up at night. He pauses for a moment before rattling off a list of topics that include the Hamas attack on Israel and Israel’s bombing campaign against Palestinians in Gaza, fears of a regional war, rising authoritarianism, and climate change. In a sense, these are all part of a single issue that is made up of seemingly unrelated parts.
“I think what worries me the absolute worst is that climate change is going to exacerbate everything that’s going on now,” he says. “It’s going to lead to not just lessening resources, but shrinking boundaries.
“History tells us whenever that happens, there are wars and major upheavals,” he adds. “Whatever we’re dealing with now with this authoritarian push, if it’s not dealt with — we’ve already seen not just camps full of refugees, but we’re seeing forcible sterilizations of them; we’re seeing just horrible atrocities — that’s only going to get worse…. And what scares me the most in all of this, the overarching part of it, is the ability for people to talk themselves out of seeing it.”
Do yourself a favor and subscribe to Dispatches From a Collapsing State and pick up Sexton’s latest book, The Midnight Kingdom: A History of Power, Paranoia, and the Coming Crisis.
Every reporter’s nightmare
On a much lighter — but no less scary — note, Long Lead’s very own Heather Muse shared a story that, were it a horror film, would qualify her as a journalistic Final Girl. She referred to it as “The Chumbawamba Incident,” and it involves something that keeps many a reporter up at night: a lost interview.
The year was 1997, and Muse was in her first journalism job as an editorial assistant on the newly created web team at a radio syndication company. Muse pitched her bosses on a conversation with a British band named Chumbawamba, whose song “Tubthumping” had just been unleashed on the world. They gave her the green light.
When the band made it to the U.S., they stopped by the studio for a sit-down with Muse. What followed was a fate all journalists hope to avoid.
“Someone showed me all the bells and whistles in the recording studio, telling me to look for the red blinking light, and then I’d be good to go,” Muse tells me. “Chumbawamba arrived, we had a great chat. It was one of my first interviews where I managed to come up with follow-up questions that weren’t written in my notes. I was listening, they were talking, and it was an actual conversation. I coaxed a few good anecdotes out of them. It was great.”
“I was ready for my victory lap, especially since the song was about to hit No. 1 on the Modern Rock chart and was making its way up the Billboard Hot 100.” Muse adds. “This was the right interview at the right place at the right time, except… none of it was on tape.”
Yes, the “blinking red light” meant everything was “good to go,” but as Muse learned all too late, she failed to hit the record button again to actually begin recording. Oops.
“I was mortified,” Muse recalls. “My childhood dream was to be a music journalist so I could interview bands and introduce readers to new music, and at 22, I was convinced I had already shown I was not cut out for this. I was untrustworthy.”
For the rest of the time at the company, Muse’s boss held the mistake over her head, even going so far as to deny her the chance to cover the chaos that would become Woodstock ‘99, citing “The Chumbawamba Incident.”
Though it was a horror story when it happened, Muse says that it was also the best possible mistake she could make in her career, as it inspired her to steadfastly check her equipment and take thorough notes in future interviews, improving her listening skills in the process.
What’s your reporting horror story? Leave a comment to let your colleagues know they are not alone.
Mwahahaha! In keeping with the spirit of the spooky season, here are some of Mark Yarm’s favorite nonfiction stories — old and new — about an endlessly fascinating subject: haunted houses. Real estate can be a nightmare, and that’s even without discussing mortgage rates.
“How To Sell a Haunted House” by Rachel Kurzius, the Washington Post (Oct. 23, 2023)
There is a New York State property law case, known as the Ghostbusters ruling, that requires homeowners who have publicly said that their home is haunted to disclose said hauntedness to potential buyers. That’s just one of the terribly interesting things I learned reading Kurzius’s article about the ways in which realtors go about selling supposedly haunted houses.
One real estate agent in Boulder, Colo., employs two “home energy clearers” to deal with ghosts and the like — and she swears by them. She says she tried connecting an allegedly haunted former client with one of the clearers, but the homeowner turned her down. “It turned out the family liked the ghost and had named her Lucy,” writes Kurzius.
“The Watcher” by Reeves Weidman, New York magazine (originally published Nov. 12, 2018; updated Oct. 11, 2022)
Weidman’s viral feature tells the story of the Broaddus family, who in 2014 bought a six-bedroom house at 657 Boulevard in Westfield, N.J., only to receive an increasingly creepy and threatening series of letters — ominously signed by “The Watcher” — at their new home.
The situation drove the Broadduses to despair, even as some in the community suggested that the family was trying to pull off a hoax. I strongly suggest you read the article, but skip last year’s inane Netflix limited series based on the piece, unless you really want to see Mia Farrow nail the part of a weirdo neighbor.
“Hell House” directed by George Ratliff (Oct. 21, 2002; streaming on Amazon Prime)
This compelling documentary gives a behind-the-scenes look at the 10th annual Halloween haunted house attraction run by a conservative evangelical church in Cedar Hill, Texas. The Hell House is like a series of Chick tracts come to life, with gruesome and moralistic skits about abortion, suicide, AIDS, and other hot-button topics. (In 1999, the church caused a national uproar with a Columbine-themed room.) Though the Hell House performances captured in the film are generally pretty cheesy, Ratliff commendably never stoops to mocking the participants.
“The Evolutionary Reasons We Are Drawn to Horror Movies and Haunted Houses” by Athena Aktipis and Coltan Scrivner, Scientific American (November 2023)
Professor Athena Aktipis and behavioral scientist Coltan Scrivner get to the bottom of why some of us enjoy haunted houses so much — and what the benefits of such “scary play” can be.
Scrivner conducted a research study at Denmark’s Dystopia Haunted House. “After about 45 minutes of being chased by zombies, monsters, and a pig-man with a chainsaw, the visitors ran out of the haunted house and into some members of the research team, who then asked them how they felt,” he and Aktipis write. “A huge portion said they had learned something about themselves and believed they had some personal growth during the haunt. In particular, they reported learning the boundaries of what they can handle and how to manage their fear.”
“The Frightening Economics of Haunted Houses” by Mark Dent, the Hustle (Oct. 20, 2023)
Perhaps you’ve sensed a business opportunity from this Long List. Mark Dent’s article makes the case that, financially speaking, you should by no means open your own haunted house. Did you know the average haunted house costs a quarter of a million dollars to start? And that banks will rarely offer loans for such attractions? Just imagine filling out that application.
Also, the chances of fiscal ruin are scary real. “In a seasonal business,” a person in the field tells Dent, “you are gambling your livelihood every single year.” One way to mitigate risk? Diversify. One haunted house operator Dent interviewed also runs a Christmas tree farm and is developing a Groupon-esque product for haunted houses nationwide.
Need more spooky selections? Extremely Online author Taylor Lorenz shared her favorite horror media in a recent edition of Depth Perception. Subscribe now to never miss a new issue when it drops.