Creating in Chaos with Baratunde
“How To Citizen” host Baratunde Thurston speaks on the future of media in an age of distrust
Words by Pier Moses Duncan
Illustration by Richard A. Chance

Baratunde Thurston is booked and busy—and tired. When asked what upcoming projects he’s looking forward to, he jokes, “I’m excited to sleep.” 

It is easy to see why. While many people took advantage of the slower pace afforded by a global pandemic, media-multi-hyphenate Thurston has been full steam ahead with an array of projects, each casting a different lens with the same focus: the significance of community and the insights that connectedness affords. 

He recently began season 3 of How to Citizen, his critically acclaimed podcast exploring how to harness collective power. “We’re doing a whole themed season about technology and how it doesn’t have to be a dumpster fire,” Thurston says. “It can be a nice campfire that you want to gather around, and a warm place to create community.” 

Thurston also recently wrapped filming on a 6-part PBS series America Outdoors with Baratunde Thurston, which required him to raft, climb mountains, kayak, and surf. “But it’s not an outdoor adventure show,” he clarifies. “It’s a people show that happens outside, and [approaches] the outdoors as a place to connect with America.” 

He has also just returned from a research expedition to his hometown of Washington, DC, as preparation for an animated series with ABC inspired by his New York Times best-selling memoir, How to Be Black. Thurston describes the show as an effort to reconnect with and honor the community that helped shape him, which includes his immediate family but also a wider cast of characters: the bike shop owner, the pastor across the street, and “Even the kids that jumped me,” he adds, laughing.

And, he’s joined an impressive lineup of writers at Puck, a new media startup seeking to peel the curtain back on some of the most powerful spaces in America. “A lot of the writers are in these different rooms within the tech world, the media world, the political world, and the money world of Wall Street,” Thurston says. Given the outsized influence of these sectors, he notes the importance of Puck’s offering as one of a unique and critical public interest. “The deeper relationship with the reader and the reveal of our own perspective and points of view create a bond of trust.” 

“Also,” he says, “it’s just entertaining.” 

Below, Thurston shares his excitement at returning to a team of writers; the complexities and opportunities of media in the era of “fake news;” the promise and power of building alternative platforms and lifting new voices; and, the importance of ownership for Black creators. 

Photo credit: Erik Carter
Photo credit: Erik Carter
On returning to his writer’s room roots

I found out about Puck through a friend of mine, Nick Milton, who introduced me to [Puck co-founder] Jon Kelley. It took me months to talk to Jon because I was busy with the revolution that was happening in our country. Thankfully, we resolved it all, so it's good. Black lives matter now—it’s official.

I’m excited about Puck because it’s kind of a homecoming to writing, which was certainly the first medium in which I found my voice. It represents editorial support, in terms of having an editor but also in the sense of not being alone in the gaping maw of content that is the Internet. Creating online can feel like being jettisoned from a shuttle and a spaceship that has ditched you in a black hole, and that’s not always great. 

I think in all this talk about the “creator economy” there is an assumption that everybody wants to own and operate every level of the business stack all by themselves. There is some empowerment in that, but it’s quite a burden to bear by oneself. So Puck represents a type of community I haven’t had since 2016, when I was at The Daily Show.”

On the future of media in a “vacuum of trust”

“We are, essentially, in a low-grade civil war, and America is not guaranteed to make it through cleanly. America is not guaranteed. It's an experiment. But journalism, I think, is important to helping us try to succeed with the experiment. Journalism is an act of collective storytelling and thus collective reality-making and trust-building. So much of the way we experience the world isn't direct. Like I didn't make a vaccine, you didn't make a vaccine. I just gotta trust somebody that this is real. So we are in a crisis, too, because nobody trusts anything. It’s not always accurate to mistrust, but the emotional truth of that mistrust is very well supported by a lot of facts and a lot of misbehavior and a lot of abuse, over centuries in some cases. 

I think it's a hard and interesting time in media, because in that vacuum of trust, a lot of folks can step in there. Think about somebody like [conservative political commentator] Ben Shapiro. He tells a certain audience the things they want to hear. When so much of the world is changing, he’s like “You don’t have to change.” He looks respectable, and has a nasally voice, and he’s a white dude. And the world assigns extra levels of default trust to that body form. So into the void of trust we’re currently experiencing, steps someone like that.

We’re in a moment of chaos, but there are beautiful things emerging from it. There’s Bloom Season, as one example of a new and emerging media voice with a point of view. We see Blavity, and the rise of podcasting, and other independently owned or initially independently owned media outlets giving voice to a community that’s been on mute for a long time. So I have hope. I hope that we will lose the worst of what we don’t deserve and we will preserve and extend the best of what we do. But it’s going to be rough for a while.”

“America is not guaranteed. It's an experiment...But journalism, I think, is important to helping us try to succeed with the experiment.”
On what politics can teach you about the tiers of online community

The level 1 politician uses the Internet to broadcast better at people. 'I can just reach more people, for less money.' Dollar per impression goes down, cool.

The level 2 politician uses the Internet and technology to extract more from people. 'I can get more money. I can get more votes. I can get more volunteer hours, because it's just more efficient.' Okay, that's kind of cool.

But the level 3 politician, which is where I put Obama, creates a connection between audience members and just serves as an excuse for them to see each other. And that's always been my highest bar for even what the word community means. You pay attention to them, cool. They pay attention to each other, cooler.

“You pay attention to them, cool. They pay attention to each other, cooler.”
On getting our stories out there, together

The ability to find fellow travelers is much easier on these connected roads. We don’t have to do this stuff alone. For every Ben Shapiro, there are other voices worth listening to. There are other authors writing dope books. There are other podcasts. You have famous people— look at Issa Rae's burgeoning empire, and that started from a YouTube show. But there are folks who aren't mega bajillionaires who are still creating things. The bright spot is we can just do now. We can collaboratively do things without asking permission, and without the high barrier to entry, financially or otherwise. And that's going to create amazingly beautiful stuff. Because for as much as we pine for the good old days when the Capitol wasn't being ransacked, somebody's neighborhood was being ransacked, often by people employed by the government—whether physically [by police] or fiscally ransacked by robber barons. And that story didn't get out there. And our ability to tell our own stories was relatively limited in terms of reaching the broader culture. So all that's changed now. We have a chance to be a part of that, and it’s exciting to be part of something new.” 

“The ability to find fellow travelers is much easier on these connected roads. We don’t have to do this stuff alone.”
On the power of Black entrepreneurship

“Given the history of this place, we've got to be able to flex and exercise our power politically, creatively, and economically—preferably simultaneously. Owning the creative stuff from a business perspective, and being able to have our political capital weighed accurately and received seriously. Because there are consequences for not doing that. I love the way Color of Change talks about it: it's got to cost something to disappoint Black people. People gotta be nervous about that. So I think Black entrepreneurship is an important stabilizing leg in that stool of community power. In a land defined so much by business and money, we have to have more control over our own and the power to grow it. We have to keep growing.”

“In a land defined so much by business and money, we've got to have more control over our own and the power to grow it.”