Cross: Liliana Segura, Putting The Human Face on Injustice
January 25, 2017 (Fault Lines) — Ed. Note: Scott Greenfield and David Meyer-Lindenberg cross investigative criminal law and civil rights journalist at The Intercept, Liliana Segura.
Q. You went to Barnard College, where you studied English (and, if rumors are to be believed, took a lot of women’s studies classes). Why there? Why English, since you were undoubtedly bright and had a great future ahead of you? What did you plan to do? Were you going to be the best-educated barista in NYC, or had you already been bitten by the journalism bug? Did you ever consider grad school? Doing a law degree, perhaps?
A. Okay, well, putting aside the premise that English majors are bound for failure – never heard that one before! – I did know I wanted to be a journalist. By the time I got to college, I had something of a political and feminist consciousness; I had loose visions of one day starting a print publication for teenage girls as an alternative to the glossy crap that are gateway drugs to “women’s magazines,” which I hated. (In retrospect, now that Teen Vogue has won overnight fame for outflanking traditional news outlets in hard-hitting commentary about Trump, this seems funny.)
My other primary objective was being in New York City. Originally, I’d planned to go to Columbia University, but instead ended up at the University of Maryland after I was offered a scholarship to the honors program. There was a good journalism program there, but unfortunately it was a terrible match for me and I decided to transfer by my second semester.
I ended up at Barnard, surrounded by highly intelligent women who were ambitious, politically astute and frankly intimidating. College campuses get a lot of flak these days for shutting down avenues of free thought, but for me, an all-women’s college was critical to my political awakening. Unlike at Maryland, there was no journalism major, so getting my MA in English seemed like the logical choice.
I was a senior in college when 9/11 happened; in the days afterward, Sister Helen Prejean, the famed anti-death penalty nun, had been scheduled to come speak. Although the city had come to a standstill, she kept her commitment to come to campus and I attended her talk. I found something profound and deeply life-affirming in her words. Afterwards, I attended a meeting of anti-death penalty activists who were working on exposing an incredible injustice in Chicago, where racist Police Commander Jon Burge had overseen a regime of brutal abuse against scores of black men arrested and interrogated in a couple of police stations on the South Side.
A number of these men ended up giving false confessions, and some went to death row. The year was 2001 and yet I had never heard of this, although the torture had been exposed years before by Chicago-based journalists, community activists and family members. It was a radicalizing moment for me. I joined the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, which would introduce me to countless other people who had experienced the cruelty of our capital punishment system. Activism continues to inform my work today.
Q. Your first gig out of college was as a staff writer for the H.W. Wilson Company. Along with two others, you wrote the 2004 edition of the Current Biography International Yearbook, a massive compendium of biographies of foreign notables. How’d you get the job? How were the people you wrote about selected? Did you find putting together 65-odd biographies of people who didn’t even have the decency to be born American exhausting? Who was your most interesting victim? Were you always a prolific writer, or were you forged in the crucible of Current Biography? And did you get to see your name in print?
A. Just to be totally accurate, my first job was actually a scandalously low-paying gig at an academic publisher in midtown, as an editorial assistant working on science and engineering titles. My authors were primarily crotchety men who were geniuses in their field, but not particularly friendly or interested in prioritizing my requests. (This would turn out to be excellent preparation for the world of journalism and for the world more generally.)
When I decided I needed to leave that job, I actually looked at the jobs section of the New York Times – the print edition! – and saw a listing for a staff writing position at this 200-year-old company that actually printed its own periodicals on site, in the basement. I’m pretty sure I got the job because of my cover letter, which I wrote in the form of my own biography. It felt kind of gimmicky, but it worked.
The job was fun while it lasted. The office was in an impoverished part of the South Bronx, up a steep hill from the old Yankee Stadium and housed in a weird old building overlooking the Hudson with a lighthouse on top. Our subjects were chosen in a rather ad-hoc way and we were encouraged to submit suggestions, the primary criteria being that individuals had to have some kind of global significance and, also, still be alive.
I wrote about an incredible range of people, from heads of state to artists, architects, actors and athletes. I was especially excited to write about people who had interested me growing up – a Colombian journalist who had risked her life to expose human rights atrocities by the military; the Argentinian cartoonist Quino, who is now in his 80s and whose comic strip is famous across Latin America. Sometimes I got to interview my subjects, but that was not expected, nor was there really time allotted for reporting.
Overall, the writing was staid and formulaic, so I got bored pretty fast. More importantly, the War on Terror was now underway, and I was becoming more and more concerned about the direction our own country was headed. I was doing some blogging – mainly bashing the Bush administration – and the more I wrote, the more I wanted to find a place where I could do “real journalism.” One thing I noticed my disparate subjects had in common was that at some point, they had taken a risk, veered from the beaten path to achieve their place in the world. So that was a good lesson.
Q. In early 2005, you joined The Nation magazine as a full-time intern. It was basically two jobs rolled into one: fact-checking people’s articles and doing research for them when they were overworked and rushing to meet deadline (which is pretty much always). What’s it like to be the eminence grise of journalism, responsible for the intellectual foundation of other people’s articles but not getting a byline of your own? Did you long to rule in your own right?
A. First, yes, I went from a full-time writing job to becoming a full-time, (mostly) unpaid intern. This was not my proudest adult moment, so a little context is in order. If the post-9/11 era was a galvanizing political time for me, the 2004 election was a wake-up call: I was appalled that George W. Bush won a second term, distressed about the war in Iraq and horrified by the images coming out of Abu Ghraib. On the day the election results were finally made official, I left work early, had a beer and resolved to find a new job at a place that shared my values and whose mission was to fight back against the excesses and injustices of the Bush administration. That would turn out to be The Nation. It was the best professional decision I have ever made.
Fact-checking, apart from spending my previous years’ savings and paltry paycheck on happy hour with coworkers, was the best part of the job. For an investigative story, it’s like doing journalism in reverse; you start with the article and work your way backwards to the source/sources. It was also the sort of task where you’d collaborate directly with a writer or editor to negotiate the best editorial fix. I found this really satisfying, especially when I’d see the resulting story in print, knowing I’d helped improve it.
The internship also encouraged us to pitch our own articles for the (then-fledgling) website, so I didn’t have to wait long to write things of my own – I wrote my first piece after testifying at a hearing against the death penalty in New York. One of the other people who testified that day was Yusef Salaam, of the Central Park Five, who has more recently come back on the scene to direct much-deserved criticism at Donald Trump. It was one of many times I would hear him tell the story of how Trump had called for his execution in a full-page ad in the New York Times.
Fact-checkers’ prestige has gone up a lot in the decade since you did the job; nowadays, there are entire sites devoted to fact-checking rumors (Snopes) and politicians’ statements (PolitiFact). At the same time, they get a lot of criticism for their perceived inaccuracy and bias. In your opinion as a veteran of the business, are the allegations fair? Have fact-checkers sold out their integrity for political currency? Is political fact-checking nothing more than partisan politics in disguise, or does it keep the public informed and politicians on the straight and narrow?
I don’t know that I can speak to fact-checking so broadly, but I can say that the kind most familiar to me is hardly foolproof – and certainly not immune to the unchecked machinations that can take hold when an author and editor have lost sight of a publication’s ethical and editorial standards. This was most egregiously on display with the Rolling Stone story about the supposed gang rape at the University of Virginia, for example – although the magazine has a stable of professional fact-checkers, the process completely broke down. But in general, having fact-checkers is enormously valuable at any publication and in the early days of The Intercept, I lobbied hard to hire them.
What about in traditional journalism? As we saw throughout 2016, the most high-profile outfits now routinely rush out articles with embarrassing mistakes. Have standards slipped? Or were things always this way? Can anything be done to keep the nation from finding out that the NYT has no idea where Aleppo is?
Well, if the New York Times has no idea where Aleppo is and embarrasses itself accordingly, I actually think it’s not a bad thing for people to see. No publication is infallible and if more Americans were skeptical of the authoritative objectivity of august publications, maybe we would not have invaded Iraq.
But to be fair, I think there are also a number of things going on at once. First, the internet has completely transformed journalism. The advent of Twitter and other social media means that the news cycle moves absurdly fast – what is on the front of the Times this morning is something a lot of us saw last night. So you take the old race for scoops, put it in this context and the industry is going to have some pretty high-profile screw-ups. But the flipside is that we now have more ways than ever to correct and push back against bad journalism. Where one used to just have a byline and masthead to go by in assessing the people responsible for a given article, today all these reporters and editors have Twitter handles. They reveal their opinions, allegiances, and biases, whether they mean to or not.
Q. Following your internship, you spent two years working at The Nation’s sister outfit, The Nation Institute, a nonprofit devoted to advancing progressive journalistic causes. You edited books, helped with the annual Ron Ridenhour prize for fearless journalism that advances the cause of social justice and, perhaps most intriguingly, were involved in selecting first-year law students for the Robert Masur civil-liberties fellowship, which carries a $2000 cash prize.
What did the day-to-day of your job entail? What kinds of things advance the cause of social justice, anyway? Actually, can you provide a comprehensible definition of social justice? And how’d you decide which lucky law students got a summer stipend? Did The Nation Institute take a holistic view of civil liberties, or would an applicant committed to expanding Second Amendment rights have been out of luck?
A. The job was hard to define in that the day-to-day really depended on what was happening – what event was coming up, what titles were on the horizon from Nation Books. Any given week, I could be organizing an event for an author at Riverside Church or stuck in the office writing a fundraising letter. What it did allow me to do was stay close to the magazine and develop closer ties to the colleagues who would become my journalistic allies down the line.
While our mission certainly fit under the broad umbrella of “social justice,” I don’t know that I could define it comprehensively. We came to the magazine and the Institute for a lot of different reasons. A number of my fellow interns had experience organizing in Democratic politics; others had high-level academic backgrounds and were more drawn to things like literary criticism. For me, social justice meant a commitment to advancing equal opportunity, civil rights, and racial justice. This manifested itself as fighting against a carceral state that preyed primarily on poor people of color.
I also came to be influenced by The Nation’s columnists who focused on civil liberties, like the now-departed Alex Cockburn, as well as Nat Hentoff, whose writing I knew primarily from the Village Voice. These kinds of authors formed my thinking around things like hate crimes legislation, which was prioritized by some segments of the left, but which I came to be – and continue to be – very critical of.
As far as the Robert Masur prize, I confess I cannot remotely recall who received them, nor was the decision up to me. It was a fairly mundane process, though, and basically a brief, once-a-year thing. Perhaps not surprisingly, I don’t recall any candidate making the case that they needed the monetary award to launch a career defending 2nd Amendment rights. I don’t really think such an applicant would be drawn to The Nation Institute, but I’d be glad to be proven wrong.
Q. In 2008, you became a “proper” journalist when you joined the staff of AlterNet, the progressive online magazine. You specialized in civil-liberties coverage: not only did you manage and edit other people’s stories, but you put out several of your own each week. How’d you gravitate to civil liberties? More importantly, how’d you make such a big success of it, given that you don’t have a law degree? An inevitable result of being on the civil-liberties beat was that you started putting out criminal-justice stories, some of which were promptly singled out for prizes. Where’d you get the chops to not just do it, but do it right? Are you a journalistic wunderkind? Are there steps other young journalists could take to reproduce your success?
A. So, first, ha, no, I am far from a wunderkind. By the time I got there, I had written a fair number of freelance articles, mainly about criminal justice, including a long piece for AlterNet about false confessions that was the precursor to my being hired.
AlterNet was one of those places that grew out of the early blog and Bush era – it ramped up quickly and found success in aggregating content from other corners of the web. This meant a lot less editing than just feeding the beast, so to speak, finding content, getting permission to republish it, and presenting it in a way that would appeal to our readers. (Clickbaity headlines, listicles.) Curating the Civil Liberties section was an absurdly large task in itself, but I also had to assemble the War on Iraq section. There was a lot of learning on the job, for better or worse.
I wrote a lot – sometimes about things I wanted to write, sometimes about things I was told to write. It was a good challenge, and a good way to exercise my writing muscle, but it was also pretty exhausting. As always, my lack of legal training meant I just researched the hell out of my stories, at least to the extent I was able, and interviewed as many people as I could. But the emphasis was not really on original reporting, it was on turning things around fast – “hot takes” if you will – which did not always result in the best quality work.
My time at AlterNet did allow me to write critically about the Obama administration from the very start of his first presidential term. In retrospect, I am most proud of the writing I did warning that he was likely to continue some of the most problematic policies of the Bush administration, whether drone strikes or surveillance. I also did some of my early substantive writing on Supreme Court rulings around things like juvenile sentencing and lethal injection, which are beats I keep returning to.
Q. You went back to The Nation in July, 2010 to serve as temporary editor and, after that gig expired in August, stayed on as an associate editor. What were some things you wanted to change up during the glorious month you were in charge? Was it enjoyable, rising from intern to editor and being the protagonist of your own American success story?
A. Well, I don’t wish to overstate my editorial power, although yes, it was hugely exciting to find myself in an editor’s chair. At first, I just helped manage the articles that piled up on the desks of our more senior editors. Later, I had the chance to think creatively about who I wanted to have writing for us. So, for example, I assigned a first-person piece to a federal judge who had been outspoken about his opposition to mandatory minimums.
Another assignment was to an Iraq vet turned stockbroker who later got involved in Occupy Wall Street. I also tried to bring in people with a certain amount of political and geographic diversity. It was during this time, for example, that I was able to get my now-colleague, Jordan Smith, to contribute articles on criminal justice, bringing in much-needed on-the-ground coverage from Texas.
You continued to establish yourself as a serious crimlaw journalist, including by putting out intelligent coverage of the clemency process, whether at the state or federal level. In your opinion, did our new president emeritus do enough to grant clemency to federal prisoners? Is targeting nonviolent drug offenders the correct approach, or are violent criminals – domestic abusers, for example – also deserving of a second chance? (John Pfaff argues that especially on the state level, treating violent offenders more leniently is the only way to appreciably reduce the prison population.) On that note, was Obama right to commute “terrorist” Oscar Lopez Rivera’s sentence? What about Chelsea Manning’s?
No, I don’t think Obama did enough in any area of criminal justice reform, not just where clemency is concerned. But I’m also well aware that no president could ever do enough to undo the ravages of mass incarceration; as people like Pfaff remind us all the time, the federal prison population is a tiny fraction of the people we have imprisoned in this country, and looking to the White House or DOJ to solve this problem is misguided at best. Real change has to happen at the state and local level, and yes, we do have to seriously rethink the sentences we give to people convicted of violent crimes.
The question of second chances is a theme I come back to repeatedly in my work, as in this piece. Part of this is the result of activism over the years; for example, I once went to visit prisons in upstate New York to meet people serving life without parole for murder. It was informal research; I met people who had aged in prison and were clearly not the same men they had been when they committed their crimes.
Around this time, I also went to Angola Penitentiary in Louisiana to write about their infamous rodeo, where I met countless young men who were doomed to die in prison – some for nonviolent crimes. I did a lot of research (including in the famed prison publication, The Angolite) on the way parole has been so completely diminished in that state and in this country, and I became increasingly convinced that we have to radically rethink not just the death penalty but all permanent sentencing schemes.
So when it comes to clemency and commutations, it’s hard for me to object to anyone the White House would show mercy to. I was certainly in favor of clemency for Lopez Rivera as well as Manning. They have been punished enough.
Q. You exploded onto the nation’s journalistic scene in 2014, when you helped found The Intercept in the wake of the Snowden leaks. The publication’s original focus was squarely on the NSA story, but from the get-go, the plan was to expand into more general civil-liberties and national-security coverage.
So what it wanted to do was very much in your wheelhouse. What made you decide to sign on to such an adventurous project? (You’d already edited some of Glenn Greenwald’s work; he’d contributed material to a 2010 book you co-edited, Midnight on the Mavi Marmara. Did he give you the impetus?) What was involved in creating a new media platform essentially from scratch, around one of the most controversial and explosive stories in recent memory? What were your responsibilities? The Snowden leaks made The Intercept visible, but how did it survive, thrive and turn into a household name in what remains an extremely volatile industry? Did you ever think to yourself, “this is crazy?”
A. The decision to join The Intercept (long before it was called The Intercept) did feel crazy a lot of the time, in no small part because I left what I had always considered my dream job at The Nation. But it was an opportunity too good to pass up. I hugely admired what Edward Snowden had done and it felt thrilling to be a part of the team that would help push out his revelations to the rest of the world.
Glenn’s work had been required reading for me during the Bush administration, and I aligned with his continued critique of executive power, surveillance, drone strikes etc. under the Obama White House. But I had a far longer history with his co-founder, Jeremy Scahill, going back to my Nation Institute days, and it was both of them who convinced me to take the leap and join the new project.
It was certainly chaotic at first, and sometimes frustrating since it took a while before I could do what I came to do, which was focus on writing full time. (My early responsibilities were basically to help with the launch of the site, which meant a fair amount of editing of national security stories.) Eventually we hired more people. I was also able to recruit Jordan Smith, stealing her away from the Austin Chronicle. She has been my best partner in crime – not to mention on the wrongful conviction, death penalty and forensics beats far longer than I. I have learned a lot from her work over the years.
Q. At The Intercept, you’ve put together a serious portfolio ranging from incarceration to racial justice to the death penalty. Even with your impressive track record, something that stands out is that you’re a journalist with unimpeachable progressive credentials who was nevertheless willing to point out the Clintons’ role in making the modern death-penalty process the dumpster fire that it is. From Bill’s cynical, self-serving support of AEDPA to Hillary’s newfound pseudo-commitment to reform, you didn’t let a lie or a whitewashing of the historical record slip by. The press as a whole is currently under attack for its perceived loyalty to the Democratic party and unwillingness to tell the truth when it’s politically inconvenient. Where does the courage to take on establishment grandees in an election year come from?
A. I think the fact that the Democrats have been so bad for so long on criminal justice issues makes it very easy to criticize them, particularly the Clintons. The activists who helped shape my politics were well to the left of the Democratic party, and I learned early on that liberal politicians were not our allies when it came to the fights around sentencing and mass incarceration. I also saw some of the most unlikely politicians take some of the most courageous (if calculated) stances on the issues that mattered to me the most. For instance, there were former Illinois Governor George Ryan’s historic commutations of his state’s death row in 2003 (which was close to my heart given that the decision was linked to the legacy of the Burge police torture scandal I mentioned earlier.)
When it came to my perception of the Democratic party, I also had something of a formative experience in 2007 at the YearlyKos conference in Chicago. That year attracted all the major Democratic candidates vying for the 2008 nomination. I knew that it would be a gathering of the partisan blogosphere, but what I found was an embarrassing lovefest – it felt like a series of pep rallies, rather than a chance to exert pressure on some of the most potentially powerful politicians on earth.
My mission was to ask whatever candidate I could why they supported the death penalty, since it was basically a universally-held position. (I ended up confronting John Edwards on the issue, which you can read about here.) Later, when Obama won the Democratic nomination in 2008, I was dismayed to hear him condemn the Supreme Court ruling in Kennedy v. Louisiana, which held that the death penalty violates the 8th Amendment in non-capital crimes. It was all political posturing, which I found gross and intellectually dishonest. (I wrote about that here.) So I guess I got used to pointing out the places where the Democrats suck on criminal justice.
One of the most contested articles I published at AlterNet was by an exoneree whose habeas appeal was denied by Sonia Sotomayor during her time on the New York Second Circuit Court of Appeals – a denial rooted in AEDPA, as I recall. He spent many more years in prison for a crime he did not commit as a result, and so he wrote about the experience when she was facing confirmation to the Supreme Court. It angered some people that I would run a story that cast her in a negative light prior to her confirmation hearing, but the argument at the center of his piece was important.
As he wrote then, “Given that she has been nominated to a lifetime appointment that affects all of our rights, what she did in my case – condemning me to a life sentence based on procedure in the face of an airtight innocence claim – should be part of the discussion.” I think it’s always important to show the human consequences of judicial decisions, no matter who is making them.
Q. It’s in the nature of criminal-justice reform that there are no easy answers. Rhetoric on both sides is often unavailing; people’s deeply-held opinions rely on flawed assumptions; and many of the most radical and potentially effective solutions (like mercy for violent criminals) are politically unpalatable. Though honest reporting may not win you any friends in the short term, is there a long-term payoff? Does what you do have the potential to elevate the national discourse, or are you tilting at windmills?
A. Good question. I don’t really know what the long-term payoff is, although the longer I’ve done this, the more I’ve been invited to share my opinions on these topics. For example, I had a chance to influence the debate about the US strategy of replacing executions with life without parole at last year’s World Congress Against the Death Penalty in Oslo.
I do think that the country has come a long way in the years I’ve been paying attention to these issues. As feeble and flawed as Obama’s criminal justice reform measures were, it was rather surreal to see these issues rise to such a level of prominence at all in the past few years – to see criminal justice reform become something politicians actually felt like they had to promise. It was especially amazing to go to a conference of formerly incarcerated people in Oakland last fall, which was pretty damn militant in its politics, and see a DOJ official in attendance, vowing to keep fighting for reform to a room full of people who spent years in prison. In ways that I did not appreciate until recently, for all its problems, this administration did make some genuine efforts to bring formerly incarcerated people to the table.
Of course we also know that these moments are fleeting, and now the Trump administration has swept all that away. What keeps me going is the knowledge that the activists at that conference have always worked on the margins and outside the systems of power – they’re used to not having government on their side and they do it anyway. I try to keep that in mind when I write and just focus on the work.
Q. You and your husband, Radley Balko, are the nation’s premier criminal-justice reporting power couple. Congratulations! Do you guys work together? Has your style of coverage influenced his, or vice versa? Do you ever step on each other’s toes? (You’re both on the junk science beat, for one.) Are you competitive with one another? Does he scoop your stories? Do you scoop his? And whose reporting is the most hard-hitting, anyway (we already know who has better hair)?
A. I don’t know about the whole power couple thing, but thanks. Given that he’s been writing on these issues longer than I have and that I was reading his work long before I met him, I can definitely say he’s influenced my own journalism. I’ve learned a lot from his writing on prosecutorial misconduct, for example, as well as on forensics. The left has also traditionally been not-great at covering things like civil asset forfeiture, and I learned from his writing on that topic. We share a lot in common when it comes to the wrongful conviction beat, and if we collaborate on anything, I imagine it’ll be on that.
I can’t say we’ve stepped on each other’s toes, even when we sometimes come close, say on forensics/junk science. The perverse nature of the criminal justice beat is that there are always more than enough awful stories to go around.
Oh, and I can’t say we’re competitive. We’re in rather different stages in our careers. He is publishing his second book this year, while I have vague goals of writing a book before too long. But our writing is also pretty different. Radley writes daily opinion and analysis – he is obnoxiously skilled at crafting convincing, evidence-based arguments day in and day out. I tend to take a lot longer on stories and prefer to write character-driven narratives. Although I’m trying to get into more opinion pieces, I enjoy reporting feature stories far more.
Q. What’s in your future? You’re extremely young, have a great record of quality journalism and are racking up the kills at The Intercept. Ever feel like putting all that acquired knowledge to the test? Passing the bar, standing in the well and representing someone? (Hell, in California, you wouldn’t even need to go to law school.) Running for office? (Chicago could use a new mayor.) Or is journalism your one true calling? Will President Trump usher in a golden age of criminal-justice reform? Or is the best we can hope for that his constant outrages will keep the press busy?
A. Well, first, I do not consider myself extremely young (at all), but I do think I have time. I am definitely committed to being a journalist for the long haul. There was a time I thought about law school, but only because it would be a good education; I quickly realized it wouldn’t be worth the time and money if I knew I didn’t want to practice. I do also think that good journalism is as necessary now as ever, although I also worry about things like outrage fatigue and what the Trump administration might mean for places like The Intercept, whistleblowers like Edward Snowden and my colleagues who rely on such sources.
When it comes to criminal justice, though, I think a lot of our work remains the same: focusing on the states and localities where many of these battles have always been fought. For the moment, I haven’t gotten tired of telling those stories, and there is certainly more than enough work left to do.