Caitlin Johnstone wears her long hair in a lawless bun. Caitlin Johnstone once made a wage as a tap-dance instructor. Caitlin Johnstone is just the sort who won’t hear of you taking the train home and will drive you twenty clicks, because, well, look. Just get in the car. It’s Friday night and I’m taking the kids to their thing at Southland shopping centre anyway.
“Also, we can get more chit-chat in on the road, Razer. Tell me more about your divorce.”
Caitlin Johnstone and the rhythms of her life in this outer Melbourne suburb feel to me so immediately familiar, it’s a snip to forget why I asked for a seat on her sofa. This was not to drink tea and compare a very comparable adolescence with mine. It was to learn how someone with two kids, an irregular CV and a tuxedo cat named Tangles came so quickly to be revered, and reviled, very widely by US readers.
“Questions of injustice, particularly economic and racist injustice, have gnawed at me for as long as I can remember. The question of power — who has it, who doesn’t — is a natural one for me to ask. Now, I’m able to ask it, to reveal its layers, and provide readers with something of an answer.”
Johnstone makes bold but substantiated claims in plain language. She’s a fourth-generation journalist (her dad is Graeme Johnstone, known for years in Melbourne by Herald Sun column “A Place in the Sun”) and a journalism grad who knows the trade’s two big rules by heart: tell the truth and don’t be boring.
An even simpler answer, now provided daily by US journalists of storied publications, is that she’s a click-baiting Bernie Bro populist with hidden racist tendencies whose “pseudo-feminism” conceals her true masquerade, which is, of course, that she’s not even a proper journalist — a claim she was once compelled to counter, birther-style, by reproducing her degree on Facebook. A proper journalist is not Australian. A proper journalist would not question the veracity of Russia-gate. A proper journalist would not attract calls by a senior US reporter, as she did on the day of my visit, for her expulsion from the internet.
It is true that this Australian provides many US readers with work that may confirm their suspicions of the present. Namely, that the nation and all its institutions are beginning to crack. But it is also true that she approaches her material — this includes the DoJ investigation of Assange, US involvement in Syria, the failure of US press to acknowledge that Trump’s victory is due in part to their ongoing failure to report on economic policy settings that now fail the people — as an old-school journalist.
There’s a less-than-simple answer to the matter of Johnstone’s self-publishing success, one highlighted by the musician Roger Waters who told Pink Floyd faithful to read her blog “because it’s probably the only sensible news you’ll read”. And that is: she’s a cynical naïf. Or, a naïve cynic. Whichever you prefer.
This journalism, like all journalism worth reading, is informed by doubt. The question for the journalist must not be, as it so often is, “How do I restate the version of the truth advanced by the powerful?” but, “How do I advance the truth?” In our era beset by a mania for the truth so hasty and extreme, many would prefer to choose from just two truths — Trump or Clinton; feminist or misogynist; courageous whistle-blower or craven sneaky leaker — Johnstone is a deviant.
She’s a deviant with an audience who are willing to pay for this aberrant truth. Together with research partner Tim Foley, she brings optimism to her pessimistic accounts of the end of empire every day. That’s the reason her value is declared alongside big-name figures of “alternative” US journalism including Amy Goodman and Glenn Greenwald. She’s idealistic about a journalism that no longer exists, and a journalism that demanded pessimism from its most serious practitioners.
On the first day of journalism class in Melbourne years ago, Johnstone had morning sickness. “Got myself knocked up, didn’t I?” she says, and then says how glad she is to have been knocked up, because those kids are “the lights of my life.” Even when they need lifts to Southland.
Johnstone finished the degree, but came to know that working for a mainstream outlet would be a matter of “regurgitating tedious press releases” and not really worth leaving the kids for. She was a sort of proto-mummy blogger for a spell, but lost interest in providing popular posts on environmentally responsible cleaning when large companies offered her large cheques to spruik their products.
“I’d always expected to become a journalist. It was a good trade, a family trade. When I was small, I made myself a ‘press’ card for my hat. Later, I imagined squatting to do my pieces to camera, George Negus-style, with mortar fire and devastation in the background. I’d be a foreign war correspondent.”
Johnstone, I reckon, is now able to believe in and enact the best principles of journalism because she didn’t practice it in its recent and compromised past. In 2016, she returned to the thing she’d always idealised as a pessimistic craft through writing about Bernie Sanders for publication The Inquisitr.
The optimistic cynicism remained intact. She didn’t lose her love for a story made from shoe-leather, as those of us who have worked for so long with mainstream outlets largely have. She didn’t lose her doubt about the USA because she’s never lived there.
From a rental in the burbs when the kids are at their Australian state school, a former tap-dance teacher enrages and enchants US readers. And then, she drives you home.