Thursday, January 3, 2018

In Malaney Weisman's recording studio there is a small almost unimpressive set up, two microphones with NPR stickers stuck on their bases, a Macbook, and some headphones. Next to the laptop are legal pads filled with notes. A second desk with a large iMac covered in multi-colored post-it notes, and a stack of newspapers. A black and brown dog named Lin is stretched out peacefully on the floor, next to and not on her dog bed which takes up most of the walking room. Her studio office snug, with most of the space taken up by a queen bed as her office doubles as a guest bedroom in her Tribeca loft. On the large cork board in her office there are over a dozen of hastily drawn cartoons from Weisman's wife, one is presumably them snoozing on a couch with cats spread out on them captioned "living our best lives." Another drawing has a smug redheaded woman looking at her watch that just has the word "LATE."

Twice a week Weisman interviews a variety of guests but usually her fellow journalists on her 8-year-running podcast "Off the Record." (OTR) The episodes cover breaking stories or underreported ones for roughly an hour and 15 minutes. Early on, OTR focused on the behind the scenes or untold stories of journalists (and occasionally it still does) but one of the unique aspects of the show allowed people through social media to submit questions to Weisman ahead of time for her guests on their articles. After five years, Weisman is getting ready to move on to other projects but she still can't quite pull herself away and her massive following of 1.1 million subscribers and her listeners aren’t ready for her leave just yet.

As one of those subscribers, I only knew Weisman from her voice. When I first met her for this piece it was like de ja vu and gave me goose bumps. When I explained this bizarre chill like feeling she laughed and said she gets recognized for her voice all the time and people can't place it because they can't place her. Her wife tells people it’s because Weisman does voiceover work in commercials for cleaning products. Weisman added that "a lot of people leave satisfied with that answer."

In a sea of expanding podcasts and media, Weisman's skill is well known, she has the highly sought after ability to mix comedy and sharpness while covering sometimes obnoxiously tedious details in news stories. Her four and half episodes covering the New York Times story on the President and his father's illegal tax schemes with its authors is an especially vivid example of Weisman's talent to break up the often long lost details in this era of quick headline based news consumption.

Some have criticized that her show takes readers away from the articles and subscriptions, but Weisman strongly disagrees with her critics and points to recent data on the news habits of the public which overall generally supported Weisman's theory that people are more likely to read an article for themselves once they've heard or learned about it through another source, further people are more likely to continue in engaging with news media on their own once they have gotten into it. It's a strange phenomenon, but Weisman's theory is not only supported by user data, but other journalists and news organizations have caught on to OTRs strategy. When the New York Times launched its podcast "The Daily" in 2016, they saw a major uptick in readers and subscriptions largely due to the influx of digital listeners.

Although Weisman has dominated the podcast market for the last eight years, she had previously been in television as a broadcast journalist from 1991 to 2007 for NBC News. Now, after a decade of being off camera, Weisman announced in September that she's returning to the screen for a Netflix show executive produced by Anderson Cooper. The untitled project follows the stories of 4 missing journalists, and changes in free press around the world over the last five years. The project is tight lipped due to its sensitive nature and is set to air in summer 2020.

Before her decade absence from television, Weisman was known as "MJ Weisman" for NBC news, she was best known for being one of three female journalists covering the Iraq war as an embed reporter from 2003 and 2005. After her experiences in Iraq, Weisman authored her book "Live from the Ground" that came out in 2006 as an expose on the serious journalistic ethics issues that were raised during her time embedded. Her book was also partially autobiographical and discussing her recurring depression, PTSD, and her sudden and complete detachment from her work. The book was also highly controversial accusing many news networks of gaming coverage and forcing embeds to engage in a propaganda effort about the war.

Weisman's book was also significant when because she came out publicly as a lesbian. Prior to 2006, only some close friends and family were aware of her orientation. She was the first openly gay journalist on a major news network but soon after her book came out she was fired from NBC. After her book release and subsequent firing Weisman was pulled from every talk show appearance on her former network and experienced a period of being blacklisted by all major networks. Weisman filed suit against NBC which ended in a closed settlement.

After struggling to find a job Wesiman unexpectedly turned to comedy. Her longtime friend Ira Glass (This American Life) and Matt Siiva (Serial) were in the process of creating the short lived series "Drunken Discourse" where members of the media debated topical issues with drinks in front of a live audience. A recorded version aired on NYPR for its year run and Weisman hosted. Although it was a short job Weisman recalls it was critical in getting her in at NPR and opening the door for her podcast.

Weisman realized there was a gap between the establishment media, journalists, and the general public who was fully enthralled with social media, and these three groups were entirely disconnected. She and wanted to work on something to bring everything together. The process was a lot of trial and error. Weisman tried a number of ways to reign in her idea, including a series of short essays by journalists, and an NPR news segment. Eventually Glass suggested a podcast series and in 2010 the first episode of OTR was launched. Weisman's first guest was a former classmate of hers from Standford, Rachel Maddow.

As Weisman's show was getting ready to launch she also met her wife and partner of 9 years, Dina Sanders. Sanders is an immigration attorney and partner at Gould, the largest immigration firm in the country. Weisman calls Sanders "her most bookable guest" and Sanders is a fan favorite on the show so much that the two regularly joke they are going to create a spinoff of OTR of just them and calling it "The Gayly." Sanders has had a number of comedic appearances on OTR but she is she is best known on the show jokingly as the show's "immigration correspondent." One of her appearances on the show made national news as she discussed her 74 hour stay at JFK airport during the first attempt of President Trump's Muslim travel ban that unlawfully detained hundreds of travelers, including individuals on student-visas and legal permanent residents. Sanders has been on the show more frequently with the recent uprising of immigration issues during this administration.

Weisman and Sanders got married in September 2018, after Weisman returned from a 9 month stay in Australia working with the international journalism ethics association. It's there she also formed the interest and support for her upcoming Netflix series.

When it comes to the future of journalism Weisman admits that she is fearful and that it is a scary time but she knows that there are countless journalists ready to do the work needed even with their safety and lives at risk. While the stifling of journalists through violence is her main concern, another major problem has to do with funding and corporate control of major news organizations that edit truth and internally hinder free press. An issue Weisman first addressed in her book that cost her job and much of her professional reputation, thirteen years later she raises the same concerns and levies the same charges as before and is eager to bring change.