Going Commando with Nima Shirazi of Spitfire Strategies and Citations Needed – Transcript

Kirk: Welcome to Let’s Hear It.

Eric: Let’s Hear It is a podcast for and about the field of foundation and nonprofit communications produced by its two co-hosts, Eric Brown and Kirk Brown. No relation.

Kirk: Well said, Eric. And I’m Kirk.

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Eric: So, let’s get onto the show.


Kirk: And we’re back. Welcome in. You found us. It’s another episode of Let’s Hear It here at the Browns’.

Eric: You were stumbling in the dark…

Kirk: I can’t help it.

Eric: …And you found us. No, not you, them.

Kirk: Oh, thank you. I was stumbling though. I was stumbling.

Eric: No, you’re always so lovely.

Kirk: We’re so glad you’re here. I know. I try to be. So, Mr. Brown, here it is again. Another good one, another good conversation. Tell us who we’re about to listen to.

Eric: All right. Our guest this time is Nima Shirazi, who is a Vice President at Spitfire Strategies and he is the co-host of a podcast. Apparently there’s more than one podcast, Kirk. Nina’s podcast is called Citations Needed, and it’s a very popular, famous podcast. It is about the intersection of power, politics, propaganda, and the press. Pretty peppy party, Pete. But what Nima is doing, the way they define themselves, they’re calling out and correcting the media’s ubiquitous reliance on and regurgitation of false and destructive narratives, tropes and stereotypes. So if you are seeing something of a trend happening on our show is that we are looking about how narratives happen, how you change them, and what they’re doing is looking at this through the lens of the media and it was a fascinating piece of the puzzle.

Kirk: So Nima’s podcast is Citations Needed. Let’s call out Adam Johnson, who’s the co-creator and co-host of that podcast. So, Adam and Nima, thank you for the work you’re doing there. I love this idea, by the way, Eric, of us putting a spotlight on other great podcasts in this space doing this great work. And Nima you can find at Spitfire Strategies as well as at nimashirazi.com. And this is an excellent and really interesting conversation. So let’s listen to Nima and Eric talk and then we’ll be back. This is Nima Shirazi on Let’s Hear It.


Eric: Welcome to Let’s Hear It, folks. I have to tell you, we are, we’re going commando with Nima Shirazi.

Nima: It’s bad framing already.

Eric: We’re here at the Communications Network Conference, and I saw Nima and I went, ah, now here’s a guy who is funny.

Nima: Eh.

Eric: And he has a podcast. And he works in communications. What could possibly go wrong?

Nima: Everything

Eric: We’re about to find out. So, Nima Shirazi, you’re a vice president at Spitfire Strategies.

Nima: Very vice. Yeah, very vice.

Eric: You know, when I became Vice Chair of the Communications Network way back when in the 20th century. I thought I was gonna be the chairman of vice, which is why I took the thing –

Nima: …only to find out…

Eric: …that I was the vice chair. That’s right. So you’re, so you say you are not a senior vice president.

Nima: Oh no. Just a vice president. But that’s, you know, it’s all good. It’s all, it’s all kissing babies and taking a backseat when it comes to policy.

Eric: All vice presidents love the job.

Nima: Yeah, exactly.

Eric: What’s not to love. It’s a very popular job in all sectors of society.

Nima: That’s true.

Eric: Including apparently communications. And you have a podcast. You have actually a much better podcast.

Nima: I was gonna push back on that, but then I was like, well…

Eric: No, you’re actually, it’s better.

Nima: I do, I do have a podcast.

Eric: Citations Needed. And I actually forgot what the exact, uh, description of it, but it had the word bullshit in it.

Nima: It’s true. And this is my line to say. I get to say the tagline every show. It’s a podcast on the media, power, PR, and the history of bullshit.

Eric: Whoa.

Nima: Which, you can imagine, as a communications professional, means that I’m often talking about our own shit.

Eric: Really. And so how’s that work?

Nima: Well, I mean, I think it keeps me, I’ll say honest-er in my work and my approach to communications, right? The fact that, so, so I came to both communications and media criticism actually from first doing independent political commentary. So I started writing about stuff in 2008, being frustrated actually about the narrative, not like, a public narrative, but a narrative that I was hearing from my friends, mostly, in the lead up to the 2008 election and how, whether it was Hillary or Obama, that all the wonderful things… This was gonna be huge. This was gonna be great. Obviously coming off of eight years of George W. Bush, incredibly traumatic, could not wait for something different. I was pretty much sure it wasn’t gonna be John McCain so, good, right? And yet I was really hearing that if you just listen to the candidates, right, the ones that were supposed to be the, the good-er guys, right? We were hearing a lot of the same shit that we had been hearing for the previous eight years, right, the previous 16 years for the previous…

Eric: Are you saying you were feeling a little cynical?

Nima: I was feeling a little cynical, Eric. Me, can you believe it? And, you know, whether it was… Basically the day that Obama sealed the nomination was, was early June, 2008. And that day he actually went and spoke in front of the APAC conference. Just rattled off a whole bunch of AP-y talking points, right? Very much in line with whatever the standard kind of pro-Israel line, anti-Palestinian line doing all the imperial, colonial moving and grooving that politicians do, and certainly did then, maybe a little less now, but not all that much. So I was seeing all of that stuff. I was seeing stuff about, um, about taxes, about infrastructure, about uh, poverty, about education, about employment, about housing. And it all had a better, had better marketing, right? The Obama campaign won marketing awards. But the message wasn’t resonating with me the way that I was seeing it resonate with others. And so I started doing some writing to kind of call that out. This long-winded story is…

Eric: But it’s fascinating. Are you gonna land this plane, Nima?

Nima: I’m gonna land it right now. So I started writing independent –

Eric: Put your tray tables –

Nima: Upright position. Buckle up. It’s gonna come in hard.

Eric: Coming in hot.

Nima: Here we go. So I started writing independent political analysis. That became very often – writing then during the Obama years about the Iranian nuclear program actually, and, and narratives about Iran in general, which I assume I was probably interested in most because I am part Iranian and so yes, that was on my mind, but also it was kind of a perfect distillation of, of, of how political narratives work. And so I started writing a lot about, about that. And from there, wound up actually changing – yeah, I didn’t, uh, the only career I had at the time was being a drummer in touring rock bands. Which ruled.

Eric: Oh, okay.

Nima: But then I needed to like actually pay rent and maybe do something different with my life, unfortunately. And so the real jobs that I had were like working in box office management accidentally. Ah, yeah. And doing stuff when I was home on tour. But then when I really needed to get my shit together, I was doing this writing and I moved into communications, which I, I didn’t know that existed. I didn’t know it was a thing.

Eric: It’s not.

Nima: Oh, thank God.

Eric: I have very bad news for you.

Nima: This, this fever dream is gonna, is gonna pay off.

Eric: So you are gonna wake up, you’re gonna be inside, you’re gonna wake up naked in a box office with your drumsticks.

Nima: This makes, ah, that, you know, that sounds so great. That sounds so, which actually gets back to the going commando that you, you brought it back, we’re already tying, tying things up. So I wound up then working for a foundation doing communications. Didn’t know what communications was, didn’t know what foundations did. And yet, they kept me around.

Eric: Some would say foundations aren’t real. And what foundation did you work for? I worked for the Atlantic Philanthropies.

Eric: Oh, oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. Of course. That’s, I remember seeing you in the hallway.

Nima: Indeed, indeed. We would wave

Eric: All right. I’m back. So who are you anyway?

Nima: Yes. Anyway, to start this interview, we’re joined by Doug Hattaway. So, uh, so I wound up doing communications work and learning what that was or how, what it could be. But also with the experience and the kind of orientation of being extremely cynical about media, of being extremely skeptical about political speechifying, about how PR and marketing work to shape public perception, to shape narrative, to shape common sense and what we would understand as the status quo. And so I think bringing that to communications that I think could have been very talking point-driven, press release-driven, allowed me to have a different way of going about things which then I was able to bring over to Spitfire, which is, which is lovely as well as on that kind of separate track, starting a podcast with a really wonderful media analyst who keeps me even more honest than I keep myself in this work. And, uh, so we do, we do like leftist media criticism while I’m also, uh, working with nonprofits on, uh, trying to fuck the world.

Eric: Do you ever find yourself at cross purposes with yourself, sir?

Nima: Do I find myself at cross purposes in having a podcast that comments on sometimes the very work that I do?

Eric: That’s the question. Yes.

Nima: Oh, shit. Okay. I thought I could just repeat it back to you and avoid answering it. Here’s how I’ll answer that.

Eric: Uh-oh.

Nima: Did you hear that pivot, was that a good media?

Eric: Anyone says that and they’re not gonna answer that.

Nima: No, I actually am gonna answer it. I don’t find myself at cross purposes because I think that the work that I do is with groups that I am aligned with on, on values and mission. And so I tend to do a lot of work with groups that are working on de-carceral solutions to gun violence or, or, or working with groups that are dedicated to abolition rather than mere sort of incremental liberal lame-o police reform. And so I think I am, I’m lucky in that, in that work, I also think I’m afforded the ability to say, no, I won’t work on things when I don’t agree with them. Thankfully for me, uh, Spitfire actually doesn’t, doesn’t present those things a lot often. We are very values-aligned.

Eric: The Association of Lamo Police Reform doesn’t call, they’re not gonna give you a ring.

Nima: That’s right.

Eric: Do you know that your, your boss, your super boss, Kristen Grimm, was the second, I believe she was the second guest on, on this show.

Nima: Oh, you’ve really been downhill since then.

Eric: How about that? I know, I know.

Nima: You’re just dredging the bottom of the communications barrel. It’s, there’s like 800 people at this conference. And you picked me.

Eric: Well, you know, you were standing there. Hey, you come here for a sec. You’re funny, you know things. So Atlantic Philanthropies had the wisdom to hire a cynical pusher backer against the, uh, the tide.

Nima: Something like that. I was hired initially to do kind of comms associate and social media support, and I was probably the only one they spoke to who had a functioning Twitter account. So I think it, I think it, I think that’s probably why, why I was initially hired, but it seemed to actually work out. I then learned how to do the job.

Eric: And here we are at this conference where we’re talking, it’s all comms all the time. I don’t know about you, my brain is buzzing with all kinds of stuff. Where are we? And you’re a critic. You’re good at criticizing. Ooh, and Vu Le was, uh, in the big –

Nima: The main stage.

Eric: The main stage, thank you. And he is absolutely hilarious. And I can’t wait to, I’m going to tackle him in the hallway.

Nima: See, he’ll, he’ll be a better guest.

Eric: No, but he won’t come on, I’m sure. You have to have this combination of people who would be good and willing.


Nima: Neither for me, but you dragged me on here.

Eric: So, uh, so what are you, what are you seeing, hearing, and thinking about right now? About how do we do this job to get what good thing?

Nima: Well, so the thing that I’ve been thinking about a lot recently, I think it’s probably the, the focus of a lot of communications and nothing new, and yet we still rely on this thing where we think that messaging is gonna get us outta trouble. We think that there are magic words. That all you have to, all you have to do is refer to certain communities or certain people in a certain way, and, and we’re gonna magic word our way out of this, we’re gonna, we’re gonna then be equitable and diverse and inclusive. We’re gonna, we’re gonna build justice just by saying justice a lot.

Eric: Justice, justice, justice.

Nima: Ooh. I think it’s working, it’s working on me. And I think that as someone who is a writer, is a researcher, is a talker, does communications – I love words, right? Words are important. This is not to dismiss the importance of words. Words define how we, how we understand the world around us. Other people, you know, Trabian Shorters just did a excellent session on Asset Framing and, you know, the, the way that you describe communities rather than deficits. You, you start with their aspirations and, and their contributions rather than the challenges facing them without ignoring those. Of course, that’s all really important. Those are all incredibly important strategies. I don’t think actually asset framing is a magic word strategy. I think it’s much more holistic. So I’m not really including that, but I think that there is this focus on, let’s use certain words at certain times and that will do the job when actually it’s really easy to communicate about things when you’re doing good things.

Eric: So you mean you have to do good things first?

Nima: You have to actually do good things. You have to, you have to meaningfully work to improve the lives of more people. And so this idea that we’re gonna just communicate our way towards justice rather than building power through real organizing, like real organizing work, which has components of advocacy and policy and so much communications. Some of the best communicators I know are lifelong organizers. They’re the, they have to make connections with people, right? But that’s where the power is going to be built. And once you have that power and can actually change people’s lives for the better, it’s actually really easy to talk about, and you don’t need philanthro-jargon or magic words to do the job.

Eric: Well, we’re gonna be right back in a second with Nima Shirazi of Spitfire Strategies and Citations Needed, and we’ll continue this conversation in just a sec.


Eric: You’re listening to Let’s Hear It, a podcast about foundation and nonprofit communications hosted by Kirk Brown and Eric Brown. We are delighted to welcome our newest sponsor, the Stupski Foundation. Thank you for your support. You can find Let’s Hear It online at letshearitcast.com, on LinkedIn, and even on Instagram. If you’re enjoying the show, please rate us on Apple Podcasts so more people can find us. Thanks for listening and now, back to the show.


Eric: And we are back with Nima Shirazi of Spitfire Strategies. Before the break, we were talking about how maybe it’d be helpful if we could just actually do things and that the communications would follow.

Nima: Yeah. Imagine that.

Eric: Om the other hand, the communications can be, I mean, grim, we work in this field and we look around and we go, oh my God. People have a very hard time describing what they’re doing. Mm-hmm. They have, they have often a better time describing the problem, not so much about what we’re doing about the solution. What, like, do you think things are getting any better?

Nima: Oh, man. You picked the wrong guest. Is this supposed to be an optimistic podcast?

Eric: No, it doesn’t matter.

Nima: Okay. Things getting better. I think a lot of things are getting better. I think fundamentally a lot of things are getting worse. I think that, you know, look, when I say that communications will follow from doing good things, that’s not to say that communications is not necessary on the front end of this work. It is crucial, right, to even get to the point where decisions can be made to, you know, resource communities, to defund police departments, to actually build housing for the homeless populations. These are, these are things that do come oftentimes from communications because of how narratives are built and how they flow through our society. But also I think that in this field, and whether it is with philanthropy or a lot of, a lot of nonprofits that have to get their money, understandably so, although frustratingly so because of the system that we are in.

Eric: Not a good system.

Nima: Capitalism. I just heard myself, I just heard myself talking around something, which was weird. Because of capitalism and oftentimes, you know, racial capitalism, we are left really hoping that certain funding entities do the job we want them to do, and wouldn’t that be so great? And I think that oftentimes what it comes down to is can we trust a sector that is built on inequity, on extraction, on exploitation, right, this extreme wealth, can we expect/hope/rely on this sector to effectively fund itself out of power, fund itself out of existence, right? Is the even centrist or you know, hopefully more progressive funders, are they actually going to bankroll their own demise? Can you fund the revolution against you? Um, which I think is what’s needed. And not just that progressive funders need to go out of business. Obviously there are, there’s an incredible rightwing infrastructure of, of, of extreme wealth that funds white nationalists and supremacist movements and has for decades, if not centuries. And so, but what I am seeing in this sector and, and the work that I think so many people are trying to do really, really great work here, are those running up sometimes against those questions of like, how far is a, is a huge national funder gonna go to fund things that are fundamentally against them existing. And I think we need more of that. But it is a hard ask, and even when you see wonderful, wonderful groups being funded, I think there are just so many more that obviously won’t even be on the radar because of what they’re trying to do, which is, which is a different kind of systems change than, you know, maybe incremental around the margins.

Eric: And now, given that… You’re right. It’s like, uh, voters voting for term limits. Stop me before I reelect. Take away my power of, uh, the franchise, in a sense. Given the fact that we are probably not going to see the dismantling of the American version of capitalism ’cause there are some European versions of capitalism that seem to have a little more equanimity built into, into their systems.. Slightly more fairness, although, in fairness, many of those places are racially much more homogenous than than ours. But, eh, it’s changing. Anyway. Given that we are where we are and how we are, what next shall we do is, I think Tolstoy, or maybe it was, maybe it was someone from Star Trek.

Nima: I think it was Doug Hattaway.

Eric: It was, it was Chekhov. It was Chekhov from Star Trek. Um, or Hattaway.

Nima: So what do we, what do we do now is the question? What the hell do we do?

Eric: What next shall we do? Yeah. Given that we, here we are in this system that is, is designed to perpetuate itself, protect units and fund all the –

Nima: But the work, the work is to dismantle that system. I don’t think that is going to be driven by foundations.

Eric: Right, fair enough.

Nima: Or by communications consultancies. But I do think it’s gonna be driven by beautifully organized communities, by those pushing to, you know, reckon with the systems that we have held up, that we have entrenched for so long. And I think that supporting those movements and not being cynical about possibility is gonna get us to a much, to a much better place. I think being realistic about the power that media has and not just kind of being snarky about that and how annoying that is, but to see that as part of this system –

Eric: No matter how much fun. How many people tend into your podcast.

Nima: A few, a few people listen. It’s unbelievable. It’s quite popular. You should start listening.

Eric: I will. I wanna hear how it’s done.

Nima: And so I think that the idea of supporting organizing is gonna be the highest order of systems change. That balance of power does need to shift. And I know that as a cynical New Yorker, I can easily say like, is that gonna happen in my lifetime? I don’t know. But you know what? A lot has happened that I would not have imagined could have happened, whether it’s in in the past two years, whether it’s in the past 10 or 40, I think you, you can’t necessarily expect all the wonderful things, but you can support those who are building those wonderful things. You can be a part of those movements and you can certainly, I think maybe most importantly, you cannot put up barriers in their way just because you hold certain purse strings or you think that certain messaging is going to offend certain folks that you don’t wanna offend. I think being offensive is the only way to change.

Eric: Well, as a heartbroken New York Mets fan, I could say that nothing will ever be, this sun will never come out again. But I will also say that I have learned so much from people about how to think about making change. That at the very least, I see how it keeps people moving forward and I see it how it gives people hope. Because you’re right. That cynical view –

Nima: It’s very powerful.

Eric: It is powerful. And it’s death. I mean it is the thing that will send you, well, send you right to the tavern, or worse. Actually, I do wanna talk to you about your podcast just because it is a, it’s a huge platform and, and it’s also a place –

Nima: I thought that’s what we were doing.

Eric: Uh, it’s a place to learn. What have you learned about, what have you learned about the discourse in doing that very publicly for, for quite some time to fairly large audience?

Nima: Yeah. We, we, we just started our sixth season, so, uh, it’s been five over five years of doing this. We never expected it to get this far, uh, or to have the platform that, that, that we have the listenership. Uh, so that’s been wonderful. What I, I think I realized, I, I’ve realized a number of things. One is, is how many wonderful people don’t have fundamental historical knowledge or context to put what they know is true into, like into that meaningful context. So it’s not like, oh, people are stupid. People are not stupid. They, they, they know what’s right. They know how things should be. But when you then break out, whether it is the advent and then proliferation of terms like middle America or even the middle class, or you start dissecting rampant cop-aganda that is in our media, even things like officer involved shooting and you learn that that term officer involved shooting was created in the late seventies by the LA police department’s PR team.

Eric: Wow.

Nima: To track when cops killed people. So that they could prepare for that and have their talking points and do their media, but they cataloged those incidents of cops killing people under what they called, in their PR speak, officer involved shootings. And then when there was a very high profile murder in Compton of EulaLove in 1979, the news reporting on that used the LAPD’s PR… Like the New York Times in reporting on the story used that term, and once it was in the Times, it went everywhere. And so the idea that something that seems innocuous, something that seems like, oh, it’s just, it’s just the way, that’s just the term for that, what do you mean? Like how is, eh, it’s just sort of benign. It’s neutral. It’s not neutral. None of this is neutral. There’s nothing that’s apolitical. There’s nothing that’s neutral. That is what I’ve learned, that things come from places. Things have context. Yes. And so even these kind of PR speak benign sounding terms like austerity, right, just means like dismantling public programs that keep people safe and alive, but that takess more words. You know, Pete Peterson Institute for Fiscal Nonsense doesn’t want you to say that. And so you say austerity or you say tightening the belts, or you pretend that a family’s kitchen table budget is the same thing as a federal budget, but somehow disregard the fact that families can’t print their own money. Once you start dissecting these things, I think you start to realize, oh, I’ve known that, or I’ve thought that, or I knew there was something fishy about that, but I didn’t really know how it came about. I didn’t know how to put it in context. I didn’t know what it actually serves. And I think that through the show, uh, Citations Needed, we kind of do that researc. So we’ll take a look back at, you know, how eye witness and action news format in local TV started in Philadelphia. That’s actually not our research. Uh, Layla A. Jones from the Philadelphia Inquirer did an, an incredible piece on this as part of their More Perfect Union series and we had her on, but it’s that kind of thing where you, you just sort of backtrack these things that just seem like the natural order of things, right? Well, local news, it’s just a police blotter. It didn’t need to be. That’s a format that was created to get eyeballs to really lean into, if it bleeds, it leads . It doesn’t have to be that way. And so on our show, we, we kind of investigate a lot of these things and then try to, as best we can, imagine a world away for that not to be the case. And if it’s not the case, that’s when the possibilities of far more community, of far more power shifting can really be realized. Because you’re shifting the way that narratives unfold. You’re shifting the way that popular perception and opinion is built and maintained. You’re shifting the way that people’s fear impulses can then maybe become much more hopeful, much more collective. So that’s what we try to do on the show, always through the lens of media criticism.

Eric: Ah! So now I figured out how the pieces go together!

Nima: It’s like a revelation.

Eric: It’s unbelievable. And how you can apply that to the work that we do. And with foundations and nonprofits. By adding, I mean, it is true. You’re quite right. A) we sadly are having a critical thinking deficit in our country, I suspect. And actually, everywhere. Uh, we, we see the rise of right-wing dictators and things like that who are engaging, people who have not thought critically about the issues that they’re dealing with. But –

Nima: I’d also argue that liberal leaders here at home are also utilizing many of the same, many of the same messages with audiences that also don’t think critically about things. And also not to say that everyone has time to think critically about things, right. People are just trying to pay rent, just trying to get through the day, try to hang out with their kids. And so I just, I, I, yes, I, I I think that there is a, a huge disinformation, danger, threat of beyond threat happening right now. I would, I would caution us all against thinking that this is new. And, and see how we, and see how we got here and how. And how a lot of the work that I think we have done may have helped bring us to this place rather than, uh, push back on it beforehand.

Eric: Oy. All right. Well, thanks for that.

Nima: And with that I gotta go.

Eric: I really enjoyed talking to you, Nima. I feel great.

Nima: I’m an optimist.

Eric: So I guess what I’m gonna do for my homework is go out and undo all that stuff that I did.

Nima: Yeah, can you stop fucking shit up?

Eric: I’m gonna, I’m gonna fix it. Nima Shirazi, Spitfire Strategies, Citations Needed. Thank you so much.  That was a whole lot of fun and I hope it wasn’t as as bad as you were –

Nima: No, this was only slightly arduous. Yeah, like a minor torture.

Eric: That’s going on the website. Only slightly arduous. A minor torture.

Nima: No, this was, this was a real pleasure Eric. Thank you for dragging me down the hallway to do this. No, truly, truly. It’s been great. Thank you.

Eric: Thanks again.


Kirk: And we’re back.

Eric: So, oh, I forgot a few things in the inside.

Kirk: Go ahead.

Eric: Which, you know, now you know. So this, this conversation is like one of those lost tapes because it happened at the Communications Network conference of 2022.

Kirk: Oh wow.

Eric: So, if you’re thinking that it happened at this one, uh, it didn’t, ’cause this, by the time this is released, Comnet will not have happened yet. So it, it’s been aging, it’s been improving in the bottle over the past year. So look, look by, by a variety of of circumstances, we were unable to release it until this moment. So you are sipping some fine wine, folks.

Kirk: It’s aged quite well, in fact. This is the definition of evergreen content, if there ever was a definition, because Nima has some really good stuff for us to reflect on. So, and I love that, I was gonna mention that in the setup, that takeaway line at the end: Thank you for grabbing me in the hallway. You can tell Nima is a pro, right? If Nima, literally, if you literally grabbed Nima in the hallway and sat Nima down for this conversation, and that’s what we got from Nima, that that’s like a drop dead, just downright pro, wouldn’t you say?

Eric: Well, he had a little bit of warning, but we were, we were talking about getting together and doing a show, and then I saw him and I grabbed him, let’s do it. And we did, although I’m sure we go wake him in his bed at three o’clock in the morning and he would be able to wax eloquent and slightly profane about the state of media and narrative and tropes and stereotypes and all that.

Kirk: You know, one thing you didn’t talk about, but I just wanna acknowledge, so Nima is Iranian and has a really nuanced perspective on Iran and Western media coverage in Iran, and it was a good glimpse, I think, into the second sight that you can develop or you need to bring to this media and communications work that we do, and certainly Citations Needed is delving into this world, which is so interesting and exciting, providing that backstory for people about what they’re seeing in the media landscape and where it might be coming from in certain languages, certain words, certain uses of phrase that get engineered out of this factory of let’s call it cynicism, but then end up becoming part of our regular parlance. And so I just wanted to acknowledge that part of Nima’s work, that that perspective of unraveling the story and getting to what’s behind the story, my God, that is so valuable. And, and I loved how you guys talked about it, and I love how Nima does that with this podcast.

Eric: It’s interesting because when I brought up this idea that people ought to apply critical thinking, he responded like, Hey, look. You know, people just wanna get through the day. They wanna go to work, they wanna come home, they wanna have dinner, they want to, you know, hang out with their family. That, that critical thinking is, is nice to have, but that when you’re dealing with the realities of people’s lives, you have to understand that what you present gets consumed. And you can’t complain that people don’t, because they’re not able to apply a critical thinking lens, that it’s somehow their fault that we are feeding people misinformation, misinformation in a kind of a broad range of definitions. We are feeding people racism, we’re feeding them an understanding about how economies work or how, how people’s lives can and could be, things that aren’t true. And, and that’s something that’s, that’s quite important. And the question is how are we, how do we reshape these, frankly, toxic narratives that we’re seeing every single day. It, this is not like it’s something that’s, that’s rare. It is built into the system. The other thing that, that Nima talks about as a, you know, a good, uh, Marxist, I think is, is that the capitalist system is designed to do that. And now you can yell and scream about that, but you’d also, I mean, I’m not entirely sure that he’s wrong. I think that the way that these narratives proceed are things that do kind of prop up the standard operating procedure that allows a lot of folks to get really rich.

Kirk: I thought that was a really interesting exchange you guys had about that. But can we just jump back for a second? So, Nima gets started at the Atlantic Philanthropies and so listening to Nima provide this perspective, the work Nima is doing sitting as Spitfire Strategies of not the vice president, but a vice president –

Eric: It’s a run of the mill vice president.

Kirk: Clearly good people at at Spitfire. What do you think about starting in a major philanthropic organization like Atlantic Philanthropies as a barrier or actually asset in developing this perspective that Nima’s developed in the work and through his own lived experience, because it, it, it seems like that perspective weighs a lot in terms of what he’s, what he’s seeing and what he is able to see with his work.

Eric: Well, when you work at a foundation, you get the opportunity to look across a lot of organizations that are doing work that many of which are attempting to present positive narratives about a variety of things about access or equity or democracy or you name it. And Atlantic is one of the, it was one of the really, really good ones in this regard, and so I think his perspective was, I think he had a great perspective looking across all these organizations. So I think it was a great start. And then moving over to Spitfire, which is a, a real advocate, which is working with, directly with a lot of nonprofit organizations. As I’ve said on this show, I don’t know, we’ve done 77 episodes, this is 78th, I think? I’ve said it 79 times, which is the foundations are like the kids watching the other kids playing on the playground. You know, we’re always one step removed. Uh, but for Spitfire, they’re really advocating on behalf of grantees and, and other organizations. And so, uh, moving closer to the scrum, if you will, seems like a logical progression. Now, the fact that he has this split life in which he kind of takes his fire hat off and then puts on his media critic hat, I think that sounds like a very exciting opportunity, a chance to kind of process a lot of the stuff that you’re seeing on a daily basis in your day job.

Kirk: Well, and I, man, I’d love to know how the week works for him, because, I mean, those are really demanding roles, right? Doing the, doing the podcast the way he’s doing it, that would take a lot of time, a lot of research. And then of course, he’s working in the world that he is involved with, with Spitfire, also a very demanding job. I, I do wanna make one correction though. Kristen was our fifth guest on Let’s Hear It, not our second guest, but, but one of the early guests, and very gracious, very gracious to join the podcast early on.

Eric: As usual, Kirk, you keep me honest, you speak truth. I speak in hyperbole and a fair amount of frippery.

Kirk: Let’s talk about truth for a moment, because we’ve heard some pretty challenging things on this podcast, but I thought we heard something very challenging in this conversation and I loved it, it was one of my favorite phrases. So Nima starts talking about, we have this whole industry that’s built around the premise that messaging is gonna get us outta trouble, and we just need to figure out the messaging. And he points out, you know, we’re not gonna build justice just by saying justice. There’s an and required here. It’s not just the messaging, but it’s also the real power that we build when we actually get in the field, organize and help people in their lives in a very material way. I think it’s interesting that he’s seen that as a little bit of a dichotomy, and, and of course you guys didn’t, you weren’t able to get into it too deeply, but I think this is a really fair point. Like, sometimes we think about this air thing we’re doing, we’re in the air, the, the ether with all this conversation and it’s narrative and it’s this or that, but it’s really communications in service of that deeper work. Yes? Don’t you think, or, or what do you think about that?

Eric: Hmm. I think…

Kirk: It’s an interesting one, right?

Eric: It’s a bit of a head scratcher. No, I think on the one hand, and we’ve talked about this a lot, how you talk about things, what you say, imprints upon people’s brains and their brains change shape and they become accustomed to a way of thinking about a thing. That’s why a rat is a rat but a rat with a cute little stripe is a chipmunk and that’s cute. And, and so what you say matters, how you present things matter. And then, but Nima says, absolutely appropriately, what you do matters. And that’s why the organizers who get out into the community, who get people to vote, who do the things that you need to do in order to gather support and engage people and all that other stuff. It’s not enough just to have a good message. You have to back it up with action. And I think that’s a really powerful combination. He talks about the organizers as being the great communicators and ones who are trying out messaging on a very regular basis in which you’re getting, you know, moment to moment feedback. So much of our work that we do in communications, like, ooh, that sounds like a good message. I’m gonna chuck it out there into the ionosphere and maybe it’s gonna work and maybe it doesn’t and I’m not quite sure how I’ll know. But as he very correctly points out, the organizers are the ones they, they see it, they know it, they’re doing it, they’re testing it, they’re checking it. And that’s, that’s really powerful. Now it’s, this is not to say that organizing is the only way to bring about social change, but it’s a powerful way and it’s, I think, some of the great social movements that we can name were created and acted upon by organizers.


Kirk: I love the observation that it’s easy to talk about good things. When you’re doing good things like when you’re, when you’re in the work, when you’re doing the work and you’re doing the good work, it actually gets easier to talk about. But I just think there’s something very interesting here in the intersection between that really heavy-duty grassroots, in the field, organizing, changing lives, creating material benefit. We’ve heard it in different ways in the podcast recently, how those stories are so powerful and those maybe are the stories that need to be uplifted the most, and whether or not those organizations in the field doing that work actually have adequate communications capacity to get those stories told is a really interesting reflection. And, and it is this interesting choice that gets made sometimes around, okay, well we’re, we’re trying to drive policy. We’re trying to move, you know, political and policy change. Well, what does that mean? Well, we’re actually gonna do elite work with elite decision makers. And you know, it’s really, it’s that kind of a conversation. And then there’s this other perspective saying, you know, actually if there’s real people out there, demonstrating what this has to look like because of their lived experience and how that gets shared and gets communicated, it’s a very, I could imagine sitting in a foundation and actually with a certain amount of resources, ’cause it’s not infinite, even though there’s probably more dollars than we would like to think. But there’s, there’s, there’s, it’s not always an infinite, the choices you get to make having to make those choices at times, I could see being a little bit difficult.

Eric: Well, you know, when I was press Secretary on the Hill all those many years ago, the constituents matter. I mean, people think about this as like some kind of abstract thing, but my boss and the bosses of my counterparts on the hill, when the constituents showed up, they paid attention. Their constituents matter. And yeah, it’s fine. You can start some kind of, whatever you grass tops or whatever the name, grass grow turf, pick up your, you know, fake green thing. Uh, Movement in which you’re emailing somebody else’s member of Congress, and frankly, I don’t think they really care about them so much. Obviously, money matters to your political donors. That’s, they exist and they matter, but when your constituents come through the door or actually prove that they’re engaged on an issue, an elected official pays attention. And so advocacy, policy advocacy is not this abstract thing. It is a thing that exists in the communities in which you’ve been elected to serve. And I know there’s a ton of cynicism, rightly so about elected officials and political folks, but I do think that somewhere deep inside their kind of lizard brains or weird, messed up souls, these members actually care about delivering. Now the other piece is that these narratives that Nima is so passionate about and so rightly concerned about are being created and are being kind of fomented into the political system so that the constituents who show up, show up, frankly, with tiki torches. And they’re the ones who storm congress and attempt to steal our democracy. And those narratives are powerful and they’re insidious, they’re dangerous, and they have to be stopped and they have to be counter counteracted. And I think that’s where, that’s what Nima spends a weekly podcast – Weekly, Kirk, they do this every week!

Kirk: That’s so impressive. Well, we gotta talk about Citations Needed before we leave. So first of all, the alliteration, a podcast about the intersection of politics, power, propaganda, and the press. Genius. I thought we had a good idea for a podcast. This sounds like an even better idea for a podcast.

Eric: Oh good, now we can stop. We’ll just listen, we’ll just listen.

Kirk: We’ll, we’ll just go listen to Nima. But this piece, this sensibility, this recognition that, any of these phrase: officer involved, shooting, austerity, any of these words, how they get covered in the mainstream media. A single New York Times article warrants a PhD level dissertation of what’s going on in that article. You know, what are the frames? What are the, what’s the language? What are the references? Who’s in the story? Who’s not in the story? What’s the perspective? And the fact that that takes time to really deconstruct, and that you actually have to spend time with those stories to understand that, that backdrop for Nima, to bring that media critic sensibility, and, and it sounds like, you know, Citations Needed is quite popular and quite successful. What a wonderful thing that is because that’s a perspective we all desperately need, right? That, that second sight again, of what we’re actually seeing, that critical thought process that actually takes that story apart and says, okay, what’s going on with this? Nima, congratulations, Nima and Adam. Great idea. I’m so glad that’s succeeding.

Eric: I totally agree. I mean, they do a great job of this. I had this moment that kind of the, Hey, now I finally figured it out, uh, uh, towards, towards the end of our conversation because I’m slow. But the, the idea is that this is, in my mind, what I figured out and didn’t get a chance to say, is that this is kind of the flip side of the conversation that we’ve been having about how to create narratives. What he’s trying to do is how to expose these toxic narratives and the really insidious way that they have been created and advanced. And that’s, that’s really true. There’s a show this week that they just released or a couple of weeks ago about country music and these, these songs that are coming about country music that are kind of normalizing hate, basically hateful thought. Like, not in my town. I can’t remember what the, what the song is, but that kind of stuff that, like he gets, these guys have like x-ray vision. They see this stuff. They can identify it, they can call it out, they can deconstruct it. And that’s, that’s the other side of what many of the grantees of the foundations that we know and care about are, are trying to do. Those folks are doing the, the, that narrative change work. But the fact is you have to change that narrative from this other stuff that is so well ingrained and part of the mainstream media that changing those narratives is very, very difficult.

Kirk: And being unsparing in how they’re doing that too. I mean, so we just had Tony on the podcast talking about do-gooders using terrible language, trying to support their work. And, and I think Nima’s  doing a version of this too, where’s saying, look, regardless of where you’re at and how you self, wherever you self-describe in terms of where you sit in the political continuum, this kind of, for better, for worse, cynical or not, but this kind of inappropriate framing, this kind of inappropriate messaging you can find across the continuum. And, and, and it all warrants, it all warrants excavation, and trying to understand it. That that’s a really, that, that, what an insight. What an insight.

Eric: Yeah. And I would tell people, listen to Citations Needed, but it’s so popular. You probably already do. So, well, Eric, this was awesome. So this is Nima Shirazi. This is Citations Needed. Again, shout out to Adam Johnson, Nima’s co-host, Spitfire, of course, seminal group, you’re doing great work, and you can find Nima at nimashirazi.com. But wow, what a great conversation, Eric, and Nima, Adam, keep at it. It’s great. We need it.

Eric: Too much fun. Thanks guys.

Kirk: Thanks everybody. Until next time.


Kirk: Okay, everybody. That’s it for this episode. Please let us know if you have any thoughts about what you heard today or people we should have on this show, and that definitely includes yourself. And we’d like to thank…

Eric: Our indefatigable producer, Harper Brown.

Kirk: John Allee, the tuneful and inspiring composer of our theme music, our sponsor, the Lumina Foundation.

Kirk: And please check out Lumina’s terrific podcast, Today’s Students, Tomorrow’s Talent, and you can find that at luminafoundation.org.

Eric: We certainly thank today’s guest, and of course, all of you.

Kirk: And most importantly, thank you, Mr. Brown.

Eric: Oh, no, no, no, no. Thank you, Mr. Brown.

Kirk: Okay, everybody, till next time.