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Why Did Activism Take Over Journalism?—Amber Athey Cuts Through the Information War

“These corporate outlets have really blurred the lines so aggressively that people can’t even tell the difference anymore between who is actually trying to impart truth and who is trying to impart an agenda,” says Amber Athey, The Spectator’s Washington editor and a senior fellow at the Steamboat Institute.

How did activism take over journalism? And what will it take to cut through the information war?

“Their power comes in their stranglehold on information. And if they don’t have that anymore, then they no longer are able to operate with this monopoly that they’ve enjoyed over the past few decades,” Athey says.

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Jan Jekielek:

Amber Athey, such a pleasure to have you on American Thought Leaders.

Amber Athey:

Thank you for having me.

Mr. Jekielek:

Amber, you study one of my favorite topics, which is media. What I want to do today, we’re going to talk about how to look at our traditional mainstream, or what I call legacy media. But actually, why don’t we start with just by talking about what is the media landscape and how would you describe the current media landscape in America?

Ms. Athey:

Well, the current landscape is that the corporate media outlets have vast control of the airwaves. When I say corporate media, I mean these huge financial behemoths that publish news content. We’re talking about the Jeff Bezos owned “Washington Post”. We’re talking about Turner owned CNN. We’re talking about the “New York Times,” even the “Wall Street Journal,” which is part of News Corp. 

All of these news organizations are actually corporations. They’re big businesses, and I think a lot of people don’t realize that. They think of people in a newsroom like they see in “All the President’s Men,” “Washington Post” reporters being scrappy and running around DC and meeting with sources. But, really how the media works now is that these corporations own usually multiple newsrooms actually, and most of the people who work for them sit on their laptop all day, and don’t ever actually go out and do bootleg, shoe strapping reporting.

They get a lot of their information directly from democratic sources, whether that means activists, or the DNC, members of Congress, and even left wing cultural institutions like Big Tech. So, most of the information that people are actually getting in today’s media landscape is filtered through this real left wing ideological flow of information from the political left to the cultural left and then down the news media. 

A great example of how this works in practice was when Governor Ron DeSantis in Florida was prepared to sign the Parental Rights and Education bill, and all of a sudden all of the media in lockstep in their headlines started referring to that as the Don’t Say Gay bill. Well, where did Don’t Say Gay come from? It was actually a small left wing activist group based out of Florida that had tweeted the moniker, and their original tweet only got about 200 likes.

But because the right people, meaning larger media reporters and larger activist groups were following this small Florida outfit, that was the phrase, the term that was used to describe the bill from there on out. So there really is a sort of echo chamber that exists in the media because so many of them are not interested in truth, but they’re interested in ideology and profit, and most of them are actually concerned that they will lose out on profit if they buck the traditional left wing party line because of the existence of cancel culture and woke mobs.

So that’s really where we sit right now is these large corporate outlets are towing the Democratic party line, the left wing progressive line. Because they think that if they do anything different, they’re going to lose readership.

Mr. Jekielek:

But you’ve got two elements. So these institutions also hire disproportionately what you would call cultural left. Is that right? 

Ms. Athey:

Yes.

Mr. Jekielek:

So it strikes me that there’s kind of two elements. On one hand, there’s people who are ideologically interested in, let’s say, reinforcing particular kinds of narratives, but then there’s also the financial interest. And actually your point is good. There’s strong incentives being put on these companies to report correctly, right? Or less you be canceled, less you lose market share, less you get vilified by all your peers, I mean peer companies.

Ms. Athey:

Yes. Well, look at what happened to the “New York Times” when they ran that Tom Cotton oped. There was an internal revolt, but there was also an external revolt from Left wing subscribers. Most of the people who read the “New York Times” are coastal liberals, elites, and they want to be reading a certain narrative. They want the newspaper to confirm the way that they view the world. And for Tom Cotton to write in the pages of the “New York Times” that the National Guard should be sent into quell riots, which none of the people who read the “New York Times” had seen firsthand, that was simply unacceptable to them. So they all threatened to cancel their subscriptions. 

But the internal revolts are another thing I want to touch on because this is a good explanation for why the media has trended so far left as well. We have seen that the millennials who were orchestrating woke mobs in college, whether by shutting down speakers or lobbying the administrations for certain diversity quotas or racial sensitivity training, forced diversity requirements for undergraduate courses have now graduated.

And instead of, as many on the right suspected, being slapped in the face with reality and being told that there were no safe spaces in the real world, actually used the same tactics that they used on campus to infiltrate institutions and bend them to their will. At the “New York Times,” what those staffers were orchestrating with their public shaming of the organization for publishing Tom Cotton and his idea, was the same way that the campus militant left would orchestrate guilt trips against speakers who would come on campus and say things they don’t like. Or professors who would teach truth as opposed to woke left ideology. So they really exported those tactics and used them to strong arm the media to go even further left than ever imagined.

Mr. Jekielek:

We have this cultural trend and then we have this financial incentivization or dis-incentivization element. It strikes me, is that enough to explain how, for lack of a better term, extreme many of these media have become in their reporting?

Ms. Athey:

Well, the other part of it is that we have to consider that the media was already sympathetic to these causes, because ever since media was objective after the penny press, it leaned left. People claim that there was this era of objectivity that we should strive to return to. But the reality is that the Walter Cronkites of the world were just as liberal as Jake Tapper is on CNN, if not more so. And if you look at the breakdown statistically of who actually is in the media, they are overwhelmingly from a wealthy background, they’re  overwhelmingly registered as Democrats. They overwhelmingly believe in left wing causes or have ties to left wing activism. They overwhelmingly voted for Hillary Clinton, for example. So if you have a group of Democrats who are running the media, and then in come the woke millennials who want to go further to the left, these people didn’t realize the threat that was coming because they sympathized with the woke millennials.

They thought the woke millennials were on their side. They quickly learned that wokism does not accept anything but a hundred percent fealty. And these people had never experienced what conservatives experience when you push back on the woke, which is you get called racist, homophobic, sexist, the whole list of the isms that they like to call you, and they didn’t know how to handle it. To a coastal, elite liberal, being called a racist is the absolute worst thing you can be called in your entire life. So when the woke millennials came into the newsrooms and started telling them that unless they followed their demands, they were racist, they said, okay, you’re right, sorry. Do whatever you want to do. And things happened very quickly after that, because there was no one who was willing to take a leadership role and push back on the woke kids.

Mr. Jekielek:

So back in 2015 and 2016, I observed a substantial shift in how these media that we’ve been discussing right now behave. Do you agree that things changed somehow significantly and that it’s never gone back? What exactly happened?

Ms. Athey:

Yes, I do think things have changed. And what changed was the way that people who worked for the mainstream media viewed their role. Their role used to be about speaking truth to power, searching for the truth, aiming for objectivity, being the sort of thin, black and white line, if you will, between government and the people, to make sure that people were getting accurate information and that the government wasn’t lying to them. When Trump took office, and even when he was campaigning, everything changed, because the members of the media hated him so much because of the threat that he posed to the left and to really just the way the regime was operating in general, they decided that their role was actually to become a voice for the voiceless, to protect democracy, to oppose a dictator, to oppose authoritarianism. It was no coincidence that the “Washington Post” changed its header at this time to “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” They used all of these new labels in a very opinionated way to say that they were opposed to Trump. And when you drop standards of objectivity or of trying to be unbiased or of being on a fact finding mission, you open yourselves up to all kinds of corruption within the media. And so this only added to this volatile cocktail of left wing activists joining media outlets because they were able to use these new rules to push their own ideology.

Mr. Jekielek:

Now, there’s something called activist journalism, right? And we became aware as we were hiring at different times that this is actually … it’s not just a concept, it’s actually something that is taught in J-Schools as we speak. So this truth seeking as being a foundational value of the media has somehow changed. Can you explain this?

Ms. Athey:

Yes, I think that people realized that the media was so powerful that it was really a … if you could corrupt the media, then you had free rein to impart your message onto basically the entire American populace. And you didn’t have to worry about how the media was going to spin your ideas, or how they were going to fact check your ideas, because you controlled all of those means of disseminating information. 

I actually, though am not necessarily a hundred percent against activist journalism because I think it can be a very powerful tool for the right as well if it’s done correctly and effectively. I think the problem is when activist journalism gets confused for journalism writ large, and the left, and the establishment media in these corporate outlets have really blurred the lines so aggressively that people can’t even tell the difference anymore between who is actually trying to impart truth and who is trying to impart an agenda.

And the American people have lost so much trust in the media because they feel like they’re being lied to about the intentions of the reporters that they’re reading. CNN, for example, is much more despised than MSNBC because people know when they watch MSNBC that they’re getting progressive opinion for the most part. When they watch CNN, they’re told that they’re watching the most trusted name in news, but they know that that’s not true. They can see that Don Lemon and formerly Chris Cuomo and Jake Tapper are not these objective media reporters. They know that they are imparting their opinions on people. And the fact that CNN lies about it is what really bothers Americans the most.

Mr. Jekielek:

Isn’t activist journalism just another word for pushing narratives or actually just propaganda?

Ms. Athey:

I don’t know that I’d necessarily agree with that, because I think, for example, what Project Veritas does could be described as activist journalism. To me, what activist journalism is, is that you are open about your opinion. But what activism journalism shouldn’t do, which is where I think the left goes too far, is that if they’re investigating something and they don’t like the outcome, they either lie about the results or they choose not to publicize them. And I think the right is a lot more open when they are doing activist journalism, of making sure that they are still having truth seeking as the foundation of what they’re doing.  

Activism journalism to me can mean choosing what stories you want to investigate or choosing what stories you want to cover, and coming at it from a certain perspective. Or maybe you’re writing an opinion piece that has journalism imparted into it to help prove whatever point you’re trying to make. But I agree that what the left does is definitely propaganda and goes way too far into the activist side of that journalism.

Mr. Jekielek:

Okay, I see. So you’re saying, if you disclosed at the outset, what you’re doing, here I’m just doing pure truth seeking. I’m trying my best, I’ve got my opinions. Sometimes they might leak in there, but I’m really trying to give you the truth. That’s one thing. And this other thing, I specifically want to convince you around a particular topic, a particular political position. Here’s the evidence I’ve got, and as long as you disclose that that’s what you’re doing, that’s-

Ms. Athey:

That’s the way that I view it. Yes.

Mr. Jekielek:

Okay. I think we’ve given a bit of a picture of the kind of current media reality today and some of the incentives. What do you see as the opportunity for media, like the Epoch Times, which don’t feed into this ecosystem, but are growing and eager?

Ms. Athey:

There’s an amazing opportunity, there’s so much space open for new and independent outlets to operate and be very, very successful. Because there is such an appetite among the American people for outlets that are still committed to these traditional journalistic principles, like truth and objectivity, and seeking to be unbiased, in trying to make sure that the American people have access to the most accurate information— imparting truth onto them. 

One of the beautiful things about the rise of the internet is that, although it has given a lot more power to corporate outlets, it also has sort of destroyed their monopoly. Because if you can create your own digital outlet or have your own podcast, or have your own program that airs online, people can access it, and they can get this independent alternative information. The problem, of course, is that Big Tech is trying to strangle these alternative outlets.

So in addition to building alternative media outlets, now the right has to start trying to either crack down on Big Tech legislatively, or basically build their own new internet, because Amazon Web Hosting Services hosts the vast majority of websites and can destroy them as though we’ve seen with places like Parler or Gab. We’ve seen that Big Tech can wipe you off of social media if you push a story that they don’t like; a la the “New York Post” with the Hunter Biden laptop story. And so they are starting to realize that this outgrowth of new outlets on the internet is dangerous in terms of stifling their narrative, and so they’re going to try to crack down. So there’s a lot of work for conservatives and independent media outlets to do, to make sure that their content is still getting to the audiences that they want it to reach.

Mr. Jekielek:

And so we’re here at the National Conservatism Conference, and your main topic here actually is figuring out ways to deal with exactly the kinds of problems that you’re describing. So let’s dive into that. Right?

Ms. Athey:

I would say there’s two main points that I would make, and this is outside of a technological standpoint, but this is solely from how do conservatives approach the media, how do they interact with the media? And the first is, I think that one of the most powerful tools that the left wing media has used is cancel culture. And I know people will say that cancel culture comes from individuals, but the media does it too. They try to do it with Libs of TikTok, for example. They have used that cultural phenomenon as a means of silencing their political opponents. And we as conservatives have to stand up for each other. And one thing that always drives me crazy, is when somebody gets canceled, you’ll often see that a lot of conservatives will crawl into the DMs and say, oh, I really support what you’re doing, good for you.

But they don’t say anything publicly because they don’t want to be associated with the person who is considered toxic. Or they’ll play the game of, well, I don’t agree with what they said, but I don’t think that they should lose their livelihood. And we have to be forceful and unwavering when we support each other. And I’ve found that so many more people are anti cancel culture, agree with sane, rational, conservative principles, than agree with woke mobs.

And yet this vocal minority of the woke mob exercises so much power in the media. And it’s because conservatives are so individualistic and fractured sometimes, that they aren’t able to present that united front that the woke mob does. When I was canceled by a radio station for making a joke about Kamala Harris’s outfit, I found that a hundred times more people were willing to contact the radio station to complain about me being fired, than people who actually wanted me fired in the first place. And if that’s the kind of response that we can have every time someone is attacked by the media, are canceled by the media, then we’re going to have a much better time combating their influence. So that’s one, and I can get into two in a moment.

Mr. Jekielek:

But inherently, conservatives tend to be more liberty oriented, and self determination oriented, and doing your own thing oriented. And so well, that does present a problem in the sense of if you’re trying to create a sort of quorum or large … you’re trying to create a large group of people providing support, people all have to decide to do it individually. There isn’t sort of a switch you can flip and then have people respond, because it’s obviously the one thing that everybody has to be doing.

Ms. Athey:

Yes, it’s a great point. It’s a huge challenge because conservatives naturally just don’t orient themselves towards that type of response. But I’ve also seen over the past few years that a lot of conservatives know what time it is. They see the massive gains that the left has gained in politics and in culture. They see what they did during the pandemic where they shut down churches. They told people that they weren’t allowed to work if they were deemed non-essential. They told your kids that they couldn’t play sports. They hardly even allowed you to go to the grocery store. And now they’re trying to limit your freedom of movement by forcing you into electric vehicles, even though the places that are doing that like California have rolling blackouts. So I think a lot of conservatives, and particularly the people at Nacon, understand that the influence of the left is so great that we have to change our rule book.

We have to change our playbook, because the way that we’ve been responding to this for the past few decades has clearly led us nowhere but self destruction.

Now, the second way to combat the mainstream media, in my opinion, is that conservatives have to stop playing the game. And what I mean by that is conservatives need to stop giving interviews to these outlets. They need to stop giving scoops to these outlets. They need to stop treating these outlets as if they’re anything else but left wing propagandist machines. These are activist organizations. 

Why on earth was Trump giving an interview to Bob Woodward for his third book after he got totally slammed the first couple of times and treated incredibly unfairly? I don’t understand the impulse from a lot of people on the right to secretly want to be accepted and heralded by the mainstream press. These people despise us. They hate us, and so I think we should freeze them out.

One person who’s done a great job of this is Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. Ron DeSantis’ Communications team does not give interviews to the “Miami Herald.” They don’t give interviews to the “Washington Post.” And the only quotes that they give to them are when they’ve already publicized the questions and the full response to the journalist. 

Christina Pushaw for example, when she was asked to do a profile for the “Washington Post,” instead immediately tweeted the interview request and explained exactly what was happening to her followers, and why this profile was going to be biased. So cutting that off before it even got to the point where the “Washington Post” could interview her and put it in print. 

And then we all have to backtrack and play catch up trying to explain why what they did was wrong, cut it off at the head, refuse to do it. DeSantis only operates with media outlets that are fair to him. And I think every conservative should do that. There are tons of people in Congress, for example, who still will leak stories to the “New York Times” or to “The Hill” or to “Politico” and then come running to conservative or independent outlets when they inevitably get screwed over. And as a journalist, it’s like, why did you go to them in the first place? You knew what was going to happen.

Mr. Jekielek:

I see why you might go, because the thing is that there’s a huge danger. We’re a very polarized society. Maybe we’re not as polarized as some people might want us to believe, but we are quite polarized, and our media ecosystems are quite different as you’ve been outlining right now. So,  the philosophy would be we need to try to reach the people that are outside of our sphere with these messages, otherwise, because we’re supposed to, if you’re a politician, you’re supposed to be representing all the people, not just your group or the group that votes for you. How do you break through that? I think this is the struggle that people that go to some of these outlets that you mentioned have, and I think they have a point.

Ms. Athey:

It’s understandable, but if the message is being distorted before it reaches the people, then what is the point? Right? Because they’re not getting your message. They’re getting the mainstream media’s interpretation of your message. And so I think that alone is a good enough reason to not operate within these media spaces. And if you freeze these people out, they’re no longer getting scoops, they’re no longer getting exclusives, they’re no longer getting interviews, they no longer have original information. They’re blurbing everybody else. At that point, what is their value to the American people? If you’re someone who actually wants new information, you’re not going to subscribe to any of those places anymore. Their power comes in their stranglehold on information. And if they don’t have that anymore, then they no longer are able to operate with this monopoly that they’ve enjoyed over the past few decades.

Mr. Jekielek:

It’s very interesting what you’re saying because in each of these media, there’s always a few reporters that are decent, and it’s those people, of course, that one would try to go to because they’re going to try to give you a fair shake. Sometimes it might work, sometimes it might not. But again, so the philosophy is, if we can at least try, maybe we can get the message through. You’re saying just forget it. It feels almost like an isolationist position.

Ms. Athey:

It is, in many ways, because even those people who are considered the good ones in the mainstream media outlets are still beholden to their editors. So even if you have someone who’s willing to tell the truth, if your outlet is not supporting you, then you’re not going to get very far.

Mr. Jekielek:

Some of us, like myself, have an intrinsic dislike of this kind of a strategy, okay. Because again, it just comes back to this foundational idea. We’re supposed to be, just like the Epoch Times. The Epoch Times wasn’t created to be a media for conservatives. Our goal is to be a media for everybody, in fact, that we think we are one, just that certain people choose us. I just have this intrinsic opposition to the idea of isolating ourselves into particular groupings of people and saying, no. I understand why you’re your strategy, why you’re describing it. And you’re certainly right that in most cases you can almost predict how people will be treated. But it almost feels like an intractable problem because we have to strive to be a media for everyone.

Ms. Athey:

Well, and I don’t want people to just isolate themselves into a conservative media bubble or to only talk to conservative activists. I think there are tons of independent outlets who do represent both sides, but are fair about it. And that’s where we really need to find the balance of which outlets are going to treat conservative ideas or Republicans with the respect and fairness that they treat people on the left. And unfortunately, I don’t think the corporate outlets are doing that. So it’s all about identifying who the good faith actors are, and staying away from the bad faith actors. It’s not about creating an echo chamber or silo of conservative thought and conservative media, but about making sure that you’re cutting off the people who are only out to do you harm.

Mr. Jekielek:

When I think of activist journalism, I essentially think of what you’re talking about as bad faith actors. It’s basically activist propaganda masquerading as journalism, or narrative reinforcement masquerading as journalism, which always should be truth seeking, that’s how I imagine it. So really what you’re talking about is trying to isolate all the people who are non-truth seeking, right? Non genuinely truth seeking.

Ms. Athey:

Yes, I think that’s right. Because there is this prevailing mindset in a lot of these outlets now, meaning corporate and establishment media outlets, that there’s no such thing as presenting both sides. They actually derogatorily refer to this as both sides-ism. And what they mean by that is, they think that one side is so irredeemably wrong and actually harmful to the fabric of society that their views don’t deserve air time. And if their views are going to be put on air, then they need to be immediately destroyed by whatever activist you have actually reading the news. And so they’re immediately telling people what they should think about people on the right, and what they’re saying. They don’t similarly qualify views from the left. So the push in journalism is actually to sort of preemptively color the way that views are presented when they’re coming from one side. And if you don’t do that, then you are guilty of actually perpetuating the harmful ideology of the right.

Mr. Jekielek:

Right. So just it’s this inordinate obsession with the narrative and to push only the “correct narrative.”

Ms. Athey:

Yes, that’s exactly what it is. And journalists get rewarded for that, not just financially, but also by getting more scoops, more exclusives. Because if you are reporting on Congress, for example, a lot of your information is going to come directly from democratic press releases. The people who go on cable news are going to get the morning talking points from the Democratic National Committee to see what the party line is on whatever the issue of the day is and what they should say when they go on television. They’re going to get calls from Democratic offices explaining the latest piece of legislation that they put out and how the media should talk about it. And if you’re someone who refuses to just become a stenographer for the Democratic party, then they actually do cut you off. And so my perspective of cutting people off from the right is a little bit different. I don’t think you should cut people off for not repeating or parroting your narrative. I think you should cut people off if they lie about you, operate in bad faith, or actively seek to harm you.

Mr. Jekielek:

One of the criticisms that’s been hoisted on, let’s call it conservative media, right wing media, is that they’re kind of the right wing or conservative mirror of what some of these left wing media are, different sort of narrative reinforcement. Are you worried about that on the conservative side?

Ms. Athey:

I am worried about it. I do think some outlets are like that. But I have actually found that a vast majority of the people that I’ve worked with over the years, are not afraid to say negative things about conservatives or Republicans or the like. And I know I’ve come under attack for criticizing certain narratives from the right or criticizing things that I found to be untrue. The right and conservative media have some really great fact checking organizations that will just as often fact check a Republican senator as a Democratic senator. 

I actually came under fire a couple of weeks ago because I found that a story that was being floated around by Naomi Wolf and her operation about the vaccines causing miscarriages was not accurate. And I’m someone who’s very vaccine skeptical. I’m by no means a Pfizer shill, but I have just as much of a problem with people on our side peddling false information as people on the other side, because ultimately we have to ground ourselves in truth. And I think what conservative media is trying to do, and at least what I’ve seen in their ethos in the various outlets that I worked at, is that truth is still under guarding all of what they’re striving to do.

And it would be ridiculous if it weren’t, because isn’t one of the main tenants of conservatism that our views are founded in truth, in biological truth, in cultural truth, in historical truth? That’s what under guards most of what we believe.

Mr. Jekielek:

So as we finish up, what would you say is the single most useful thing that one of our viewers, obviously someone who’s kind of interested in truth seeking, interested in understanding reality as best they can, in consuming good media to help frankly understand the world. What is the best way for people to arm themselves?

Ms. Athey:

Can I give two?

Mr. Jekielek:

Sure.

Ms. Athey:

Thank you. So the first is really what informed many of my views about the media, which is really just consuming as much as possible. And I will provide a fair warning that it’s not great for your mental health. But when I was a media reporter for “The Daily Caller” for about a year and a half, I had three TVs in my office set to CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News. And I would watch the way each outlet covered a story, from the chyron that they used, from the way that they even introduced the story, from what aspects of it they covered. And I would read pretty much every newspaper. And giving yourselves as many sources to read as possible really helps you learn about how to identify truth in different aspects of media. Who’s telling the truth, who’s not? How narratives are shapen and the way that partisanship can affect the way a story is presented. I think that’s really important.

And the second is to always strip down a media story or a news story to the sourcing. Who is actually making the claim? Who are the experts that the media is citing? Who are the anonymous sources? What might their motivations be? So for example, when the media was running Russian collusion narratives against Donald Trump, who were the anonymous sources for their stories? Could it have been Adam Schiff on the Intelligence Committee who obviously had a very concerted and obvious reason to pedal untruths about the Russia investigation? And might that shape the way that the media was reporting on the story and whether or not it’s accurate? In terms of the experts, if you’re reading a story from CNN, the experts are all saying that it’s normal for children to undergo these procedures, or get on hormone therapy and actually prevents them from committing suicide or dying. That if you don’t give this to children, they’re literally going to die.

Well, who are the experts? Who do they work for? Who are they funded by? And are the numbers that they’re providing even accurate? There’s a study from the Heritage Foundation recently that found this claim that children who are struggling with gender dysphoria who don’t get gender reassignment surgery or go on hormone therapy have a higher suicide rate. And it turned out that actually wasn’t true. There were a lot of confounding variables that affected that study. 

So people have to be committed to digging more for themselves. I think independent journalists have to help them along in that process. And that’s the thing I always try to do when reading a news story is look at the motivations for it. Who are the sources? Why might they be making this claim? Not just is it true or false, but really where is it coming from? What is the origin story? And unpacking that I think can give people great insight and the ability to see whether something is based in truth, and whether or not the reporter or paper that’s peddling it can be trusted.

Mr. Jekielek:

Well, Amber Athey, such a pleasure to have you on the show.

Ms. Athey:

Thank you. I appreciate it.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

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