Robert Evans is on a constant search for the truth.
Evans has worked as a conflict journalist in Iraq and Ukraine and reported extensively on far-right extremist groups in the United States. He has a deep interest in the ways terrorist groups recruit, radicalize, and communicate through the Internet. He’s also the author of A Brief History of Vice: How Bad Behavior Built Civilization.
I caught up with Robert and we spoke about the difference between journalists and reporters, his podcasts I Could Happen Here, Behind the Bastards, The Women’s War, and his vision for his new podcast network, The Cool Zone Media.
Grove: From traveling all over the world doing investigative reporting, to hosting podcasts, and now launching Cool Zone Media, I have one question: How do you manage it all?
Evans: I’m kind of always behind on everything. I’ve always been pretty self-motivated so most weeks we’ll have the ongoing stories that we’re covering in the daily show. Then, I’ll be working on the bastard of the week and everything else I’m doing for Behind the Bastard. I’ve got historical research that’s based on whatever I’m interested in that week and then there’ll be breaking news. Usually, every month, I have a new subject I’m actually going after as a journalist with compelling data and researching some creepy group online. I have pretty bad ADHD which is the short version of the story so it is kind of necessary for me to flip between different subjects. I kind of move between history, current events, and I’ll usually have one actual journalistic idea that I’m also working on.
Grove: In your opinion, what makes a good journalist or investigative reporter?
Evans: I would say a good journalist has a question they want to answer. I think there’s a difference between a reporter and a journalist. When there’s a storm, a disaster, a conflict, a reporter can just go and report on what’s happening. I think journalists have a question they want an answer to which in a lot of ways implies a certain degree of advocacy or at least a perspective. I think that the critical aspect of good journalism is not just trying to describe what’s happening. I’ve always been more interested in journalism than straight reporting as a result of that.
Grove: Throughout all your travels in your work, especially during this time of COVID, what is something that you learned or you saw coming with everything that happened?
Evans: I think what we’ve seen happened with COVID is that there are signs we’ve been building for the last few years, but the problem is we increasingly live in separate realities based on their political bubble. We don’t all live in the same reality or the same country in any meaningful way. If you believe that the COVID vaccine is designed to poison people, if you believe that ivermectin and hydroxamic are working miracles, you’re not living in the same reality as Americans who don’t believe that. This thing has been building for a while. This gradual building of mythology by which people on the right and left increasingly lived in worlds that were just completely separate from one another. It all really came to a head with COVID to the point where now the reality is that right and left live in are so diametrically opposed that we effectively have two completely separate countries trying to share the same space and time and it’s not sustainable. I think this has been the story of the plague.
Grove: Why do you think so many people are drawn to the stories of the subjects on Behind the Bastards?
Evans: I think it’s the same reason why people are always interested in serial killers, right? I think the reason people are interested in that stuff is self defense. It’s the same reason your eyes are drawn to sirens when there’s a car accident on the road.There’s some part of your brain that’s always telling you, “Hey, somebody else got trouble here. Somebody else got hurt in this situation and that could happen to you so you better pay attention to see what you can learn from this disaster.” That’s very much how I feel about dictators, authoritarians, these kinds of monsters that society is paying attention to them in this way. It’s an act of self defense. I think that’s what’s interesting about the show is that there’s something that fundamentally draws us to guys like L. Ron Hubbard or Saddam Hussein. It’s not a matter of admiring their politics or being even drawn into their emotion and understanding like these people are not just dangerous for the specific things they did but they’re archetypally dangerous because people like them keep showing up in history and hurting other folks at scale. So it behooves us to understand how they tick in a way that’s beyond like, “Oh, this is an evil person or this is a bad person.” Now, let’s understand what is it about human nature that allows these people to be dangerous because it’s always more complicated than they wanted to hurt people. There’s something about the way in which they did what they did that we’re vulnerable to. I think that’s really when you’re studying these monsters more than anything, you’re studying your own vulnerability to the kinds of things they like to do and the way in which they prey on people.
Grove: With all the devastation that you encounter, you discovered hope in a group of women in Syria. What made you launch The Women’s War?
Evans: Because it has messed up a lot of stuff happening in the world right now. It’s very easy to let yourself kind of lose hope. If you’re paying attention to the news, it’s kind of this constant drumbeat of terrible things happening to people all over the place. In a wave of shifts, the thing about Syria that was so inspiring was the people in that part of the world who were dealing with a much more intense version of life than us. violence to the scale from the state that’s hard to comprehend and the complete collapse of order of the things that had been stable before. Instead of yielding to that and kind of being selfish about it, and just kind of trying to take care of yourself and your family, a couple of million people in that very desperate part of the world decided to like, at least try to make things better for a large number of people. They accomplished something really impressive in doing that. I was in this part of the world that everyone has been talking about for years how dangerous it is, how violent it is and I never felt unsafe. The people I met felt comfortable not just talking with me but disagreeing with the system which isn’t something that would have happened to the East or the West. More than anything, they felt like they had hope for the future and I guess the thing that makes me inspired about that is, if people in their situation can find the cause to be hopeful? Well, then I don’t really have an excuse over here, with all of our resources, and with everything we’ve got going on. I think that’s the energy I try to take with me when reporting on this stuff because it’s very easy to just get, you know, the term is black pilled over how dark things are.
Grove: Black pilled?
Evans: It’s a term that came out of the online far-right. it’s used based off of the red pill, patriots, like, accepting the weakness of your situation. It’s kind of trendy to talk about that, especially on social media. You get a lot of people thinking everything’s screwed and there’s no hope in this situation. I feel like that’s actually a really selfish attitude to bring into it because the situation isn’t actually hopeless. We’re not actually bereft of levers to kind of alter our situation. It’s just hard. There are people who have it harder who haven’t given up.
Grove: Lastly, tell me your vision behind creating Cool Zone Media?
Evans: We’re in this interesting stage where things that have previously been very reliable and the assumptions that have been very durable, are sort of falling apart. I want to chronicle that that collapse because I think that there’s a bias towards equilibrium. You saw this in much of the support for Biden during the last election where there was this deep yearning to return to some sense of normality. I think the normal is gone. As a journalist, if you’re trying to responsibly orient the public towards reality, one of the things that has to be made clear is that we’re not back to anything that we considered normal five or six years ago. The very nature of reality has changed too much. If you’re accepting the crumbling of normal, you can either say nothing more than that and just sort of chronicle how the center isn’t holding. Or, you can try to provide people with access to new voices that are giving perspective on how things might be different in a way that isn’t hopeless. I think it’s about accepting that change can be for the positive and that we should go out and search for that. You can’t just sit on your porch and hope that the collapse doesn’t hit you. You have to go out and try and pull a better future in. If that seems kind of impossible, which I think it does for a lot of people, it might be a result of the fact that you’re not listening to the right voices. You’re listening to people who don’t have any kind of understanding about how things might be better and how things might be different. So with the Cool Zone, I think a big part of what we’re trying to do is to hook people up with new voices that may have a broader perspective on what’s going on. Because that’s really the only place to find hope.