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BOOKS With 'The List,' Amy Siskind documents democracy's downfall
by Liz Baudler
2018-03-20

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Like so many others, Amy Siskind was shocked by 2016's presidential outcome, and felt that President Trump's election thrust U.S. democracy into great danger. She wanted to document the signs of the forthcoming societal upheaval so she could remember how it occurred.

After a mid-November walk at Val-Kill Eleanor Roosevelt's historic cottage in New York where Siskind reflected on Roosevelt's admonition that "courage is easier than fear," that night she collected and published the first weekly List, at nine items. The next week, The List doubled in size, and has continued to mushroom ever since.

"I do have a sense of humor, and I posted how the list had grown with a chart showing the size of it. I put a little red circle around the first few weeks and I said 'this is when I thought doing a list was a good idea," Siskind said. "I didn't have any vision for doing this, but once we got to about week nine, and it started to really take off, now I feel like it's my patriotic duty to continue doing it."

What Siskind has created is a singular, unusual news record that can either regarded as a weekly digest or a long-term tracking project. It's been consulted by millions, covered in the Washington Post, and archived in the Library of Congress, and the first 52 weeks of The List—from November 2016 to a year later—publish in book form on March 27.

"I wasn't even planning to do a book. I had no desire to do a book, and starting in the spring of 2017 I started getting incoming emails from agents and editors saying "do you want to do a book" and I could pretty much cut and paste a response to everybody "when it's over and when this regime is out of power, then let's talk,'" Siskind remembered.

But over the fall, a persistent Bloomsbury editor informed Siskind that her documentation of the first 52 weeks already topped 400 pages. "That was around the time of net neutrality coming under siege, and it was just like a confluence of events, and I said, 'I should do this,'" Siskind remembered.

She has come to see the paper document, in particular its index, as an unalterable, searchable record to the recent past. "I'm glad I did it because I think, now that I read through it, it's a service for people to see what they've forgotten already and to have it as a reference guide," Siskind said.

It has also turned into a consuming part-time job for Siskind, who is still president of her female-empowerment non-profit The New Agenda. With weekly lists averaging more than 100 items, assembling The List has crept up from 20 hours a week last summer to around 30 hours a week.

"A lot of people say 'I'll take a week off and come back and see what I've missed by reading your list," Siskind said. "I haven't had a day to look away from him. I'm doing what I can to cope and it's not a pleasurable experience." Her personal time, she said, has "evaporated."

Siskind sets The List's parameters from Saturday at noon to Saturday at noon, and immediately after the previous week's completion, she starts excavating Twitter for what will become her next set of items. When curating each document, she aims to provide order and context to a hectic news cycle.

"It gives people the perspective of what they missed—I know that people in the media look at it to know what they missed—and I'm hoping it gives people a certain sense of control," Siskind said of the weekly List. "I feel like people tell me all the time that they feel a loss of control, and when they read this list and they see it all there...first of all they weren't making it up, that they were living in chaos, but also it reminds them of these things that happened. Even when I do the List, I'm always shocked when I'm sorting it. Some of the stuff that happened on Monday will feel like 'oh my god, that happened this week? It felt like it happened 4 weeks ago.'"

The themes also help keep the information in the news more vivid. "It's just me telling the story based on what we already know, the boring, nerdy, factual stuff," Siskind said. "I don't give it a point of view, but I might bring it alive by sorting it with other stories that week."

For instance, in a weekly List from March 2018, Siskind made the decision to follow an item about Mexican President's Enrique Pena Nieto's phone call with Trump, in which Trump did not agree that Mexico wouldn't pay for the border wall, with an item detailing the U.S ambassador to Mexico's resignation later that week.

"That to me is a thread, and me telling a little bit of a story without me saying 'she left because he finally was exasperated,'" Siskind said. "I stick them together and let people draw their own conclusions."

Supporting the media is vital to Siskind. "One of the things that pushed me to start the list was [Trump's] attacks on the media the very first week," she said. Yet sometimes she feels that certain stories over-dominate the national narrative. "The week that Devin Nunes' memo came out, we spent the whole week with them focused on that. That was a list with 140 items and they missed 120 of them in terms of focus. And out of those 120 there were probably 20 to 40 that in normal times would be front page stories for weeks," she pointed out.

An obvious concern in the heyday of "fake news" is how to ensure Siskind's own list is credible. "That's really been a challenge," Siskind admitted. "To me the number one paper of record right now is the Washington Post. I'm pretty critical of the New York Times because some of their content is written with a point of view when it shouldn't be and I see that, because I am reporting on dry facts, I'm not putting my opinions in to the list."

She also casts a wide-ranging net. "I think a lot of the international outlets that have a good reputation are very useful to me because they shine a light back on what is happening here," Siskind said. "A lot of the local stories tend to just come from local outlets, and then I have to just trust that they are getting it right. Especially as it relates to what ICE is doing locally. Or a lot of stories about racism or sexism or homophobia are being reported at a local level."

Overall, Siskind's diligence makes for a lot of reading. "If it's in Wired or if it's in another area where I don't have expertise, I have to read the story sometimes several times to really get the gist of all the points," she said. "I read every story from beginning to end because sometimes the most important things are at the very end of the story."

Siskind's finance background makes certain List items stand out to her. "The things that have always struck me throughout The List are two items: One is Deutsche Bank, and how unusual their relationship to Trump and Kushner was," she said. "As a bank they were fined, and they were called the 'global laundromat of Russian money' by The Guardian. So that to me is a story to be told, and what you can't argue with is the paper trail that loans and money provides."

She also finds Cambridge Analytica, recently revealed to have harvested 50 million Facebook profiles prior to the 2016 U.S presidential election for political research, a compelling List thread.

"One of their subsidiaries is still getting government contracted work, and they are now being investigated in the UK for their role in Brexit," Siskind said. "But there are several weeks where there are items relating to [voting] anomalies in certain states, always in democratic districts. Where people went to register to vote in certain states, only their blue districts had issues with voter rolls not being complete. And then one of the Republican consulting firms leaving data on 200 million American voters online. There's all sorts of things that come up in The List."

As a lesbian, Siskind feels she can sound the "alarm bell" against LGBTQ community complacency. For her keynote at the ACLU of Illinois's Annual Lunch on March 23, the organization asked her to specifically focus on LGBTQ topics.

"There were so many things that happened in the first 52 weeks and are continuing to happen in our community: making us invisible by having data disappear or taken down from HUD, taken down from the census," Siskind said. "He first makes communities invisible and then he starts to peel away their rights, because if you're invisible, you don't need rights and protections. So that's a theme that I could tell for our community, for Muslim Americans, for immigrants, women, people with disabilities, the poor. It's a consistent pattern with him."

Already, The List ( in book form ) could have a huge impact on current events: Siskind is working with billionaire Tom Steyer to deliver copies to members of Congress. Readers often forward the weekly document to their representatives, Siskind said.

"I'm hoping that people can then use [the book] as activism to say, it's sort of the antidote to Fire and Fury in a way—a lot of the stuff there is kind of loose and fast. This has 100 pages of footnotes, triple column, abbreviated, there's no attacking the historical document," Siskind said. "I'm hoping there are uses that I don't even foresee. I didn't have a grand vision for this. I just think in an authoritarian regime, information is power, because information is what's taken away from you."

ACLU of Illinois's Annual Lunch will be Friday, March 23, 11 a.m.-1:30 p.m, at Hilton Chicago, 720 S. Michigan Ave. Signed copies of The List will be available at Women and Children First after the event takes place.


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