On this special two-in-one episode of Recode Media with Peter Kafka, NYU Professor Jay Rosen criticizes the political press for trying to treat Trump like a normal president. Then, CNN’s Oliver Darcy and BuzzFeed’s Charlie Warzel return to the studio to talk about what’s new in the right-wing media sphere.
You can read some of the highlights from the Rosen interview here and the Warzel/Darcy interview here, or listen to it in full in the audio player above. Below, we’ve provided a lightly edited complete transcript of their conversations.
Peter Kafka: This is Recode Media with Peter Kafka. That’s me. I am speaking to you right now from the Vox Media podcast network in snowy New York City. We’re doing something a little bit different today. We’re doing a mega-pod about Trump, the media, the White House. If you’re not interested in that stuff, this may not be the podcast for you, but I bet you will like it.
We’ve got three different guests here, two different segments. First, we’re going to talk to Jay Rosen. He’s the New York University professor who writes really smart things about the press and politics. He was our single most popular guest last year. We brought him back to talk about the press of the Trump era, 2017, what 2018 will look like. That conversation runs about 45 minutes.
Then we talk to CNN’s Oliver Darcy and BuzzFeed’s Charlie Warzel. These guys also specialize in the media and politics. They specialize in the right-wing media. We had them on last year. They are awesome as well.
So, you can listen to all of those conversations right now. Before I formally introduce Jay Rosen, I just want to tell you, if you like hearing people talk about media and technology, we’ve got an entire, two-day event where we’re going to nothing but that. That’s Code Media. It’s got awesome guests, people who run Facebook and YouTube and SoundCloud, just about every company you care about. They’re going to meet us at the Paséa Hotel. You can hear much more about that, February 12th and 13th. If you want to come attend that live, look at Recode.net. We will see you there.
Like I said, I am here with Jay Rosen, our first-ever repeat guest, return guest.
Jay Rosen: It’s quite an honor.
You are also our best-performing guest, Jay.
Many people tell me that.
You spoke just about exactly a year ago, right before the Trump inauguration. It’s kind of hard to remember what the climate felt like then; a lot of fear, a lot of trepidation. Again, this was before the inauguration, so there’s all sorts of worry about how the press would behave and would be treated by Trump. We immediately went to the Sean Spicer press conference event, which again, is hard to recall. This is part of the nature of life in TrumpLand, right?
Right. It’s a whirlwind.
Every week is a whirlwind. Like I said, you sort of laid out what life might be like under Trump, for the press, for journalism. And I want to revisit that conversation. I just want to start by playing a clip of that conversation.
There will be a lot to report on, and there will, no doubt, be spectacular revelations and investigations. It may be the most fertile time for investigative journalism, you know, since Watergate.
So, that’s good.
That’s good, but that news and those reports will emerge into an environment that is hostile to journalism. And there are political enemies of the press that are gaining traction. And one of them happens to be the president of the United States. So that’s the situation. It’s not that there’s not going to be great stories; there’s going to be a lot of great stories, but there’s a kind of rejection of them, already under way.
So, Jay Rosen, NYU professor, proprietor of the PressThink blog, grade yourself. How did your predictions come out? At least, in the main thesis there, right? Some spectacular journalism, and also, bad news overall for journalism, in terms of the overall environment.
I think that happened.
You think you nailed it?
Pretty much, yeah.
The spectacular journalism we can identify, right?
Yeah, there’s been a lot of great investigations, especially around the Russia connection, but not only there. And we know a lot about how the White House operates, and certainly we’ve seen journalist news organizations willing to stand up to the president, and that’s good. And there has also been a wave of support for serious journalism.
People paying money for New York Times, Washington Post.
People paying money and signing up for subscriptions, and I think that’s good. There’s a wider appreciation that you have to kind of stand up and defend the press, like Jeff Flake is doing this week, Senator Flake, even though he’s a little flaky.
This is a day before Jeff Flake is going to go out and has apparently compared Trump to Stalin, not directly, but metaphorically.
In his attacks on the press, yeah.
So, there’s that, but I also think that in our conversation a year ago, I underestimated the difficulty of coping with the Trump phenomena. So maybe we can talk about that.
Yeah, you laid out many of the highs. Again, it’s wound down a bit, but there was the period, especially last spring, where day after day, right around five o’clock or six o’clock, either the Washington Post or the New York Times or oftentimes both of them would come out with some jaw-dropping story. Again, a lot of this stuff came from, actually, the White House itself, which I think surprised a bunch of us, at least initially, once we sort of realized, eventually figured out, when we figured out who was actually in the White House.
But there was great enterprise reporting that wasn’t coming directly from Steve Bannon or Jared Kushner or Donald Trump himself. There was non-White House reporting that was great as well, right? The New York Times and the New Yorker did amazing work on Weinstein and the #MeToo movement.
All that seems really good. Explain what you underestimated about the perils.
Well, for one thing, when reporters in the national press get to their desks in the morning, between 30 and 35 percent of the electorate, or the public, is lost to them before they even log on, in the sense that they are part of the Trump base that rejects the press as an institution, and increasingly rejects the idea of a common set of facts that apply, no matter what your political ideology is. And that one third or so of the public is just not there on the receiving end. They’re not available to be persuaded, and they not only reject the press, but they are actively hostile to it. So, nobody knows what to do about that.
But we knew this in advance. You said this very thing. In some way or another, reality seems to have weakened as a constraint in politics. There’s no longer this idea that there are common facts that everybody has to accept, just because they’re facts. You should go and either re-listen to this podcast, or you can go check out the transcript. They’re both entertaining.
Well, I think that happened.
Yes, you got that part right.
Yeah, and it’s harder to counter that than we thought. You can’t just oppose that by printing great stories. Another thing that’s going on is that the attack on the press is part of a larger attack on everyone who knows what they’re talking about; which includes, for example, diplomats in the State Department and civil servants and experts of all kinds, academics, anybody who can serve as a factual check on power is being undermined. And beyond that, the whole idea that there is truth at all, you know, is sort of under assault, and not just in the United States.
And then, I think a weirder set of problems became clearer to me as the year wore on, Peter, which is, it’s really hard to cover Trump, because you can’t get the normal distance you have on the president, because of the way he operates. So for example, in many ways, Trump is a competing news organization to our news organizations; not a story to cover, but somebody who is trying to occupy the spotlight himself.
He’s producing his own media effectively through tweets and whatever he spouts off in front of a camera.
Yeah. He is, himself, a media producer in competition with other media producers. And that’s kind of weird, but even weirder than that is if you take some of the standard tools of journalism and you try to employ them, oftentimes they break. So for example, interviewing Donald Trump, the whole premise of an interview of a sitting president is that you can find out about their thinking. You can illuminate their policy choices. You can dig a little deeper into what they plan to do. And that assumes that the president has policy ideas and has a strategy, right? And has a sort of governing intention that will ...
Right, and normally, you interview a president, and maybe he’s not forthcoming — probably he’s not forthcoming — and he’s going to give you a certain kind of answer instead of the one you were looking for.
But there’s some internal logic to it, and consistency.
Yes, and we assess the interview on whether we did or didn’t learn more or not about his plans and strategies, right? With Trump, none of that applies, because in an interview situation, he’s just saying what, at the moment, makes him feel like the best, the biggest, the greatest, the brightest, the richest, the most potent, right? He’s just saying whatever comes to his mind as sort of like the most spectacular boast he can think of.
It doesn’t necessarily mean anything about his policies. If, after the interview, you try and follow up and say, “Is this going to happen?” Or you know, go to the aids and say, “How is he going to do that?” It’s ...
They’ll say he didn’t say it.
Yeah, they might say he didn’t say it. They might say, they may just ignore it, right? Because ...
And at this point, on one even ... Like we had the thing, was it last week? It’s all blurring together, where he’s, to counter the charge that he’s not competent, he holds a public cabinet meeting and appears to agree to an immigration policy that he doesn’t actually agree with. And at the time, everyone said, “Ah! We got him.” But I don’t think anyone really thought that he thought he was agreeing to that.
No, but it just shows you how meaningless that situation was, right? And so, even if you find out what the president “intends” to do in your interview, it doesn’t mean he intends to do it, or it doesn’t mean it has any significance at all. And this is because there is actually no separation between the interview situation and a policy reality that you’re trying to get at.
And I find again and again, as I try and think through, like, what’s it like to cover this president, that the basic separation that allows you to assume that there’s an object you’re trying to report on is evaporated in the case of this president, so that makes it harder.
So, through the election, after the election, at the beginning of the administration, up until, I think, recently, there was a lot of, “What’s Donald Trump getting at? What’s his game? When it comes to his tweets, is he trying to distract us by holding up a shiny object while secretly he does this?” And it seems, now, the consensus, the conventional wisdom is, he’s just a guy watching TV.
He’s like, some other people I knew who are in their ’70s, who just sort of say things because, like you said, it makes them feel better, or maybe they believe it, maybe they don’t. And there isn’t really a there there. It’s almost a “Being There” situation, the Peter Sellers movie and the book.
Now that we sort of know that, does that help us? If we’re, “Okay, well, now we sort of know that he doesn’t really mean anything he says.” We’ve got a year of evidence that stacks up behind that. Now, can we proceed in a different way? Does that help us, as we try to cover the president?
Well, it could, except that this year has exposed a problem in the national press, which is, when it is shown that press conventions and rituals don’t make sense in the case of Donald Trump, or have been broken in half by him, the press is very reluctant to let go of those conventions and rituals, even though they know that they don’t work anymore.
This is one of your really good posts from counter, last year, from 2017, about the challenge of normalizing Donald Trump.
So, explain that a little more, because this charge you hear thrown around, it means different things to different people, when you normalize something.
Yeah, and I kind of regret that it’s a bit of a cliché, because I was trying to point out something that I think was not so obvious, but a simple example would be, the press keeps fighting for access, because that’s what it does. That’s what the White House press corps does, right? That’s what the White House Correspondents’ Association is built for.
It’s what you’re supposed to do. We want to hear what Donald Trump or his representatives have to say.
Yeah, and the White House press corps is very tenacious in protecting its place in the White House, like its workspace, as well as rituals like the daily briefing and access to the president, right? But we know now that access to the president — or in the case of the briefing, access to Sarah Sanders — isn’t actually informing us. In many ways, it’s disinforming us, right? And that ritual is proven kind of absurd. And yet the press keeps going at it.
The argument that I made about normalization was, everybody who reports on Trump knows five or six things that are devastating but obvious. He doesn’t know anything about his policies. He doesn’t have strong policy views. His idea of leadership is to humiliate people or threaten to humiliate people. He doesn’t care if what he’s saying is true. And a couple of other things that are, you know, blatant like that. And those things have been reported. Those things have come out again and again.
And they’re not reported in code. They’re reported in straightforward English.
Oh, they’re reported fairly straightforwardly. However, there’s another ethic that White House reporting has, which is to respect the presidency, respect the choice of the American people, respect the White House, the institution. And so, as I said, what they have to report conflicts with what they have to respect. And so occasionally, they change it into something they can respect, even though the facts don’t warrant that.
What’s an example of that?
Well, an example would be, in the year-end roundups that we got from many Washington journalists, you would find, for example, in a roundup of his foreign policy, that he would be described as having a foreign policy, right, and having relatively coherent views about what the United States’ role in the world should be, because all presidents have foreign policies. But actually, he doesn’t. And it would have been kind of embarrassing, almost, or startling to describe a year of the presidency in which the president showed actually no command of any foreign policy details and no coherent thought on it. And on the other hand, the reporters kind of know that as well, but when it comes to describing it, they shrink from that a little bit.
They sort of have that formal voice, where you have to act as if this is unusual but it’s still in the realm, as opposed to what you might say at the bar, or privately, which is some version of, “Holy shit.”
Exactly. And by the way, that difference between what the reporter might say at the bar and what you see them saying on the page in the paper the next day, that was the founding insight of Gawker, Nick Denton’s was: Why are journalists so much better to listen to in a bar than they are to read on the page?
So, I was going to ask you about this later, but we can jump to it now. This is also the argument Michael Wolff is making about his book, which is essentially saying, “Yeah, maybe I got some facts wrong, and basically, I’m kind of dismissive of facts and you piddlers who worry about whether I got someone’s name correct, but I got the story right.”
I’m curious what you think about his approach and his response to criticism that many of the facts that he reported are wrong; but he’s saying, “Look, I got the overall narrative right, and I was able to present it in a way that was much more compelling than anyone else has to date. So, I’m right.”
Here’s what I think happened. I think Wolff talked his way into the White House by persuading Bannon and others that he wanted to show how unfair the liberal media was being to Donald Trump. And he assumed that Trump had to have a lot more competence, and knowledge, and savvy, and style than he discovered when he got there. And what he discovered when he got there was a president who didn’t know anything and a staff that didn’t even respect him.
But you think he thought he was still going to write a largely flattering Trump book.
Yes, but it was not only that it was going to be flattering, it was going to be a contrarian move, where he would deliberately annoy and piss off a lot of journalists to generate controversy, and that would sell the book.
And that was his plan, but the problem he ran into was, there were zero facts that supported that story. So he switched tracks. And then, what he switched to was, “You can’t believe how bad it is.” And I think there is something to the idea that he put it all together in a way that the rest of the press didn’t, because, despite their knowledge, despite their best efforts, they do normalize the presidency, and they normalize what’s going on in the White House, sometimes, in spite of themselves.
And because that book doesn’t do any of that and is consistent in saying, “Holy shit, it’s as bad as you think and worse,” there is a kind of an, “Aha,” to that that I think produces the success of the book. Now, having said that, it still matters whether the anecdotes are true, whether you can verify what he says in the book. He should be way more concerned with errors and the verification of his tale than he is, but Michael Wolff has always been that way. Anybody who knows him knows he doesn’t really care.
Right, but to play devil’s advocate, or Michael Wolff’s advocate, if the end result is a truthier picture of Donald Trump than one you’ve been able to get collectively from the Washington Post, the New York Times, etc. — despite all of their earnest work, that would be his sort of dismissive way of describing it — hasn’t he still committed good journalism in the end? Hasn’t he committed a public service in the end? In addition to making Michael Wolff rich.
I’d say it is a public service, yeah. I think it is a public service, but as John Hersey said in the New Yorker a long time ago, “The legend on the license in journalism reads, ‘I didn’t make this up.’” You know? And that’s what makes it journalism, is a concern for verification. And I think Michael Wolff’s concern for verification should be a lot higher than it is.
All right, take that, Michael Wolff, as you count your millions. Michael Wolff got in a Twitter fight with me once.
Oh, but I don’t know why, because I didn’t actually drag him, but then he claimed not to know me, and then I had to remind him on Twitter that he’d invited me out for lunch and tried to hire me, which was, I think, my most satisfying Twitter response ever. And that and a cup of coffee buys me a dollar, if I got that metaphor right.
Let’s go back to what we thought a year ago and where we think we are now. The reason this podcast did so well, in part, is because you, more or less, said, “We should stop listening to Kellyanne Conway,” some version of that. Again, you can go back and listen to it, but the longer version was, “You don’t learn anything by listening to Kellyanne Conway.” At the time, that seemed like a very important idea, because Sean Spicer and Kellyanne Conway were coming out and lying. It seems, again, like we’ve sort of gained some footing on that, and the press is no longer as concerned about who represents Trump. And Trump says plenty of outlandish stuff on the record, all the time.
We still have incidents, though, like the one we had a few weeks ago where Stephen Miller went on Jake Tapper’s show on CNN. It was kind of riveting TV for a couple minutes — two guys yelling at each other. Do you think that that spectacle of Stephen Miller and Jake Tapper, yelling at each other, and Tapper accusing Miller of performing for the president and Miller accusing Tapper of being a horrible person, is that a useful, is that a good use of CNN’s time and energy, to put that stuff on? Is that helpful to citizens?
Well, what is said about Kellyanne Conway was that you can’t make an argument for her appearance on informing the public grounds ...
Because she doesn’t know what Donald Trump actually thinks.
Yes, and because when she’s done explaining something, you know less, and it’s less clear than it was before she got into the act.
And so her appearances must have some other logic. They don’t have an informing the public or journalistic logic, an editorial logic. And I think that was the case with Stephen Miller. If you had followed the rise of Stephen Miller, and if you had seen his other media appearances, and you can contextualize this particular appearance and when it came, you knew that the interview was going to blow up. I did. I said it on Twitter. I said, “This is going to be wild.” You can go back and look it up.
But it was an easy prediction to make, because it was clear that Miller would go on CNN, having no intention of accepting the good faith premises of a Sunday morning interview.
“I’m going to ask you a question, you’re going to answer. You may not really answer it, but you’re still going to provide something in the structure of an answer.”
Right. And you’re going to take the opportunity to put the best face on your policy, and you’re going to try and emphasize the things that you think the media is forgetting.
It’s a joust. There are rules.
It’s jousting, right. And there’s a certain logic to it. There’s also certain boundaries that are kept, right? And you just knew that he wasn’t going to do that. He was going to, instead, make CNN the enemy of the people, you know? And attack it, and as Jake said, play to an audience of one.
And so, the question is, why does CNN do that, if they know what is going to happen? And I don’t think the logic is editorial. I think the logics are either entertainment, which is sort of what happened, right? The interview blows up and it’s a clip that we can share. And the other logic that I think people underestimate is CNN wants to be able to say, “We’re inviting the administration.” They want to be seen as open to the message of the White House, right? They want to think of themselves as, “We hear from both sides.” It’s very important to them to maintain that atmosphere of fair-mindedness and both sides get the microphone.
And they are committed to that, whether it’s working or not; which is another example of a ritual that may have been broken by the Trump presidency, that they don’t want to give up.
Tease that out, because you seem critical of the idea of leaving the door open for all White House, or this White House in particular, to come on and send a human bomb like Stephen Miller, saying, “Well, we’ll try it again.” You know? “Come back, if you send someone else, or we’ll try Stephen Miller again, because we need to hear from the president. We need to hear from his representatives.” That’s a generally accepted idea of journalism in this country. You sound like you’re about ready to be done with it.
Well, I think at a certain point you have to ask yourself, is that ritual actually returning anything for the public? And you have to ask yourself if it is strong enough to meet the phenomena. See, I think we’re ...
To take a step back for a second, Peter, I think we’re engaged in an uncontrolled experiment, to find out what happens to a mature democracy when a wholly destructive force gains control of the White House communications system and the presidency itself. And by “wholly destructive,” I mean that Trump is not only destructive to a free press and a fact based debate and a public sphere in which we can have a national argument, to himself, to his own program. So, what happens when a wholly destructive force gains control of the White House communications system and presents itself to journalism? That’s the, as I said, uncontrolled experiment that I think that we are engaged in. And while our journalists know that’s happening on one level, I think on another level, they still can’t quite face, you know, how dramatic it is.
Because Trump is uncontrolled, because he has people around him who can’t control him, or don’t want to control him, or want to point him in different directions, depending on their agenda. I wonder what it would be like if you — I think about this a lot — if there was a Donald Trump-like figure with a modicum of control and a modicum of discipline, and thought, “Well, this is what I really want, and so here’s my plan to achieve it over the next couple of years.” And if they did send someone instead of a Stephen Miller, but someone just ...
Oh, it’d be so easy.
Right. So, I mean, and then the press would say, “Oh, whew.” But you would then say, well, that’s less good in some ways, right?
In a way, sure. I mean, it would be harder to figure out what’s going on, you know? There would be more misdirection plays.
I mean, so much of the journalism that’s been so gratifying to read, and not to diminish it in any way, but it is really coming directly from either Donald Trump or the people directly around him in the White House. And we’ve sort of known through the reporting for the last year, and Michael Wolff’s book spells it out. I mean, they were just calling up various outlets and saying, “Well, this is what Bannon says. And this is what Kushner says.” And you know, they’re all slanted in varying degrees, but it’s riveting stuff. If you had just a bit more discipline and less of that ...
They’d be in a different situation. This is why Peter Baker says, “Hey, this is probably the most transparent White House ever,” you know? We know everything.
Right. And which, again, I think was harder for us to figure out a year ago.
Yeah, that’s probably so.
It has become pretty evident.
One of the things you recommended the press do is listen. And I want to ask you what you meant by that. One of the things we saw a lot of press organizations do over the last year is say, “Well, we obviously screwed up. And we didn’t understand the mood of the country. So we’re going out, we’re sending people out into America, away from New York, away from Los Angeles, we’re going to ask them what they think.”
I think they did a lot of good journalism in those cases. People have some critiques of some of that, those forums. There’s the Nazi profile in the New York Times. You can list others. What did you think of that effort, and is that what you thought of when you told people to go listen to the public?
Well, I started that recommendation by drawing the distinction between troubles and issues, which was originally struck by C. Wright Mills, the great, mid-century sociologist. What Mills meant is that troubles are the things that bother people in their lives, that they talk about at night, over the kitchen table; things that they are actively worried about. And issues is what the political system does to run elections and win coalitions, right? And his point was that when issues don’t speak to troubles, and troubles don’t connect to issues, you have a crisis in democracy.
So my point was not that journalists should just go out and listen to Trump voters because they got the election wrong. It was that, if journalists could somehow listen to people’s troubles in a new and more potent way, then they would be in a position to represent those people better than the political system does when it fashions them into issues. Now, that’s a much deeper and more ambitious project than, “Let’s check in with Trump voters in Pennsylvania and West Virginia to see if they still support Donald Trump.”
And I think we saw a lot of that kind of parachuting into Trump country, which is sort of an anthropological — or some people say zoological — exercise. We saw a lot of that. But what I was talking about was trying to kind of recover authority by understanding the troubles that led to the results in 2016. However, there was one part of that that I didn’t anticipate, that makes it much harder than I suggested. And this, I think, was brought out by a variety of writers, but most potently by Adam Serwer in the Atlantic, in his long piece on race and racism in the 2016 election, which is that a certain portion of the electorate voted the way they voted precisely to express a kind of racialism or racism. And that is just part of the American electorate.
Right, so you listen to them, and when they tell you something abhorrent ...
There it is, you know? And you can relay that to the rest of the public, but you’re not going to change it. You know, it’s not like they’re going to give that up. So, I think this whole year, from January 20th of 2017 to today, has been, for me, at least, a deeper confrontation with the stubbornness of American racism. I knew it was there, but I think we have to face it more clearly than we have. And Adam Serwer’s piece in the Atlantic really did that for me, very, very well.
Sometimes, when I see a piece that confronts the racism, or at least acknowledges that, or acknowledges anti-Semitism, right — I’m thinking, again, of the New York Times Nazi piece.
I think it was a Politico piece where they went to benighted towns in Pennsylvania and ended with a racial slur about the NFL. That story didn’t upset people in the way that the Nazi one did, but you’ll hear people say, “Well, just because people have abhorrent views doesn’t mean we should share them.” And there’s no point in just sharing them. We’ve always known there’s racism and anti-Semitism in America. There’s nothing new here.
And I think, I don’t know, I think it’s awfully good to share that stuff. And you should be thoughtful about the way you do it so you don’t caricature people, but if a big part of the country feels this way, we ought to know about that.
Yes, but I think, when you do that, you need to return with some insight as well.
More than just like, “Look at this.”
Okay, that’s the distinction. Let’s move into present tense. Last week, Facebook announced they’re making very big changes, and trying to sort of figure out what those changes mean is a secondary thing. But they know they’re big, because they announced them in the New York Times, made multiple blog posts, and they made Mark Zuckerberg available. And the general consensus is they’re moving away from news, and they’re going to be less interested in distributing news. And that seems to be a big pivot from a few years ago, when they said they were very interested in news.
First of all, what do you think this means for news?
Well, it was sort of Facebook’s Barbie moment. Remember when Barbie said, “Math is hard”?
This was sort of, “Informing people is hard.” You know, the public sphere is hard, and they discovered that. So, I think it is a kind of retreat from an ambition they had, which was not to just be a news source but to have a role in the public sphere.
One of the metaphors Mark Zuckerberg used to use was, “We want to be the world’s newspaper.”
Yeah. And they were kind of jealous of the way that Twitter had become the news system, the breaking news system. And they had ambitions like that, and I think it is proper to see this as a scaling back of those ambitions; and also, a kind of indifference to the fate of political democracy. They don’t want to be blamed for elections gone wrong and misuse of their platform, so they’re trying to eliminate that as well. But I think it’s almost like a kiss-off.
So, you trace this in large, at least in part, to the election, and the Russia meddling charges and the general discontent people have.
I think that’s part of it. I think it’s part of it. And a deeper level is — and I wrote about this in the Washington Post three years ago — I believe that Facebook has never quite clarified for itself what kind of trust and legitimacy it requires to operate. They seem to think that they can get away with kind of a thin layer of trust and legitimacy.
So, thin legitimacy is like, you have the terms of service box, and you check it if you create a Facebook account, right? And it kind of sort of signals that you’re accepting what they’re going to do with you, but you don’t really understand it.
You never read it.
You never read it. It does have some legal force, right, but it’s thin. And I believe Facebook feels that they can get away with thin legitimacy, thin transparency; a thin understanding of users about what they’re signing up for; a thin connection to political democracy. And maybe, they need a much thicker contract. And I think this, these events of the last few weeks are a result of an indecision at the heart of the company, where they don’t really know how much trust we need to place in Facebook. And I think they’re going to continue to founder.
Yeah, I think they’re committed most, and I think this has been, I mean, they’ve gone back and forth on what they’ve said about how they view their place in the world, but consistently, they think that they are a platform, right? That the users are doing all the work, the users ...
That used to be their religion. “We’re just a platform. We’re just a platform. We’re just a platform.”
And by the way, I think they still believe that. And they sort of have made some accommodations to reality in one way or another, and there’s different contours to it. And, “Maybe we’ll bid on some sports rights.” Does a platform do that?
But I don’t think they were ever really interested in being a news organization. I think that they thought — and I think with good intentions — that it would be useful for them to help distribute news because that’s one of the things people like to consume, but it wasn’t their main goal. And I think a lot of journalism organizations and publishers mistook that as sort of, well, that Facebook’s job is to help us distribute our information, and by the way, help us make money.
Yeah, and that was naïve. They should have never believed that.
Where do you think that leaves journalism groups that are using Facebook for distribution or, theoretically, monetization?
I’m not optimistic about using Facebook for monetization. If you can figure out how to get them to share your work, that’s going to be a good thing, but if your business model is at all dependent on Facebook, you’re in trouble.
I find it hard to believe that anyone who’s been thinking about this and running a business, would have been surprised by this; maybe the force of it or the finality. I think people have sort of reached this conclusion, mostly on their own, over the last couple of years, looking at numbers.
Yeah. It was a relationship in trouble for a long time.
So, it was sort of a finalized divorce, in some ways, from Facebook. And by the way, they’re still going to be distributing plenty of news. They and Google will continue to be the two dominant ways that people distribute information.
Yes, but I think what their announcements last week confirmed is that there isn’t any future here, right? It’s not going to be ...
Don’t come to us asking for stuff, because we’ve already made it clear that we’re out of that.
If you can use it, great, but we’re not going to spend time ...
We’re going to stop taking you guys to dinner and telling you we want to hear your concerns.
Right, which is why, the more I read about it ... I tried to read everything I could on it, because the statements from Facebook itself are incredibly opaque. If you just rely on what they’re telling you, you don’t understand a thing, which is part of the problem, part of what I meant by thin trust. But the more I read about it, the more I felt, ultimately, this is going to be good for news in the same way that when you’re stuck in a broken relationship, it’s ultimately good to be out of it, and to realize that this is not your future.
I am sort of curious if there’s going to be a different center of gravity. I’ve done this for a long time, so I can remember when distributing news online meant catering to Yahoo; AOL before that, but for a shorter period, then Google.
AltaVista before that.
Google, for a long time, was the dominant way that people thought about packaged news, and could you bump up your relevancy so you were higher in results. And then Facebook replaced it, Google’s replaced it. It doesn’t seem like there’s a thing replacing Facebook.
So I think we’ll be stuck there for a while. Speaking of platforms, I’m hoping that in a few minutes you can explain a very complicated idea to me: The blockchain in journalism. I saw that you’re affiliated with something called Civil. Are you an adviser?
I’m not affiliated, I am ...
Your name was on a press release, no?
I’m speaking at an event that they’re sponsors for, yeah.
Really, that’s it? All right, I’ll Google my facts. I spent an hour with these guys, because I was interested in ... I know the smart take is that you should not pay attention to bitcoin and other currency speculation, but if you’re a smart person who’s interested in technology, take the blockchain very seriously. So my question is, what does the blockchain mean for journalism? There’s this thing called Civil, which is trying to meld the blockchain in journalism. Do you understand what they’re doing?
Maybe 50 percent.
Okay. I don’t feel so bad. What’s the 50 percent you understand?
Well, they want to create a new way to support journalism. And instead of raising money through venture capital and getting, you know, Vox Media to support us, they want to support new publications by issuing, essentially, new coins or new currencies that would support those publications; which would give an incentive to early supporters, people who believe in the concept and who believe in the journalism, to essentially invest in a new publication. Because if that catches on, they would actually make money.
So you have to imagine the early subscribers and the people who are patronizing and talking about this new news source, actually have a way to profit from their early support because they’re investing in a currency that would, itself, grow in value as more publications join that platform. That’s the idea of Civil as a force in journalism.
And so the reason that’s better than just, say, supporting journalism by subscribing or making a donation or paying attention to advertisers, is you also get some sort of monetary benefit.
Put money in and get money out, somehow?
You could, possibly, if the garden that they’re trying to create grows. There’s another element as well, which is that, what is currently about to happen to Gawker, where Peter Thiel not only destroyed it but wants to buy it, and presumably would take all of its contents offline. That could never happen in blockchain publishing because of the distributed quality of the ledger.
And so, for highly sensitive journalism that really makes a difference and needs to be permanently public, the blockchain is a very potent technology for that, because it persists whether or not the company that originally published it is still around, whether Peter Thiel buys it or not.
So there’s an element there, too, of sort of the permanency of the public record. Blockchain provides a way to assure that that is genuinely different than private companies publishing stuff on the internet.
The Peter Thiel case aside, because that seems like an outlier — I get that rich people trying to sue people out of existence is not necessarily an outlier in 2018 anymore — but we need a new mechanism to support journalism. I’m awfully skeptical that requiring people to figure out a new currency, invest in a new currency, as opposed to using their credit card or pennies, is worthwhile. But you seem to think there might be some merit there.
I don’t know. I think skepticism is entirely warranted. I think skepticism about every single model for supporting serious journalism is warranted. You know, certainly, the ad model has shown itself to be corrosive and almost unaffordable. Subscriptions are great, but there’s a problem with the subscription supported news, like The Information by Jessica Lessin, which I think is really good and very interesting.
$450 a year, I think, which only a fraction of the market can afford that, right? So it’s great journalism, but part of the value of it is that other people don’t have that information, which is kind of the opposite.
You’re buying information you can trade on, or ...
Yeah, which is sort of the opposite of informing the public. That’s the same problem with the Politico Pro newsletter that costs several thousand dollars a year. It’s great information. It’s produced by journalists. It’s a working model. It’s successful, but it’s not journalism for the public.
And it’s why — and I come back to this a bunch of times — why I have yet to see a model of any ad-supported subscription journalism that works for small-, medium-sized papers in communities where they’ve seen those papers whittled away. I have yet to see a single solution other than a rich person supporting it.
I agree with you. It’s an unsolved problem.
Can we end on an up note for 2018? What are you optimistic about this year?
I’m optimistic about a project that I’m involved in, which is bringing De Correspondent from the Netherlands to the United States. It’s the world’s most successful member-supported news organization. What’s different about it, compared to subscription, is that it doesn’t have a hard paywall, because the members who believe in the cause, they believe in the work being done, want it to spread to non-members.
How is that different than other nonprofit journalism models we’ve seen? I’m thinking of ProPublica.
It’s not fundamentally different. ProPublica started out being funded mainly by large donors who lent thousands of dollars at a pop, but now they are going in a membership direction as well. So, De Correspondent not only has members to support it as a unique journalism model, in which it has 21 full-time correspondents who choose their own beats and define their own reporting projects; and in return for this extraordinary freedom, are required to spend 40 to 50 percent of their time in interacting with readers and members and treating them as a knowledge community.
So it’s also betting big on a kind of open source dream of journalism that’s been around for a long time. They have 60,000 members in the Netherlands. They have an editorial budget in the millions. They have 21 full-time correspondents. They’re growing.
And they’re coming to the U.S.?
And they’re coming to the U.S. And I’m excited about helping them do that.
If I want to read, if I want to participate, how do I do that?
Stay tuned to my Twitter feed. We haven’t launched the membership campaign yet, but that will happen in 2018.
I will stay tuned to your Twitter feed, Jay Rosen. I will read your blog, PressThink, easy to find. I’m sure I will find you in many other media outlets as well. Thank you for coming by, again. We’ll see you in a year.
Yeah. Thanks, Peter.
Thanks again for coming back, Jay, another great conversation. It may sound like I’m ending the podcast, but I am not ending the podcast. There’s more. First, we’re going to take a quick break to hear from our sponsor, and then we’re back with CNN’s Oliver Darcy and BuzzFeed’s Charlie Warzel. See you in a minute.
Hello. We’re back at Recode Media. You have probably listened to me talk to Jay Rosen for about 45 minutes about Trump and the White House and press. We’re going to have more of that conversation with Oliver Darcy from CNN and Charlie Warzel from BuzzFeed. You probably remember these guys from last summer when they came here to talk. And while they were talking, Steve Bannon was pushed out of the White House, he resigned from the White House. What’s going to happen while we’re talking today, guys?
Oliver Darcy: Well, he already got pushed out of Breitbart, so.
Right. That’s Oliver.
OD: Yeah. Now, I’m not sure if there’s anything left for him to get ousted from.
Let’s predict what will happen during our half hour to 45 minutes of conversation.
Charlie Warzel: He’s homeless by the end of the hour.
OD: You know, he is, I think, still living at the Breitbart embassy, or what they call the Breitbart embassy, so it’s possible, maybe.
CW: That’s incredibly awkward.
OD: You know, the eviction notice is coming later.
Here’s let’s do the formal, well, I did a semi-formal introduction. You guys both are here because you’re both great. You both sort of focus on the right-wing media — political media in general, for Oliver, I guess. But Oliver, you guys, I bring you in to help explain how a good chunk of the country sees the world, which is different than people in the reality-based conversation often see the world. Charlie, you used to have a newsletter that focused just on this, right? What was it called?
CW: It’s called Infowarzel.
Infowarzel. I wanted to call it “Notes from the Underworld,” but that’s not it.
CW: It’s coming back through BuzzFeed, actually, very soon. It used to be a fun little side project where I’d waste two-thirds of a Sunday doing it, and now it’s going to be part of my job a little bit. So hopefully we’re going to grow that. It’s going to be a little bit more about the general info war; so like, the tech platforms as well as the rise of approach on media, etc.
Premises, if you listen to Recode Media, if you read the New York Times, if you watch CNN, MSNBC, lots of mainstream news outlets, you have one view of the world. And if you watch Fox News, and/or read Breitbart, or listen, consume InfoWars, and lots of other tertiary sites and Twitter feeds, you view the world entirely different. And you guys sort of specialize in watching the way that world works. Fair?
CW: Yeah, definitely.
All right, the interview’s over.
CW: Okay, see you later.
We started talking about Bannon. Let’s go back to Bannon. Last time we talked, he was former White House. He was in the White House, then he was out of the White House. Then he was back at Breitbart, running Breitbart. We all know he’s been kicked out of Breitbart since then. He spent the last day testifying in front of Congress.
CW: I think he’s back this morning.
Is he back?
CW: I think so.
Has he been subpoenaed?
CW: He was subpoenaed, so I think, I saw some tweets about him milling around the Capitol.
So, we can talk about what’s going to happen to Bannon, but we’ll start with Breitbart. Without Bannon, what happens to Breitbart? My sense of Breitbart was that it was very important in the election, and then when he went to the White House, became a little less important because he was spending his time focused on that. He went back to Breitbart last fall. It’s, “I got my hands on the weapons now,” was that the quote?
OD: Right. He’s going to rev it up.
He was going to rev it up. Did it become more important once he came back?
OD: I think people focused on it more once he came back.
Particularly, his publication.
OD: Yeah, and because he was using it to directly oppose the president, right? Like in Alabama, he endorsed a Senate candidate that was opposite of what President Trump had endorsed.
And sent his team out, right? To work on behalf of Moore, basically, and you were the ones who got it ahead of the Washington Post story.
OD: They were very aggressive in reporting that.
It was an extension of him, at that point.
OD: Yeah, and I think Breitbart, for the last few years, has been an extension of Bannon. So it’s going to be interesting now that he’s done, whether they carry his torch forward, essentially. I think, if you talk to people close to him, they’ll say that the core team is still in place. Alex Marlow is still editor in chief. Matthew Boyle is still the Washington editor.
Those guys are pretty familiar with the kind of coverage that he would have wanted, and they’re on the same page. So those people will say that the website’s direction won’t change. But I think it’s hard for them, maybe, to generate just the amount of interest in Breitbart, and that’s what gave them a lot of influence. And people pay attention to it because they saw it, at first, as that window into the Trump campaign; then the window into the White House, and then it was interesting because the chief strategist was opposing the president’s agenda, or nominations, endorsements in Alabama. Now it’s like, why do we care about Breitbart again?
In terms of reach, in terms of influence, I think numerically, right, the visitors had gone down over the last year; it was something that worked sort of better as an opposition publication than it did once the party was in power.
CW: That’s kind of always the case, too, like with the Huffington Post sort of being a reaction to the Bush White House. And you know, it’s hard to be in power as an adversarial media organization, I think.
And Bannon didn’t found Breitbart, right? He took it over once Andrew Breitbart had died. But again, it was closely aligned with him. Everyone there seems like they’re still philosophically aligned with what he did. How much of sort of the energy of the site comes from him, and direction came from him? As opposed to people who sort of understand, politically, what he would have liked to do, versus, “Write this story. Punch this up this way.”
OD: Right. He wasn’t doing the managing, I suppose, day to day, from my understanding. That comes from Alex Marlow, who kind of executes, or was executing Bannon’s vision. But Bannon was certainly the eccentric character that brought a lot of energy, like you said, to Breitbart, and drew a lot of attention, was able to leverage that into influence. And that gave the publication influence, at large.
But this is the first time, actually, if you look at the history of Breitbart, where an eccentric guy like Bannon’s not the chairman or head of it. Andrew Breitbart, obviously, was a big bomb-thrower, as well, before he passed. And then Bannon took over the reins. So I don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s really hard for me to imagine that a publication as edgy as Breitbart doesn’t have someone like Bannon or Andrew heading it up.
CW: The way that I thought about is, the way people described working for Bannon was always like, using these kind of hackneyed, weird, I don’t know, metaphors or whatever. But you know, like, “We slam the pedal to the floor, and then when the engine jumps out of the car, we keep going.” People just talked about it, I think he was ... There’s been lots of reports in different places, being like, emotionally manipulative, being really hard on people.
And also a charismatic leader, right? That’s why people stay at a place like that.
CW: I just think it upped the emotion, the level of drive and dedication. I think people thought when they wrote a controversial story for him, that they were doing something worthwhile. I don’t know if anyone’s going to feel that way about, you know, writing it for Marlow.
It strikes me that sort of the two models we’re comfortable with or we have a handle on in media today are, there’s the publication or show or whatever or network that is the, represents ... You can sort of see a single, charismatic leader sort of powering it through, right? Fox was Roger Ailes, in large degree. Very small websites are based around a single founder. And then you have institutions, right, like the Times and the Post, and it’s bigger than any one person. It seems like Breitbart, and also a lot of the other right-wing media, are somewhere in the middle, where without Bannon, you can’t really identify the person who’s the force behind the Daily Caller or IJR. Now, I think, most people would be very hard-pressed to identify who runs Breitbart, outside of you two.
OD: Right. And the thing that’s important about Breitbart, too, is that for everyone there, the mentality is like, “We are at war, and Bannon is our general.” And now, the general’s gone. And it’s just, yeah, someone’s technically filling his place, but without Bannon, it’s like, who’s going to drive them to march forward and go into battle and spill blood, like they would say?
You know, it’s just hard. It’s really difficult to imagine Marlow filling those shoes, just because it’s not his style of leadership, from my understanding. So, I’d be interested. They said on the call, what was it, the day after he left, they had an intern on call, and they said that they weren’t immediately replacing Bannon with someone. But I’d be interested to know if like, down the line, if they bring some outsider in to fill his spot.
I like that Oliver is hanging out in the, you seemingly are hanging out in the internal Slack rooms at Breitbart. Like, every one of your stories has a screen cap of some Slack conversation. Are they unhappy about the fact that you’re sort of embedded there, or are they cool with it?
OD: I think they’re particularly unhappy. Yeah, I mean, yeah, they’re not ...
Are they hunting them all?
OD: They’re not happy. I have been told that, you know, when Bannon came back, he did try finding the employees who were talking to me, but you know, that’s not going to be easy. And probably, he learned, not going to be effective.
If we were livestreaming, the Cheshire Cat grin you’ve got would be great to show people.
CW: It is a bit of a shit-eating grin.
One thing that I think is really interesting about Breitbart is — speaking to a lot of people in the other realms of the pro-Trump media, especially the people who are like, big on Twitter — they sort of, I think they’ve been disappointed in Breitbart, basically, since the election.
That it’s not fire-breathing enough?
CW: Yeah, but also not just for the positions, but just for, if you go through and you look at the copy of a Breitbart article, most of the time, it’s incendiary headline and then kind of straight copy. Like sometimes, you know, it’s almost like AP style; just very basic. It has, you know, a slant ...
It’s got a tilt and a slant, yeah.
CW: But it’s like, we associate Breitbart, and so much of what gets put out into the world is like, they threw another bomb, you know? A lot of the content on the website is very standard. And there’s a lot of people who have been really, when Bannon came back to go to war, they were like, you know, “Where are the Periscopes? Where are the livestreams? Where are you really mixing it up in these places, where so many Trump supporters who are online actually live?”
And so I think it’s going to be interesting to see, do they go more down that path? Do they try to meet those people on the internet? Or, you know, do they just kind of stay and do their conventional thing, and plead at the kind of wilder voices on the side who go someplace else, and become a right-leaning, centrist, kind of, you know, The Hill, but for, you know, I don’t know.
OD: And I think, even by Breitbart’s standards, they’ve been kind of a disappointment since Trump came in the White House, where they were, before, talking about being the website of record, you know, and having all this access, and maybe breaking some stories because they knew everyone in the White House. And instead, I mean, I can’t remember the last time Breitbart broke news. I guess it was when they scooped the Washington Post on their own story, but that was ...
I don’t think that’s called a scoop, right?
OD: Yeah, it wasn’t really a scoop
You’re saying this newspaper is reporting the story.
Which is a fine news story, I think, frankly.
OD: Right. And they clearly seem to have got it from the Roy Moore camp. So like, they don’t break news. And I think that’s sort of disappointing to a lot of people who were looking to go to Breitbart and get things from them about the Trump administration inner workings, maybe; whereas, they have to, instead, rely on the New York Times.
CW: Yeah, say what you will about a James O’Keefe-type character, but he’s out there, putting, even if it’s ill-gotten or strangely, you know, procured, that’s new information. There’s new stuff that’s incendiary. It’s shocking. It’s not just, like, a really wild tweet or a really, you know, bad headline image with a catchy headline.
Good segue, Charlie.
Let’s talk about James O’Keefe, and then broadly, the other cast of characters besides Bannon, right? There aren’t many that people could identify. I think one of the interesting things, we talked about this last time as well, is that there isn’t really a sort of top-down direction for the right-wing media. Fox News is important. Drudge is important. But a lot of this stuff is bubbling up from the Twittersphere. James O’Keefe is his own category. So, he is who?
OD: He is who?
Who is he?
CW: He is — Oliver, please correct me if I’m wrong — a far-right activist/journalist. People call him a provocateur.
Been around for a bit.
CW: Been around for a while.
Predates Trump, Bannon.
CW: Yeah, and is sort of best known for these undercover exposées on, you know, ex, either government organization, but basically since Trump, he’s been aiming his sights on the media.
He would go after, during the Obama administration, they would send him undercover to Planned Parenthood, and he would find what was supposed to be embarrassing for ACORN or Planned Parenthood. There were a couple Obama-era appointees he basically got sort of kicked out. And the notion was, he would have undercover footage that was, in theory, damning.
And then usually, is like, really, really misleading.
CW: Yes. It’s often, I mean, sometimes he does sort of hit the mark, sort of, especially for his audience. But a lot of times, it’s really ...
OD: There’d be a kernel of truth, but it’s grossly misrepresented. And he tries making these large points based on something some low-level employee told him. And he’s like, “Well, that characterizes the whole company.”
Right. So he seems ... Has he ascended recently, again? Or a handful of stories people are paying attention to? Why is he back on the radar?
CW: He’s been sort of embraced by this pro-Trump internet crowd, for sure. The night before inauguration, he was at The DeploraBall, which was the gathering of the pro-Trump media people. He gave this really impassioned speech where he said, he called the mainstream media the American Pravda, and said, you know, “I’m going after it. I have moles in every newsroom, we’re going to do this. It’s going to be this big exposée.”
And throughout the year, he’s set his sights on the New York Times, the Washington Post, recently, Twitter. And to some, with ...
He was the one who tried to set up the Post, right?
CW: Correct, and got totally owned.
Sent someone out to sort of get the Post reporters to confess to various left-wing conspiracies. Instead, the Post ended up reporting on ...
CW: On him, and basically showing how he has this network of people who, you know, misrepresent themselves, either as romantic interests or as people trying to get their kids jobs or something like that. And a lot of times, it’s sort of like sad cases, too; very manipulative, to try to win favor with these people, get them in an emotionally unguarded moment. And then they’ll ask like, “Do you guys really hate Trump?” And then, you know, hopefully the Washington Post or whoever media reporter will say, “Absolutely. It’s a war.” You know, like they want them to be Bannon-esque, but most of the time, these people are just sort of like, “Yeah, you know, we have an opinion section, and we have a hard news section.” And it’s not ...
They don’t take off the mask. And then recently, he went after Twitter?
And this was a story that I only know, really, because I follow you guys and I happened to go to Drudge one day. It was the lead story on Drudge. It was the James O’Keefe Twitter exposée. And outside of that world, again, this is why what you guys cover is so fascinating, didn’t hear a peep about it.
OD: It was really interesting. There was a lot of news one day. It was that Bannon had been ousted, and there was some other stuff going on, I think, with the Russia investigation. And on mainstream media, I mean, no one was talking about this Twitter thing; but if you went to right-wing media outlets, like Drudge, it was the main banner. Breitbart was the main banner. If you went to the Gateway Pundit, they were going all out on this. Hannity was tweeting out links.
The premise of the story was, Twitter is actively trying to suppress the right wing. And they’ve got an active, anti-Trump ...
OD: Essentially, that Twitter’s censoring conservatives. And that’s, I mean, and Twitter obviously disputed the central theme of one of the videos that O’Keefe released, but that obviously didn’t stop it from just going throughout this right-wing media. I do think one interesting point, though, is O’Keefe used to get a lot more play, like in mainstream media. And he even complains about this in his book, where Fox News, like the news division, is not really being friendly to him anymore and won’t have him on. He still has allies like Sean Hannity, but the news division of Fox won’t even really touch James O’Keefe videos.
And like, over the weekend, it was really sad, he seemed desperate for attention, where he was tagging news anchors, like, “Look at my video. Look at my video. Why aren’t you covering my video?”
What’s the shift there? Is that just part of the overall change in Fox, sort of post-Ailes?
OD: Well, I think it’s an overall realization that James O’Keefe often misrepresents things.
But that doesn’t usually prevent Fox from ...
OD: You know, it’s not going to prevent Sean Hannity, but it might prevent someone like, you know, Bret Baier, or Bill Hemmer on “America’s Newsroom” or those guys from touching the video. Or, I have no idea, but maybe there was some sort of, like, “We don’t touch these videos unless we’ve verified them ourselves.”
And I think Bret Baier actually even tweeted that, “We are looking into this,” you know, but they’re not going to just take an O’Keefe video now and blow it up.
CW: It’s a pretty good way to think about these two sets of, sort of like, the mainstream, conservative, or right media, and then the far-right, online groups. They don’t intersect that much. Like, Hannity is someone who will sort of, you know, throw that olive branch, or grab the thing that the Gateway Pundit’s talking about, or that Mike Cernovich retweeted, then a lot of people ... He’s one of those people that is a crossover. But I don’t know if it has to do with a real animosity or anything, or sort of a worry that maybe, you know, these Twitter pundits are kind of stealing a little bit of their spotlight.
From the outside, it seems like they don’t work in synchronicity, but it seems like stuff goes back and forth all the time, right? If it bubbles up in Twitter, eventually it’s going to get to Hannity or someone else like that, if it gets some traction.
CW: Yeah, and we talked about that last time, I think.
Like the WikiLeaks stuff.
CW: But I think there’s less of that. The membrane isn’t as permeable as we think.
Good word. Back to O’Keefe. One of the reasons that his stuff gets the traction it does, whenever it does get traction, is there’s some thread there that is truthful, or in the sphere. So with Twitter, for instance, clearly, most of the people who work at Twitter are not Trump fans. You did have the guy who kicked Trump off Twitter for a minute or two.
And then broadly, right, all of the big platforms — Twitter, Facebook, YouTube — are spending time, grappling with the fact that extremists across the board, not necessarily right-wing, are manipulating the platforms to their own ends and are trying ... and traditionally they wanted to be sort of hands-off. “Communities upload stuff to us. We’re just a platform. We don’t touch it.” And they’re all, to varying degrees, saying, “All right, we’re going to assert a bit more control, in one way or another, about who gets to use our stuff, and how they use it.”
So in Twitter’s case, they’ve kicked off people like Milo. Facebook, we saw last week, said, “We’re just going to have less news overall, because it’s kind of messy. People are unhappy when they read it.” YouTube, yesterday, said, “We’re going to kick off sort of the most extreme tier of, or the least popular people on YouTube, we’re going to kick them off.” And they have taken various steps to kick ... And again, they’re talking about both right-wing folks, but also, you know, ISIS, all manner of extremists.
How does the right-wingosphere — we should find a better word for that — view what the platforms are doing? Do they view it as an attack on them specifically? And how are they thinking about how to use technology?
CW: There’s a whole — from what I can see — this is a fundamental sort of soapbox that the far-right gets on. And sometimes, I think, you know, there is a bit of a point. They have a bit of a point, because sometimes, these tech platforms try to make it seem like we’re completely and totally inclusive, and embrace that idea of free speech, when, you know, they really, they don’t have to be. They’re private companies. They need to have these standards, and they’re kind of coming to grapple with that.
I think that there’s this real problem, because the far-right is making enemies of all these tech platforms. And they are the reason why, in so many ways, that they exist.
So, you’re complaining about Twitter, on Twitter.
CW: Yeah, and I mean, it’s proof of just how vital this is to them, especially something like Twitter. I mean, Facebook is, obviously, the best for reach. YouTube is a very good platform, especially for sort of the lesser-known people. But I think — we might have talked about this a little last time — but like, Twitter is the crossover. It is a way that somebody who is, you know, “throwing bombs” can get in front of my Twitter feed, or Oliver’s Twitter feed, or any reporter at the New York Times, and you know, have that come out into the world.
And I was surprised when you guys told me that when Twitter banned Milo, it had been a real problem for them. And then, since then, it’s been sort of watching it. It seems really, his profile has gone way down since he’s been kicked off.
CW: Mm-hmm, oh yeah.
OD: He’s trying to launch this show right now, but I can’t imagine that being extremely successful. When you get kicked off Twitter, you’re sort of exiled from the public. And it’s really difficult, now in this faraway land, to reach the people he wants to reach.
CW: And he’s someone, I think, that a lot of people want to consume or watch what he’s doing for free. Like, he’s a very interesting person. I know when I write about him, or when the traffic ... He does good traffic. But I don’t think he’s someone that people want his premium content.
OD: But I think, at some point, now, when I see Milo content, it’s usually people reading Milo content and kind of making fun of him. I think his shtick of calling Trump “Daddy,” or “Uncle Steve” when he refers to Bannon, is sort of old. And I can’t imagine him, like how long can someone be entertained by that?
In the election, after the election, sort of the narrative was, look how various people, whether it’s Russians or it’s the alt-rights, some combination of the two, bots have sort of swarmed Twitter, taken over Twitter, figured out social media. They’ve figured out how to manipulate these platforms. Have the platforms asserted control? Have they taken some of that back? Have they made it harder for people to leverage the platform to their own end?
CW: I think so, a little. I mean, basically, like right after we spoke the last time on this podcast, I wrote ... I looked at sort of the 2017 stories that I wrote. And I kind of stopped writing about the — and Oliver and I have had this discussion, sort of in private — the pro-Trump media storylines that were just, you know, you could just open up Twitter and there were 10 stories there for you to just grab and write and dissect and analyze, whatever.
That kind of, in like, early September, there was that string of hurricanes and natural disasters. And then, after that, the story, at least in my world, shifted so much more to the platforms themselves. Like, look what happened over the past nine months, with the pro-Trump media, after Trump’s inauguration and all that happened in the election. And then, it sort of became that last quarter of 2017, and still now, I think, one of the really fascinating stories.
Okay, so the platforms, they were conducting this war on, what, you know, “How did this happen?” Are they trying to grapple with it? To what extent do they really care? And I think that that story’s still being teased out. But they’ve, I feel like, talking to people at some of the big tech platforms, they’ve tried to assert more control, and sort of show their hand and kick people off, and things like that. But it’s unclear if a bit of the damage is already done. Like, you can kick as many people off Twitter, but there’s another group of people who learned from them, who are coming up through the ranks. And maybe, you know, this time will be a little less ...
So, there is a Spy vs. Spy, Whac-A-Mole element to it. Twitter isn’t going to be able to expunge the right wing, obviously.
CW: Yeah. I don’t think it wants to, but I think Twitter’s going to kick off Nazis. Okay. But then what about the Richard Spencers, white nationalists, identitarian people who sort of disguise it in, “Well, we’re a think tank about this.” And then the people who have learned from him about how to make these controversial ideas palatable, or to keep them within bounds, and it’s not just like swastika Twitter avatars.
So, same thing on YouTube, you know? People coming up and starting these pseudo-intellectual podcasts, that really, the message is one of anti-Semitism. And it’s like, these people are getting better at this at the same time, and in the past — I don’t know, 2014 to now — has shown that you can make a career out of being a person like this, out of being a political firebrand who’s loose with the truth. And I think that that’s attracted a whole generation of people.
Write a big book. One of the things we talked about last time was sort of Trump’s interaction with this world, and how aware he was, and you know, is he reading this stuff, people printing it out for him. The narrative over the last few months has been, “No, Trump’s not reading anything. Trump doesn’t read,” right? That’s the Michael Wolff, with the extreme, like, he’s semi illiterate.
But it seems quite clear that he’s not wading through Twitter, right? It also seems pretty clear he’s probably not reading Breitbart, or just about anything. He’s mostly watching Fox News. And there has been some pretty good analysis saying, you know, he’s almost always responding to Fox News when he tweets. Today he said, “Watch Eric Trump.”
OD: Yeah, you get better updates about “Fox & Friends” from the president’s Twitter feed than the Fox News Twitter feed, which is ... Think about that for a second.
So, given that it’s become clearer that the president is almost entirely unaware of the right-wing Twittersphere — where he views Twitter as his megaphone, I think, correctly, but is unaware that people are sort of publishing stuff at him. Does that affect how the right-o-sphere views him, or what they’re doing? They’re obviously psyched if they get a retweet from him, but it’s presumably his social media guy/golf caddy.
OD: I mean, I don’t know. It could be him, too. He does retweet them, but I think what’s sort of interesting — and back to why maybe the pro-Trump media got kind of, it’s not getting as much coverage as it was — is that, well, initially they were interesting because they’re new to the game, but now they’re not adding anything new. And like you said, the president is primarily watching Fox, so I think that the story’s actually shifted back to some of the bigger fish, and Fox News happens to be the biggest one. So, people are — like me, at least — are writing a lot more about Fox.
Right, the president’s focused on Fox. We should all be focused on Fox.
OD: Right. And that’s not to say that the other guys are unimportant, because a lot of Fox stuff does come from them, but I don’t know, it seems that — correct me if I’m wrong — a lot of these conspiracy theories are ... It seems like less of them are coming from, I don’t know, I could be reading this wrong, but like, the pro-Trump Twitter feed, I used to see a direct channel from that to the president, or to Fox.
You could trace a line.
OD: And it seems like less of it is happening. I don’t know. They do still get stuff from the Gateway Pundit and whatnot, but like, I’m not seeing, like, the last time Cernovich got something from his Twitter feed to Fox. Am I wrong on that?
CW: Well, I think one of the things is, there’s been sort of the revolving door. The White House has kind of kicked out some of the people who the pro-Trump Twitter groups had as sources.
Right, the Bannon, the Gorkas.
CW: Yeah, some of the National Security Council folks, who, it’s been pretty much reported that they were, you know, talking to a lot of these ...
Mike Flynn’s kid.
CW: Right. And so, I think you’re totally right with that. And having spoken to some of the pro-Trump internet folks, I think there’s also, there’s like a bit of a, I think, disappointment in Trump. Like, there was a long trial period of like, “Okay, we’re going to see what this guy’s going to do.” Like, he’s going to build this wall. This is going to be, you know, epic, or whatever.
And then, it kind of didn’t happen. And he’s sort of, you know, a very standard, you know, he’s letting a Republican Congress dictate what the legislations is going to be. And it’s like, “Oh, okay. This is kind of boring.” This is kind of establishment ...
Right, it became clear that he’s not very interested in policy/not interested in policy at all.
CW: And not interested, like you just said, in them. You know, he’s not saying, “Great Breitbart story,” you know? He’s like, he’s interested in the establishment conservative media mothership.
And he’s interested in “Fox & Friends.” He’s also interested in the New York Times and conventional media. And by the way, Bannon was very happy to talk to the Times, did a long piece in Vanity Fair. He talked to Michael Wolff, who in many ways is very establishment. A lot of attention paid on traditional media and traditional outlets. And I wonder if any of that sort of sunk into the right-wing ...
CW: I think they’re a little frustrated with that, and I think that, also, there’s, I don’t know if they’re just full of crap when they tell me this, but there’s this sort of ... We’re looking at 2018. We’re looking at the midterms. We’re also looking at who’s after Trump. You know, who’s like, really our guy? Who’s the guy who’s in the chat rooms? Who’s the ... And unfortunately, the one guy who sort of looked to be the most like that, Paul Nehlen, who’s challenging Paul Ryan in Wisconsin, proved to be like a proto-Nazi. Or I mean, he’s just, he’s expressing incredibly anti-Semitic views.
But I think they’re looking for somebody who is of the internet, of their world, who’s going to be a real player for them in either Congress or the White House someday, and who will be their actual champion. Rather than Trump, who sort of talked the talk but isn’t walking the walk.
OD: And it seems Steve Bannon thought maybe, at one point, that that could have been him, right? Like he was definitely familiar with these internet groups, and ...
There are various stories, suggesting that Bannon himself might run for something.
OD: Right, so the Vanity Fair story came out, that basically raised the speculation. And then, a couple people told me that Matthew Boyle, who’s one of Bannon’s top deputies, was telling people that, yeah, Bannon’s mulling a run for president in 2020 if Trump doesn’t run.
So, I think maybe Bannon thought he could be this guy. And then, it became very clear that no, the Trump audience is really Trump’s fan base. It’s not anyone else’s. And Steve Bannon, while they liked him when he was close with Trump, they are perfectly willing to cut ties and take Trump’s side.
Again, one of the reasons I love talking to you guys is because you read this stuff, so I don’t have to. So, tell me what’s in the ... What, can we coin a better phrase today?
CW: Boy, I don’t know. That’s dangerous.
In the right-wing media sphere, that I’m not seeing, right? So, my Twitter feed is full of girther stories about Trump’s height and weight, right? The shorthand is that he says he’s six foot three and 239 pounds. And everyone says, “No. There’s no way. He’s fatter than that.” There’s still a shithole, shithouse conversation going on. And then, remarkably, the Russia stuff seems to have really faded. But in the version of the world that you guys look at, what are the top stories today? We’re taping this on a Wednesday, the 17th.
OD: I haven’t really spent time going through it because I was on the way over here. But yeah, no, Twitter has been, this James O’Keefe thing has been ...
OD: Yeah, it’s been one of the top stories.
That is still an animating story. This is now days after the fact.
OD: Because he’s been releasing video after video, so it’s been kind of pushing him back to the top.
And again, no hint of this in anything in mainstream media. Is Fox covering this as a story?
OD: I think Hannity’s covered on radio. I can’t say whether Fox has covered it.
It’s a story that basically does not exist unless you read right-wing ...
OD: Right. If you’re on Twitter, and if you’re reading the Drudge Report and sites like that, it’s a big story. Fox has covered it online. And so, and they covered it pretty prominently. They put it in even a good spot online, but it’s not being touched by anyone else, for the most part. I think Wired may have finally done something on it, and Charlie did something, basically debunking one of O’Keefe’s videos a couple days ago.
CW: Yeah, and I think that that’s ... I mean, it’s funny. There’s this difficulty in responding to something like an O’Keefe video, because you have ... What was interesting about this, the most recent one, which said that there’s a, it had an engineer, saying that there’s a team of hundreds of people that can read your DMs and look at, you know, all of your sultry, sexy, nude texts, or whatever.
Because that’s where you send those, is Twitter.
CW: Right, Twitter DM, of course. And you know, that was something that I felt, as someone who covers the platforms and technology, like, if that’s not true, Twitter needs to respond to this. But then, there’s that whole back and forth of, you know, if this is only in this one contained sphere, do you really want to legitimize it by having Twitter go on the record and give it more attention?
There’s sympathy for the Twitter folks, and the platform folks, right? How many of these stories do you want to respond to?
CW: Exactly. It’s really, it’s difficult to figure that out. And in this case, I think what’s fascinating is, I chose to write about it and try to get Twitter to comment on it, because tons of people from Silicon Valley are sending me text messages, being like, “You talk to Twitter folks. Is this true?” You know, like people who do not consume James O’Keefe’s stuff.
So, it is seeping in.
CW: He’s finding ways, the stuff, and I think generally that’s what happens in whatever industry. Like, the New York Times and the Washington Post may not cover whatever conspiracy theory. The people in Washington are hearing about it, you know? Especially because Twitter is this portal to that world.
But yeah, that’s really one of the main stories. And he’s found ... His savvy is being able to figure out how to draw ... I’m sure the Twitter stuff is probably, like, three interviews that were a total of 20 minutes. And he’s finding a way to make a week-long media cycle out of it.
OD: And he does have, still, powerful allies like Rush Limbaugh, powerful ally; Mark Levin, powerful ally. These guys reach millions of people. And when Sean Hannity tweets out a link, it’s still getting a lot of, it’s still putting it into the ecosystem. And then when Fox News does an online story on it, and sure, they say Twitter denies it. It still gets out there. So there’s still a lot of people consuming his content. It’s just interesting that it’s primarily from this right-wing media sphere, versus anyone, like, who watches the network news or MSNBC or CNN or reads the Times that have, probably, no idea.
What do the right-wingosphere think of the Michael Wolff book? Did that land there? I mean, the president was tweeting about it so they had to be aware of it.
CW: From what I saw, I mean, it was for them. And again, you basically have the mainstream media and the far-right, or pro-Trump, or whatever you want to call it, media. It’s basically a Rorschach test, right? You saw whatever you wanted to see in that book. For the far-right media, it was proof that, because Michael Wolff’s reporting methods and, you know, liberties with the truth or whatever, were in question and being talked about in mainstream media circles, it was validation for the right that this is what happens.
This is what all reporters do. They come in. They spend a lot of time with you. They don’t represent themselves properly. And then, they just take in everything, get a feeling, and then write on the feeling, rather than the actual story. So, they come in with this bias. That was really the main takeaway from that book, was like, here’s all the proof you needed.
Whereas, if you were a Trump critic or on the left, every single Michael Wolff anecdote you took as gospel and then shared. You had a great Facebook, a great piece about this, sort of the ... What was the way you described it? Sort of the ultimate, you made a parallel to Facebook.
CW: Basically, the Wolff book is like a hyperpartisan Facebook post in book form. It takes this, again, kernel of truth. Like, this is why O’Keefe does really well on the internet. It’s a kernel of truth, wrapped around a real perspective, a biased perspective.
A thing you want to be true.
CW: Yeah, exactly. And you give people the ability to share that and make that part of their identity. And that’s really what the book was.
Do we — speaking of Facebook, and we’ll leave it there — do we think that the changes they announced last week, and they signaled this is very important to them, they made multiple blog posts about it, gave the New York Times a bunch of access, and kept saying, “This is very important. We’re changing the way Facebook’s going to work.” We’ll sort of see if an average user can tell. Do you think that is going to have a real effect on the way the folks you cover distribute their message on social media?
OD: I think most of the stuff I see, at least, is usually on Twitter. It might have an effect on the traffic of some of these websites, like Breitbart or the Gateway Pundit, which was relying, I think heavily, often on Facebook traffic. So we’ll see, but it’s going to affect a lot of other publishers as well. It’ll be interesting to see how this all plays out for, really, everyone.
CW: Yeah, I think the big, hyperpartisan, conservative and very liberal pages are going to be hit much harder than a mainstream publisher. And I think, because they rely so much, like Oliver said, on Facebook to monetize, I think that’s going to be a big thing. But what I’m most interested in, to see, is this hyperpartisan sites sort of, really, kind of invented and were the best at gaming the system. And you know, sort of the shiestiest group is always the ones who find the next workaround.
And so, if Facebook’s new thing for promoting posts is the engagement that you get in the comments of something, is there going to be a right-wing media ecosystem that basically pays people to comment on their articles? I think we’re going to see, this isn’t going to be the end of that kind of content in publishing.
There’s always a workaround.
OD: And there’s been talk about this from Facebook for a long time, of getting rid of clickbait and stuff, and I still happen to see it in my feed all the time. So, we’ll see what happens, but you know?
You guys have an incredibly toxic feed. That’s how you do your job.
CW: Oh, yeah. It’s hell. I was saying to someone, I took a couple of days off and didn’t have an internet connection, right around the holidays. And everyone else was doing the same thing. And we were all just better, happier people. You could really tell the difference. And then, everyone else went back and was like, “I pruned my feed of these people I didn’t like. New year, new me, new social media strategy.”
And you just jumped right back into the ...
CW: I feel — and you probably feel this way, Oliver — like, I literally can’t. Like, it’s the actual way that I do my job.
Yeah, I told you guys last time that I’d taken a Twitter break, or I’d taken it off my phone. You both looked at me like I had retired.
OD: Well, it’s just so angry. There was actually a really good story by Eve Peyser in Vice the other day, where she wrote that Trump is making us all like him. And everyone’s just so angry online, and it’s hard. It feels like it could be coming from the top.
I’m going to go eat two Big Macs, and two chocolate shakes ...
CW: And rage tweet.
Filet o’ Fish, and rage tweet in my underwear while I watch Fox News.
You guys go about your business. Thanks for coming by. We’ll have you back. You want to come back again this year, talk about the election?
Deal, okay. Thanks guys. Take care.
CW: Thank you.
Thanks again, Oliver and Charlie. You guys are great, love having you. Thanks again to Jay Rosen.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.