This week on Recode Media with Peter Kafka, Sarah Ellison of the Washington Post and Jim Rutenberg of the New York Times talk about what the media got right in 2017 —and what it got wrong.
You can read some of the highlights from the interview here, or listen to it in the audio player above. Below, we’ve provided a lightly edited complete transcript of their conversation.
If you like this, be sure to subscribe to Recode Media on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Overcast or wherever you listen to podcasts.
Peter Kafka: This is Recode Media with Peter Kafka. That’s me. I am part of the Vox Media podcast network. I am saying these words from memory. I don’t need a script. Two people who do not need scripts because they’re awesome media reporters — Sarah Ellison, formerly of Vanity Fair, now at the Washington Post; Jim Rutenberg, New York Times — are joining us in the studio. Welcome, guys.
Sarah Ellison: Hi.
Jim Rutenberg: Thanks for having us.
SE: Yeah, thanks.
Thanks for coming. This is Jim’s second visit, but the first time in person. He joined us for a brief cameo over the phone.
JR: Inaugural in-person visit.
I said I promise we’ll bring you in the studio before the end of the year.
SE: What were you talking about the last time?
JR: It’s beautiful and a great colleague here.
We talked about Russia. Of course.
JR: They better slow down.
It’s going to be this kind of podcast. It’s a year-end podcast. We’re going to talk about what happened in 2017 because some stuff happened. Look ahead a little bit. I was trying to figure out what the story of the year was besides Donald Trump, but that seems a bit like a fool’s errand. It seems like Donald Trump swamped the media landscape, and everything else that we talk about is still related to Donald Trump.
SE: I mean, I think you could say Harvey was another really big story and a sort of a media story.
Yeah, and we can kind of link the two, right? There’s a theory I think you’ve written about and I think other people have written about. The Harvey Weinstein story has come out of, in part, a reaction to Donald Trump. Let’s save that big thought for a minute.
Besides Trump, I was thinking about media consolidation, which we can also tether to Trump. Right? Facebook, obvious Trump angles there. So we could spend the entire half hour, 40 minutes, 45 minutes talking about Trump. Is there anything else that we should get to as we’re sort of laying out a menu here? Harvey, Trump, Facebook, media consolidation.
SE: Right-wing media.
SE: Right-wing media, Trump. We could have a Venn diagram.
JR: Stations though because FCC, regulatory, net neutrality.
SE: AT&T, Time Warner.
Trump, Trump, Trump.
SE: Which is Facebook. Trump, CNN.
Let’s start with Trump. Trump on the brain.
How did ... The media after the election of last year did a lot of soul searching, a lot of public self-flagellation. We did a bad job covering Trump in the election. We did a bad job covering the underlying causes that led to Trump. We’ll do better in 2017. How do you think the media — us — did broadly covering Trump this year?
SE: I would say that they did — they, we — did largely okay, did better. There wasn’t the same kind of ... I mean, there was a marked shift in the kind of the overall tone of the coverage. Whereas it was a great show in 2016 and everybody was laughing and having a grand time from these elite media circles that we live in. Then everyone had the moment of horror after he was elected. Not everyone, but I would say that these are broad strokes. Then there was a really hard turn to more investigative work that happened this year.
The “oh shit, he’s President” work we have to do.
SE: Yeah, it was a wake-up call, as it was for many, many other sectors, and people thought, “Oh God, what have we been doing? This totally improbable thing happened. What did we do to either ignore that or assist that?”
So there’s the thing last year that happened that said oh, well, he’s running for President and he seems to be first in the polls so we have to take him a little bit seriously. We have to at least have to give him airtime. Also, by the way, that airtime is entertaining.
SE: No, I think people were like, “We want to give him airtime.” The whole CNN story was we want to give him airtime because he’s great for ratings.
Then we sort of said, “Oh, well maybe that was wrong.” Then we spent a good portion of the beginning of this year saying, when he tweets this crazy stuff, “What do we do about that?” Is that a thing? That’s the president of the United States talking? That’s a real thing. It seems like we spent a lot of energy — at least at the beginning of the year — talking about that. We seemed to have acclimated to that.
JR: I think yeah, I think there’s been an adjustment. And if you think about it, I think in terms of in my 25 years in this business, there’s never been a year like it in terms of journalistic highs.
JR: Right? It’s not to say everyone was perfect. There were some big mistakes that fed this anti-press movement that he’s forwarding very loudly, but just think about it. Every time the Washington Post, the Times, the AP, CNN, Vox, everyone came up with these really big great stories this year, and he said, “fake news” and they were repeatedly vindicated. The Russia investigation, repeatedly vindicated in the reportage there.
In some cases the investigators learned from the media, so I think it’s been amazing, it’s been amazing rallying for just good journalism.
SE: The question I have about that though is do people believe the media or do they believe when Donald Trump says fake news? How effective have those attacks been? I think they’ve been pretty effective, so I think that’s really worrisome for people in the media. People are doing these bang-up stories and then with one ...
Sort of landing with a thud or not landing.
SE: Not landing. They’re landing in certain ... It’s not every story has not landed. There have been stories that have landed, but it’s a frightening kind of atmosphere.
One of the themes of the post mortem last fall was we really have to get out of New York, we have to get out of Washington, we have to leave Los Angeles, we have to go to the middle of the country where Donald Trump voters live and talk to them and figure out how to speak to them. People have done various stories where they’ve done that or they’ve said, “You know what? I know everyone in the world thinks that Trump is viewed this way, but I just went to Michigan to the Women’s March and I talked to a bunch of women and they’re all for him.” Seems, though, that the energy for that kind of reporting has also fallen off a bit.
SE: Well, I think what’s interesting is that I would say that the media is doing a good job, but the reckoning in the media is happening where people are looking at the economic repercussions of the Trump bump ending are really clear. There’s still a kind of what I like to talk about as the Us Weekly version of White House reporting where we only ... People are engaged in the policy reporting, but not nearly as much as they’re engaged in Javanka reporting or ... I say this ...
You did one of the best Javanka stories of the year.
SE: I’m doing it too, but I think that people ... In some ways there’s this incredible Government 101 education that’s happening for everybody, because you’re like, “Wait, who has that job? What does the EPA do? Oh, what they’re not doing right now is what the EPA used to do.” So there’s this very basic kind of reporting, but a lot of it is these personalities that are carrying their function, whereas before no one ever paid attention to that.
Are you guys thinking about how you’re going to cover these stories next year and what kind of tweaks you’re going to make or ... Look, the news is the news. You cover it as it goes? You follow a lead on Russia. You follow a lead on Harvey Weinstein and it’s sort of silly to plot this stuff out in advance.
JR: There’s a lot of that. That’s the business and that’s also why we love the business, you know? It’s like the cliche, when we started, you never know what each day’s going to bring. That’s never, never been more true. I do think, for instance, the press-bashing story, where’s that go? I think “he’s bashing the press again” is no longer, it’s not news anymore. He bashes the press regularly, but then it’s what’s the next step or what isn’t the next step and what’s it really leading to?
I think we’ve seen a good example lately of stories about the effect overseas, when dictators and people who really are cracking down on press freedom repeat his language and take their cues, but it’s the cover-tested lead to somewhere and not just be, again, the tweet of the day, the rant of the day, the crazy thing that came out of the White House today.
SE: Right, it’s like you have to advance the story. So I agree, the “fake news” is something that, being in quotes, is something that people are sort of inured to at this point. I also think that there’s a real issue, though, with everybody that I know who does the kind of job that all of us do, your head’s on a swivel.
You just can’t focus on any one thing for a very long period of time, so if you don’t take a minute to think about what are the big themes that we want to make sure that we have kind of ... Some night between 9 pm and midnight we’re going to sit down and think, all right, this is how we’re going to tackle these four big topics. If the media don’t do that then we’re still just going to be chasing our own tails, because Donald Trump might be bad at a lot of things. He’s very good at media, whether you want to call it manipulation or ... He’s very good at that.
He’s very good at staying in the headlines.
SE: He’s very good at staying in the headlines and leading it. [To Rutenberg] I think your colleague Maggie Haberman said there was this quality about him where he can make, he’s like “Harold and the Purple Crayon” where he can make what he says the reality. It helps that he’s the president, but he’ll say something that you think this is absurd and then slowly over time it sort of resonates in a way that’s just kind of, it seemed impossible at the outset.
Right. We spent a bunch of time saying well, is this strategy? Is this planning? He’s been good at saying, this is all reactive of him. It’s all instinctive and reactive. The fact that he’s brought this rogues’ gallery to Washington with him, stories about Omarosa and the 10 days of Scaramucci, they’re all delicious stories.
Again, you wrote this great story about Jared Kushner and Ivanka being sort of booed in Washington. There is constantly this refrain of going, “Well, we shouldn’t over-cover that stuff. We really need to do talk about the EPA. We need to explain tax policy.” But at some point you can’t force that to readers.
JR: Well, he’s governing in plotlines, right? And narratives.
SE: That’s right.
JR: The danger is we all get swept up in narratives and our readers get swept up in narratives. Peter, to your point, the heavy policy stories that we do, the heartland stories that we do, they are not on our most-viewed list. That means we’re lucky enough that we will keep doing them because we have the resources, but the readers, you can say, “Eat your peas,” all you want, there’s just a reality here that certain stories are just, readers cannot get enough of.
SE: Yeah, and I think that before this is all ... before Trump was the only thing that we talked about, the only thing that we talked about in media was how there was this revolution in media where the editors of the New York Times and the Washington Post weren’t able to shake their fingers at people and say, “This is what you have to read.” There was citizen journalism. There were all these other upstarts — Vox, for example — that had sort of started out of what fan, what people who were like rabid fans for a particular area wanted to read about.
So I think that now everybody’s saying, “Well, the New York Times has to be really responsible and the Washington Post and everybody else has to be really responsible.” But people want to read what they want to read. They want to read infotainment.
There’s a good segue there to Facebook and their role. I think, again, after the election there was this immediate thing about fake news and then that morphed into a Facebook and Russia story and how there’s been Facebook manipulated and text reckoning. But I think the big story about Facebook is the broader one about sort of disrupting the power of the New York Times and the Washington Post to set that agenda. It’s now set by an algorithm, right?
Facebook will say, “No, you’re setting it. The consumer is setting it. You’re telling us what you want and we give you more of that, so don’t blame the computers. Blame yourself.” But to me that is one of the big stories of the year, Trump or no Trump.
SE: I couldn’t agree more. I think that the crazy thing about that story is that we don’t know what the algorithm is. We can’t see it. We can’t judge it. There’s no transparency to that, so it’s a very, very hard story to cover because I wouldn’t know what the algorithm would say even if it was sitting right in front of me.
JR: Right, first of all you can’t cover that story enough right now, and that’s, I think, the Trump phenomena. And the Trump presidency has been somewhat a detriment — even though it’s boosted some of that coverage — it’s also been a detriment because there’s so much more to report out. Facebook, they’ve talked a good game and they’ve taken some actions, but I think from knowing what you guys write and tweet, we all agree that it’s not enough and the transparency isn’t there.
To me it’s structural. I don’t think they can really control the thing, at least and have it be Facebook. Right? It is sort of a perpetual motion machine. They can tweak it and play with dials even though they say they won’t, but Facebook is built to sort of operate at scale almost without human input.
SE: Right. I think they could be ... There’s no question they could be less secretive about how they do it. That would be the beginning of letting people know what they’re playing into.
You know, I don’t like seeing the ads. There are things, as you say, like, blame yourself, for sure when I’m on Facebook and I see a story pop up and like, “Oh yeah, I did look at that story. I’m so embarrassed. Nope, that is not me. I’m not doing that.” If they would let ... I think there’s a massive ... I mean, I think this is for all of Silicon Valley, there’s just zero transparency for the way that it operates and Facebook is at the top of that list.
JR: There’s a story, I think it broke last night, I don’t know who broke it. Maybe you guys broke it. Maybe they just put it out, Facebook put out this idea that they’re not going to flag things that are false anymore.
They were going to fact-check and they’re done with that. Actually, they were never going to fact-check. They were going to ask other people to fact-check.
JR: Then flag it.
JR: Now Facebook is saying, “Our social science has shown” — it’s all so touchy-feely — “that people don’t react to that. What we need people to react to is a counterstory that will show the truth.” You know what? Imagine again if we did that. “We are not correcting our incorrect story because the reader may not read ...”
Because we’re a platform.
SE: I also think that they’re so definitely a media company and don’t act like one. The responsibility is not there. I think that they did ... they had these series of off-the-record dinners with journalists and Campbell Brown went around and talked to everyone.
SE: They were, they were lovely, but I think that this is a segue to another topic that we could maybe discuss, but the idea that these are the power of Silicon Valley and the power of Facebook in particular because it is a platform and not a media company, it’s been so unchecked. It’s like people are ticked off about ... Steve Bannon is mad about it. Media people are mad about it.
Do you guys believe the narrative that we’ve heard for the last three months or so that it’s, Silicon Valley is ... there is a political reckoning coming? That these guys have been unchecked and now something is going to happen, that it’s going to sort of restrain them to some degree or at least maybe something will happen?
SE: I mean I think that the best chance for that actually happening is you get the best media company lobbyists, like the telecom company lobbyists, like those who work for AT&T who are now desperately training their Howitzers on Facebook and the other Silicon Valley companies to be like, “You don’t want to let our deal go through for Time Warner, but what about these huge monopolies out in Silicon Valley?”
I think that when there’s a real profit motive and you put those high-priced lawyers on a case like this, that is the best case I think for, the best chance I think for that reckoning actually happening.
JR: Then on a lower, a beginning level, which isn’t as major as that, we know almost with certainty there will be some kind of regulation for their political advertising after what happened with the Russian ads.
Right. Minimal compliance.
JR: No matter what. All that they’re really being asked to do is do what television stations have been asked to do. It’s pretty simple. Get ready for that.
Yeah. I’m dubious that there’s going to be anything in the U.S. that’s going to restrain them in any significant way. I don’t think in a Donald Trump era there’s going to be any regulatory outside of weird CNN, AT&T, Time Warner stuff. I don’t think anyone’s going to win a vote campaigning against Facebook. I think that’s why Donald Trump didn’t campaign against Facebook. I think as much as Steve Bannon walks around saying that there’s a reckoning coming, I don’t think anyone goes to the poll and pulls the lever against Facebook.
SE: Right. It might not be that energizing thing.
No, and also I think we could argue why you and I, the three of us could make a decent argument why Facebook poses a problem for the democracy. We could talk about Amazon’s monopoly power. I think a lot of these products are really well liked by a lot of people.
JR: Though Europe is making these moves that are very un-American, right?
JR: Against everything that we believe in. They do, the platforms are still trying to maintain something of a unified global standard, so that could have an effect, too.
Yeah, and you’re seeing over time, years after the fact, Europe’s started to clip Google a tiny bit, a $3 billion fine a year.
SE: Well, the fines aren’t, but it might be an actual, yeah, obviously the fines are pocket change, but the idea at least is sort of there. I don’t know if that’s going to resonate.
No, if there’s regulation it’s going to be in Europe, I think.
I think Facebook would very much react if people actually stopped using Facebook in significant numbers because they were unhappy about it. That would be more painful more than anything else.
Facebook’s a free service. This podcast is a free podcast because it’s supported by fine advertisers. We will hear from them and be right back.
Back here with the dulcet tones of Jim Rutenberg and Sarah Ellison. Jim is at the New York Times, Sarah is about to be at the Washington Post.
When will we see the first byline from you?
SE: Well, I start my orientation on January 22nd. I don’t know how long it’s going to take.
You’ve got to get oriented?
JR: Are they going to make you watch “The Post”?
SE: I don’t know. I’ve not been orientated in so long. When I was at Vanity Fair they didn’t, you didn’t have to be orientated. They told me at the Washington Post, they’re like, “We’re going to do a background check. You have to pass a drug test.” I was like, “I’m perfectly happy to do both of those things,” but this is so unusual that I am being treated like ... I need to go to an orientation about some kind of method of publishing system.
I want to talk about the actual work you guys do. Sarah, up until now you’ve been working at Vanity Fair, publishing a couple times a week?
No, not that much?
SE: Maybe once a week, but not even always. It depends on whether I’m working on a big magazine piece, but frequently, yeah.
Jim, you’re weekly with the occasional pop in for the big Harvey Weinstein story.
JR: Yeah. A lot of times this year it’s been twice weekly, but now I’m juggling investigative works so, which writing a, trying to write a good column and investigative work can’t go hand in hand because you need the time to crash into walls and ...
You’re doing investigative pieces, you’re doing reported pieces. They take more than an hour to write, more than a day to write usually. In a world where the news flow is coming through minute by minute, everyone knows this by now, do you feel pressure to go, “Shit, I just got to get this out. I can’t wait X number of days to have something to say about Trump or AT&T Time Warner or whatever it is. I’ve just got to get something out now because I can’t wait a week or two weeks for this piece to land.”
JR: It really depends. Like some weeks I have to jump in. I just have to. Those moments are almost easier columns to write because we ... It’s just like dah, dah, dah, dah, dah. Here it is, boom. The harder ones are like, they get a little high-concept, sometimes too high-concept. You need reporting and editing. What I find when I’m now juggling also the investigative work is sometimes you have to let those moments go, and when you do, you are reminded that this pace did not always exist. In a lot of cases the story’s still there when you get to it.
I think we’re all getting sucked into this speed of Twitter because it’s there on our phones all day. We’re news people. I grew up watching the wires, which was ... It’s hard, but I think ultimately you just have to stay focused on the thing that matters the most in your daily duties.
SE: I would say that the idea that you have today has to get so much better if you wait two days to put it out because somebody else is smarter than you and they’re going to say it faster. So it is easier to just have the idea, write it very fast, put it out. You hope that you’re in the first scrum of the billion headlines that come out about it.
But there is ... Vanity Fair is still a monthly — when you’re doing a magazine piece — and there’s something about that that you can use to your advantage when, as we discussed before, everybody’s head is on a swivel. Nobody can remember what the thought was from 10 a.m. this morning. They’re like, “Wait. That was so yesterday. Oh no, it was just this morning. I can’t believe it seems ...”
So if you really do take a minute to — whether it’s digging into an investigative piece or really kind of taking your time with something — you can do that. It gets harder and harder. The quality of the news is really, the quality of the insta-news is really high, so if you’re going to wait to write something ...
We used to dismissively talk about oh, they’re just re-blogging the Times, and they do, right? You’ll do a Jared, Ivanka story. I’m going to rewrite it. That’s the nature of the beast, but a lot of the stuff coming out quickly now is reported or is very high.
SE: It’s so good. It’s like I don’t know what the millennials are doing with their fingers, but they definitely are moving faster than I am. So it’s like, oh.
I had Oliver Darcy from CNN and Charlie Warzel from BuzzFeed in to talk about right-wing media earlier this summer and I told them I was on a Twitter diet. I had taken it off my phones and they looked at me like ...
SE: “You’re crazy.”
I don’t know. “I don’t understand literally how you can do your job without Twitter.”
JR: But I do want to say, in these stories as well, as good as the reporting is, the news is moving so fast that a story is always, there’s always a lot left in every story.
JR: That you can go back and there’s so much that’s unexplored. Matt Lauer at NBC, if we go on the sexual harassment part of the beat, that’s a huge story. There’s so much more to do. You guys have done more, we’ve done more, but there’s still more to do.
JR: What we used to think was normal, that would be months of coverage.
SE: Yeah. I think that it’s true, that a lot of huge stories are being done in a day and moving on. The Lauer story in particular was like, this was a story for a day. You had the guy who had been on the “Today” show for more than 20 years, the biggest star by far in television news ... And there is actually a huge institutional pressure to not revisit that stuff. Because it’s like, who’s that really going to get in terms of readers? Does the average person really want to know that much more? Well, this is a great moment where journalists say, “You don’t know what you don’t know.”
JR: Yes, thank you.
SE: We could tell you something that you really want to know, but you don’t know it yet. Neither do I, trying to dig into this story, which is a gamble and your bosses have to be willing to kind of let you do that. It might be a dry hole, which is no fun for anybody. But I think it’s stressful.
Speaking of enterprise stories and harassment, Jim, your paper was one of the two that did the seminal Harvey Weinstein stories. We talked a little bit about why those stories came out now instead of over the last decade. This is a story that people sort of knew in varying degrees.
I have a variation on that question. Harvey Weinstein wasn’t the first big figure to be taken down in a harassment — by harassment charges. You could argue that Bill O’Reilly is much better known throughout the country than Harvey Weinstein was. He lost his job earlier this year because of harassment charges. Why did the Weinstein story break things open in a way the Roger Ailes and O’Reilly and any of the other earlier harassment stories did not?
JR: Well, first of all, I don’t think the Weinstein story ends up happening the way it happened if it isn’t for O’Reilly, Ailes and Trump’s election. Right?
You think there’s a throughline there?
JR: Yeah. Harvey hits bigger for reasons that may say a lot about our culture, but it is what it is. You have famous people who are the victims.
Right, so he wasn’t famous, but some of the victims were.
JR: People ... You could finally put them on the cover of the Enquirer, however the Enquirer was sort of out of the game as we said to more protecting him. You also had tentacles. The system that allowed Harvey to carry on this way for decades permeates all of Hollywood, so it just had, the story was really wide-ranging in terms of its impact.
SE: I would agree that one, that the women were famous. Not to say that Gretchen Carlson, who I do think should be called out in every single story like this for being the one who got herself together and got it ready to go and sued Roger Ailes. I also think that — and this is something that people who I talked to who are around Fox and in the right-wing kind of world — say that Fox’s wrongdoing was dismissed because they were like, “Of course it’s happening at Fox. That’s just a whole cesspool of ...”
Well, look what’s on air, right?
SE: Right. Well, that’s it.
It’s got a leering camera.
SE: This is the thing that was so frustrating about reporting on the Ailes story, was that people would say, “Well, what did those women expect?” I was like, “Have you guys never heard that just because she’s wearing a miniskirt doesn’t mean that she deserves to be sexually harassed?”
But I do think that it was two things. One, the women were famous — and we still haven’t given a ton of attention to women who are in working-class jobs and who aren’t famous. Two is that it happened at Fox and everybody was like, “Well, that’s obviously where that kind of thing is going to happen.”
I also think that the women thought that after the now-long-ago Billy Bush tape came out and days later Donald Trump was elected president and those women who had accused him during the campaign of groping, there was kind of like a major emotional reaction that a lot of women had, although not 53 percent of white women who elected Donald Trump had about what this meant about the way women could be treated and talked about. I think that that was bubbling for a long time.
It’s late December. Harvey Weinstein broke in what, October?
JR: Yes, October 5th, I believe.
Daily drumbeat of stories like this, on any given day there will be multiple stories in the Times about multiple people. There will be three stories about Mario Batali in a week between Vox and the Times and the Washington Post. Impossible question to answer, but I’ll ask anyway: How long do you think we go through this? How much? Is this a years-long story or is this at some point have we either gone through all of the celebrity and well-known harassers and/or the appetite for those stories?
SE: I’d say that in some ways it’s up to the journalists who are pursuing them to continue hearing the stories and asking for the stories. There is a risk always as we’ve discussed earlier about whether Donald Trump is calling something fake news that you need to advance the story, so just another kind of famous guy who’s sexually harassing somebody, now that’s sort of like ... You don’t even read the story anymore because like, “Okay, fine.”
There’s a risk of everybody becoming inured to it. There’s a risk of journalists not wanting to do those stories anymore because it’s not that hot. If somebody’s going to probably win a Pulitzer, the pressure to do those kinds of stories will then relinquish somewhat at big papers.
Just spell that out for people who aren’t in our little bubble. Multiple Times reporters are going to win a Pulitzer, we all assume, for their Harvey Weinstein reporting.
SE: As they should.
Why wouldn’t that encourage more reporters to do more of that kind of work?
JR: Well, that leaves the mistaken impression that the story is played out. Prizes end up being motivation, but the truth is that the great tragedy would be if that were to happen is that we’re not done reporting this story. And this is where reader interest in some cases has to take a back seat. That goes back to like, let’s take the Lauer story again. You want to know what was going on at NBC. Again, like I said about Harvey, what are systemic problems? We need to keep exploring those and the cultural problems.
SE: Absolutely. And I also think that this will be the test. I mean, Susan Chira just did a big piece on how Ford — which has been aware of it — Ford Motor Company is aware of a problem of harassment at the company. They’ve done a lot of things to try to address it. It’s really intractable, very hard to solve, and there are a lot of women whose names you do not know ...
You can’t identify anyone who works at Ford, starting with the CEO.
SE: Exactly. So who cares? It’s definitely not a sexy media company. This is a car company. It’s not even like this is Elon Musk’s company. It’s just something that’s totally unsexy. Everybody recognizes that the vast majority of women who are suffering the greatest levels of sexual harassment in their work are not the famous ones.
We referenced Fox and Murdoch a bunch. Let’s go there. Normally — and if this was a normal year, Rupert Murdoch essentially selling off most of his company, his sons, at least one of the sons getting out of the family business, we assume James Murdoch is going to leave and go to Disney — that would be the story of the year. We’d be obsessed with it. One of the stories of the year.
SE: Well, it would be a story of the year for us, for the media people. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
For us. We would be consumed with it. Now it’s one of the things we’re paying attention to. Do you think this is about the sons saying, “We don’t want to be in this business in a couple years, Dad”? Do you think it’s about Rupert Murdoch really looking at the media landscape and saying, “I can’t compete”? Is there something else going on?
SE: I think for a long time, ever since ... Well, first of all, Rupert Murdoch has wanted his sons to succeed him at the top of his company for their whole lives. This is like his dream from the get-go. Ever since James sort of and Lachlan before him rose up in the ranks, but particularly it happened when James was in London, there were sort of two companies that were operating. One was the much more technocratic James Murdoch interested in innovative modes of delivery for media, and Rupert, who was so not that interested in that stuff.
He’s a newsroom guy.
SE: He’s a newsroom guy. He’s a political influence guy. He’s got his kind of ... He’s a buccaneer. He wants his employees to call themselves pirates. He likes being a bully. He likes everybody thinking that he’s a bully, so it was like “A Tale of Two Media Companies,” cities, inside that place. And James’s big deal that he wanted to get done was this deal to buy the rest of Sky, which would have allowed ...
A U.K. satellite company.
SE: Which is a big satellite company that they would have then been able to deliver lots of their content in innovative way, etc., etc. That deal was initially scuttled because of the phone-hacking scandal that happened when ...
Remember that giant story that we’ve all moved on from?
SE: Right. That was when lots of different U.K. tabloids, mostly the News of the World that we were all focusing on was listening to people’s voicemails and using that information to then blackmail them. There were police officers who were being paid. It was just a massive scandal that scuttled the deal the first time around.
They split the company in half, 21st Century Fox and — not in half, actually. One tiny little part of it that had all the newspapers and the rest of it. The rest of it, they kept Fox News and ...
There’s one part that makes money and everyone’s excited about and one part has a newspaper. Some of us are excited about it.
SE: Right, that they keep because Rupert Murdoch loves newspapers. Then the second time they tried to get this deal done, the Fox News sexual harassment scandal and the secret payments that people were, that Fox was paying in order to keep — and Bill O’Reilly was paying in order to keep — its sexual harassment problem quiet bubbled up again and it seemed like they were on the brink of losing that deal a second time.
This is in some ways a natural split. You cannot have toxic potentially criminal assets in a company that’s trying to be a global business, so I think they just, I would have loved to have heard the dinner table conversation around the decision, but they decided to split it.
You’re sort of flicking at this, right? James Murdoch in theory is in charge of Fox News. Rupert Murdoch is actually running it. James Murdoch won’t come out and say this, but he’s repelled by much of what’s in Fox News but not enough to actually shut it down. He doesn’t have the ability to shut it down or radically change it. His dad loves it and so now you’ve got something where the stuff James is interested in is leaving Fox and his dad is keeping Fox News.
JR: But interestingly here, in terms of the tale of the two companies, it’s the buccaneering Murdoch world that has finally undermined the other one.
JR: Right? That that’s to the extent that Sky was part of the company-breaker, the British regulators had to question, is this a fit and proper company to own? It’s a very British regulatory idea, fit and proper, and sexual harassment scandal, Fox, undermines that. And sexual harassment ...
I do remember this narrative from ... Was it five years ago?
SE: It was in 2011, I think.
It was five or six years ago where we said, “Oh, Rupert Murdoch has been undermined by his own bad behavior and had to split up Fox.” Then within a year he said, “No, actually everything’s great.”
JR: But the other thing that’s less kind of sexy to the average listener but very important is this idea that Murdoch is — as long as I’ve covered him, certainly Sarah wrote a book about him, about voracious growth, growth, growth. “We’re going to eat the world.” They finally hit a point where I’m sure the technocratic work that James is doing found we can’t grow fast enough to compete in this new world. To me, that is a shocker and that’s huge.
Yeah, to me, if Rupert Murdoch is saying, “I can’t compete anymore” — and by the way, if Jeff Bewkes is saying this is as good as it gets — these big, super-successful media moguls, top of their game, are saying, “We’re walking away from the table,” I don’t know who’d want to be the buyer.
SE: Right. Well, you remember the last company that tried to buy Time Warner was 21st Century Fox, and they turned them down because they were like, “You can’t offer us what we need to grow.”
Murdoch says, “I’m not giving up. This is a pivot. I’m going to do stuff,” sort of hinted that maybe there’s some TV stuff left for him to do. What do you think he does with Fox News, left to his own devices?
SE: Well, I think that one of the things he talked about was local news and local ... Which is to me clearly directed toward the Sinclair deal that is about building another right-wing media kind of empire.
Sinclair owns local TV stations, up until this year most people had never heard of them. Still, most people have not heard of them, which is why I’m backfilling here. They own local TV stations. They were going to buy a lot more once Donald Trump blesses that merger. The theory is, Rupert Murdoch will want to take them on so he’s not outflanked.
SE: I think so.
JR: That Sinclair merger really caught another surprise, right? I think they were so distracted with their own scandals that the Sinclair station merger, which caught them off guard and they scrambled to try to get in on that themselves, so I think that really stung Murdoch. It was like a splash of cold water on his face. Television stations now, the caps are off. You can cover so much more of the country ...
SE: Yes, thanks to —and back to our favorite character in this podcast — Donald Trump. The administration has just made it possible. You used to not be able to own a local television station and a newspaper in the same market. Now you can do all of those things.
We’re talking about Sinclair, which is allowing you to consolidate local TV stations and local newspapers. I live in a world and I write about this stuff all day; if you’re listening to this podcast you probably have this mindset where the notion of a local newspaper being relevant, let alone local TV, is bananas, right? Talk about horse and buggies. Why are those institutions important in 2017, in 2018? Why is Rupert Murdoch spending time thinking about local TV?
SE: Part of it is that’s the business he’s in. He’s not a forward ... He is kind of a forward-looking person, but I would say that, one, that’s the business he’s in. The other thing is I think as much as we sit here and talk about this, local television is actually still something that reaches a lot of people. When you talk to political consultants ...
A lot of voters.
SE: A lot of voters. You talk to political consultants and they say, “Okay, fine, people are watching.” I remember talking about this with how many people are actually watching the Megan Kelly show when it was on Fox and how influential is it really? It’s nowhere near what your local news division is churning out in terms of the political influence.
JR: And they spit out cash when they’re working as they should. Lastly, what I think we’ll all be paying a lot more attention to is the extra digital tiers from stations. It could be like its own cable dial as people cut the cord. So I feel like there’s some play up Murdoch’s sleeve along those lines as well. There’s always something up his sleeve, right, Sarah?
SE: That has always been the case.
He will have a plan until he is no longer on this planet, right?
SE: Right, or until his plan isn’t quite relevant. He is getting up there in age, although he still has moments of sharp analysis.
Yeah, no. He seems like he’s pretty much still on the ball, except when he isn’t.
SE: Well, he kind of is and isn’t.
It’s when he doesn’t want to be.
SE: Is and isn’t, yeah, right.
2018, biggest story of the year. In a year from now, what will we have said was the biggest story of 2018?
JR: That is really hard.
SE: I think it’s going to be something along the lines of the Facebook story that we alluded to. I don’t know which part of it. I’m not saying Facebook is the biggest story, I just think the way people are getting their ... The biggest news story, like the way that people are getting their information and from where and how that’s affecting culture, I think is going to be this very ... Whether it’s the tech part of it, the media part of it, the politics part of it, it’s all going to be certainly something we’re going to be paying attention to in 2018.
That terrifies the Facebook people who are just hoping they can sort of get through the wringer and then exit and go back to selling ads.
SE: Well, the problem is they can’t get as big as they wanted. They aren’t growing in the exact same way that they used to, so they have ...
Pretty fantastic growth.
JR: But it’s just the beginning of that story for them. Then there are other stories that will be huge depending on what happens, right? If the Trump Administration decides to start subpoenaing reporters or bring Espionage Act cases, that would be giant. What happens with the Russia investigation? If it goes nowhere, are there huge recriminations for the media, which obviously, I had to report the story as it developed.
That will be giant one way or another. You have the midterms coming up, and we know that at least as of this year the idea was that the anti-media message was going to be big. That’s going to be newly treacherous territory. So there are a lot of things hanging in the balance that this coming year can determine.
So this sounds dour, right? But can we all agree that this is a fascinating, invigorating beat? It’s a lot of fun to write about.
SE: It’s such a good time to be writing about it if you’re not worried about the existential threat to your own livelihood. It’s fantastic.
If you can just sequester the part about doom.
JR: Well, it’s got all the elements we love as reporters, right? It’s consequential, it’s this shifting paradigms. The beat really matters.
It’s super fun. You guys have been super generous with your time. Sarah has to go interview someone on a train. Take a train to do an interview. Jim’s going to go make content. I’m going to make content. You guys should do whatever you’re doing. Thank you for listening throughout the year. Thanks to you guys for joining us.
SE: Thank you so much for having us.
We’ll see you next week.
JR: Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.