President Trump claims that Google News is “rigged” against him and Twitter is “shadow banning” conservatives (although the latter belief originated with a dubiously researched Vice News article). But the anger about the alleged censorship of Republicans by the big tech platforms is more than just the president’s tantrum du jour — it’s a mainstream talking point in conservative media, from Fox News to Infowars.
And that’s on purpose, says liberal commentator and Popular Info writer Judd Legum; previously the founder of ThinkProgress, he has become a minor internet celebrity for his viral tweets about the Trump White House. On the latest episode of Recode Media with Peter Kafka, Legum alleged that Republicans have beat the drum of online “bias” early and often because it steers the conversation away from other topics that might come up at next week’s Congressional tech hearings.
“There’s a lot I hope people bring up about YouTube’s relationship with Russia Today, and their status as a preferred partner of YouTube,” he said. “I think Sheryl Sandberg should be asked about what she knew about the Cambridge Analytica scandal and when she knew it. I think that the whole point of these fictional narratives of bias is to crowd a lot of that out.”
He went on to say that, if Congress gets tied up in knots about “shadow banning,” it won’t have time to pursue allegations of voter suppression aimed at keeping blacks away from the polls in 2016.
“They’re going to go all-in on digital, and they want to make sure that nothing is done that would constrain that,” Legum said of the GOP. “I think that part of it’s a base-riling-up strategy ... I think there’s a real danger for them, that those tactics, which was necessary for them to hit the inside straight in 2016, might not be available to them.”
Below, we’ve shared a full transcript of Peter’s conversation with Judd.
Peter Kafka: This is Recode Media with Peter Kafka, that is me. I am part of the Vox Media Podcast Network here in New York City. It’s very warm here, so I hope you’re cool wherever you’re listening to this. And if you’re listening to this, as you are, please tell someone else. Thank you.
I’m here with Judd Legum, did I get it right?
Judd Legum: That’s right.
Woo-hoo. Founder, editor in chief of ThinkProgress. Now has his new thing called ...?
Which is a ...?
Judd, you’re like the great Venn diagram of all of the Recode Media guests. You’re a guy who’s building his own business via newsletter, and eventually subscription.
That’s one half of all our guests, trying to figure out how to get someone to pay for that information. And you are someone who rose to prominence, really, in the last few years because of the Trump administration and the renewed interest in — do we call it “politics?” Or “national nightmare,” or both.
Yeah, I basically have been doing the same thing for most of my career, but I think it’s a buyer’s market, or a seller’s market for progressive media in the last couple of years.
Let’s broaden out: People who are interested in Trump.
And that show that he’s brought to Washington.
Very much so, very much so.
You literally are someone who I didn’t know of until the last few years, showed up in my Twitter feed a lot. Looked like some of the other guys who are tweeting a lot about politics, that I had to sort of take some time after you pitched me, and said, “I’m doing my own newsletter, I want to come talk to you about it.” I said, “Oh, great,” and then I had to make sure that I understood who you were. I was confusing you for a minute with Kyle Griffin.
From NBC. White guy with a beard. Another white guy with a beard.
Yes, I could see from the Twitter avatars, yes. I think he has a mustache, and I have a beard.
So, there’s some distinction there.
You white guys, you all look the same.
Fill in the backstory for us before we get to what you’re selling now. How did you get to where you are now? Because you didn’t grow up trying to be a journalist, right? You went to law school.
No, not really at all. I wasn’t really sure what I was doing, but I did go to law school. I was thinking about going on a campaign, I didn’t know anyone at the time. I would send off a bunch of letters, no one would hire me. So, I said, “Okay, well, I’m going to go to law school.” So, I went to law school, hooked up with John Podesta, who was a professor there at the time. When I graduated, he was starting Center for American Progress, 2003.
And if you’re not in Washington, explain what that is.
It’s a progressive think tank. It was designed to be kind of a counterbalance to the Heritage Foundation, which is the big conservative think tank, still is, and just moved over there without any kind of portfolio or job description.
I love when people go to law school and don’t become lawyers. I don’t think there’s a lot of other professional graduate schools where you spend time, you spend years and tens of thousands of dollars, and decide, “Nah, I don’t want to do that.”
The experience in law school pretty much convinced me of that, that this is not how I wanted to spend my time. Yeah, so then I went over to Center for American Progress. I got involved, actually, initially in a newsletter there, that’s how we started for the first couple of years, so I did have some experience doing that, and then, around 2005, got really interested in the early blogosphere and started reading all those folks, and said, “Hey, I want to start a blog.”
Who are you reading in 2005, what’s around then?
Some of the people are still around: Josh Marshall, when it was really just his blog, not a media entity; Markos, The Daily Kos ...
Yes. Kevin Drum, who’s now at Mother Jones. And then there were a variety of folks who sort of faded into the woodwork.
This is after the first web boom, but then when blogging software allows smart people to say, “I have something to say,” in a couple hundred words, or about this New York Times article ...
There’s a political ecosystem. There’s an ecosystem of particular political bloggers that built up around then.
Yeah, it’s weird to say, because blogs are so, they’re almost passé now, but I found that incredibly exciting, because it used to be that there was this sort of walled garden, you had to be in New York Times, ABC, Washington Post, those are the people who got to set the terms of the discussion. This idea that anybody could just put their ideas out there, and you could see it have an impact and start to change people’s perceptions, and there was a lot of engagement around it...
You started talking to each other and linking to each other, so it’s ...
It was an ecosystem.
Yeah. I found it really exciting, and just wanted to be a part of it in some way.
And so that becomes ...?
That became ThinkProgress.
That was your blog funded by John Podesta’s group?
Yeah. It wasn’t quite just my blog, we started off with three or four people, and the idea was we were going to take some of the techniques that we were developing in the newsletter. We would do other things, research. I think my title at the time was “research director.” And just try to professionalize the blog content in a way, a little more than just kind of opinion, but we’re going to dive into Nexis, and dig up old quotes, and start putting video clips on the internet, and things like that.
Was there a breakout success for you guys? Was there a host or a series of stories that helped land you guys on the map?
Yeah. I mean, there were a few. I remember that there was ... Jack Abramoff, who was the, if you don’t recall, for younger listeners, it was this corrupt lobbyist connected with the Bush administration. He was having this strange ...
There’s a great documentary on him, right?
Who made that?
I don’t know.
Okay. Google it.
Yeah, I don’t know. But he was having this strange email conversation with an editor at the Washingtonian Magazine, and all of a sudden, that person started forwarding them to one of the writers, actually Amanda Terkel, who’s now the Washington Bureau Chief at Huffington Post. Just started forwarding these emails, and we were making national news based on the contents of these emails, because Jack Abramoff was saying, you know, the White House was saying “he was really never here,” then Jack Abramoff was telling his friend, “Oh, I was there six times on this date and that date,” and we were on CNN, and things like that.
So, I think that was one of the ones that definitely stuck out. We had an interview on the street with the Koch brothers, one of the Koch brothers one time, and they very seldom do any interviews. That was a big one for us.
And this is where you could really stand out with a bit of enterprise, and a little bit of — not cutting corners, but just sort of dispensing some of the traditional trappings of journalism, and sort of the stentorian voice, and you could break into the national conversation.
Definitely. Definitely. I mean, we were just a couple of people sitting around their desks, but I think there was also just a lot of low-hanging fruit in those days, because there wasn’t this huge built-out infrastructure. I mean, this was even actually before the Huffington Post existed, before Twitter, before Facebook.
It’s when the Times and the Journal and those guys were putting their stuff online, but once a day, so they really weren’t online. You could go see yesterday’s news today.
Yes. I think there was definitely a big gap between 9:00 a.m. and when they would start posting the next day’s stories on the internet, and we were stepping in and took advantage of that. And also, like a lot of the cable news stuff, in the early days, I mean, this is just the complete kind of father of the internet now, but at the time there weren’t a lot of people doing it. Just, oh, “This congressman was on CNN, or MSNBC, and said X newsworthy thing.”
That helped us really build up a lot of audience.
Again, it is hard to imagine, but 2005, 2006, there wasn’t a place to go see that stuff —
— immediately and discuss that and have it distributed.
Yeah. It was really just us, and they’re still around too, Crooks and Liars were a couple of the early folks who just got the technology to quickly grab video from TV, and put it online.
So, you’re building this up, you’re out of law school, what is your ambition? Do you think, “I want to do this to work my way into the New York Times?” “Do I want to go into politics for real?” What’s your ambition at the time?
I don’t know if I had a real, defined plan. I was really enjoying it, I loved doing it, and I was hyper focused on that, just 24 hours a day, I think like a lot of people in media. Eventually, I did go and leave, and was the research director for Hillary Clinton’s campaign in 2008. I wasn’t really seeking that out, so again, it wasn’t part of my master plan. I think they had become familiar with me because there was an ABC documentary about 9/11 that was very controversial, and we did a lot of reporting and digging into that documentary, and I think they saw that we had some research capabilities.
What is the role of a research director in a presidential campaign?
A lot, there’s a lot of stuff to do. Principally, you’re responsible for all the opposition research, so you look at all the candidates. In 2008, this was principally Obama and Edwards, were where we put most of our resources. Had a team of about 20 people.
So, that’s people scouring the internet, that’s people doing the equivalent of journalism/private detective work.
And you work a lot with journalists, because you’ll put together a whole dossier about a particular story, and then you’ll go, you’ll work with the press people and basically shop it to the New York Times.
“I heard this story about so and so, I want you to write it, I don’t want to put it out myself.”
What are the limits? What were the sort of the guardrails for you? Because this is the kind of work where everyone does it, and then some people will put limits on what they’ll do and won’t do.
Yeah, I tried to just stay with my own ethical guidelines of what’s right and what’s wrong. I don’t think there’s really, necessarily, anyone telling you or giving you a guidebook of how to do it.
Is there a point where you go, “Well, this is a story that I wouldn’t want to shop, that I find distasteful, but I want the candidate or the people working with the candidate to make that decision, I’m going to offer it up to them?”
I can’t recall something like that. I definitely think there were a lot of things that I was aware of, that I kind of decided I wasn’t getting into. I think, principally, the John Edwards story, that was talked about a lot.
Spell that out for people who don’t —
The story about John Edwards having an affair.
Which he did.
Which he did. It turned out to be true, I didn’t know that at the time. But that was widely discussed, and there is this ongoing conversation between campaign operatives, which is what I was at the time, and journalists, and their exchange of information. A lot of this is not anything you could publish or want to publish, but is just, “What have you heard? What have you heard?” And you’re just going back and forth, and that was widely talked about.
In fact, I can remember a conversation, right before the National Enquirer, we had gotten word that the National Enquirer, who broke the story, was coming out, and I had a conversation with my boss at the time, Howard Wolfson, and we had all heard about this story. We were like, “Well, this story’s going to come out tomorrow, and John Edwards is going to drop out of the race, so what does that mean for us?” Where do we devote our resources, because we thought it was true, and the story was coming out. And then it came out and everyone pretty much ignored it. It was kind of shocking. That kind of stuff does come up.
Did you have any conversations with the Clinton campaign the last go-around?
John Podesta’s how I got started in politics, so I would talk, I would talk to him, just because we’ve developed a friendship over the years, but I never thought about going to that campaign.
What did you think about the, just fast-forwarding to the last election and the aftermath, the dossier that BuzzFeed eventually published, that after the fact everyone said, “Oh, we all knew about that. We all had copies of it, we decided not to publish it.” Had you heard about the ... this is the Russia dossier. The “pee tape.”
I hadn’t heard about that dossier. That goes beyond what the kind of research team that I built out would do.
Above your pay grade.
We’re not going to Russia and talking to sources, or really going anywhere, going to any foreign country and talking to sources. We’re mostly looking at public information, or information that could be public. We’re looking at, can we get this old debate tape and find something that would be interesting?
I was curious, because it was kind of clear during the campaign, especially during the debate, that Clinton either knew stuff, or thought she knew stuff about Trump, but was hoping someone else came out and said it, or she’d allude to it. There was the famous puppet exchange onstage, which is where she got closest to it. As someone who had been in that world, been a research director, oh, I know what she wants to do, but she won’t do it, or she doesn’t feel comfortable putting it in her own mouth.
Yeah, I definitely think there’s always the decision of who is going to be the person who comes out with it, and very seldom do you want that to be a candidate, unless it really is in the center of their message.
At least under the old rules, right?
Right. Now, Donald Trump ...
Now, Donald Trump just says it, or cites the National Enquirer, or both.
Right. At the time, in 2008, it was Bill Clinton doing a lot of it, which turned out to be not a good move, because when he would do it, it wouldn’t go over well. But that’s what happened a lot of the time in 2008. I think Harry Reid tried to take that role in 2016. He released some letters, talked about what he knew, or at least alluded. Didn’t get into a lot of details.
Right, doesn’t have to be a press outlet, can be a proxy, someone else in government.
Yeah. Yeah, and I think Harry Reid was a big supporter of Hillary Clinton, and so I think he felt like that information should be out, maybe because he supported Hillary Clinton, or maybe he just thought people should know about it, but it didn’t really ... If you look at the amount of coverage of Hillary’s emails versus the stuff Harry Reid was talking about, and Russia, it was a blip.
How do you think the role — and it’s not your job — but how do you think the role of a research director is going to be different for the next campaign? Given sort of the world we’re in with Twitter and blogs and truth/non-truth, do you think someone like you will spend as much time figuring out if someone actually went to the college that they said they went to? If we’re in a world where Donald Trump has sort of removed shame from the vocabulary, at least for himself as a candidate?
I think it’s much less important now.
With Trump, to be honest. Because if you think about somebody like Barack Obama, very difficult from a research perspective. You’re trying to kind a pierce that armor a little bit. And he had developed over his career — you know he had written a book about him. Did some drugs or whatever. But for the most part, he had this incredible life story. Was very careful about what he did, what he said. It took a lot of work to find something that could possibly be damaging to him. Donald Trump tweets it out. I mean he ...
What could you possibly find about Donald Trump? I mean, maybe Robert Mueller will find something but it seems very difficult as a researcher on a campaign to find something interesting.
Right, do you think that is specific to Trump? Or do you think that we’ve now changed the sort of tenor and sort of what counts as mudslinging or an embarrassing fact to arise? For candidates in general.
It’ll be interesting to see what happens post-Trump, if this has created some sort of new standard or if we’ve gone back. I think a lot of Democratic candidates still today operate kind of under the old rules. You saw, even something, and I actually thought this was the right thing for him to do, but even someone like Al Franken, who was accused and admitted to some inappropriate conduct. But compared to what Trump’s accused of, it was not much. And he resigned.
So I do think that there is kind of a parallel universe today where these rules do seem to apply. I think it’s an open question of, is now the standard just, “I’m a bit better than Trump”? And if so, no problem.
Or do we go back where we kinda hold our ... It used to be that we thought, we wanna hold politicians to a higher standard than a typical person.
Yeah, it is hard to imagine that that barn door’s just not gonna stay open.
Possibly, but I do think that Trump is really effective in creating his own rules.
And his own reality, and that’s really where his political skills lie. And I don’t know if other people are really capable of doing that. Can you imagine another President who ... His lawyer stood up in a courtroom a few days ago and said, “I committed two felonies with Donald Trump.”
He said it explicitly. And the entire Republican party just fell right into line around him.
And then Trump, to defend himself, says, “Yeah, I knew about the payments that I made to the women to hush them up.” Like, it’s crazy, but here we are.
It’s almost a magical hold. So I, it could happen but I don’t know. I mean, I think, I’m amazed by what he’s able to do.
So you built up ThinkProgress. Back to the near-recent past.
It’s a big organization now, right? How many folks work there?
There’s about 40 right now.
40 right now, 10 million uniques? It’s a big web property.
Big digital publisher.
It varies from month to month. I’d say six to 10.
Is it supported through ads or entirely from Center for American Progress? Both?
It’s got a mix. It has ads. That brings in a good chunk. We started a membership program last November, as most everyone does — I guess including BuzzFeed, I just read the other day.
So, that’s been really successful. We have about, I think about 4,000 monthly recurring members, which is a big deal for us. And then also, a subsidy from the larger organization. So combined, that meets the budget.
And you’re editor in chief.
Built the thing up. And again, someone who just is one of a, I think of, as a cast of characters I didn’t know about and then sort of showed up in my Twitter feed over the last couple of years. You’d create these acerbic viral tweets. Again, I knew you vaguely, I knew what the tweets were, it’s hard for me to think, I wasn’t entirely sure what ThinkProgress was.
What was that like to sort of rise in prominence along with the Trump era?
I think it was, initially when he got elected, it was interesting to me because I had gone through the Bush years and the Obama years, basically looking at politics from a similar kind of lens. And then it was almost like you saw a whole world around you kinda waking up to this.
I mean, a lot of what I write about in ThinkProgress has been, from the very beginning, the far right. I remember in 2011 I assigned this reporter, and she kinda hated me for it, to go through the Drudge Report and look at every single time in the last year or two years that he had linked to Alex Jones. ’Cause we wanna write about how Drudge, who’s very influential with the right, is linked in to Alex Jones. So it’s something that we had been following for a long time, and I think Trump was kinda the culmination of that.
I think the other part of it was on Twitter, with a smaller following before Trump, I very consistently from 2015 was saying, “Do not underestimate him. This person has a chance.” And I think it was because I had really been tracking the rise of this faction of the Republican Party for a long time.
So you had the insight into the political system that was creating Trump. The media ecosystem that was creating Trump. And you were able to see that early. But you personally, right? Just became a much higher-profile personally.
You’ve got what, 300,000ish Twitter followers now?
Yeah, not quite. I think maybe 285, something like that.
You check it daily. But prior to Trump, I’m assuming nothing close to that, right?
No, I think I was, I was definitely under 100,000.
And again this is, you were tweeting as Judd, editor in chief of ThinkProgress.
But it wasn’t the ThinkProgress account, it was your account. So what was it like for your personal profile to get raised? Lots of people have benefited, at least in terms of fame. I don’t know, in some cases monetarily, from Trump’s rise. And I think you’re in that group.
Yeah, I don’t know if I’ve ... I’m hoping this newsletter will be successful.
And then maybe I can say that I’ve benefited monetarily from it. But I think it’s just more people listening to you. You can get in touch with a lot of people. You hear from a lot of people. I started getting some good tips for stories and ideas.
So you had a flywheel effect.
You become more famous. People know who you are. They send you stuff. They pay attention to you.
Yeah, so that was great. I got a couple of great tips. One about the Kuwaiti Embassy moving their party to the Trump Hotel after the election, which was a big story for me and for ThinkProgress. And I don’t know if I would have gotten that.
And in fact, I know the person who was my source found me through Twitter. So that was great and different. And I think, yeah.
So you build all that up. You build your personal profile. You build this news organization along with it. And now you leave.
Yeah, now I left. I think that really it’s less related to Trump specifically and more to the maturation of the organization overall. I didn’t really ... We talked about this. I started out in this because I really got interested in blogs. I like the work, the topic, the subjects, I like thinking about it. And when you have a newsroom that’s 40 people, it’s great because you can do so much stuff. But I found more and more of my time was not spent doing substantive work, but managing a 40-person organization, which as it turns out, having never done it before, is a lot of work.
And so I think I just got a little burned out on the management side. Not because I didn’t like, I mean, I hired all the people, I like them. And I think I got a lot out of doing that kind of work, but I think just kind of sitting back and reflecting, I was like, I really just want to write more. I want to do more for myself.
So I understand the impulse of saying “I wanna write. I don’t wanna manage. Maybe I’m not the best manager. Maybe I’ve managed up to my capacity, however it worked out.”
But you built up a big platform. Seems like if you wanna write, you could write for that platform.
I could, but I think that I’m so tightly connected to ThinkProgress and, in a large part up until this point, it kind of is somewhat of a reflection of what I’ve wanted to do with it that I wasn’t confident that I could have the focus that I thought I needed to do this right. That if I was still there, even if they would say okay, you’re not doing that job. You’re doing another job, we’re gonna bring someone in, I would get pulled back in.
So you want a clean break.
Yeah, I think that it’s important. One of the things that’s always been important to me, whether at ThinkProgress or elsewhere, is focus. If you’ll gonna do something, you have to do it right. Which is one of the reasons why, for instance at ThinkProgress, we’d never done a podcast. Because I was never, we’d kinda piloted some, but I was never confident we could do a good one.
Yeah, it takes real work to do something like this.
I’m winking right now.
So that was, I think, that was really the motivation behind ...
So now, present tense, you’ve split from the company that you helped build. You’re creating a new product which is a, it exists now. It’s in my inbox right now.
Free, right now.
Free for now.
No ads in it. Presume something’s gonna change there.
Yeah, I started about a month ago. I’m gonna run it this way for another month and hopefully demonstrate the value to the people who are reading it. And then sometime later in September, maybe early October, I haven’t figured out the exact date, I’m gonna switch to kind of a hybrid model where you’re gonna be able to continue to stay on the free list, you’ll get one to two a week. But if you want the full four times a week, or sometimes I’ve even been doing five times a week, you’re gonna have to pay a monthly fee.
So the one in my inbox this morning says it’s a riff on Trump’s rant about Twitter and Google. Which may or may not be news when you listen to this, it’s been a couple of days, and then a couple smaller stories. Kinda reminds me a little of the Ben Thompson model, right?
One largish essay and then a couple smaller items. It’s not a coincidence, right?
Everyone wants to be Ben Thompson.
I definitely was inspired by that. I hooked up with this tech company, Substack, that pretty much has created their company inspired by the Ben Thompson model.
This is, I think we’re gonna have these guys on actually in the near future. So these guys help you build a newsletter, right? Everything but the actual writing. They help you distribute it. They help you put a paywall there, if you wanna do that.
Yeah, they have all the technology set up. The CMS, you type it in there, you press publish. You can manage your list and things like that. So they make it really easy. Which was important for me because I knew I was doing it myself and I didn’t want to spend 10 hours a week dealing with integrating MailChimp into WordPress or whatever you’d have to do so.
Yeah, so it’s definitely inspired by that. And I did notice, of course, when I was thinking about this, signed up for basically every single political newsletter. And I did notice that most of them are sort of the, “Here’s what happened today” in very short kinda snippets.
Right, there’s the Axios Model, the Politico Playbook model, a lot of transactional — “This thing happened, here’s one sentence worth of insight.”
Right, so I wanted to kinda zag away from that and say, “I am going to be a little bit of your guide through this.” Find something that I think is really important and dive into it a little bit.
Almost like a blog post.
I think it has a lot of similarities to that. And it does reflect the kind of writing that I like to do. I think fundamentally, I’ve worn a lot of hats. I’ve been a political operative. I’ve reported out stories. I’m gonna continue to do reporting on the newsletter too. But I think of myself at core as a researcher and I think that’s what the product represents, is that I’m gonna take the topic, and then I’m gonna research it. And then distill it for you.
So, when I signed up prior to talking to you, your landing page has a sort of mini-rant about the concentrated power Twitter and Facebook have in distributing news and why it’s important to get products like your newsletter that aren’t dependent on them. Seems a little ironic, though, since sort of your entire sort of fame/clout comes in large part from Twitter.
Yes, but I think that that’s a big problem, right? I don’t think that my relationships with readers should be dependent on Twitter’s algorithm. Twitter is pretty good. Actually all the changes that they’ve made to their algorithm have thus far benefited people.
If you follow someone, you pretty much get to see what they publish.
They monkey with it a little but they basically, if I’m following you I’m gonna see everything that you put out at some point.
That’s true. And even more so, they’ve gotten the thing of, if you publish things that people like to retweet or like, it goes to even more people. And that’s what really, I think in addition to Trump, the changes to the Twitter algorithm helped me. Because I always got a good amount of retweets but now they kinda supercharge those tweets. But I think I saw the opposite on Facebook. We built up, on ThinkProgress 1.7 million people, and now they might give you access to 0.2 percent of that, or less. With email, I’m getting 40-50 percent of the people on my list on a daily basis, opening it up. To me, that seems like a better deal for me, and the readers. I’m going to use Twitter or Facebook, whatever else I can use to promote this ...
That’s your funnel.
As long as they’ll let me. Yeah. I want to have something that belongs to me.
Yeah. It seems like you’re still going to be very dependent on Twitter/Facebook/whatever the next platform is, if there is one, to find those readers and convert them into subscribers and make them paying subscribers.
Yes. I think so. Although, there’s other things I’ve learned in the month or so I’ve had this going, of ways to get people into your newsletter. One of the things, I think, that’s really effective is just finding another newsletter you like and negotiating a swap of, “Hey, I like your newsletter, I’ll plug it. Maybe you could plug mine.” I think that’s been effective, too.
You’re getting back to the old days of blogging. What do you think the value proposition that you’ve got to make to a reader who is probably very interested in politics, is presumably consuming a lot on Twitter, presumably is paying for a New York Times or some other subscription, and now you’re on top of that one, and charge them how much? Have you put a price on this yet?
Yeah. I think, 99 percent sure it’s going to be $5 a month.
$5 a month.
$50 a year.
What is the pitch, then? You say, “In addition to the time and money you are spending on other outlets, give me $5 and this many minutes of your week”?
I think I’m going to save you time, because I think there’s a lot of people who are, during the day, working in real jobs, and not in politics, and that I’m ...
They don’t have “executive time” until 11?
Not executive time. I’m also going to give you a far more in-depth view of what’s going on, and I think I can give you an independent view of what’s going on. For instance, I had a newsletter that talked about, in depth, wage stagnation, how the tax cuts have been going to very large corporations, the historical trends of that. I think it might be difficult for a newsletter like Axios, that’s sponsored by JP Morgan and Bank of America pretty much on a daily basis, you don’t see that kind of analysis.
It might be one of those things that they found each other, they might not have been planning to do that analysis, no matter what. I do think that having no ads, having no outside, not being source- and access-driven, allows you to give people exactly what you think is the truth.
In the pitch for someone like Ben Thompson and Stratechery is, presumably, is an affluent audience, maybe you’re an investor, whatever he’s charging, I guess $10 a month. You find one article a year that gives you deep insight into something, or the confidence to invest in something, and that pays off. How do you think about that for your audience, which presumably isn’t going to benefit directly — at least financially — for subscribing?
Yes. This is not designed to give you a lead on a good stock to purchase, or something like that. I think it’s just the value of democracy. That we tried ... I think 2016 was a vivid example of where you say, “Okay. I’m going to rely exclusively on Twitter, Facebook and maybe my subscriptions to a national/local newspaper to get my information.” There you got lots about Hillary Clinton’s emails, and less about a lot of other topics, that maybe you should have had more in-depth information.
It’s really the value of our democracy, and I do believe that’s something Trump understands, something the right understands, the value of the hyper-informed, politically engaged citizen is a huge value for the marketers, because they become the node where then the information can spread from them through face-to-face conversations, through text. There’s this whole world that’s going on, that isn’t linked to retweets and “Likes” and things like that, where information is spreading in ways where people actually trust it.
One counter would be, we’re already concerned about filter bubbles and Twitter and Facebook and these self-reinforcing cycles where you’re only paying attention to a certain number of people and getting a certain perspective. Now you’re asking folks to come read your newsletter where it’s an even more condensed version of that.
Yeah. I wouldn’t recommend someone just read my newsletter, but I do think that there’s so little trust in media these days. People don’t trust what they’re reading, what they’re seeing. I see a future where, it might not be a couple of dozen, but you might select two or three people that you really trust to make sense of what’s going on in the world, and add that to your mix of media sources.
Who do you read when you want to read what the world looks like to a Trump voter?
There’s some folks that I follow on Twitter and read. I like Guy Benson, who’s on Fox News, has a radio show. I wouldn’t say he’s a Trump supporter, but he’s definitely open to supporting Trump on various issues. I think that the National Review is generally not a bad place to go.
They’re pretty much a #NeverTrump corner. Do you feel like it’s important for you to intentionally put stuff into your feed, just using that word broadly, that doesn’t reflect your politics, that’s in direct opposition to your politics, but allows you to see, you could say the other side, or at least how some portion of the world views the thing you view?
I’m a voracious reader of all of the right-wing, and farthest right-wing content. A lot of it ...
Yeah. You’re in the swamp already?
Yeah, so a lot of it will end up there. Now, I’ll put that into context, but if you want to know about Diamond and Silk, who’s this pro-Trump duo, who’s very vocal, they get called into Congress as experts on media these days. I will ...
As you mentioned today, they lie — you don’t say they lie, they “testified inaccurately under oath.”
Which no one wants to point out.
They did, about a whole number of things. You’ll get all of that. I read that, probably more so, than I’ll read left-wing commentators, so that I feel like I can get that on my own.
I think this podcast is coming out before the congressional hearings where Sheryl Sandberg is going, Jack Dorsey is going to be there to talk about political bias, or a lack thereof, and for the tech platforms. What do you expect is going to come out of that?
I think Trump was really setting up what he wants to come out of that yesterday. I think they want to talk about “shadow banning” on Twitter of conservatives. I think you’ll hear a lot of that from conservatives, I think you’ll hear a lot about Trump’s claims about Google “censoring” conservatives, I think you’ll hear a lot about various political biases from all of the Republicans.
I think there’s a lot I hope people bring up about YouTube’s relationship with Russia Today, and their status as a preferred partner of YouTube. I think Sheryl Sandberg should be asked about what she knew about the Cambridge Analytica scandal and when she knew it. I think that the whole point of these fictional narratives of bias is to crowd a lot of that out.
So far, the right is really rolling the left on this today. There is no even comparison. They’re pushing this idea that it’s biased against conservatives, it’s breaking through, and there’s pretty much no pushback at all.
Do you think that has resonance with the general public? We had the Facebook hearings earlier this year, we all paid attention to them. It’s hard to imagine — other than Zuckerberg saying, “We sell ads, Senator” — that much came out of that, and you can debate whether or not a regular person cares that much about privacy. Do you think that making this a political argument, a political bias argument instead, will have more resonance?
I think that it’s very effective for the right to fire up their base. Just the same way that telling them that CNN is biased. And I think it has a functional component too, because when you see a headline that says, “Trump’s Longtime Attorney Just Said Trump Committed Two Felonies,” you’ve got a built-in wall around that, that that’s all fake. I think Trump knows the importance of social media. He put his digital guy in charge of his 2020 campaign.
It’s interesting that they didn’t run on anything resembling an anti-tech platform in 2016, both didn’t do it on an economic argument, even though Steve Bannon presumably wanted to make it. He was never complaining about Facebook giving WhatsApp $20 billion, and they’re only 50 people, and he wasn’t making the bias argument about the internet either, in fact he talked about how useful Twitter was. Does him turning to that now as an argument tell you something?
Yeah, I think it tells you that in the last couple of years, a lot of what they did on Facebook, on these platforms, has been exposed. Whether or not it was in coordination with the Russians, we’ve seen it, and you know that their 2020 strategy is going to be based in large part, not on buying TV ads, because I think they’re smart enough to know ... You can look at the primaries in Florida that happened, it was Tuesday, where the Democrat who won was outspent $30 million to $3 million or $4 million on television and still won.
TV is effectively not the vote-driver that it was before. They’re going to go all-in on digital, and they want to make sure that nothing is done that would constrain that. I think that part of it’s a base-riling-up strategy, but part of it is protecting against what they see is ... They see that Alex Jones is now awful on these platforms. That’s not good news for them.
You think there’s a genuine concern for them? “Shadow banning” isn’t just something you say to dupe a gullible person into thinking that they’re being censored, but they actually are concerned that they might actually lose access in the way that Milo did, and the way that Alex Jones is losing access now. They’re not going to ban the president of the United States from Twitter.
Yeah. I think they’re concerned that some of the targeting that they did, and some of the targeting that their allies did, and the way they did it with these shadow posts seeking to demotivate and suppress African-American voters, I think there’s a real danger for them, that those tactics, which was necessary for them to hit the inside straight in 2016, might not be available to them.
You are the first person I’ve heard suggest that, so either I’m reading the wrong thing or you’ve got a very perceptive ... I’m promoting your newsletter for you. If you want to get more insight like this, go get Popular Information from Judd. It’s free for now, $5 sooner than later?
Late September, early October, but free always, popular.info, you can sign up.
Sounds good. Thank you, Judd.
Great. Thanks a lot, Peter.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.