A Paean To Failed, Greedy, Unethical Assholes
Ben Smith writes a first draft of the history of online media.
When an entirely new, revolutionary technology came along and transformed the very meaning of the word “media,” it was always going to be interesting to watch how journalism would adapt.
I dimly recall a staff meeting at The New Republic in the early 1990s when the publisher (not Marty) gave a little speech about what was about to hit. How would we respond to the Internet? What was the future for a weekly, long-form, high/low-brow print magazine, mailed out to over 100,000 subscribers? As was my wont, I offered a grimly counter-intuitive view: if this new media is real, and as you describe it, then the answer is none. Reading, as we understand it, will disappear. At some point, media will probably just be images and videos passed back and forth with some bare words attached — and our ability to get tens of thousands of people to sit down each week, concentrate and absorb pages of gray print, will evaporate into thin air.
I’m not saying I was laughed at — we were all making wild guesses and, as usual, I picked the most catastrophic one — but what followed was a series of huffs and puffs. How could magazines — the central, long-form forum for our national debate, the form around which all of our careers had been shaped — be doomed? Unimaginable.
Until it almost happened. (We are all TikTokers now — with some Substack thrown in for the serious-minded.) I say “almost” because magazines still exist as they once did, kind of. The endless, erudite book reviews of the old TNR can now be found in an often excellent quarterly journal Leon Wieseltier now edits, but with just a tiny fraction of its former readership, and an even tinier fraction of its former influence.
Or think of another legendary American magazine, The Atlantic, once famous for its monthly selection of what needed to be read — idiosyncratic, somewhat aloof from its readers, indifferent to advertisers, subsidized by some plutocrat, convening the discussions among the elite. It too still exists in the old-form — and even has covers designed by Bono! But it’s a sideshow to an online content factory, churning out thousands of pieces a month, hour by hour, day by day. A magazine was once defined as much by what it didn’t publish as by what it did — in the zero-sum game of a limited number of physical pages attached by staplers. Now it simply publishes as much as it can.
Ben Smith’s new book, Traffic, is billed as a first draft of this media history. Here’s how Kirkus boils it down: “The author gives a detailed, smart account of the foibles of those early days, when no one knew how to conduct decent journalism and make money at the same time.” In fact, the book is entirely focused on the fateful attempt to turn online journalism into a quick cash-cow, fueled by virality. So it’s the story of Gawker’s Nick Denton and Buzzfeed’s Jonah Peretti.
I suppose Ben wanted to keep the narrative as tight as possible, and focus on the people he knew in New York media. Fair enough. But that focus inevitably misses so much: how major legacy papers — the NYT and the WaPo and the WSJ — struggled then thrived; or how some early bloggers, like Josh Marshall, Mickey Kaus, Glenn Reynolds, Kevin Drum, Markos Moulitsas, and Rod Dreher, or me, actually survived without selling our souls; how the new media was dominated in New York by writers on the extreme left; how blogging faded to tweeting and then tweeting became a form of woke mob destruction; and so on. There is no account of the blogosphere here. The names of those who really innovated this medium are almost entirely absent.
So we get a book entirely about the money-grubbing, nothing-matters, viral assholes who violated every ethic in the business, and, in the end, failed.
Denton’s Gawker simply exploited the fact that there were no enforceable ethical guardrails in media anymore — so they could be cruel violators of anyone’s privacy, and get rich out of prurience and schadenfreude. He added, for good measure, Fleet Street’s fathomless cynicism and negativity. Peretti’s Buzzfeed — hand in glove with Facebook — was simply an attempt to monetize virality, by mastering the art of getting content/advertising spread exponentially.
Denton published yellow journalism with millennial snark, which is why it is fitting that Gawker was eventually brought down by heterosexual sex tapes and the outings of innocent homosexuals. Denton’s pledge to make Gawker “20 percent nicer” was too little too late — as he himself, to his credit, recognized. (The personal transformation of Denton is a moving story, fueled by love and weed.)
Peretti, an avaricious tech nerd, perfected the catchy, must-read listicle, and made money by disguising ad listicles as editorial ones, gleefully ripping up the basic ethics of journalism. (He even pressured the Buzzfeed ad critic to write favorably about ad clients.) That corrupt strategy — euphemized as “native advertising” or “sponsored content” — even lured in respected publications like The Atlantic. Remember the Scientology fiasco? I remember publicly confronting Ben Smith on his endorsement of this whorish, deceptive practice, and his mouth opened and shut a few times with no sounds coming out, as a Buzzfeed employee in the crowd yelled: “But we’re winning!” And they were. For a hot second or so.
In their greed and ambition, Peretti and Denton forgot that the old ethics had a practical purpose as well: respecting individuals’ privacy and the sanctity of sources prevented libel suits, and created the trust that leads to better reporting. Fusing ads and journalism also quickly loses readers’ trust, and brings swiftly diminishing returns. Both are ways to get rich quick, but neither are actually journalism, or ever really intended to be. Smith justified it by saying it could finance real journalism. And he was right. Buzzfeed News, now no more, did do some good journalism. But of course, what made it famous also revealed how problematic its guiding principles were: Buzzfeed published an utterly unverified piece of speculative oppo-research — the Steele Dossier — which the ethical, old media wouldn’t. Scoop!
The dossier launched one of the craziest media crusades in years: finding the smoking gun behind a vast conspiracy hatched in Moscow to install a longtime Russia asset in the White House. And in some respects, publishing the dossier was exactly what new media was about. What Mickey Kaus calls “under-news” — what journalists are speculating but cannot prove — does have its advantages. Some over-prissy journalistic ethics can suppress vital information; readers are capable of judging things for themselves; actively withholding info goes against a journalist’s core instinct, and so on. Smith is admirably candid and reflective on this. And I see and respect why he made the call he did.
But surely the pee-yellow smears of the dossier proved him definitively wrong: a now-largely debunked, politically-loaded document, full of unverified speculation and irresistible gossip, led down a rabbit hole that, in the end, discredited the press. It was a bad call. And like many other dodgy “resistance” maneuvers, it helped Trump more than it hurt him.
As we speak, however, online journalism is reviving. After the viral gimmicks, sponsored content, vicious outings, and insane venture-capital loans, the Denton-Peretti web died a predictable death, having helped poison our entire political system. But beginning a decade or so, sites like the Daily Dish and Talking Points Memo and Brain Pickings, which had been around for years, pioneered pay-meters and memberships for dedicated readers to support writers directly. While Buzzfeed and Gawker were trying to game the system, others worked extremely hard, day after day, ethically building credibility and loyalty with readers the old-fashioned way.
Smith has no account whatever in this book of what we did: innovate a revenue model based on writing and loyalty, a breakthrough that saved online media. Substack is the logical end-point of this process. Smith has moved on to another huge media venture, Semafor, alongside yet another ethics-free, asshole grifter in new media, Justin Smith. (There isn’t a shady media hustler Ben doesn’t long to be in cahoots with.)
The Daily Dish did a bunch of new things before anyone else: round-the-clock updates; interactive video and photography; reader contests; covering news events — like the 2009 Iranian revolution — in real-time; airing controversies — like Sarah Palin’s bonkers stories and lies — that others were afraid to (you should have heard the watercooler talk); championing positive campaigns — to support Obama, end torture, or legalize weed. With good curation and editing, you could also provide a platform for intense reader debate and discussion — even on fraught topics like late-term abortion — that didn’t devolve into Twitter bile.
Yes, Dish posts would occasionally “go viral” — and it was a thrill when, in 2013, for instance, a post about a draconian anti-gay bill in Kansas garnered 1.8 million pageviews. But the traffic wasn’t due to an SEO trick. It was just a good point about an interesting story. In a 2014 list of our most popular posts of the year, I wrote, “What strikes me about the traffic for a post like this is that it doesn’t have to be Buzzfeedy to work. It just has to say something and stand for something.” With a blog, you could build a new model — innovative, but fused with the methods of practices of the old. It’s a story of long, hard, grueling work, and integrity — which is why Ben Smith has little interest in it.
In the 2010s, Ezra Klein created something real and valuable, and is still at the top of his game in the new medium of podcasting. Other early bloggers — Matt Yglesias and Glenn Greenwald and Jonah Goldberg and Freddie DeBoer— are still doing great work and making money. Drudge understood the medium better than anyone, before anyone, and seems eternal. TPM is still out there, and thriving. The tribal subscription model has its drawbacks — the NYT veered way off the rails into leftist cray-cray shit after 2016 and during 2020 in order to appeal to partisans — but it has managed to stabilize a bit since, and is booming financially.
There’s a story, in other words, of actual journalists and writers innovating, failing, succeeding, in this new era, with ethics intact, creating online media that will last. It’s a hopeful story in some ways. It’s just one Ben Smith had very little to do with; and has little apparent interest in understanding.
(Note to readers: This is an excerpt of The Weekly Dish. If you’re already a subscriber, click here to read the full version. This week’s issue also includes: a debate with Nigel Biggar over the merits of British colonialism; many, many tough dissents over my piece encouraging Tucker to follow RFK Jr’s lead into the presidential race; six notable quotes from the week in news, including a moving one from Dylan Mulvaney; an Yglesias Award for Steven Spielberg; 18 pieces on Substack we recommend on a variety of topics; a Mental Health Break with Jerry Springer; an unusual VFYW from Atlanta; and, as always, the results of the View From Your Window contest — with a new challenge. Subscribe for the full Dish experience!)
New On The Dishcast: Nigel Biggar
Nigel Biggar is an Anglican priest, academic and writer. Formerly the Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at Oxford, he now directs the McDonald Centre for Theology, Ethics & Public Life and chairs the board of the UK’s Free Speech Union. The author of many books on ethics, his new one is Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning — a qualified defense of the British empire. Just another completely uncontroversial and tedious subject.
Listen to the episode here. For two clips of our convo — debating what makes an empire worse than others, and whether the British started or just exploited the wars in their colonies — pop over to our YouTube page.
Other topics that Nigel and I cover: writing his book as a response to revisionism; the 1619 Project; the difficulty he had getting it published; the various motives of British colonialism and its slow development; how anti-slavery stemmed from the Enlightenment and Christianity; the colonists who fled poverty and religious persecution; the Irish Famine; the contempt and fear and racism toward native peoples; the natives who welcomed trade and protection; whether plagues were intentional or unavoidable; non-European empires and human sacrifice; the ubiquity of slavery throughout history; the unique evil of the transatlantic trade; maroons who kept slaves of their own; Zionism; the colonists who prized foreign cultures; the hypocrisy of British subjects in America exploiting natives; the Indian MP in the 1890s; Indians fighting alongside the British in WWII; the decolonized who embraced the liberal institutions of the Brits; the Chinese who fled communism for the colony of Hong Kong; the diversity of Boris’ cabinet; and the historic triumph of Rishi Sunak.
Browse the Dishcast archive for another discussion you might enjoy (the first 102 episodes are free in their entirety — subscribe to get everything else). Coming up: Tabia Lee on her firing as a DEI director, Chris Stirewalt on Fox and the MSM, Ben Smith on going viral, John Oberg on veganism, and Patrick Deneen on a post-liberal future. Send your guest recs and pod comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. A quick note from a new convert:
I greatly appreciate your voice, your intellect, your guests. I love your podcast, so I subscribed.
The View From Your Window
Yermo, California, 2.11 pm
Dissents Of The Week: What The Tuck?!
The following note sums up the sentiment of the in-tray after I encouraged Tucker Carlson to join the race with RFK Jr:
My dear Andrew,
Are you out of your fucking mind?!
Very best regards,
Another is more detailed:
You aspire to the mantle of conservatism. True conservatism champions values above all else, reasoning that virtue is an end in itself, regardless of the short-term cost. Foremost among these values are honesty, responsibility and respect. Do RFK Jr. and Tucker Carlson embody those qualities? If you think that they do, then you are no longer the thinker who earned my deep respect, nor do you stand for a sane, moderate conservatism. There are virtues in iconoclasm, but in this case, it has unmoored you.
I didn’t endorse either of them. But I see both raising issues that others won’t — and I think that’s healthy in a democracy. And I see no reason to think that RFK Jr is dishonest, unhinged, or irresponsible as such — especially compared with most politicians. He may have views that you (and I) disagree with, but casting him as completely beyond-the-pale seems silly to me. There have been plenty of presidential candidates wackier than him in the past. And Biden would benefit from a challenge. Imagine a debate about the border between Biden and Kennedy. Imagine any actual debate over mass immigration among Democrats!
Another dissenter also invokes the c-word:
After reading your piece I thought, “Andrew, don’t you see that Biden is the most conservative choice in this election?” I don’t mean conservative like it is thrown around these days: God-Guns-America and all that jazz. And I’m not talking about policies either. I mean conservative in the true sense of the word: governing in a manner that attempts to conserve what is good about our institutions, and deliberately and incrementally building on them to solve the day’s problems. As I see it, Biden attempts to lead this country quite conservatively, and we need more of that to heal the divides between us, not less of it.
Trump, DeSantis, Tucker, Kennedy ... they are not going to conserve anything. They will thoughtlessly disrupt whatever is before them for another dose of adulation to soothe their broken egos.
As far as I can tell, the only substantial failure of the Biden administration is immigration, and he’s still got time to get that right. And even if he doesn’t, I would rather see Biden win again with a mandate to get immigration fixed, than see any of these other knuckleheads get a shot. I want to see less of the disruption that these candidates stir up — and more truly patient, deliberate, conservative leadership.
I tend to think re-electing men so old that dementia is almost inevitable in a second term is kinda risky as well. Especially given who would immediately inherit the mantle. But sure, I take the point. And that’s why I will probably feel obliged to vote for Biden in the end — if he is still alive and running, and Trump is the alternative. But I want to disrupt this grim Trump-Biden re-run while we still can. Why should Biden run without any competition? Why couldn’t Tucker offer Trumpism without the nutter-in-chief? It’s a long way till November 2024.
Many more tough dissents are over on the pod page. Readers really let me have it. I’d expect no less. Follow more Dish discussion on the Notes site here (or the “Notes” tab in the Substack app).
In The ‘Stacks
This is a feature in the paid version of the Dish spotlighting about 20 of our favorite pieces from other Substackers every week. This week’s selection covers subjects such as a rising India, a teetering Haiti, and several paeans to centrism. Below are a few examples:
Richard Hanania has a smart update on Trump’s enduring cult appeal.
YouTube removed a pod with Mark Goldblatt because he stated biological reality (but it’s now available on Substack.)
Nate Silver, laid off by Disney/ESPN, is revamping his ‘stack. Godspeed!
You can also browse all the substacks we follow and read on a regular basis here — a combination of our favorite writers and new ones we’re checking out. It’s a blogroll of sorts. If you have any recommendations for “In the ‘Stacks,” especially ones from emerging writers, please let us know: email@example.com.
The View From Your Window Contest
Where do you think it’s located? Email your guess to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please put the location — city and/or state first, then country — in the subject line. Proximity counts if no one gets the exact spot. Bonus points for fun facts and stories. The deadline for entries is Wednesday night at midnight (PST). The winner gets the choice of a VFYW book or two annual Dish subscriptions. If you are not a subscriber, please indicate that status in your entry and we will give you a free month subscription if we select your entry for the contest results (example here if you’re new to the contest). Happy sleuthing!
The results for this week’s window are coming in a separate email to paid subscribers later today.
See you next Friday.