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Ben Smith On The Gadflies Of New Media

Ben Smith On The Gadflies Of New Media

His new book grapples with the pros and cons of the blogging and Facebook eras.

Ben is the editor-in-chief and co-founder of Semafor, a global news company. He was an old-school blogger at Politico and others, the first editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed News, and the media columnist for the NYT. His new book is Traffic: Genius, Rivalry, and Delusion in the Billion-Dollar Race to Go Viral. I wrote what he called a “savage and delightful” review of his book, but we remain friends and went at it cordially.

You can listen to the episode right away in the audio player above (or on the right side of the player, click “Listen On” to add the Dishcast feed to your favorite podcast app — though Spotify sadly doesn’t accept the paid feed). For two clips of our convo — on the addictive power of blogging, and Ben’s tough call over publishing the Steele dossier — pop over to our YouTube page.

Other topics: Ben’s early career on the cop beat and in Eastern Europe; getting hooked on blogs after 9/11; his kid throwing his Blackberry in the toilet; the launch of the Daily Dish and its “mass intimacy”; the MSM (and me) “massively screwing up” the Iraq invasion; Ben covering marriage equality due to the Dish; the blog functioning as “Twitter before Twitter”; the Green Revolution in Iran; the Palin debacle and Trig; the torture program; why the Dish left the Daily Beast; the emotional turmoil of ending the blog; the “under-news” of Gawker; its indifference to to gay men’s privacy; the role of Jezebel; the redemption of Nick Denton and “20 percent nicer”; Gawker killed by Hulk Hogan and Peter Thiel; Buzzfeed and sponsored content; the Shitty Media Men list; Americans’ contempt for the MSM; Steve Bannon; how social media is perfect for right-wing populists and woke mobs; Substack reviving the spirit of blogging; the fall of Buzzfeed News and Vice; Semafor’s embrace of dissent; and Ben’s thoughts on my “savage and delightful review” of his book.

Browse the Dishcast archive for another conversation 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, Patrick Deneen on a post-liberal future, and David Grann on an 18th-century mutiny that’s a “parable for our own turbulent time.” Please send your guest recs and pod dissent to

Since we’re talking about the Dish blog this week, here’s a note from an old-school reader:

I’m bored at work and scrolling through old posts from the Daily Dish and I came across this reader submission after Obama won in ‘08:

Nothing in my life has actually changed in the 30 minutes since it was announced Obama will be our next president. I have the same bills, the same amount of money in the bank, my dishwasher is still broken, and my five-month-old beagle won’t stop peeing on my carpet. Everything in my life is exactly the same as it was 30 minutes ago; and yet I feel as though everything is different.

I feel so much hope. I feel so much pride. I feel like my one vote was a single drop of water in a great Tsunami of change. I feel like I was one of a million voices screaming in the night, “I love my country and I’m taking it back!” I’m so proud of the country that I love and have so much hope in my heart that we can together heal the wounds that have been such a source of pain and anger to us all.

I know Obama isn’t going to fix the economy overnight, and I know he won’t be able to provide healthcare to all Americans by February ’09. I know Obama isn’t a Messiah who four years from now will have turned this country into a fabled utopia. But I also know Obama will make moral decisions. I know Obama will try to unite where others try to divide. I know Obama will help to make America the beacon of hope it once was to others. I know that at 27 years of age, I witnessed one of the most important and hopefully glorious chapters in American history.

I know hope.

My God, I barely remember the optimism. What happened to our national psyche?  It wasn’t that long ago that this reader’s sentiment was the norm.

On last week’s episode with Sam Ramani, here’s a history professor:

Thanks for an insightful interview with a knowledgeable expert. (How old-school!)

Still, I did manage to find a few points of disagreement:

  1. Implying that US support for Ukraine has been greater than US support for Afghanistan is insanely wrong. The US spent more than $2 trillion in Afghanistan since 9/11 and lost 5,000 lives (soldiers and military contractors).  American aid to Ukraine has arguably been one of the most cost-effective military/diplomatic interventions in U.S. history, especially since a large percentage of that aid is older equipment that we were paying to store. We are helping to defeat a key geopolitical rival and defend liberal, democratic values by providing economic aid, diplomatic support, timely intelligence, and (generally speaking) second-hand weaponry. 

  2. Ukraine is not a US or NATO proxy. To be allies is not the same as to be proxies. As your pod made clear, Ukrainian leaders and public opinion is driving the resistance with its own goals and aspirations. While Ukraine has generally abided by the restrictions on not using Western weapons against the Russian homeland, it is devising its own military strategy — sometimes against the advice of the US military establishment (which was another useful point made in the interview).  

Thanks for the informative episode!

Sam speaks with Ben Shapiro-level speed, and everything he says is packed with info. I was worried some listeners wouldn’t be able to keep up. Glad you could.

More on the vegan episode from this listener:

I recently started dating a wonderful woman who is vegan (and thankfully not preachy about it). I appreciate her and John Oberg’s compassion for animals, and I do think that, when at all possible, we should attempt to eat meat from respectable sources.

That said, my own resistance to embracing veganism is almost entirely derived from the “meat” products that Mr. Oberg enthusiastically recommends, specifically how much processing is required to make them.

This is the ingredient list for Impossible “meat”: Water, Soy Protein Concentrate, Coconut Oil, Sunflower Oil, Natural Flavors, 2% Or Less Of: Potato Protein, Methylcellulose, Yeast Extract, Cultured Dextrose, Food Starch Modified, Soy Leghemoglobin, Salt, Mixed Tocopherols (Antioxidant), Soy Protein Isolate, Vitamins and Minerals (Zinc Gluconate, Thiamine Hydrochloride (Vitamin B1), Niacin, Pyridoxine Hydrochloride (Vitamin B6), Riboflavin (Vitamin B2), Vitamin B12).

This is the ingredient list for beef: beef.

I’m well aware they’re pumping meat full of hormones and all that, which is why we should try to find it from local and reputable sources, as I mentioned. But vegan meat seems to be as processed as any of the convenience store junk foods I’ve been told (and have failed) to avoid my entire adult life. And in a world increasingly divorced from reality itself, I’m loath to pretend that these two substances bear any resemblance to one another when, in point of fact, they just don’t.

Check out our lengthy roundup on veganism here. The latest installment:

I’d like to critique Oberg’s lack of nuanced discussion on hunting. (My bias: I’m from a family of hunters and fishermen in Minnesota.) He blithely referred to hunters as people who enjoy killing animals, and while that may describe those who trophy hunt (a practice I oppose), it is much too simplistic for those who hunt for actual food.

Many Minnesotans rely on venison as a food source. My own father was poor enough in grad school that a substantial portion of his diet consisted of fish he caught and deer he shot. (Once he ran out of money and had to eat the only remaining part of a deer he had in the freezer — venison liver — for several days.) Not to mention the many Native Americans here and around the country who hunt and eat animals for reasons far more sacred and cultural than mere enjoyment.

There’s also an ecological aspect to this, which other listeners have already mentioned: Some places truly have too many deer. The WaPo columnist Dana Milbank — not someone known for his love of guns — even recently became a hunter for this reason. There are many layers of potential harm/suffering here, and Oberg seems to be choosing individual animals over wider ecological concerns. Why? That’s certainly an interesting position, but he didn’t make the case for it. (And in one instance, he simply chose one individual animal over another, when he said it’s “sad” that lions kill zebras. I know what he means — can’t be much fun for the zebra — but would it not also be sad if the lion died of starvation?)

I found it curious that Oberg wants to reduce animal suffering but not to the point of directing the manner of death. After all, for deer, the options are grim: starvation, chronic wasting disease, a fast-moving car, brutal winter cold, being shredded by wolves. There is no deer version of dying peacefully at home at age 90. Is one well-placed bullet then really that bad? 

I take all of Oberg’s points on factory farming, which is why it’s important for those who care about animal welfare and eat meat to indicate to the market that ethical production is something we want. But for animals who spend a lifetime in the fresh air (farmed or wild), a quick death that puts their bodies to good use afterward seems like a perfectly moral outcome to me. 

From a Canadian listener:

I know I’m probably very late, but I really enjoyed your discussion with Nigel Biggar

I wanted to point out that in the USA, 1.7% of the population is indigenous while 6% of the Canadian population is indigenous. So that’s 1.8 million in Canada out of 36.9 million, while in the USA it’s 5.9 million out of 331 million (though a good percentage of people who claim Native ancestry aren’t — you’re allowed to self-report on the census — but that's a different story). It’s a clear picture of American versus Canada/British colonialism. The British version was better, more humane, and more of the Canadian natives survived under it than in the USA.

This next listener offers “a suggestion for discussion” for the Dishcast:

This morning I heard NPR’s “Up First” episode on IVG reproduction — the practice of converting somatic cells into germ cells with the potential for innumerable and cheap embryos for the purpose of research and, possibly in the future, designer babies.

IVG is a startling advance in science when, in my opinion, we haven’t dealt with the ethical implications of more widely practiced reproductive technologies like IVF and three-parent embryos. It won’t be long before we are creating designer babies for much more complex traits than large-scale genetic diseases currently being selected against. Indeed, it’s already happening at St. Barnabas in New Jersey. At Genomic Prediction (another NJ company), if you have the money, you can select against diabetes (I and II), schizophrenia, CAD, breast cancer, and intellectual disability. Staff select against predicted IQ below 75, even though the cut off for ID is 70.

Books by Robert Plomin (Blueprint) and Siddhartha Mukherjee (The Gene) attempt to show that variation in populations of species is the very fuel that drives evolution. I don’t believe we have fully understood or conceptualized what these technologies might mean for our species. I would love to see serious and widespread discussion of this topic in the media.

Another topic suggestion:

I thought I’d recommend this NYT piece: “Why Universities Should Be More Like Monasteries.” I’m an educator who often thinks about what the Digital Age is doing to our brains. It’s a topic you’ve touched upon a bit in the Dish, and in your first big essay after retiring from blogging. I’m especially alarmed by what I’m seeing in young people. I wonder if the professor who wrote that NYT piece, Molly Worthen, would be good podcast guest? 

She would. So would Jean Twenge.

On the ongoing debate over our trans coverage, a reader dissents:

There is no epidemic of gay kids being transed. All of the evidence suggests it’s just not happening. For example:

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