non-Nitro Edition: Substack & Media

Can journalists protect media's traditional norms? Do they want to?

This Twitter thread about Substack by Sarah T. Roberts has made some noise, and obviously Substack has recently been on my mind. I want to comment on some of this stuff, but I’m not taking this as an opportunity to go on a screed about media. [Editor’s note: not everyone agrees about what constitutes a screed.] I just want to think through a few things.

Recently a lot’s been percolating about Substack specifically, independent media in general, and conventional/mainstream/establishment journalism and its strengths and weaknesses. The woman behind the thread is a journalism professor, I take it, and she is very unhappy about Substack and similar. In fact she literally calls Substack dangerous, which seems extreme, but that’s her stance. She feels that traditional journalistic outfits have strong norms and rules of ethics that prevente them from spreading untruths and guarantee the public trust, while Substack and other independent media have no similar codes of conduct or vetting. On the face of things that’s not a crazy stance to take, but the particulars are odd and I think the basic point collapses under scrutiny.

First: I can’t fairly or accurately weigh Substack’s virtues. They’re paying my rent, so I’m clearly biased, and I know next to nothing about the culture of the company. So I’ll try and restrict myself to parts of this thread that are not directly about the platform.

On the simplest level, I find the Twitter thread strange because what she says could apply to any blogging or publishing site or service, several of which are decades old. Yes, you can do bad journalism and spread misinformation on Substack, but you could also do that on Wordpress, Blogger, Tumblr, Medium…. There are tons of other lesser- known platforms, and if you know HTML and CSS you can roll your own site and slap a “This Is Journalism” sign on the top if you want. It’s true that Substack has features to make delivery of a newsletter easier, as well as to get paid and track performance1, which I guess lowers barriers to professionalizing and risks letting in the unscrupulous. But again, you’ve been able to have a tip jar or start a Patreon for forever, and anyway her problem isn’t the method of electronic delivery, it’s the content - that it’s unvetted and operating outside of the constraints of editing and ethics. Didn’t that ship sail with Web 1.0? Yes, people can post inaccurate information online. This is not new. In ye olden days people could print their own unedited pamphlets outside of the media ecosystem too. So what? It all seems very confused.

Viewing it as charitably as I can, she’s simply calling for a set of norms related to the newsgathering process that stress “independence, disclosure of compromise, editorial oversight and vetting of the reporting.” Institutions like newspapers and magazines can codify rules that all of their employees have to abide by which at least ensure a certain consistency of vision about how you’re supposed to behave. With independent media, particularly one-man operations, it’s the Wild West. Which is fairly convincing… until you think about the recent history of media for five minutes.

Those norms and rules and codes of ethics sure didn’t seem to make much of a difference when the traditional news media pushed us towards a war that killed at least 500,000 Iraqis. I have never had any patience for people waxing on about the sacred flame that is the profession of journalism, but I sure as hell don’t after living through the post-9/11 era. It wasn’t the Weekly Standard that got us into Iraq. It wasn’t Commentary. It was the New York Times. It was the New Yorker. It was the Atlantic. It was precisely those stentorian institutions that celebrated themselves for their vaunted values which did the most damage in an era where the media abandoned any pretext of an adversarial relationship with the government. Their status as upstanding mainstream journalism made the war credible among the undecided public in just the same way Colin Powell did. There are many other examples I could cite of how the media has failed us in the 21st century. (Fueling the insanity of Russiagate being a big one.) But I don’t need any of those. The destruction of Iraq will do. When your industry contributes to mass death, displacement, and the destabilization of an entire region, you don’t get to peacock about your superior moral values anymore. Sorry.

Nor, of course, did these values prevent Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass from flourishing through dishonesty - and who knows how many never got caught? Nor have those values prevented the traditional media from undermining their own work’s quality, to say nothing of their dignity, in chasing virality on Google and Facebook. Nor did those values prevent even the most high-minded outfits from relentlessly covering the 2016 Trump campaign in its earliest days, grasping for views and clicks with disproportionate (and extremely valuable) attention that helped make his campaign viable. Are we to assume that local TV news outfits, notorious cesspools of alarmism and loose professional ethics, were once part of the sacred trust of journalistic values? Roberts says these values represent “one of the few failsafes against anti-democratic maneuvers when at their best,” but they never stopped establishment news from cheerleading America’s sponsorship of right-wing coups, cheerleading which is very much alive in contemporary coverage of South America. The ethical standards of journalism didn’t prevent MSNBC from becoming an unfiltered mouthpiece of the woke capitalist wing of the Democratic party.

Besides, do most media people or publications even claim to represent those things now? These values were packaged with an assumption of journalistic objectivity that is now discarded by the profession as a relic and, why not, an artifact of racism and patriarchy. Roberts praises independence, but modern journalism is nothing if not faddish; she praises disclosure of compromise, but it’s an era of advertorials and branded content; she praises editorial oversight, but the brutal economics of contemporary media have gutted editing; she values the vetting of reporting, but many places report facts with no fact checking department. If the values Roberts praises still pertain to the profession at all they are a very tattered quilt.

The disconnect here is profound. I find it necessary to remind you: people really hate the media. Trust in media has not been good for a long time, but it is worse now than ever before. It’s a crisis! And lionizing journalism’s traditional values, whatever the merits of those values, will never heal the relationship with the many, many people who don’t believe that those values are real and don’t trust those who claim to embody them.

Perhaps this will be the most controversial, but: I’m guessing very few people really think establishment media is even attempting to be politically evenhanded anymore, even among (especially among?) the people in the industry. Of course the news was never neutral or unbiased, and I agree that there have been destructive consequences from the pretense that it ever was. But there was a time when news strove to provide balance, to allow various sides equal time to present their case so that the public would at least know what the best arguments for each point of view were. To create balance required at least a modicum of ideological diversity within the newsroom. And those days, simply, are gone.

The basic situation is stark: there are the journalists and writers who work in the explicitly conservative media, the openly conservative-branded media, and then everything else is staffed by social justice liberals. (Not leftists. Liberals.) Almost everyone who works in media now who is not doing open conservative advocacy work is at the very least culturally liberal, with the vocabulary and norms and fashions and assumptions of college-educated middle-class-and-above people. Or, and I think this could be likely, there are more moderates and conservatives in media than I think, but they have been forced to hide their politics by the intense social pressure in the field - which does nothing to help the perception of bias among moderates and conservatives.

Where does that social pressure come from? There has been a cultural homogenization of the journalist class that I blame, as I do all things, on the Internet. The norms of media now are imprinted on the impressionable young employees not by those in a given publication’s newsroom, which would at least partially reflect the culture of the immediate geographic era, but by open access to what almost every other journalist thinks at all times. To be in the industry these days you almost have to be on major social media platforms, where all the other journalists and writers are too. How could you possibly not be gradually brought into line with groupthink when your peer group is telling you how to exist, morning noon and night? Journalists are modeling how to be a journalist to the young and malleable on Twitter all the time, and they are most certainly sending the message that you must be down with the cause of “social justice.”2

I have no way to quantify this but most people would agree that writers for elite publications are disproportionately drawn from elite colleges. Those colleges have never been particularly shy about inculcating a certain set of socially liberal values, but they are really going for it now, now that they’ve been taught that all places are sites of political struggle and that the idea of spaces that strive to be nonpartisan is a tool of white supremacy. An understated aspect of the collapse of state funding for public universities is that those institutions have less and less reason to appeal to conservative lawmakers, while all of the incentives within academia push administrators and faculty to adopt explicitly progressive views3. One way or another, young media writers and reporters who emerge from college now are more likely than ever to see embracing the dominant ideology as a key to their future.

And we’re more polarized, so there’s fewer ideologically unconventional people to hire. And cable news stations appear to believe that being more partisan brings better ratings. And people born into constant internet access are compelled to pick a political side much earlier and so we don’t get those interesting characters whose weird idiosyncratic political views were born in college. And opinion-generating is vastly easier and cheaper than news-gathering, and extreme opinions pull clicks, providing publishers with an incentive to hire based on strength of opinions rather than values of evenhandedness. And on and on.

Yes, conservatives have advanced the notion of a liberal media for decades, in a cynical and self-interested way. But I struggle to believe that any adults that are paying attention really think that mainstream media even strives for balance. The media appears to have decided that the Trump era was such an unprecedented emergency that they had to cast off the shell of objectivity, and now they don’t feel any need to put it back on. Conservatives may have been bullshitting about this for decades, but when they say that the average reporter has clear progressive and Democratic leanings, they are obviously correct. Indeed, a vast majority of those who write for influential national publications hold cultural and social positions that would appear extreme even to the average self-identified progressive. Academic liberalism has been chasing after more and more incendiary vocabulary about social issues (while ignoring economics almost entirely) for decades, and media is coming along for the ride. If you think media’s role should be to openly advocate for what you think is right politically, go right ahead and advocate, but why perpetuate the charade that your publication has no partisan agenda? Who is the pretense of objectivity serving?

The paper of record is, as in all things, a symbol of the larger industry. It has become abundantly clear that the NYT is simply not going to stand up to its staff members if they make an argument in the name of social justice. And the particular vehicle they will use is that “this piece/policy/employee makes X demographic group unsafe.” That line of reasoning got the Tom Cotton op/ed draped in an embarrassing apology letter, it got James Bennett fired, it was the justification for the treatment of Bari Weiss that led to her resignation, it got that reporter fired for a transgression from two years ago. The Times had to take action because these things made people unsafe, that’s the argument. But who decides what constitutes “unsafe”? The self-same people who make the accusation, rendering the whole thing a farce. If you get to both level an accusation and determine the conditions on whether or not it’s accurate, there’s no such thing as basic procedural fairness. The notion that there can be such a thing as an ideologically-neutral definition of what is and is not unsafe, made entirely by the people who are claiming that something is unsafe, is untenable. It cannot withstand scrutiny.

So Roberts defends an industry by referencing values that never mattered and don’t exist without addressing accurate charges that the industry is politically biased which alienate half the country. She then says that alternatives to that industry are not just inferior but actively destructive, without making a positive case for why or bothering to disclose her own obvious investment in the old way. If you were undecided about traditional media, would this argument move you?

Media might be able to rescue its reputation, but people within the industry have to want to do so. And it’s not clear to me that they do. From where I’m sitting those in the industry don’t value the media’s reputation nearly as much as they value demonstrating that they are part of the industry’s culture - a culture that has embraced advocacy journalism with open arms. As social justice culture has ruthlessly and seemingly effortlessly colonized media culture, too many in the media have adopted one of social justice’s most destructive tendencies: the notion that the righteous have no responsibility to try and convince the other side. In fact such outreach efforts are frequently seen as out-and-out malign. After all, when you’ve declared that most of the country are white supremacists, and white supremacists are definitionally people that don’t deserve to be educated or convinced, who is left to reach out to? I suspect that the average journalist or writer has little interest in proving their value to the distrustful. Relatedly, I’m not sure if the average journalist or writer knows or cares that their industry is in a crisis.

Roberts wants us to care about the virtues of traditional journalism, to protect them, which is fair enough. But she seems either ignorant of or indifferent to the fact that the average person employed in journalism today doesn’t appear to have any attachment to those core values at all. Values can’t be protected if the people who are supposed to embody them see little personal value in adhering to them. That’s the real risk to journalism, not Substack. Setting all other principles aside, the effort to ensure evenhandedness in media meant that the potential audience was bigger, selling more newspapers, drawing more eyeballs. And it meant that more people, and more types of people, were invested in the news. How does a reeling industry get right financially when it’s written off a huge part of its potential customer base? Where does all of this go when every incentive within media is to not even try to heal the rift with half the country, knowing that people always do what’s best for themselves within an industry rather than what’s best for the industry itself?

I don’t know. But it doesn’t look good.

1

I find all of the stats kind of nerve-wracking. For years I blogged with no indicator at all of how many people were reading except the number of emails that showed up in my box. Then I learned how to check the number of views I got on Wordpress and mostly regretted it. Now I get granular real-time information about how many emails go out, how many people open them, how many of those click a link, how long they’re reading for…. It’s giving me anxiety and I’m trying not to look.

2

Consider the example of hate crime trend stories. Tracking trends in crimes that have low overall numbers of offenses is hard. It’s not enough to simply look at a bunch of similar crimes and declare a trend. You have to know the size of the population in question and you have to know the baseline for that crime against that population. 15 widely-reported crimes against people in wheelchairs will certainly look like a trend. But there are 3 million Americans who use a wheelchair every day. Those 15 crimes could easily be statistical noise. And maybe your reporting could potentially point that out. Now, tell me: you’re a reporter and you want to stay popular, employable, and employed. Your field has extreme turnover so you are constantly chasing your next job. Everyone on Twitter is screaming about this horrible trend. How comfortable do you feel about being the person to say “it’s not responsible to say there’s a rise in hate crimes against people in wheelchairs”?

3

Yes, this includes the politics of cultural studies and critical theory programs steadily colonizing the university, but it also includes the rise of what I would call
”therapeutic HR culture” in academia - a mindset that sees the potential for legal liability and bad PR everywhere and manages that risk through rules expressed in terms originating in therapy. Like, we have to terminate you without severance because your masculine affect might inflict trauma against Brown bodies, can you please fill out this NDA? They mete out punishments on those who might give offense out of deep, deep concern about the mental well-being of the people they entrap into crippling debt and not, you know, protecting billion-dollar institutions from bad press or a lawsuit.