Twilight of the Media Elites

Into the morbid interregnum

In what’s becoming a Pull Request tradition, this is a companion piece to an interview of Martin Gurri, the great prophet of the media revolt. The two are best understood in tandem; this is an elaboration on and reaction to The Revolt of the Public: part review, part reply, part tangent.

The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.

-Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebooks

COVID has been the great accelerant of every budding trend: Virtual kitchens instead of restaurants, physical stores turning into e-commerce fulfillment centers, universal work from home (at least for the privileged Zoom class), flight from exclusive urban enclaves by the most affluent roiling rural real estate markets, homeschooling pods instead of mismanaged public schools, and —finally—pulling the plug on the ads-revenue ventilator for terminally-ill news journalism.

They’re all dying, all of them, laying off writers left and right: Vice, Vox, Buzzfeed, they’re all dead men walking. And most of their writers know it, which is why they’re easy pickings for those who aren’t, such as The New York Times, which early this year hired away former Buzzfeed grandee Ben Smith. Smith himself conceded the point in his debut column with an amusing anecdote about trying to hire Times publisher AG Sulzberger (then a mere editor) to Buzzfeed, only to end up writing for Sulzberger years later. Let’s just say the org chart is now a bit flipped.

In fact, the journalists get it better than most technologists. This tweet from a star-studded thread is a perfect snapshot of the now-standard industry squabble where technologists accuse journalists of pursuing nothing more than clicks. As someone who once stood in the desolate intersection of tech and media I find it odd to say: Roose and the journalists are right here and the techies wrong.

Roose’s use of the marketing term ‘conversion’—meaning simply a sale, but it has a nicely religious ring to it—is telling: it’s what the in-house user-acquisition team of a startup would say. Given his employer, he would know.

Pop quiz: Which media outlet writes rivers of pixels about the dire consequences of Facebook and its nefarious management, and then spends a fortune on Facebook ads? The Times of course, which by the lights of one ads metrics source, is among Facebook’s top 20 advertisers (the Times itself claims the actual figure is half what’s cited, but that’s still a huge sum). Facebook’s own ads archive tool, which catalogs money spent on public issues related to politics, has a vast gallery of Times creative, supporting the claim. What’s going on here? There’s no math that would justify this level of Facebook spend if the economics were those of a clickfarm: the marginal monetization from each click is marginal, while Facebook’s CPMs (i.e., their price per thousand ads) are definitely not.

No. What’s going on is that The Times is becoming a newsy entertainment outlet, à la Jon Oliver, with a business model more like Netflix or Hulu than catchphrases like All The News That’s Fit to Print might suggest. The Times says so itself, announcing a slew of movie and TV deals with Netflix and Amazon, the Hollywood writing room replaced by the New York newsroom. To quote the clairvoyant Smith in a recent piece slamming one of his colleagues (and more on that soon): “The paper is in the midst of an evolution from the stodgy paper of record into a juicy collection of great narratives, on the web and streaming services.”


Ideology is like body odor: someone else's absolutely reeks if strong enough, but you can't even notice your own. If you remain convinced, in the year 2020 AD, that this or that national outlet remains the megaphone of disinterested chroniclers and selfless truth-seekers, then the BO in question is surely your own. But don’t expect everyone else to put up with the stink.

The customer always gets what they want: In the case of an ads-driven business model where the advertiser is the true customer, that’s balanced political news alongside frivolous lifestyle stories as a canvas for ads. In the case of subscribers, it’s being flattered by having their own worldviews echoed back at themselves in more articulate form. Nobody actually pays for news, unless your livelihood depends on it, which is why outlets like The Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg will still flourish, but nothing vaguely resembling news will otherwise remain in a subscription-driven world.

Most New York Times writers, the august authors of ‘the first draft of history’, would do more for their hallowed institution’s finances if they dedicated themselves to writing chocolate-chip cookie recipes and crossword puzzles. In fact, that’s exactly what’s going on: fully a third of the paper’s digital subscriptions comes from their Cooking and Crossword apps. The rest will dedicate themselves to architecting a constant churn of partisan but compelling storylines—Cambridge Analytica used Facebook to hack the election!—that will be truthy and hyperbolic at best, and outright contrived at worst.

Ideology is like body odor: someone else's absolutely reeks if strong enough, but you can't even notice your own. If you remain convinced, in the year 2020 AD, that this or that national outlet remains the megaphone of disinterested chroniclers and selfless truth-seekers, then the BO in question is surely your own. But don’t expect everyone else to put up with the stink.

The Times will triumph financially, dramatically so, and utterly fail as an intellectual institution, at least by its former standards. Sure, the Times staff, like fourth-century Roman emperors intoning the half-remembered tropes of the Roman republic, will speak of ‘objectivity’ and ‘the first draft of history’. But only they and their subscribers will actually believe it. The editorial branding will be august pronouncements about ‘the paper of record’, but the business model is pure Netflix: All The News Fit To Binge.

Ben Franklin Was An Anon-account Shitposter

Advertising-funded journalism is not, as some journalists persist in believing, some ineluctable law of the universe. It’s an entirely contingent artifact of a weird confluence of factors: industrialization and the mass consumer economy, urbanization and burgeoning immigration, plus the secular decline of 19th-century Jacksonian political machines.

As I’ve written before, in century-ago-seeming 2019, and which is doubly correct now, American media is in the process of regressing to 19th (or perhaps even 18th) century models of journalism. Ben Franklin posted under two-dozen different pseudonyms including such bangers as Silence Dogood and Alice Addertongue, and displayed as much nastiness or wit as such modern-day lights like @neontaster or @ComfortablySmug.

Gonzo journalism? Samuel Adams helped organize the Boston Tea Party, and then reported about it after the fact, a level of ‘gonzo’ that even Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson never quite reached. Through almost the end of the 19th-century, the revenue model for most newspapers was subscriptions from party loyalists when a paper like The Press Democrat meant just that: the Democratic paper in that town giving that faction’s version of events (with some anodyne wire-service news mixed in).

We assume that this idiosyncratic late-20th-century form of American journalism is an essential ingredient to liberal democracy, the sine qua non juju that makes civil liberties and accountable government possible. And yet, our Western European peer nations, which one side of the American political spectrum loves to draw comparisons with when they’re not threatening to move there, have an utterly different journalistic culture.


This business of a nominally objective, non-partisan news media is as exceptional as employee-based healthcare and a constitutional right to firearms: a practice only we really engage in so enthusiastically, and yet whose strangeness we take as normal. And unlike those two other practices which seem as immutable as the fixed stars, we are destined to abandon this century-long tradition.

The UK press is a hodgepodge of Guardians and Standards and Observers and Spectators, each very overtly representing the outlook and values of one sub-species within the national polity (and given it’s the UK, one stratum of class as well). Israel, in keeping with the old joke ‘two Jews, three opinions’, is a fractious shouting match, what with Ha’aretz, Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel Hayom, and all the rest of them going at it daily, some quite openly the mouthpiece of this or that political faction or religious sub-minority.

This business of a nominally objective, non-partisan news media is as exceptional as employee-based healthcare and a constitutional right to firearms: a practice only we really engage in so enthusiastically, and yet whose strangeness we take as normal. And unlike those two other practices which seem as immutable as the fixed stars, we are destined to abandon this century-long tradition in favor of an even older one.

The Washington Post may like to gravely intone Democracy Dies in Darkness (particularly when they’re trying to upsell you on a subscription), but our democracy was actually birthed in a journalism culture closer to Twitter and Substack than anything the WaPo has put out for sixty years. And there’s no reason to think democracy couldn’t persist, though perhaps in radically different form, without WaPo around to adjudicate ‘objectivity’.

But what would a resurrected journalism and political culture of nom de plume’ed pamphleteers—anon-account shitposters in more colloquial language—interspersed with politically-activist reporting look like? It may not (yet) involve a sitting vice president shooting a former treasury secretary in a duel sparked by the latter shitposting his view of the former (as we had with Burr/Hamilton) but insofar as our current crop of elites go in for virtual combat, here’s a sample:

Key to understanding the flare-up in journo-on-journo violence is the political backdrop of the Great Awokening, where an entire passel of ever-changing social-justice views are rapidly replacing the Protestantism-infused social progressivism of decades past. This isn’t the same tired generational story of idealistic whipper-snappers cooking up unworkable utopias and fractious ‘Communes’ while the old farts manage the financially-viable business models: the economics are on the side of the revolutionaries! If subscribers want the views of a sitting US senator squelched, but wish to read the blatant propaganda from the mouthpiece of an expansionary regime that operates labor camps, for the low, low price of $14/month, they can get it.

Which guarantees the revolutionaries’ eventual victory. The dinosaurs just don’t realize what’s about to hit them yet. Or they do, but they’re lighting novena candles to Edward R. Murrow and hoping they won’t get purged before their kids are out of Penn or NYU. But defenestrated they will be, with the bravest among them (such as Weiss) shouting idealistic rallying cries before smacking pavement.

Culture and politics are downstream of economics, and all three are downstream of technology (much to both culture and politics’ eternal chagrin). Sullivan and Weiss weren’t merely the victims of some ethereal struggle between the forces of free speech and ideological censorship: they were the collateral damage of shifting media business models. And there will be lots more of them before this drama finishes.


The Post-modern Medievalism

The history of America recapitulates the history of the world: periodic bouts of intra-elite competition punctuated sporadically by an anti-elite populist revolt (we’re in the middle of one now). We peasants are just caught up in it. The difference between the Battle of Agincourt and the 2020 US presidential election is the nature of the coalitions and the weapons deployable on the battlefield, whether the English longbow or conservative Facebook virality.

In the America of yesteryear—the America of placid collusion between advertisers and idealistic journalists going on about ‘objectivity’—the disparate strains of jockeying elites were annealed inside the crucibles of the elite institutions those jostling factions inhabited. The FDR New Deal dinosaur and the LBJ Great Society nostalgist and the Reagan Republican and the Clinton neoliberal once sat in the same lofty spaces and had to make peace with one another. The resulting alloy of political consensus made a continent-spanning country of 300 million-plus people governable. Whether it was The New York Times, Harvard University, the military, the various three-letter-agencies of the intelligence community, or the management of IBM, institutions performed an averaging function by forcing elites to collaborate within moral and economic frameworks nobody (least of all elites themselves) wanted to overthrow.


The ‘paper of record’ can’t seem to decide in which century this country was founded, or whether it ever claimed one year versus another. The New York Times is turning into such a neverending telenovela, it needs a new section just covering itself: the ‘New York Times’ section of The New York Times.

That cozy world is gone.

Consider yet more skirmishes in our secular Reformation reboot:

The Times had a collective conniption fit over publishing the Tom Cotton oped representing the view of just over half of Americans. Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal publishes opeds that, one supposes, would earn you a quick trip to the career gulags at The Times. The media world is fragmenting so quickly, the WSJ op-ed page is gleefully giving the finger to its own news section after the latter recriminated the former in an open letter.

Just this week, (another) Times columnist Bret Stephens published (another) broadside against (another) Times star Nikole Hannah-Jones, this time over the controversial ‘1619 Project’ which attempted to re-anchor the nation’s founding in the arrival of a slave ship rather than independence. This just after the paper denied the revisionist intent of the project’s author by surreptitiously changing online copy, rewriting the history of the rewritten history of the country.

The ‘paper of record’ can’t seem to decide in which century this country was founded, or whether it ever claimed one year versus another. The New York Times is turning into such a never-ending telenovela, it needs a new section just covering itself: the ‘New York Times’ section of The New York Times.

On the tech side, Google is having employee revolts over Google’s involvement with the US military (Google canceled the military contracts and then fired some of the revolt ringleaders). Meanwhile over at Anduril, the company has raised a quarter-billion dollars to provide border-security and military technologies to the American government. Their ‘careers’ page is adorned with a Patton-sized American flag, and one imagines the struggle sessions are somewhat thinner on the ground.

More recently, CEO Brian Armstrong at leading crypto-currency company Coinbase announced a strict ‘no politics at work’ policy in an industry increasingly vocal about social-justice issues, which was instantly criticized by Twitter’s CEO Jack Dorsey.

I could rattle off a laundry list of such institutional binaries and blow the Substack length limit, but instead will invoke the Žižek-ian ‘and so on and so on’ and let you fill in the rest.

In the same way that a glib use of the red/blue state duality earns one a ‘well akshually’ about how it all comes down to counties and rural areas versus urban ones, our entire society down to the level of individual companies and publications will now be labeled in one of two political colors.

The post-WWII American consensus society, the same that survived even the liberalizing shake-up of the Reagan years and soared under post-Cold War Clintonianism, is being dismembered by its own elites into a patchwork institutional map of medieval kingdoms and upstart baronies. Our political and media mass-market nation-state is no more. The media brouhahas this piece mentioned are merely the ancillary sequelae of this larger malaise, a malaise ultimately caused by the very thing you’re staring at as you read this.


In the same way that a glib use of the red/blue state duality earns one a quick ‘well akshually’ about how it all comes down to counties and rural areas versus urban ones, our entire society down to the level of individual companies and publications will now be labeled in one of two political colors.

So what then comes after?

Like Gurri, I’m rather a fan of representative democracy, descended as I am (as he is) from political refugees of both right and left-wing dictatorships. Liberal democracy built atop the bedrock of civic nationalism is still the only game in town; everything else is an alluring mirage that soon evaporates to reveal a nightmarish reality.

The United States of America retains all the features and bugs of federalism. Our mishmash of mutually hostile polities can gracefully withdraw into localist experiments reflecting micro-level values, a more Greek-style direct democracy replacing the Roman-style republicanism involving such contentious compromises as the electoral college and SCOTUS.

The NYC and DC elites? Like academics in Kissinger’s timeless quote, they can continue their prestige games inside institutions of diminished relevance where ‘the competition is so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small.’ The dramas of the The Times editorial board will be about as relevant to most Americans as those of the European Commission, with about as much fascination.

Or those elites prefer an apocalyptic showdown instead, using every tool from tweetstorms to COVID policy to Senate confirmation hearings in their quasi-theological schism. Then the entire union can shatter into the jigsaw puzzle of our virtual polities, whose jagged edges run under and between the colored squares on the map we quaintly call ‘red state’ or ‘blue city’. Because those same elites, hellbent on final epistemic victory, will drag the rest of the country into their internecine war, preferring to ruin the national experiment than accept a world in which they play a manifestly reduced role.

That could easily happen too.


  1. In Weiss’ letter, part of the harassment she describes is having ax emojis posted by her name inside The Times’ internal Slack channels. For the new revolutionaries, posting Slack emojis has taken the place of Madame Defarge knitting a blanket with the names of French aristocrats to be guillotined in A Tale of Two Cities: it’s the suspense-building portent.