The World Is Ben Smith’s. Now What? - OZY | A Modern Media Company
Ben Smith
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WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

Because Nov. 3 is as inevitable as Nov. 4 is.

By Eugene S. Robinson

From his stint as BuzzFeed’s editor in chief to his media column at the New York Times, Ben Smith, that gadabout we’re mad about, has had a front-row seat to some of the most consequential times of our life in the last 16 years of politics and election cycles. Here are some of the best cuts from his longer conversation with OZY CEO and co-founder Carlos Watson on The Carlos Watson Show. Watch the full episode here.

On Nov. 3, 2020

Carlos Watson: Let’s talk about 45. President Trump. What are you predicting right now? You predicting he’s going to win reelection?

Ben Smith: I am not predicting. The one thing after the 2016 election? I got out of the prediction business and told my staff to stay out of the prediction business.

CW: Well, what do you think happened? Years from now, when you’re teaching a course on 2016, what are you going to say?

BS: Good question. I mean, the narrative that the polls were wildly off isn’t really true. We were not used to seeing the upper Midwest as decisive and so I think didn’t look as hard at Wisconsin and Michigan and Pennsylvania as we ought to have. But ultimately when you look back, I think the main thing we’ll say is we should have seen it coming. Trump had been very, very strong and popular in the Republican Party from the moment he got in the race, and then enduringly strong against Hillary Clinton when people kept writing him off.

I think we were just sort of blind to that. And elite journalists who were used to this situation didn’t really get how deeply disliked Hillary Clinton was. How when either Bernie Sanders supporters or Donald Trump were painting her as this symbol of [the] corrupt elite that a lot of Americans really, really bought that and really see her that way.

CW: I’m surprised at how vitriolic and visceral it is in a lot of people. Why do you think?

BS: I mean, I guess I think that… I actually don’t know her well, but I do think that, in a way, our surprise is the answer. There was this real gap between what the elite conversation was and how … this just brewing anger and sense of alienation among lots of different groups of people. I think it’s easy to focus on white working people in the Rust Belt, but I just think lots and lots of different groups felt just so alienated from the broader elite and the elite narrative. And she sort of embodied that.

CW: I don’t know that I’d go there. But I’ll tell you the two numbers that intrigued me the most about the 2016 election were the degree to which white women supported Donald Trump even after the Access Hollywood tape, and many other things, and that they gave the majority of their votes to him. And the fact that more than 1 out of 4 Latinos gave their vote to the president, given everything that was said. So, clearly, that was not just Cubans in South Florida, but it obviously required a broader set of people to give him that level of support. I feel like it’s a little irrational.

BS: Yeah, there’s definitely a huge current of sexism there and impossible to disentangle I think from the passion … how passionately people hated her, but people hated Bill Clinton really passionately in the ’90s, and I think Democrats have forgotten that. That there was this massive infrastructure of hating Bill Clinton and believing he had Vince Foster killed and all this stuff that transferred to Hillary. I think it’s complicated.

I think it’s worth also thinking that maybe the Goldman Sachs speeches were legitimately kind of a scandal in the wake of the financial crisis, and people really were disgusted by elements of how the financial and political elite operated. Although Trump was this ridiculous messenger for that critique.

Now when he’s going out and really saying… running an overtly racist campaign, similarly it’s probably worth just taking that on its face and saying, “Well, these are people who like the existing racial order and don’t want it to change.” And not saying, “Oh my God, they’ve been deceived by an edited video.”

I think in both of these elections, I feel like there’s been this urge from the media to say, “Well, people were tricked into supporting Trump and they didn’t really understand things about Hillary and things about Trump.” And maybe that’s partly true, but I also think he was saying fairly straightforward things and we were overthinking it sometimes.

CW: Do you have people in your life who you’re close to who support the president?

BS: Yeah, I do. I mean, not very close. Not in my family, but yeah, people who I know and who I like who support the president, sure.

CW: Ta-Nehisi Coates said, “There were whites at every end of the financial spectrum who supported him.” So do we do a disservice in thinking about the president’s base narrowly? Does he really have a much wider base of support that’s allowing him to win a variety of places?

BS: Yeah. I mean, I think it’s complicated. I think there are … probably like not everything reduces to race. Particularly there are a lot of … if you looked at Latino men who served in the military, that’s a group that tends to tilt toward Trump. I mean, there are a lot of different indexes in all of our lives and gender, education, military service certainly are a part of that. It’s funny — the folks who I know who support Trump are not the guy sitting next to me at the New York Times. Not that I have interviewed many people at the New York Times, or in fact sit there.

But no, I think Brooklyn is a more … where I live in Brooklyn is right on … there’s a line through Brooklyn where it goes from blue to red and I kind of live right on it. So there are a lot of Russian immigrants and Orthodox Jews, places where Trump is pretty popular.

From Blogs to the Big Time

BS: I got this gig at the Indianapolis Star right after I graduated, and from there, which was covering cops, it was a moment actually when everybody wanted to go to Prague. That was the cool place for people from my micro demographic and of recent graduates of fancy colleges. And I had actually studied Czech and so really was very well-qualified, but could not for the life of me get a job at the Prague Post. The closest I could was a job at the Baltic Times in Riga, Latvia. So I kind of somewhat randomly wound up there. Strung for the Wall Street Journal out there for a couple years. Then came back to New York pretty soon after 9/11 and worked for a bunch of New York papers, started some political blogs in New York.

The internet was this exciting new thing. And if you were already a political reporter in New York in 2004, it was obvious that you should start a blog, and so I started the first New York political blog. That was where I learned. Now I find myself talking to a college class or something and saying, “Well, there were these things called blogs. It was crazy.” It feels like ancient history.

I got profiled by the local NBC affiliate as a blogger; it was like a sort of introducing a new category of thing. And I remember I was always reporting and using the blog to break news, and at one point I had a pretty big story about Rudy Giuliani, in which he attacked … he said, “Well, it was just some blogger.” That was a sort of way you could dismiss things.

CW: And so, now how do you end up at Politico?

BS: It was a whole little world. And there were tech blogs … there’s a lot of different interesting stuff happening. I think if you are currently a viewer wondering, and I don’t know, can I swear on this show? Probably not.

CW: Why not?

BS: Wondering, “Where did all these assholes come from?” Like with the people on your TV and the people on Twitter who obviously have hated each other for years and you don’t quite know why, the answer is often, “Oh, they came from the blogs.” That’s certainly true of me.

And Politico was … not grouped with that generation of media startups. We really ought to be. And what they were doing was taking kind of the technology and the speed and the vibe of the internet and professionalizing it and hiring people to do it, rather than that being user-generated content.

CW: And did you believe that it was going to amount to something, like “This thing’s going to be hot,” or were you just taking the next move in what you were doing?

BS: I mean, I wasn’t really an institutionalist. It was just so obvious if you were in it right then that it was agreed that the internet was a better way to cover the news than print. And that these institutions, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the New York Daily News, where I was then working, were just hopelessly entangled in the print world.

And I would regularly get these scoops from essentially going to a press conference at 11 in the morning, going out to lunch with a friend or a source, coming back to my desk at 2 p.m., writing something, writing it up real quick and putting that on the internet at 4. And that would literally be the only way you could find out about this 11 a.m. press conference until the next day, because the New York Times would put its edition online at midnight and then you could read about it.

But, so in that moment, you didn’t have to even be particularly good at your job. It was just sort of the technological advantage. The digital advantages, technological advantages were just so massive, and print and the newspapers were so culturally and sort of stylistically, and just in their bones, organized around producing this physical print thing.

Everyone there knew that the coolest thing that could happen was you could be on the front page. And if you were just like, “No, I want to be on the front page of the internet. I don’t care about that at all.”

CW: So why did you decide to go to BuzzFeed?

BS: So, Jonah Peretti, who you and I both know well, is this real, I’d never worked for anybody before who I thought was a visionary. I mean, I love Jim VandeHei dearly, but Jonah has this ability to see around corners in the media business and to tell you what it’s going to be like in five or 10 years.

And Jonah, Jonah was running that, what was then widely seen as like the world’s leading cat website? I mean, still is, we were always very proud of that. But what it really was, was a laboratory for figuring out what people would share on this nascent thing called social media. And for people where had been sharing baby pictures on Facebook and suddenly they were sharing BuzzFeed lists and funny videos. And Jonah was starting to see that they were going to be sharing news and saw an opportunity to build a news organization for people who were living on social media and who didn’t go to your website, who went to the social media page on their desktop computer, twitter.com, facebook.com.

And that the challenge was how do I get my piece of content onto that page? By making something people actually want to share. I was not thinking about it that abstractly, but I was obsessed with Twitter because the whole blog conversation, it just moved over to Twitter. The blogs were like sad wastelands desperate for links from Twitter. And for me, the end, that’s sort of like if you got a huge scoop or wrote something great, you would watch it travel on Twitter and watch your sources and your readers share it and talk about it engaged on Twitter. And so I wasn’t thinking abstractly about social media, but I was thinking about an audience who opened the social media platform first and that the challenge was to do work that cut through there. And so that felt like it was again like, oh my God, these old-fashioned news organizations are thinking about their websites.

All the action is over here on social media and the idea of doing it, building a news organization, just totally, totally keyed into that insight, it was really exciting. And I remember telling my reporters the first year, the front page of your website is twitter.com. If the story is already on there, I don’t want it. Somebody else wrote it. Your entire goal is to break news and to do original stuff, which is again, very exciting for reporters because you don’t want to be rewriting somebody else’s story. And I think that was in a way why we were able to launch with so much velocity.

Bob Woodward & Trump

CW: What’s the argument on whether Bob Woodward should have revealed the interview where Trump talked about how lethal the coronavirus was back before all of that?

BS: One thing is you just sort of sit in moral judgment of individuals and what should Bob Woodward have done in that situation. But I think the way I tend to cover this business is, they’re all sorts of different actors with different motives and different institutions. And most of them just sort of are what they are. Bob Woodward is what he is. He’s the guy who does these interviews and publishes these books. And that interview doesn’t exist except because it was going in a book in the fall. The only context in which there was such an interview was that it was obvious to everyone, including Woodward and Trump, that he wasn’t going to go write about it in February. It almost seems irrelevant to say whether it’s right or wrong. It’s a little bit of Trump’s favorite lie, [the] parable about the scorpion. It’s just sort of like, it just sort of is what it is.

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