In Defense Of Substack

UCLA professor Sarah T. Roberts mourns the good old days of gatekeeping and credential-worship

UCLA professor Sarah Roberts, co-leader of something called the UCLA Center for Critical Internet Inquiry — media critics whose stated goal is “strengthening democracy through culture-making” — went on a lengthy Twitter tirade against Substack last night, one that gained a lot of attention. I should probably respond since, as one prominent reporter put it to Glenn Greenwald and me this morning, “Shit, it’s like she wrote this for the two of you.”

The main thread:

A few thoughts in response to what one Tweeter humorously described as “the Tipper Gore of 2021,” who incidentally went on to make sure everyone understood she wasn’t talking “about Substack for basket weaving or 30 Rock fandom or whatever.” No, Dr. Roberts was “talking about stuff purporting to be serious. Opinion can be serious but I believe lines are being intentionally blurred BY SUBSTACK.”

Roberts is making a “stolen valor” argument. As it’s abundantly clear she’s talking about people like myself and Greenwald in particular, she’s arguing that we made our names as reporters in the structure of traditional newsrooms, taking advantage of “norms and practices” like fact-checking and editing that, in her mind, is what first induced readers to trust us. Then we took that trust, that precious thing nurtured in the cradle of mainstream media oversight, absconded with it, and fled to Substack, to hoard unearned profits.

Roberts has things backward. Greenwald and I (as well as many other prominent Substack writers) got our start as independents. He was a blogger and I edited my own print newspapers. We both built substantial readerships on our own before being scooped up by “traditional” news organizations, in a process identical to the one Roberts denounces when done by Substack.

The experience of independent media — where I did feature reporting that ranged from participatory gigs like laying bricks in Siberia to wiretapping Vladimir Putin’s chief of staff — was where I first learned that audiences will read you or not based upon how careful and accurate you are. To imply that trust is a thing that can only be conferred by a mainstream newsroom is beyond insulting, especially since mainstream news organizations already long ago started to become infamous for betraying exactly those hallowed “norms” to which Roberts refers.

Why did a source like former NSA contractor Edward Snowden choose to come forward to Glenn Greenwald in particular? He surely wasn’t bothered by the fact that Glenn didn’t come up through the ranks of a paper like the New York Times or Washington Post.

The answer connects to one of the primary reasons audiences are moving to places like Substack: the perception that traditional news outlets have become tools of the very corporate and political interests they’re supposed to be overseeing. Roberts complains about lines between opinion and reporting being blurred at Substack (an absurd comment on its own, but that’s a separate issue), but the “blurring” problem at those other organizations is far more severe. Are newspapers like the New York Times checks on power, or agents of it?

Why didn’t Snowden go to one of the big names at the Times? Could it be because one of the senior Times editors back then, Dean Baquet — now the chief — reportedly once killed a whistleblower’s story about a surveillance arrangement between AT&T and the NSA? Or because the Times had a history of sitting on damaging intelligence stories, including one about an analyst who doubted the existence of Iraqi WMDs that the paper held until after the 2003 invasion?

It was bad enough when the traditional newsrooms Roberts so esteems near-universally swallowed the WMD lie, but the real kicker was when the worst offenders in that episode were promoted, and given the helm at major magazines and journalistic supertankers like the Times. What signal does that send to audiences?

Because this is not a bug but a feature, these same types of errors have been repeated over and over, to the point where papers like the Times and the Washington Post eventually became little more than conduits for anonymous intelligence sources spouting unconfirmable fairy tales like the pee tape. The major “traditional” cable networks, as well as many of the bigger daily newspapers, have for years now been engaged in mad hiring sprees of ex-spooks, putting whole nests of known perjurers and Langley goons on their payrolls as contributors, where they regularly provide “commentary” on news stories in which they themselves have involvement. And Roberts wants to lecture us about “disclosure of compromise”?

In the last four years especially, a rift has formed in the news business, an argument primarily about method and approach. Some of us were raised to think the reporter’s job is confined to gathering information and giving it to readers, who should then be free to do with it what they will. A lot of journalists raised in this school were trained to be terrified in the days (and, especially, the nights) after publication, in case a mistake surfaces, but to stop worrying after that.

A new approach, symbolized by a Times column four years ago called “Trump Is Testing the Norms of Objectivity in Journalism,” stresses choosing and presenting information in such a way as to ensure that audiences make the “correct” political decision with the news they’re given. The fear there is more about impact: are people taking the news the right way?

This argument over method put many journalists in a bind. Some either had to get on board with what they considered a perversion of the job, or they had to find some other place to go. I didn’t have this problem to the degree that many of the other Substack writers did, but avoiding arguments on this score was certainly a factor in my decision to move here last year. The situation was a lot more overt with some of the other Substack writers, especially with Greenwald.

When Glenn wanted to do a story about censorship of the New York Post expose on Hunter Biden suppressed by Facebook and Twitter — like me, he didn’t think the story itself was necessarily that important, but the suppression of it was — he was told by editor Betsy Reed that “even if [the story] did represent something untoward about Biden,” that would “represent a tiny fraction of the sleaze and lies Trump and his cronies are oozing in every day.” In other words, in order for the story about Biden to be newsworthy, it had to meet a bizarre worseness standard vis-à-vis Donald Trump.

Another editor more or less openly demanded that any story Greenwald did on the subject address the issue of “Russia’s hand.” This was a spook-driven conspiracy theory, for which no evidence has ever existed, that the Post expose was Russian propaganda. Virtually every “reputable” outlet ran with the story of intelligence officials saying the piece had “all the earmarks of a Russian disinformation campaign.” Asserting without evidence that even a mildly damaging article about a presidential candidate is foreign misinformation is an ethically dubious endeavor in the best of cases, especially just before an election. But these are the “norms” whose valor Roberts believes we are stealing.

Worse, as I’ve repeatedly pointed out in reported pieces on this site, the new “norms” in the business have disincentivized traditional outlets to care about accuracy, leading to huge quantities of mistakes. When news agencies see their jobs as being primarily about politics, they become more concerned with being directionally right than technically accurate, knowing among other things that their audiences will forgive them for being wrong, so long as they’re wrong about the “right” targets.

As a result, many reporters by last summer found themselves navigating newsrooms where they were being discouraged, sometimes openly, from pursuing true stories with the “wrong” message — the health impacts of the BLM protests, speech controversies in science and media, follow-up news about once-bombshells like the Cambridge Analytica scandal or “Bountygate.” Many of those people weren’t politically conservative at all (in fact, often quite the opposite). They’d just been trained to do the job in a more dispassionate way, and were being pushed by an increasingly monolithic newsroom culture to run with simplistic, hot-taking versions of the news (as one reporter put it, describing the BLM protests, “I’m sympathetic, but every story had to be Viva la revolución”). The choice for many of these people was to go along, or get out, and where a lot of them got out was to Substack.

Lastly, as to the charge that those of us who’ve moved to Substack have cashed out on reputations as reporters to become mere opinion writers:

Even when I was given generous deadlines at Rolling Stone to investigate arcane financial topics, I was doing opinion writing for them online at the same time, presumably to help them pay the bills. The National Magazine Award I won there was for commentary, not reporting. Personally, I think opinion writing is a form of journalism, but even if it were not, it’s simply not accurate to say people like me are pulling a bait-and-switch by moving from the Ivory Tower of Legacy Media reporting to “dirtier” commentary on Substack. You want “dirty” commentary? How about Rachel Maddow speculating that Russia might turn off the heat in the Dakotas?

Substack is not all op-ed writing. I wrote two heavily-researched books on Substack, one (Hate Inc.) about the media business, and the other (The Business Secrets of Drug-Dealing) a collaboration with a never-caught dealer. I also published multiple lengthy reported features about the CARES Act bailout, later wrote up an account from a whistleblower in the Russiagate story, and collaborated with a stringer in Ukraine to check facts and do on-the-ground interviews about the Hunter Biden story (which, again, I concluded was less important than its suppression). I’ve been experimenting with regular reported features about criminal courts, student loans, finance, and a topic Roberts professes to care about, Internet censorship — where I may be the only journalist in the country with an ongoing beat interviewing people removed or suspended from tech platforms. I’m bringing in videographers to make short and long features.

In short, I’m trying hard to prove that the subscriber concept can work as a viable alternative to the corporate press, which has become increasingly, arrogantly dysfunctional as traditional competition in the form of local newspapers and urban alt-weeklies has died out. None of us has the formula nailed yet, but the notion that the handful of us who are trying comprise a “threat to journalism” is elitist insanity of the highest order.

This is a small island of pushback in a vast sea of hackery, and I’d laugh about it, if I didn’t know for certain that sooner or later, these petty Twitter outbursts and snarky features in places like the New Yorker will eventually turn into full-on boycott campaigns, to protect the poor artisans at shops like NBC, CNN, and the New York Times. It’s coming, and we should all prepare for it.