Meet the (Unsuccessfully) Censored: Jesse Singal and Katie Herzog

The media business keeps trying to ruin Jesse Singal and Katie Herzog, and they keep prospering. On the loony Substack controversy, and the paradox of moral panic in media

On almost a daily basis now, a high-profile figure in the media business is fired or resigns under pressure, often after falling afoul of staff for behavioral or political reasons. The most recent episode involved 27-year-old Alexi McCammond, who this week resigned as editor of Teen Vogue over tweets written as a 19-year-old. Donald McNeil and Andy Mills of the New York Times were dropped just before that, while before that noted cancel culture critic Nathan Robinson was booted from the Guardian, and figures like Matt Yglesias, Andrew Sullivan, and even Glenn Greenwald were squeezed out of mainstream organizations to varying degrees.

Reporters tagged with “reputations” are typically unhirable, barred from freelancing and public speaking, dropped as guests on radio and TV programs, and shut out of book publishing. Those who didn’t leave the business often ended up doing things like ghost-writing or writing for foreign publications. People who were once among the biggest names in American journalism and commentary (think about it) have for years now been publishing almost exclusively overseas.

In the last few years, that began to change, as subscriber-based platforms like Patreon and Substack allowed for some cast-offs to build new careers as independents. For a long time, this was a small enough group that few noticed or cared.

Now, however, these second acts are prompting a backlash. What’s the point of canceling someone, if they don’t stay canceled? Why consign someone to purgatory if they can make a living there?

Hence the crazy controversy of the last two weeks, when numerous writers — many of them Substack contributors themselves — decided to make an issue over the presence of “problematic” writers on this platform, including Greenwald, Sullivan, and especially Jesse Singal, a journalist and podcast host known for controversial writing on trans issues in outlets like The Atlantic.

CNN’s Reliable Sources blog ran a quote decrying Substack writers who “attack journalists, and stoke fears in transgender people,” while Adweek ran another saying, “to be associated with those names by having a Substack feels dirty.”

Vox’s “Recode” newsletter went with, “Substack writers are mad at Substack. The problem is money and who’s making it,” noting that some contributors were upset that Substack is [emphasis mine] “funding authors they don’t like — either directly via advance payments… or just by letting them keep a share of subscription revenue they sell.”

In a repeat of the Harper’s Letter scandal of last summer, which triggered a series of newsroom controversies at places like Vox because some of the letter’s mainstream signatories signed a document also signed by the likes of Singal and his co-host Katie Herzog, the Internet frenzy soon snowballed into demands that Substack drop its “problematic” writers. A major complaint was that Substack gave undisclosed advances to certain writers through a program called “Substack Pro,” resulting in an influx of a certain kind of writer — I’m often listed here — whose politics clash with other contributors.

Specifically, a writer named Jude Ellison Sady Doyle wrote a pair of articles focused, among others, on Singal. One accused him, without evidence, of being “a high-profile supporter of anti-trans conversion therapy who is also widely known to fixate on and stalk trans women in and around the media industry,” and another essentially demanded that Substack remove Singal and other writers as a pre-condition for remaining on Substack.

When Substack refused, Doyle and others bailed, triggering headlines like “Substack Pro Leads to Departures From Platform.” Facebook immediately issued a post clearly intended to welcome in defectors from Substack, announcing that they will be “partnering with a small subset of independent writers,” presumably of a much different ilk than the writers Substack attracted with its “Pro” program.

Once, it was enough that unpopular writers could be pushed out of jobs at places like The Intercept, Vox, the New York Times, and New York Magazine. The next demand will be that such writers not be allowed to publish anywhere, not even to audiences choosing to pay for their services. Singal might be a canary in a coal mine: the first person to be targeted for removal from a self-publishing platform.

Substack didn’t budge, however, and Singal survived, but as he told me and Katie Halper on this week’s Useful Idiots, the episode revealed a lot about a mentality gaining traction in the media business.

“People like [Jude Ellison Sady Doyle],” he says, “are expressing a point of view that is really common, that even Jesse Singal-center-left-shit-lib-ism is too far to the right for them.”

The “stalking” accusations mostly ended up being things like: contacting someone for comment for an article and not using the quote, linking to the critics’ own works (Julia Serano said Singal’s link to her article about “The Struggle To Find Trans Love In San Francisco” was “slut-shaming,”), or simply asking for proof of an accusation.

“I would quote-retweet someone criticizing me and say, ‘This is a lie, this is not true,’” Singal says. “At some point disagreement becomes harassment, and harassment becomes stalking.”

His co-host Herzog is even blunter, noting that none of the many critics co-signing the idea that Singal is a stalker could actually mention an incident of real stalking.

“Nobody can name a victim,” Herzog says. “It’s fucking QAnon.”

Herzog and Singal’s careers collectively read like an oral history of a moral panic. Both ran into trouble for writing a handful of articles deemed unorthodox and offensive by a small but vocal group of critics.

This is an excerpt from today’s subscriber-only post. To read the entire article and get full access to the archives, you can subscribe for $5 a month or $50 a year.