Ben Smith’s New Media Venture Ably Demonstrates Why Platforming Authoritarian Propagandists Is A Lose-Lose Scenario
from the what-are-we-even-doing-here? dept
Former Buzzfeed and New York Times reporter Ben Smith is poised to launch a new media company named Semafor on the back of $25 million in donations. To grab some attention for the venture’s looming launch, Semafor recently partnered with the Knight Foundation to launch the company’s first event: The Future of News: Trust and Polarization.
The event featured folks like former Wall Street Journal editor Gerald Seib, Al Jazeera host Femi Oke, Washington Post columnist Taylor Lorenz, and Politico’s John Harris. Absent from the event was any academic or outside expert actually versed in why trust in US news has deteriorated. In their place, Smith announced he’d be doing an exclusive interview with… Fox News’ Tucker Carlson.
The decision to platform a bigot and propagandist as part of an event on trust in news didn’t go over particularly well among people actually trying to, you know, restore trust in news. Such as media reform activist Nandini Jammi, who co-founded Sleeping Giants and Check My Ads (both campaigns to limit the power and wealth of COVID-denying, conspiracy-heavy, race-baiting Fox News):
Ben’s response was fairly typical: he had to interview Tucker Carlson because Tucker Carlson is a very important man who doesn’t provide many interviews. It would be journalistic malpractice, Smith implied, to do anything else:
The idea that this was being done to generate controversy and attention for a media venture, itself an act likely to reduce trust in news (at a conference purportedly about trust in news), was just skipped over. Also not considered: that one might just not give Carlson an even bigger bullhorn, instead giving that mental real estate to any number of media reform activists or academics laboring in obscurity.
After weeks of criticism and promises that Smith would hold Carlson’s feet to the fire, the interview arrived and Smith did… exactly none of that.
You can watch the interview itself here. Carlson, on webcam from his Manhattan or Hamptons closet (probably because his mansion kitchen wouldn’t project the desired man of the people persona) ran roughshod over Smith for a good half an hour, all to Carlson’s amusement.
At no point did Smith demonstrate real control over the interview, letting Carlson ramble on at length about how terrible middle-aged liberal women are, how he’s not actually a racist, how his critics in the press are the actual propagandists… without Smith seriously challenging the claims. Smith himself seems uncomfortable throughout, nervously fiddling with his notes in between lobbing softballs.
At one point, Smith repeats Carlson’s core claim that he’s “effectively just misunderstood.” At other points, attempted gotcha questions don’t land, such as asking if Carlson’s ever been discriminated against at work as a white Protestant. Almost every time Smith has an opportunity to press Carlson on outright lies, he either changes the subject or lets Carlson change the subject for him.
You then have to ask: what was the actual benefit in terms of the event’s premise? Ben’s promise, that he’d hold Carlson accountable with hard questions, never materialized. So the end result was little more than further amplification of Carlson’s falsehoods, the validation of Carlson’s role as a pseudo-journalist, and the perpetuation of the false idea that fascism is a valid platform that’s up for debate.
Before the event, Smith’s noble dedication to journalism was lauded by numerous folks in media, who agreed that you simply have to give a white supremacist authoritarian pretending to be a journalist an even bigger platform — at a trust in news conference. You just don’t have a choice!
Some folks in media suggested that turning down an interview with Carlson would be akin to turning down an interview with Hitler, and you just don’t do that. Others tried to make the point that because Carlson already has a massive nightly platform, there’s really no harm in elevating him further at an event specifically dedicated to solving sagging trust in U.S. journalism.
According to Smith and friends, platforming Carlson was the right call because it created the opportunity to challenge Carlson’s positions, be they agitating deep-rooted racial divisions for ratings, harming public health by amplifying COVID conspiracy theories and vaccine skepticism, or parroting the incoherent ramblings of the country’s surging, conspiratorial, and increasingly violent authoritarian right.
But at no point did an actual, competent challenge to Carlson’s falsehoods find its way to the stage.
Worse, that’s a half hour that could have been given any number of academics and experts with actual solutions to the problem. But actual media scholars well versed in why trust in US media is flailing weren’t just under-represented at the event, they were completely absent. It was a choice to embrace controversy over substance, ironically and inadvertently illustrating why trust in U.S. media is falling apart.
There are numerous reasons for eroded trust in US news. The death of quality local news opened the door wide to propagandists, foreign intelligence, and pink slime. Tone-deaf Luddite classism rules at major outlets like the New York Times. The shift toward an ad-based engagement model financially incentivized an entire industry to prioritize controversy and hysteria over boring substance and expertise.
Like so many others, Carlson has weaponized this dysfunction, feeding a steady diet of increasingly hysterical outrage drivel to partisans for clout. He’s perfected the act of media trolling at scale; making unhinged claims he knows will then be hate retweeted by outraged critics oblivious they’re being exploited as a human amplifier (a favorite pastime of Carlson predecessor Ann Coulter).
Platforming, debunking, or even debating fascist propagandists is a lose-lose scenario. You can’t defeat it with “gotcha” questions, because fascists have zero compulsion about lying, and no incentive to meet you in honest dialogue. Their goal is simple: to platform fascist ideology, to expose that ideology to as broad as audience as possible, and to frame fascism itself as a valid policy that’s up for debate.
The very second you’ve entered into this arrangement you’ve already lost.
Don’t try to debunk. Don’t try to debate. Don’t think you’re helping by dunking on Carlson with a hate retweet. Don’t get caught in a fight over whether an obvious fascist is a fascist. Instead find somebody under-represented who’s actually pushing real solutions and amplify them instead. Don’t feed the trolls.
That’s not to say fascists should be completely ignored and never challenged. But at some point, if democracy, trust in media, and foundational institutions are to be preserved, you have to enter into a savvy calculus about which signals are worth boosting, and which are harmful and exploitative. This was a trust in news event. Host actual experts with a good faith interest in solving the problem.
Somebody ignorant to modern discourse could easily walk away from the interview believing that Carlson, a millionaire frozen food empire heir turned opportunistic propagandist, is actually a brave, truth-telling journalist unfairly forced to hide in his closet by the powers that be. And that the real propagandists are anyone that would dare question Carlson’s noble intentions.
That we’re six-plus years into a massive surge in trumpist propaganda-soaked authoritarianism — and affluent, influential media leaders still don’t understand how any of this works — isn’t a great sign for what comes next. You win the game that fascists are trying to play by not playing it, giving the valuable mental real estate they hope to occupy to voices genuinely interested in real solutions and reform.