They Hate Us Because They Ain’t Us, Except They Could Be Us
How are the Substackers you despise able to beat you to every story?
Maybe I’m just riding high from having done two very fun live Blocked and Reported shows in Boston and New York City this week — I’m writing this from a friend’s couch in D.C., in town to do two more shows in Arlington, Virginia, tomorrow night — but I want to use the revivification of a 2020 media controversy to make a fairly simple point about why the business model I’m pursuing is working, at least for now.
If you had told me in 2017 that in 2022 I would be an “independent journalist” with no official affiliation with a mainstream outlet, I would have been very, very worried. At the time, this would have meant something had gone extremely wrong. The freelance market is a nightmare, so if you’re in this situation, you’re probably scrambling to pay the bills.
In reality, I’ve been exceptionally fortunate, because a rather new business model emerged that involved getting people to pay you directly for your work. This newsletter and the podcast provide me with a stabler living than I ever could have had as a staffer at New York, and I say that with full gratitude and appreciation for what a life-changing moment it was when I got that job in 2014. (I know this sounds like a tic, but this would be an incomplete account if I didn’t mention how bad journalism’s class problem is, how important it is to access early-career low and unpaid internships, and how much I benefited coming from a privileged background where getting paid relative peanuts until I was 31 or so simply wasn’t a major obstacle to pursuing this line of work.)
This outcome isn’t permanent — there are all sorts of ways it could all fall apart, and fall apart it might. But the reason it’s working for now has a ton to do with the incompetence and groupthink that characterize so much mainstream journalism. One of the biggest reasons people subscribe to my newsletter or my podcast or both is because they are turned off by the bland, predictable, and fact-challenged sanctimony so prevalent in media coverage of hot-button controversies.
It felt like a good time to write about this both because of the live shows and because the New York Times blowup of 2020 is getting relitigated as a result of Ben Smith, writing in his new outlet Semafor, landing the first on-the-record interview with former opinion page editor James Bennet. Bennet, you may recall, was forced to resign after his page ran a column by Sen. Tom Cotton calling for state governors to send in troops to quell the looting and rioting that occurred in some cities in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. His departure was caused, in part, by dozens of Times staffers tweeting some version of the claim that “Running this puts Black @NYTimes staff in danger.”
Bennet had harsh words for his former employer:
Bennet, who spent 19 years of his career at the Times, said he remains wounded by Mr. Sulzberger’s lack of loyalty.
“I actually knew what it meant to have a target on your back when you’re reporting for the New York Times,” he said, referring to incidents in the West Bank and Gaza.
“None of that mattered, and none of it mattered to AG. When push came to shove at the end, he set me on fire and threw me in the garbage and used my reverence for the institution against me,” Bennet said. “This is why I was so bewildered for so long after I had what felt like all my colleagues treating me like an incompetent fascist.”
Media people love talking about media, so by our nerdy standards these are some blockbuster quotes. Then, yesterday, The Washington Post drove even more attention back to this controversy by running an article by its media columnist, Erik Wemple, headlined “James Bennet was right.”
“To date, the lesson from the set-to — that publishing a senator arguing that federal troops could be deployed against rioters is unacceptable — will forever circumscribe what issues opinion sections are allowed to address,” wrote Wemple. “It’s also long past time to ask why more people who claim to uphold journalism and free expression — including, um, the Erik Wemple Blog — didn’t speak out then in Bennet’s defense.”
He provides an answer that is very straightforward and very human: “It’s because we were afraid to.”
There is a ton of juicy stuff in Wemple’s article, and I highly recommend it. My favorite by far? “The Erik Wemple Blog has asked about 30 Times staffers whether they still believe their ‘danger’ tweets and whether there was any merit in Bennet’s retort. Not one of them replied with an on-the-record defense. Such was the depth of conviction behind a central argument in l’affaire Cotton.”
The whole thing was a pathetic embarrassment for the Times and, by extension, mainstream journalism more broadly. Many people knew and thought, at the time, that the “puts Black @NYTimes staff in danger” line was completely ridiculous, and many people knew — as Wemple’s reporting confirms — that the supposed factual flaws in Cotton’s column were vastly overstated by a Times machine in full damage control mode, engaged in the desperate and pathetic and almost always futile act of trying to mollify angry people on Twitter who are mad not at actual words they actually read, but at an idea they think is being expressed by a piece they probably haven’t read. (Wemple also points out something that has gotten lost in the din of this controversy, which is that there’s more evidence the danger language was deployed for calculated HR reasons than that anyone felt legitimately endangered by Cotton’s column: “The formulation came from the internal group Black@NYT and received the blessing of the NewsGuild of New York as ‘legally protected speech because it focused on workplace safety,’ [Ben] Smith, then the Times’s media columnist, reported at the time.”)
Further complicating all of this is that Cotton’s view, as he himself noted in his column, was actually quite popular among Americans: “According to a recent poll, 58 percent of registered voters, including nearly half of Democrats and 37 percent of African-Americans, would support cities’ calling in the military to ‘address protests and demonstrations’ that are in ‘response to the death of George Floyd,’” he wrote. “That opinion may not appear often in chic salons, but widespread support for it is fact nonetheless.” (This is slightly apples to oranges because Cotton said the feds should send in troops even over governors’ objections, which runs contrary to the phrasing of the poll, but still — that’s not a massive difference.)
At the time, as Wemple notes, it was extremely difficult to speak up about this. I appreciate his contrition:
Our criticism of the Twitter outburst comes 875 days too late. Although the hollowness of the internal uproar against Bennet was immediately apparent, we responded with an evenhanded critique of the Times’s flip-flop, not the unapologetic defense of journalism that the situation required. Our posture was one of cowardice and midcareer risk management. With that, we pile one more regret onto a controversy littered with them.
Most mainstream journalists who covered this aggressively at the time did so more as propagandists than as good-faith chroniclers of the relevant debate. That became even clearer when, not long after Bennet published the fateful Cotton column, Bari Weiss publicly pointed out that there was a large and important divide within the Times building over the nature of journalism and its relationship to social justice — roughly, to use the Bennet case as one examples, between those who did and didn’t think that it was defensible to run the column.
Weiss was immediately pilloried, rather viciously, by her colleagues, some of whom called her a liar (this was part of a pattern of “constant bullying by colleagues,” she claimed in her subsequent resignation note). One explainer column published by Zack Beauchamp in Vox really captured what was going on. In a critique I wrote at the time, I pointed out that Beauchamp simply didn’t bother checking whether Weiss was right — of course she was wrong. Everyone was saying so on Twitter.
The thing is, even if you were only marginally connected to Times insiders, as I was at the time, it was clear that something was in fact roiling within the building. Weiss and two other staffers had told me this was the case. Given my lack of genuine connections, that strongly suggested others felt the same way (and I’ve since talked to others who do). Beauchamp only bothered quoting or citing one side of the debate, making certain factual errors as a result.
Two and a half years later we know there was, in fact, a major conflict within the Times. We know because Weiss said so, because Reeves Wiedeman wrote an excellent reported piece confirming as such for New York Magazine (“While Bari Weiss’s description of a young woke mob taking over the paper was roundly criticized, several Times employees I spoke to saw truth to the dynamic.”), and now because Ben Smith has provided more details, including that it appears the insurgents who wanted to remake the Times in a more revolutionary (read: boring, predictable, insufferable, allergic to disagreement) image have, for the most part, lost — witness the hiring of John McWhorter, Michael Powell’s new beat, and Pamela Paul’s new column.
I published the piece about Beauchamp being wrong and misleading on June 10. Three days prior, on June 7, we published an episode of the podcast we called “Bari Weiss Is Right.” It was slightly more nuanced than the title suggested — we said we didn’t agree with every aspect of her argument, but that based on what we knew, her overall assessment was accurate, and there was, in fact, some crazy and worrisome stuff going on at her paper.
As Wemple said, it took 875 days for him to get this right. He’s punctual compared to a lot of other pundits and journalists, who have steadfastly refused to acknowledge that there was any “there” there, or that it was straightforwardly ridiculous to claim an opinion column endangered the lives of black staffers.
Katie and I have observed a similar pattern whenever something controversial that sits in one of our wheelhouses has occurred in the last two and a half years. Mainstream outlets are almost always terrible at capturing the controversy with any genuine nuance or complexity — mostly, we think, because journalists are simply scared of getting yelled at on Twitter, or perhaps worried about the professional consequences that have befallen targets like Bennet in a few outlying cases. So we find ourselves wandering through a lush forest replete with low-hanging fruit. We pluck the fruit and people give us money — probably, we think, because they can’t find exactly what we’re doing elsewhere, given that mainstream media has become a pockmarked moonscape of tired takes and 25-year-old activists posing as journalists who are granted far too much power by their terrified Gen X and Boomer bosses.
Our coverage of the Times brouhaha was one example. We were able to provide a generally accurate description of the situation years before many others did, simply because it didn’t matter to us if people flipped out as a result. We certainly weren’t the only journalists or commentators to do a decent job covering this at the time (if I may be so bold), but a lot of people who could have added intelligently to the conversation, Wemple included, bit their tongues because, you know, all those 25-year-olds.
Here are three other controversies where this same trajectory took place:
Jacob Blake: We were late to this one — our first podcast about the Kenosha disaster basically operated from the assumption that there was strong evidence the shooting of Blake was unjustified, simply because, I’m ashamed to admit, it looked bad in a brief video and because everyone said so. It’s undoubtedly the case that my decision not to look closer into the shooting was motivated by the fact that if I did and reached the “wrong” conclusion, I knew I would have a very bad time on Twitter, and maybe even get called a white supremacist or an apologist for racist police brutality. Better to not look into it and just swim along with the tide.
Again, a bit shameful to admit this, but hey, I still wasn’t yet beyond that mainstream staffer mindset, which is steeped in risk aversion and self-preservation. I think I’m less likely to make that sort of mistake going forward.
We righted this error when we published a deep-dive BARPod episode about the Blake case last year — “It's Crazy We Have To Do A Debunking Episode About The Jacob Blake Shooting In December 2021 And Yet Here We Are.” The episode is simply a close, careful look at the facts of the case, drawing extensively from a pair of independent investigations conducted in response to the shooting, and it presents listeners with a conclusion that is inescapable if you examine the evidence closely: By the relevant legal standards, the police officers’ actions were almost certainly justified, and the decision not to press any charges against any of them was correct.
How many other nonconservative outlets did what we did? How many simply told the truth about what actually happened here?
Kyle Rittenhouse: I was a bit less tremulous when it came to Kyle Rittenhouse — I wrote a pair of Singal-Minded pieces about how strong a self-defense case he appeared to have, and sure enough, he was acquitted on those grounds. I was rewarded for being one of the few nonconservative mainstream-ish commentators to write about this story more like a journalist than an activist; I got to write an article about it for Persuasion and was featured on Bari Weiss’s podcast Common Sense discussing Rittenhouse’s trial.
I really want to drive home how beneficial it is to not be scared of Twitter, so let’s get specific. According to Substack, between the two paywalled articles on Rittenhouse and a third free one (linked to in the previous paragraph) that combined them both in one place and added a preface, I picked up 112 new paying subscribers to this newsletter:
According to Stripe, Substack’s payment processor, my “Subscriber lifetime value,” or “an estimate of the total revenue you can expect to collect from your average subscriber before they churn,” is presently $103.53. That means that a conservative estimate of the direct financial benefit to me for covering the Rittenhouse case the way that I did is 112 × $103.53 = $11,595.36. (I’m sure someone will respond to this by saying “Ah ha, so you are admitting that you can profit from reactionary scaremongering!!!!” or something like that, but that’s a very silly argument that barely merits a rebuttal — I’ll relegate it to a footnote.)1
Now, of course not every subject I cover gets me anywhere near that, but this is a very good business model. And keep in mind that I did not do any in-depth reporting here, so while I poured some hours into understanding the Rittenhouse case, it was by no means an obsession. Literally all I did was carefully watch the readily available videos, read the relevant laws, note that this appeared to be a straightforward self-defense case, and that was that. It goes without saying that that $11,595.36 can effectively subsidize other, perhaps less profitable stuff.
Youth gender dysphoria: If you are familiar with my work, you may have known this one was coming. Katie and I first met via email when she was working on a piece about detransition — she reached out to me because she’d heard I was, too. She wrote hers and I wrote mine and a subset of people within the media got exceptionally mad at us. So mad that some of them tried, in earnest, to destroy our careers and reputations.
They were furious because even though our articles included plenty of examples of trans people who were doing well after having physically transitioning (a fact many of our critics outright ignored), we also highlighted some of the complexities inherent to giving a young person puberty blockers or cross-sex hormones or both: We interviewed detransitioners who felt they had transitioned because of trauma or internalized homophobia or both, discussed some of the potential unknowns and downsides, quoted parents and clinicians concerned the pendulum had swung too far toward a model of “affirming” care that was too sloppy or hasty, and referenced the possibility of peer or cultural factors influencing a young person’s sense of their gender identity in a manner that might not be permanent.
As a result, we were accused by some very prominent figures within journalism of ginning up a hysterical overreaction to a nonproblem — one that would empower far-right politicians, harm vulnerable kids, and lead to untold harms. Terms like “genocide” have, at times, been thrown around unironically in response to our work. If you read some of the most viral outraged tweetstorms describing what we wrote, and then read what we actually wrote, you will be surprised at the lack of concordance between the two.
Anyway, here are some quotes from various documents that have been published since our most well-known work on youth gender dysphoria came out in 2017 and 2018:
For adolescents with gender incongruence, the [National Board of Health and Welfare] deems that the risks of puberty suppressing treatment with GnRH-analogues and gender-affirming hormonal treatment currently outweigh the possible benefits, and that the treatments should be offered only in exceptional cases. … To minimize the risk that a young person with gender incongruence later will regret a gender-affirming treatment, the NBHW deems that the criteria for offering GnRH-analogue and gender-affirming hormones should link more closely to those used in the Dutch protocol, where the duration of gender incongruence over time is emphasized. —Sweden’s National Board of Health and Welfare
In light of available evidence, gender reassignment of minors is an experimental practice. Based on studies examining gender identity in minors, hormonal interventions may be considered before reaching adulthood in those with firmly established transgender identities, but it must be done with a great deal of caution, and no irreversible treatment should be initiated. Information about the potential harms of hormone therapies is accumulating slowly and is not systematically reported. It is critical to obtain information on the benefits and risks of these treatments in rigorous research settings. —Finland’s Council for Choices in Health Care (unofficial translation)
The evidence for using puberty blocking drugs to treat young people struggling with their gender identity is “very low,” an official review has found.
The National Institute of Health and Care Excellence (NICE) said existing studies of the drugs were small and “subject to bias and confounding.”
NICE also reviewed the evidence base for gender-affirming hormones — sometimes known as cross-sex hormones.
Another significant issue raised with us is one of diagnostic overshadowing — many of the children and young people presenting have complex needs, but once they are identified as having gender-related distress, other important healthcare issues that would normally be managed by local services can sometimes be overlooked. … —The UK’s so-called Cass Review of how the National Health Service handles gender dysphoric youth (more info here)
The clinical management approach should be open to exploring all developmentally appropriate options for children and young people who are experiencing gender incongruence, being mindful that this may be a transient phase, particularly for prepubertal children, and that there will be a range of pathways to support these children and young people and a range of outcomes. … Consistent with advice from the Cass Review highlighting the uncertainties surrounding the use of hormone treatments, NHS England is in the process of forming proposals for prospectively enrolling children and young people being considered for hormone treatment into a formal research programme with adequate follow up into adulthood, with a more immediate focus on the questions regarding GnRHa. On this basis NHS England will only commission GnRHa in the context of a formal research protocol. The research protocol will set out eligibility criteria for participation. —Draft NHS guidance just published that would drastically change NHS policies
The most robust longitudinal evidence supporting the benefits of gender-affirming medical and surgical treatments in adolescence was obtained in a clinical setting that incorporated a detailed comprehensive diagnostic assessment process over time into its delivery of care protocol (de Vries & Cohen-Kettenis, 2012; de Vries et al., 2014). Given this research and the ongoing evolution of gender diverse experiences in society, a comprehensive diagnostic biopsychosocial assessment during adolescence is both evidence-based and preserves the integrity of the decision-making process. In the absence of a full diagnostic profile, other mental health entities that need to be prioritized and treated may not be detected. There are no studies of the long-term outcomes of gender-related medical treatments for youth who have not undergone a comprehensive assessment. Treatment in this context (e.g., with limited or no assessment) has no empirical support and therefore carries the risk that the decision to start gender-affirming medical interventions may not be in the long-term best interest of the young person at that time. … For a select subgroup of young people, susceptibility to social influence impacting gender may be an important differential to consider (Kornienko et al., 2016). However, caution must be taken to avoid assuming these phenomena occur prematurely in an individual adolescent while relying on information from datasets that may have been ascertained with potential sampling bias (Bauer et al., 2022; WPATH, 2018). —WPATH Standards of Care, Eighth Edition
Other teenagers talked about the way misogyny affected their thinking [about their gender identity]. One 18-year-old, Kat (a nickname), started using a boy’s name and pronouns four years ago and asked to take puberty suppressants, as a friend was doing in her Midwestern college town. Her mother said no to medication. She worried about the health effects and the role of peer influence; she also told me she wanted to make sure her child understood there was no right or wrong way to be a girl. “I didn’t get it as well as other people did, what being a girl even meant,” Kat told me, looking back. “And my mental health wasn’t great. I was cutting around that time.” At about 17, she went back to her girl’s name and pronouns. “I still have weird, internalized misogyny in my brain I’m trying to get over,” she says. “I don’t even get where it’s coming from.” —The New York Times Magazine
Dr Annelou de Vries, a specialist in child and adolescent psychiatry, is one of the Dutch researchers whose early work established the importance of rigorous patient assessments before starting medical treatment. She said that while she worries about the growing number of children awaiting treatment, the graver sin is to move too fast when puberty blockers and hormones may not be appropriate.
“The existential ethical dilemma in transgender care is between on one hand the (child’s) right for self-determination,” de Vries said. “On the other hand, the do-not-harm principle of medical intervention. Aren’t we intervening medically in a developing body where we don’t know the results of those interventions?” In the United States, in particular, she said, “the transgender right or child’s right seems to be put forward more strongly.” De Vries helped write the section on adolescents in WPATH’s updated Standards of Care. She said she was gratified that language stressing the importance of rigorous patient assessments remained.
In interviews with Reuters, doctors and other staff at 18 gender clinics across the country described their processes for evaluating patients. None described anything like the months-long assessments de Vries and her colleagues adopted in their research. —Reuters
Any reasonable onlooker can see that for the most part, Katie and I both accurately foresaw some of the complexities here. We’ve been rewarded for this, too — when we talk about it on BARPod, or, when I do in-depth dives into shoddy gender dysphoria research and arguments on this newsletter, the people who can’t find reasonable and fair-minded discussions of these issues elsewhere show their appreciation by subscribing.
To be clear, there’s still a serious backlash, in liberal spaces, to even measured skepticism of youth gender medicine — take the deeply unfair petition Rashida Tlaib posted in response to Emily Bazelon’s excellent Times magazine article. But when it comes to this subject, the everything-is-fine-here crowd appears to be shrinking and growing increasingly entrenched in their beliefs, because the trajectory of this conversation has shifted away from their preferred narrative, and toward the concerns Katie and I have raised.
Does that mean we were right about everything? Of course not. Does that mean that the claim that we were inciting or pouring fuel on a moral panic rather than covering an actual controversy should be considered debunked, given the voluminous evidence there is real controversy here? Yes. And that controversy went ignored by journalists for far too long, because if you covered it like a journalist, there was a heavy-seeming price to pay.
I guess what I’m saying is simple: As a journalist, you have no right to be mad at successful Substackers if you’re chronically 2–5 years behind them on every hot-button subject. If people come to me for my take on these controversies, and they ignore you, that could be because you are terrified of enraging the Twitter masses, and therefore your work is becoming increasingly uninteresting and indistinguishable from all the other partisan takes out there.
Nothing we’re doing is particularly fancy, nor does it require sky-high intelligence or talent or any other rare qualities. We’ve just stopped caring about angry people on Twitter. That’s really most of the equation. And because our ongoing employment does not rely on close relationships with any particular mainstream institution, we can afford not to care when the angry people get angry. Because what happens when they do? Very little.
That’s not to say there are no consequences for going this route. As we have discussed publicly, Katie was abandoned or thrown under the bus by a lot of her friends (she had more radical friends than I did going in). I don’t want to ignore that. And to be clear, it’s deeply unpleasant to experience wave after wave of vitriolic online hatred, and to see some journalists gleefully spread lies about you and attempt to destroy your career, while many others stay silent because they don’t want to risk their own necks. It takes a toll on your mental health, at least at first.
But you simply reach a point where you stop caring, because that stuff fundamentally doesn’t matter nearly as much as it matters to do honest work that you find satisfying. Overall, this has been a great deal, and it isn’t close. If writing what I want to write and saying what I want to say means I’ll endure some awkwardness at one of the two Brooklyn media parties I make the mistake of attending per year, I’ll survive. If it means the editors at Slate — the cowardly and broken shell of a once-important outlet that forced out Mike Pesca — will not be open to my pitches, and I will therefore not be able to enjoy the privilege of getting paid maybe $150 to write a column for Slate, oh well! The upsides appear to be enormous.
One more time: We’re exceptionally lucky. I feel like we stumbled drunkenly into a 7/11, accidentally bought a scratch ticket, and it came up all cherries. But we also did make certain decisions along the way, and they paid off largely not because of our own merits, but because the competition for eyes and ears, in the particular areas we cover, is so lackluster.
So the journalists who are mad about how all this is playing out should stop complaining and get back to work. You could probably put a serious dent in our own business model just by engaging in a tiny bit of curiosity and competence. Though I see no sign of that happening anytime soon.
Questions? Comments? Misguided anger? I’m at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @jessesingal. The photo, which was taken by my cousin Elon Altman, is of Katie and I during our Village Underground show Tuesday night.
Briefly: There is nothing “right-wing” or “reactionary” about the journalism and commentary we are doing. It isn’t “right-wing” or “reactionary” to make accurate statements about the nature of the Jacob Blake or Kyle Rittenhouse controversies. There are plenty of partisan demagogues out there, but they’re readily identifiable because they engage in sweeping exaggerations about the evils of the “other side,” distort basic facts, don’t engage in careful, critical examinations of the controversies they bloviate about, and rarely or ever criticize their own tribe. Neither of us is guilty of any of this, and the GRIFTER!!! charge is frequently deployed out of professional resentment — often by ideologues — rather than principled opposition to a given commentator or journalist’s actual, real-world output.