Ben Smith, cofounder and editor in chief of Semafor, joins the podcast to discuss the loss of faith in U.S. news and media and the major industry changes over recent decades that have created today’s news environment. Where does the industry go from here? Smith is the author of the new book, Traffic: Genius, Rivalry, and Delusion in the Billion-Dollar Race to Go Viral.
Below is a full transcript of the conversation, including time stamps. Full audio is posted above.
Mohamed Younis 00:11
For Gallup, I’m Mohamed Younis, and this is The Gallup Podcast. This week, we take a look at a new book chronicling the way news media has changed in our lifetimes, and discuss why and how trust in the mass media has collapsed in America. Ben Smith is cofounder and editor in chief of Semafor, a recently launched news platform aimed at bringing more transparency to news coverage across today’s most-used platforms. Ben, welcome to the program!
Ben Smith 00:40
Thanks so much for having me on, Mohamed.
Mohamed Younis 00:42
I wanted to, of course, have you on. You just launched your book, and I want to really talk about it. It's called Traffic: Genius, Rivalry, and Delusion in the Billion-Dollar Race to Go Viral. I love that title. I usually ask people, Ben, like why they wrote their book. But after listening to it, after starting to it, it, it just became really clear why you wrote the book. You basically documented the emergence of the news environment we're in now and how it's changed. Is that a fair way to describe the book?
Ben Smith 01:13
Yeah. And I think it, for me, it was really about, like I had sort of come up in blogging and digital media, starting in, like, 2004. But, but also was sort of a bit to the side, because I’ve always been a reporter, a political journalist. And so saw what was going on with the sort of broad digital media space, but didn’t really dive into the middle of it until 2012, when I came, when I came to Buzzfeed. And so for me, it was really about kind of going back and just being like, wait, what just, what just happened? Like I basically, you know, left Buzzfeed, went to The New York Times in 2020 and had an opportunity just to sort of try to process the last 15 years. And that’s kind of what led to the book. And also to my, you know, having not really been around for big chunks of it and curious, like what was that about? And then being able to go back and just go call all of the people who were involved at the time and ask.
Mohamed Younis 02:00
I love the storytelling in the book. It's really a powerful insight into just the fascinating, really, entrepreneurs, journalists, characters, economic forces that took us from people tuning in to the 6:00 news to read what happened in the world, to the world we live in now, where it's always coming at us all the time digitally. Our data here at Gallup shows that faith in the news media has really collapsed. Why do you think news media has collapsed? Coming from a guy who's been right at the heart of the changes that have taken place and also now leading an organization that's really trying to address some of the challenges we've come to.
Ben Smith 02:37
Yeah, and it’s been kind of humbling to look at this data in particular, which is so bleak for people in my business. I mean, I guess I have a couple of answers. And one obviously is that if you look across everything Gallup tracks, faith in these traditional institutions has collapsed, you know, largely across the board. I mean, you can correct me if I’m wrong, but government, you know, politics, like, a lot of different contemp, like there’s a faith in institutions that has gone away. You know, and you can argue about whether, like, to some degree these institutions failed and deserved this lack of faith. I think it’s not totally an easy question. But in journalism, I mean, one of the many challenges -- I mean, there are a lot of challenges. One is just this pure polarization that just came with this era of social media. One was the decline of metropolitan newspapers for basically economic reasons, triggered by the internet. But one was certainly just that it’s, it’s sometimes easier to trust institutions when you don’t just sort of see right through them and see them as a collection of people.
Ben Smith 03:34
And I remember when I, my first gig after college was at the Indianapolis Star. And I covered cops. And when there was, like, a crime, you know, they would send me out or send other reporters out, trying to figure out, like, OK, like, who got shot? And who shot them? And often you’d have the names wrong at first. And you’d, like, knock on the wrong door and you’d ask the wrong person the wrong question, and the cops would initially give you the wrong name because they were confused too. But, like, by the end of the day, by midnight, you’re putting the paper to bed and a lot of that has been sorted out. And you have a story in the morning that actually says something pretty clear and, you know, interesting about what happened, and informative. And a reader could be forgiven for thinking, like, Wow, these guys are pretty good at their jobs. Like, they, this article is good, and I don’t know how they got that information.
Ben Smith 04:16
Now, a crime happens or an event happens, and on cable television, on the internet, on Twitter, you see all these journalists running around, trying to figure out what’s going on, and they don’t really have any skills that you don’t, right? They’re just calling people and looking at documents and often, like, starting with the wrong name or the wrong, you know, the wrong idea about what happened, just like anybody else. And you’re like, Oh, my God. These people are total idiots. Like, they don’t know anything. And, I mean, that’s basically true. But the thing is that we were always idiots; it’s just that now you can see it. And I think that’s basically true of every institution -- that it’s just like this collection of regular people often doing messed-up things and making mistakes. But there was this mystique that the internet in particular has pierced. And now it’s hard to get people to trust you. And I think, you know, the CDC is obviously maybe the leading example of that.
Mohamed Younis 05:05
One thing that I always ask myself is, is it necessarily a bad thing for people not to trust the mass media? If we aspire to live in a free society, right, where people are questioning the information that's in front of them, should we be rooting, lamenting the days of when everybody thought, you know, the 6:00 news was the absolute truth in life?
Ben Smith 05:24
Yeah, I mean, it's, that's such a good question. And I think that, you know, when you look at sort of American media, you know, this, one of the signal moments in the loss of trust is the Iraq War. And you know what? The media, you know, it was the biggest story of our generation and, and like we got it totally wrong. Like, it's hard to imagine a bigger screw-up, and why should anybody trust the media after that, you know, after reporting credulously on these claims that Iraq was a threat to the United States and an invasion was justified and it might work out well. And I think I would have said to you 10 years ago, like, “No, that's right on. Like, why should anybody -- better to have a society of, like, free citizens who don't trust institutions.” I think you kind of look around now, and it's hard to maintain that -- like the lack of sort of social cohesion that comes when you just can't, there aren't shared facts, like, much less shared ideas is just so obviously damaging to society and to politics that it’s, it's pretty hard, I think to maintain that position.
Mohamed Younis 06:21
You know, the other thing you mentioned in the book which I really loved was the story of Barack Obama, and how his rise was really a case in point of how the internet became the place where America’s focus politically really was born. Talk to us about that.
Ben Smith 06:39
Yeah. I mean, it’s really, you sort of have to get your head back into that place when it was sort of presumptively true that digital media was, and social networks favored liberals and Democrats. That Howard Dean was the digital candidate, and then Barack Obama, who built his own social network, my.barackobama.com. And I think, though, that we who were in that era, like, didn’t anticipate at all that actually, you know, Obama-era liberalism wasn’t about, like, taking the tools of digital media to their logical end, about following people to wherever their most sort of extreme beliefs were. It was about, like, going part of that way and then getting off the train and calling Tim Geithner and asking him what he thought. And the, and the Trump movement, right, when populism, in some ways, like, took these tools and ideas that we’d all developed in the aughts around how do you, how do things go viral? How does information spread? Why do people share things? And the tools of measuring, like, emotion and attention through internet traffic, and follow them to their logical end, which turned out to be the ... .
Mohamed Younis 07:45
It is really interesting to think back and, and also like the Tea Party, you know, that whole movement created the Trump explosion. Like, so many of those grievances really carried through. One of the things I loved about this book is how we're moving away now from the era in which social media was the place where the next big, huge news story is sort of born. But certainly we're in a different time now. How does media change moving forward? Where are the places where the biggest stories are gonna be coming from? What's, what's gonna be the new social media in journalism?
Ben Smith 08:17
I mean, it's a really good question, because, like, social media, you know, it's not gonna go away. It, it's, it's fading but these things are binary; it won't just sort of die overnight. And I think people are moving to more kind of distinct spaces where they can find voices they trust. I mean, I think podcasts like this are part of that. Certainly, what we're trying to do at Semafor is build up journalist voices who are speaking in this very kind of direct, transparent way. And both bringing original news very transparently, and then also looking around at other sources and sources they might disagree with or sources that have different perspectives, and bringing those in, rather than saying, trust me, I know it all. I'm the only, I'm the only possible point of view.
Mohamed Younis 08:54
One of the things, Ben, that we've also found in our research on media, and media consumption in particular, is the important role now that public figures play in how people get the news they trust, right? And a lot of times, the public figures are not journalists. Sometimes, they're celebrities, they're artists, whatever. That's obviously not going away. But how does it kind of play out in what you guys are doing at Semafor? Is this kind of more individualized or individual-led journalism gonna be more common thing we're gonna see in the future?
Ben Smith 09:25
I mean, I do think that this sort of trend of people putting trust in individuals more than institutions isn’t particularly limited to media. You see it in sports; you see it in politics, certainly. You know, people are going to connect to Joe Biden, not the Democratic Party; Donald Trump, not the Republican Party. And it, you know, it’s been true in a, it’s a trend that’s been proceeding for 100 years. It’s sort of the transition in Hollywood in the ‘50s, like, from the studio model to something centered on stars. So I think it’s a pretty kind of inexorable trend. So I think, you know, for us, we’re trying to build up the sort of credible voices of individual journalists and to kind of attach our brand to that, rather than just saying, Hey, trust our brand; you don’t need to know who works there. But let people have their clear, you know, kind of clear voices.
Mohamed Younis 10:06
We find that younger people are much more likely to follow public figures they don't agree with. Reflect on that for me, because a big part of what you are trying to do with your articles at Semafor is present sort of an opposing view.
Ben Smith 10:20
We have a section called “Room for Disagreement,” because we really have found that people, like, kind of trust the whole thing more if they see that we're open to disagreement and open to other points of view. I mean, that's really interesting and on its face quite heartening that people want to, you know, are open to listening to voices they disagree with. I mean, the sort of trend in cable news and television is to only present you voices you agree with. I do think that one of the subtleties of that, though, and something that is, like, particularly toxic on social media is that you're, it's not really an echo chamber, but you're often being served like the stupidest and most obnoxious version of whatever you disagree with.
Mohamed Younis 10:54
The lowest common denominator.
Ben Smith 10:56
Well, no, it’s that your friends are out there finding morons who disagree with you, but who have the most offensive version of the argument that disagrees with you. Like, they don't just question your poll research; they are flat-earthers. And so it's very easy to get a sense of, like, everybody who disagrees with me is a flat-earther! But, like, actually, some of them may just have different points of view on how to run regressions or something. But I think, you know, in all sorts of cultural politics, you're constantly, I mean, Libs of TikTok is an example of somebody scouring the internet, finding what her, what her, you know, followers see as the most extreme crazy people, who are often random people who have, who no one's video except for the Libs of TikTok lady ever watched, and elevating them into the national conversation. I think you, that's, that's a kind of seeing things you disagree with that I think is pretty counterproductive, cause it's sort of a straw-man factory. But I think bringing in reasoned voices of people you disagree with is really important.
Mohamed Younis 11:47
It’s fascinating how you broke down the whole Huffington Post era. I don't want to call it that way. Obviously, they're still around; they do great work. But really how Huffington Post initially was a really important place for left-leaning celebrities, public figures to come and sort of share their view on the issues of society. It, it really drove home to me how this isn't a new thing. This has been with us now for quite some time, especially on, you know, in digital news at least.
Ben Smith 12:15
Yeah, I mean, it is one of the things about media that, that it's, you know, it's not electric cars. Like we’re, we’re, you know, a lot of, nothing is really new. And in fact, a lot of what we're doing is like society changes, people think that what they want is to destroy all the establishment institutions. And let's hear all these new, fresh diverse voices, many of whom are through from a much wider aperture than we had heard before. And then you do that for a while and you say, Oh my God, I'm totally overwhelmed by all these lunatics. Can somebody please, like, narrow the aperture? Tell me which voices are smart and legitimate, and which aren't. Help me navigate this whole situation, which I think is where we're back to. These things sort of go in cycles, actually.
Mohamed Younis 12:55
Interesting. Elaborate on that.
Ben Smith 12:58
Well just that, just that I think that the birth of this wide-open digital media space was a reaction to, you know, the sense that the media in the early 2000s was totally out of touch with how people communicated. Like, it wasn’t really on the internet. And then it also had, you know, on this immense question of war and peace had misinformed everybody. So people were really ready for this open, new digital space that technology had enabled. And I think now, people hate what they’re getting and, as you see in your polling, feel totally alienated from this wide-open, screamy, partisan, competitive media, and they’re looking for, like, quieter, more thoughtful spaces again.
Mohamed Younis 13:33
That's Ben Smith, cofounder and editor in chief of Semafor, author of his new book, Traffic: Genius Rivalry and Delusion in the Billion-Dollar Race to Go Viral. Ben, thanks for coming on the show.
Ben Smith 13:46
Thanks so much, Mohamed.
Mohamed Younis 13:51
That's our show. Thanks for tuning in. For more from Gallup, go to news.gallup.com and sign up for our newsletter, “Front Page,” where we break down all that Gallup is learning across the globe in one weekly email. The Gallup Podcast is directed by Curtis Grubb and produced by Justin McCarthy. I'm Mohamed Younis, and this is Gallup: reporting on the will of the people since the 1930s.
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