Ben Carlson, journalist and former editor at The Atlantic joins me on the show to chat about:
- How the media operates and the model has shifted over time
- Getting to the truth in this new age
- How stories get covered up
- Future of media
- Uncovering interesting videos
- Swan Bitcoin
- Unchained Capital (code LIVERA)
- CoinKite.com(code LIVERA)
Stephan Livera links:
Stephan Livera – 00:00:08
So now here’s my chat with Ben. Ben, welcome to the show.
Benjamin Carlson- 00:03:18:
Thanks, Stephan. Good to be here.
Stephan Livera – 00:03:20:
So, Ben, I’m a fan. I’ve seen some interesting stuff you’ve been posting on Twitter. I think you have some interesting perspectives to share. Now, of course, my show is primarily a bitcoin show, as you probably know, but I think there’s some interesting stuff in here in terms of your history, your experience in the world of media, and what you’re talking about nowadays on Twitter. Do you want to just tell us a little bit about your background and what kind of work you were doing? As I understand, you were an editor and a foreign correspondent.
Benjamin Carlson – 00:03:50:
Sure. So I began my career at The Atlantic, which has long been a magazine, but at the time I started was launching some new digital products, and I became executive editor of one of the first things they launched called The Atlantic Wire. And I spent the following decade plus of my career going from publication to publication, as many journalists do, from New York to DC to Hong Kong to Beijing, and became a foreign correspondent for one of the news agencies AFP as an economics writer in Beijing for a few years and then ultimately left. Which is why I’m commenting a little more candidly about media now than I would have before.
Stephan Livera – 00:04:30:
Yeah, and I think that’s probably an interesting story to touch on. Could you tell us a little bit of that story of why you ended up leaving?
Benjamin Carlson – 00:04:39:
It was 2017, and I was writing about the World Economic Forum. After Trump was elected, the World Economic Forum was seen as a coming out moment for China. The world wanted a leader of free trade because there was a lot of fear or at least speculation that Trump was going to pull out of all kind of agreements and cause chaos in the existing trade order. So going into this World Economic Forum, I was sitting in Beijing covering live. The keynote speaker was Xi Jinping, the President of China, and I had pre-written, as many reporters do in this kind of situation, so you can write more quickly and you can put out the story faster. I’d pre-written the narrative that was expected, which was essentially, China takes over the mantle of defender of free trade. Well, as he began speaking and it was a long speech, I was listening, filling in the quotes where they needed to be filled in. But something started to shift, and I changed what I had written. I was feeling like the story was incomplete, and what I was adding was context about how China actually restricts trade in all kinds of ways, formal and informal. If you want to run a business in China, you could tell endless stories about the ways in which businesses are regulated above board and below. And the reality is, it’s not a country that is open in the way that many free trade partners are, including the US. So I started putting this context in there, and when I sent it off to my editor, as soon as the speech was done, it came back almost immediately saying, we need the original story. You need to change it back. And so I wrote the version that was necessary, the version that was not untrue but incomplete. And at that point, I felt like something had broken in me, and I didn’t want to continue doing that anymore where the narrative had triumphed over what I thought was a more honest and helpful and truthful version of the story.
Stephan Livera – 00:06:34:
Yeah, that’s fascinating Ben. So can you give us a little bit of detail or explain a little bit this process of pre-writing a story or pre-writing the report?
Benjamin Carlson – 00:06:44:
Sure, it’s probably more common than you think. It doesn’t happen all the time. But you as a reporter know more or less what is expected of you from editors, from readers. And so you enter a story with a framework in mind. You won’t prewrite every story, but in cases where there’s fast breaking news, like a major speech, a State of the Union, you’ll prewrite most of it in advance. And you know, Xi Jinping, the President of China, or Biden or whoever you’re writing about, is going to say a few things that touch on the major issues of the day, and you know what the general narrative is supposed to be. And you write the general narrative, and you fit in things that you expect to find. And so, as I’m describing this, you’re probably thinking, well, how would you know what you expect to find? That’s where one of the flaws of journalism comes out. You have expectations, and so it’s human nature to confirm your expectations. Even if you were to perceive something without any filter on at all, you might not see it that way. So cognitive bias affects everyone. It affects reporters. And I think it’s even more acute when you start letting the narrative shape the story before you even pick up the phone and call somebody or listen to a speech or do whatever the reporting requires.
Stephan Livera – 00:08:01:
I’m curious if there’s some speculation based on, okay, you might be in the newsroom and talking to your colleagues and saying, oh, look, I think he’s going to say this, and I think they’re going to say that. Let me include that in my pre-written story.
Benjamin Carlson – 00:08:13:
Yeah. All the time. There’s a lot of speculation. There’s water cooler talk, gossip. I think a lot of reporting is done, in fact, through gossip, and that’s not a bad thing. This is how information is traded, especially important information, but it’s also human nature to latch onto the juiciest things and to assume that what you would like to find is what you’re actually going to find.
Stephan Livera – 00:08:36:
Yeah. And so I guess in that moment, you were finding that. So I guess bringing it back to the China story, in this particular case, you were trying to add some additional detail that you thought would be right to include in the story. And then, of course, you had that disagreement, and your editor was saying, nah, we want this narrative to go out. What was going through your mind at that point? Was it like, I don’t really want to compromise this story here, but I’m going to have to do it because I need this job? Or what was the thinking?
Benjamin Carlson – 00:09:11:
If I didn’t change it, it would be changed for me? That’s the way the editorial process worked at that job and at many other places where I’ve been before. If you want to get published, you need to find the acceptable way to tell the story, and your editor will give you feedback. And if you don’t adhere to the feedback from the editor, either the story doesn’t run and you’re not of value as a reporter and a writer, you could lose your job or you lose the assignment, or it’ll be rewritten on your behalf. And it’s not always adversarial, but you internalize it. And like all kinds of measures of control, they’re more effective when they’re internal. So in this case, when I was in China, what was running through my head, it was almost instantaneous. I got the feedback, this doesn’t fly. You’re going to need to change it. And so I knew there was no recourse in my mind to changing it. So I did.
Stephan Livera – 00:10:01:
Yeah. And at that point, do you think it’s like the editors facing pressure upwards from, let’s say, the editor, the managers of the company, that they want to promote a certain narrative? Because maybe in some cases in some cases, let’s say maybe not, in this case, they have a better view of what’s happening. Is that possible or not really?
Benjamin Carlson – 00:10:24:
It’s definitely possible. So there are always behind the scenes conversations going on at a high level. And I encountered this at the Atlantic. I encountered it at AFP, I encountered it as a freelancer. Things filter down. So editors are talking to their managing editors, and managing editors are talking to the publisher or the person who owns it, ultimately, in some business sense. And that’s where you’ll get the general direction on what stories and narratives are important. That’s where you really feel. So, for example, in the case of the story about Xi Jinping and the World Economic Forum. It was important to my employer at some level that China be celebrated and reinforced and held up as a defender of free trade, ultimately. Why? There’s not usually a single business reason or certainly no conspiracy as to why, but there are interests that are more interested in that story. So businesses that are working with China and would like to see more support from their governments are subscribing to the newspapers and buying advertisements in the newspapers. And so you know where your bread is buttered, basically, and that does filter down unconsciously, I’d say, in most cases. There are other instances where you’ll hear about overt pressure or places where you shouldn’t write. So I don’t know this for sure, but Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post. You are not going to read stories about Amazon and The Washington Post that you might read in other newspapers. Now, does he have to say that explicitly? I really don’t know. I would say the reporters there know that their jobs are dependent on not trying to get through some expose on Bezos or Amazon or anything like that. So you just know ultimately that there’s levels of motivation and interest above you as a reporter that you need to align with.
Stephan Livera – 00:12:15:
I see. And even if you were to write a story, or in order for you to do that story justice, you might need resources to go and investigate, and you might need to travel, or you might need to spend money to go and spend money and time. And those resources may not be forthcoming if it doesn’t align with the narrative, it doesn’t align with the interests, doesn’t align with what,
Benjamin Carlson – 00:12:38:
Exactly. You won’t be sent to do a story or be approved to get started on a story at all. So the process for reporters, for journalists, if you’re interested, and this may be new to your listeners, you almost always need to have a pitch approved before you go, or you can certainly be reporting on the side. And if you actually get some scoop, then you bring in the scoop. And if it’s an exciting scoop. A scoop meaning a piece of information that’s not public and is relevant and important. And that’s another area where your idea of relevant might not be the same as your editors. But in most situations, you say, this is what I think is happening, and this is what I want to write about. And if the editor gives you the green light and the assignment, then you move ahead. And that’s when you can do travel. If you need to travel for it, that’s when you have the authority to spend time to do the work. So at that stage, that’s where a lot of the narrative shaping happens. Well, that’s not an important story. You might get that response if you were to pitch a story about how Silicon Valley Bank I’m making this up now, but let’s say that Silicon Valley Bank’s bankruptcy is actually good for the American economy. And for whatever reason, this is contrary to the preferred narrative of your publication. That pitch is not going to go anywhere.
Stephan Livera – 00:13:53:
Yeah, sure. And so I’m also curious if you have any views on what’s happened with media over the years. Do you see it has gotten worse or it was always this bad? Or how do you kind of view what’s happened with media over the last, let’s say, 10 to 20 years, like the rise of the internet, basically?
Benjamin Carlson – 00:14:13:
There was an inflection point that I saw because it was at the beginning of my career, and the inflection point was that things got worse. So I began my career in 2008. This was after the financial crisis. That was one factor, but not the only one. That was right around the time that publications started to be threatened much more conspicuously by things like Craigslist, which killed the Classified Ads. And Classified Ads for listeners who don’t know what those are. Those are personal listings from individual businesses or people who are looking to sell something or buy something. They appeared in tons of newspapers, and they were huge revenue drivers. And media was a very, very profitable business up until the turn of the millennium, more or less. And then it started to get harder and harder. But when I got there in 2008, advertisers started to be wiped out because of the recession. The business model was changing because print was no longer the top of the heap. Suddenly digital was where everybody wanted to be, but nobody had a business model. There was no subscription model that made sense. People didn’t really want to pay for online articles, and so they didn’t. So Paywalls were not really a prominent business model at the time, or for those who had them, they weren’t very successful. And then advertising was also not great. You could sell an ad in the Wall Street Journal or Forbes magazine for thousands of dollars, and on their website that same ad would sell for hundreds. And that quickly just wiped out lots and lots of publications. So that was the business side change and then the more editorial change, which I was a part of, to be honest. I was hired as the editor of this publication that was launching as part of the Atlantic, really their first foray into digital, first media, and it was called the Atlantic Wire. And our job was to write high volume, high velocity blogging. Basically, we would aggregate stories from around the internet. We would add some color and flavor and some personality, some snark, a little bit like the Gawker style. Not very strong, but much more so than the other Atlantic stuff. And we did not pick up the phone ever. We never called somebody to say, hey, is this actually true? We would just write about it because we read it on some other site and we would add our own spin on it. And usually the spin would take it in a more extreme direction because we needed to attract clicks so we wouldn’t do actual reporting. We would highlight the most sensational aspects of a story to try and attract readers and break through, go viral. And these are two pressures that I was feeling very early on and from 2008 until now. Being viral, getting traffic, getting people emotionally engaged in a story, those have become the new ways you drive readership, and your business model depends on it. And so you see a lot of stories that are trying to provoke anger and other emotions that are really negative for society and have driven media in a pretty bad direction.
Stephan Livera – 00:17:07:
Yeah. And I believe you were commenting on this idea about using anger as really the hook, because other aspects, even if they are positive aspects, they are simply not as appealing. Can you elaborate on that?
Benjamin Carlson – 00:17:22:
There have been studies on this, and I won’t cite the exact study because I can’t tell you the name, but it’s known to be true that the most viral emotion in terms of Internet sharing is anger. If you want to get people to share something, you piss them off. And that’s not a conscious strategy that I was aware of, but you see it. You see it in the results that you get. And so naturally, people who are measured by their ability to drive traffic, because reporters and writers, if you’re not bringing in readers, you’re not bringing in subscribers, you’re not doing your job, you’re not valuable. So you do need to draw traffic. And so you learn over time what does that and that’s why you see a lot of stories that seem to exist for no other reason but to make people mad. There are plenty of examples of that. And every month, week, day has new ones. In fact, there’s this meme. You don’t want to be the man of Twitter or the person of the day on Twitter because there’s always somebody who’s getting dogpiled.
Stephan Livera – 00:18:19:
Or the main character thing. Right.
Benjamin Carlson – 00:18:20:
The main character thing. Right. Because it’s human nature, evidently. And it’s not a good thing about human nature, but it’s what media now depends on to generate interest. And well, you can see the results.
Stephan Livera – 00:18:33:
Yeah. So in a way, the business model shifted, I guess, zooming out a little bit. The business model shifted and because of online expectations about content being free, it drove more click chasing in the form of anger or rage baiting, let’s say.
Benjamin Carlson – 00:18:51:
That’s right. And there’s other ways of being sensational, too. It’s not only driving anger, but that is one of the most powerful. Other emotions are powerful, too. But this is one reason, I think you see Partisan media coming to the fore again, because your audience wants certain beliefs confirmed and others ignored completely. And so the belief about who are the bad guys are and so if you read left leaning media or right leaning media, you see totally different bad guys. And the stories are all hitting those same bad guys. And the good guys, you don’t talk about them as much because those don’t drive as many clicks. It’s really the bad guys who are defining your topics and your narratives of the day, and that’s because they’re just compelling to your audience and the villain.
Stephan Livera- 00:19:41:
As you said, it’s, knowing where the bread is buttered. So Benjamin, I’m curious. Obviously, as you said, your career started in 2008, but I know you have been trolling through historical videos and things like this and probably also interested in the profession more broadly. Obviously, if you were there for 15 years. I’m curious if you have any view on even in the 20th century, right in the 1900, was it like this too? Or was it you know, was it just the the business model of journalism allowed these journalists at that time, let’s say the 70’s, the 80’s, the 90’s likes do you think it was different then that it wasn’t as, let’s say, Hyperpartisan?
Benjamin Carlson – 00:20:18:
It wasn’t, post-war and there’s an interesting history here that I can’t give in great detail, but the broad narrative would be post-war. There was an emergence of a professional class of journalists that was sustained by a very defined and somewhat monopolistic, but or more oligarchic group of media organizations. The three major networks I’m talking about the US here, and a handful of major national papers and then the single or maybe two major papers in each city. And they just dominated. And they were great businesses in a way. You could see them as early Googles. What is Google is essentially a media business without any reporters. And of course, the technology is what enables that. That’s why the business is so profitable. They’ve taken the profits from all these other organizations, so they were very profitable and they could afford to this is sounding really reductionist, but they could afford to have really high ethics and morals because they were not looking to just drive readership for readership’s sake. They didn’t have to. So this is when you see professional standards come to a fairly high level. People like Mike Wallace, whose interviews I’ve shared a number of times recently, was an astonishingly precise, intellectual engaged, probing interviewer in the 50’s, 60’s and then throughout his career. So that was a golden age that I think has pretty clearly ended. But before then it was very different. When there was a strong sense of competition among the media, you had the yellow journalism age, and this was in the earlier part of the 20th century. And then even at the end of the 19th century, really briefly, that’s when you see hoaxes being invented to drive subscriptions. There’s one that I stumbled across and wrote about a little while ago. They claimed on the front page of the New York Sun that life had been discovered on Mars and for the next 14 days, they wrote every day about the discovery and shared pictures of men with wings that had been seen through a telescope. And they attributed all of this to a scholar who was real, who was a real person. And when I finally got back to him but this became global news, viral news of that era, and this was mid 19th century, he said, I have never been to the telescope you’re talking about. I don’t know what you’re describing, but it was in detail. The whole story was in detail. And it was made up just to drive very successfully subscription. So that’s one extreme of bad journalism, bad ethics. And you also saw in another way, war mongering taking place toward the end of the 19th century with the Spanish-American War, which people think is to some extent driven by the yellow press press who is ginning up animosity against the Spanish in Cuba and urging intervention. And this is a pattern that we’ve seen in different ways over the last century. And it was pioneered then, so it’s not brand new, but we haven’t seen it like this in 50 years or more.
Stephan Livera – 00:23:16:
It’s also interesting because in some ways people could argue the Internet helps fact checkers and people who are at least citizen journalists who are on the ground and saying, no, hang on a SEC, that’s wrong. But in another level, it’s also a way that things can get distorted and be exaggerated or the story can be invented or things like this. So I’m curious where you sort of see that shake out, like, has it helped us on Net get closer to the truth or not really.
Benjamin Carlson – 00:23:48:
My feeling right now, having been behind the scenes as reporter is not enough. Actual reporting goes on. So a lot of people employed in media, but not just in media, people who share information, put it that way. People like you and me, right? We write about things with honest analysis and we’re intellectually engaged and we’re bringing our experience to bear on it. But at the bottom, somebody had to find a piece of information and verify it that is not taking place more now, I think, than it was before. It’s easier to share, and that does help. So it might balance out. If somebody takes a video in a remote location where riots are happening or a natural disaster is happening, or in Ukraine, it does give you a window into that place that was not nearly so accessible before and that really does have value. But it’s easier to fake those things and it’s much harder for people to tell the difference and especially with fewer and fewer reporters or trusted sources who can verify these things that it actually happened, or that the context you’re seeing is representing the truth that I wouldn’t say has gotten better.
Stephan Livera – 00:24:59:
Yeah, I think that’s fair. That’s a fair way to put it. And so I’m also curious how you’re seeing it in terms of things going forward. As I understand, there used to be a little bit more affinity around the brand name, whereas maybe today you could argue that there’s a little bit more affinity around the individual. That individual journalist, whether it’s a really well known journalist like a Glenn Greenwald or somebody who has a group of followers who really like that person’s analysis they’re writing. Are you seeing a trend in that direction or are you seeing it a different way in terms of where their trustworthiness goes?
Benjamin Carlson – 00:25:38:
I think it’s centering on individuals. I think you’ve got it right that independent journalists are gaining ground, huge ground on established brands and that’s because there is a dearth of trust. Everybody wants to find trustworthy information, we all do. And there’s no longer trust in institutions broadly and then in specific brand names in media too, legacy media. That’s not for everybody. Some people really do still see the New York Times and the Washington Post as what they once were and they’re entitled to their opinion. That’s completely valid. But I’d say you’d see more and more and more people who get their information online look for an individual person that they trust and that they’ve earned that trust through showing their values, saying what they believe in, what they stand against and then applying that to what they’re reporting on. So in a way it’s leading toward not necessarily more partisan media. Somebody like Glenn Greenwald for example, you know that he, he hates dishonesty, he doesn’t like false reporting. He’s really, really upstanding, I think, as a journalist and a reporter and cares a lot about fighting against censorship. So those themes come through. He hammers people who stand against those things and he’s constantly promoting Julian Assange and he has his hobby horses and his values. And so because of that he’s drawn an audience of people who care about those things. The reason I pick up that example is unfortunately you’re not going to get the news of the world just from an independent source, an individual source. And where you get that replacement? I don’t know, a portfolio of people you trust. Somebody you read on the economy, the global economy, somebody you read on politics that seems to work reasonably well. But how much can everyday ordinary people who aren’t spending a lot of time curating their news consumption and information and diet get a good set of sources? I think by and large you’ll see people fed stuff on TikTok and other social media platforms and they’ll rely on that
Stephan Livera – 00:27:35:
And it goes in all kinds of different directions because in some ways there’s also this focus on infotainment. Like it has to be video, it has to be slick. There’s an aspect of that. But then you could also say at the local level, maybe it’s changed the way local media, local newspapers and local radio has gone as well because maybe the. Model has shifted, that local station or that local newspaper has to find enough of a model to be viable in this internet age.
Benjamin Carlson – 00:28:08:
The business model really, really matters. I say that with my local newspaper in mind. The Philadelphia Inquirer. Philadelphia Inquirer has a long history, many prizes, great reporters. It was recently taken nonprofit and it’s supported now by Funders, and there’s nothing wrong with that model. However, as somebody who lives locally, you can see the change in coverage because the issues are not just local issues, they’re national issues applied here. So if there’s talk about, let’s say, the budget or racial tensions or police violence and brutality, regardless of what’s actually happening here in the city of Philadelphia, it’s going to be brought as an issue, as a narrative that matters. And so you’ll find the little pieces of narrative here that kind of fit into it, but it’s not based on evaluating, well, what really matters right now to help people live better lives and help this place thrive. I wouldn’t say that it was purely that before either, but I do see a difference. And that’s because they’re trying to attract funding from national organizations, not just local people. They’re not dependent on the local population. And I think that’s happening much more broadly. So where do you get good local information? There’s not a great answer, now. The business model doesn’t make sense for a lot of individuals to sustain themselves that way. And so social media gives you little bits and pieces that you can try and piece together. But my concern there is just between the algorithm and the appetite for violent and sensational content. You’re always going to think things are worse based on what you see on a screen than they probably are if you walk outside.
Stephan Livera – 00:29:44:
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Benjamin Carlson – 00:33:15:
What’s shifted over the last couple of years? And you see this coming out in the Twitter files, which is the name given to the reporting about what was going on behind the scenes of Twitter, and there have been some recent developments there. What it showed is there was active shaping of the narrative and what was allowed to be said. And not so recently the news came out that the Department of Energy in the US had determined that with a low degree of confidence, which all such assessments had, they think the lab leak explanation for the origin of COVID was most likely. This just came a couple of weeks ago. Well, up until very recently, even mentioning the words lab leak could still get you branded as a conspiracy theorist or somebody who was wildly unscientific. And the reason for that is not merely was social media and the government trying to steer the narrative away from that, but media itself. It wasn’t ignoring, but what you said about not asking questions, that is true. What was striking to me, even more so over the last few years is there was policing of what was permitted to be said and not policing in the sense that certain whole theories and hypotheses that respected scientists and thinkers were putting forward were rejected and actively branded as wrongheaded, immoral, in need of suppression. In mainstream media, that’s left a very, very strong impression on many people. It sounds like, you two, that there’s a breach of trust.
Stephan Livera – 00:34:47:
I see. It like there was just such insufficient questioning about so many of these things. Now, I think cynically we could say, coming back to the point about people knowing where their bread is butted, is it that let’s say Pfizer and these vaccine companies and some of these other people are the ones paying for media? And as the saying goes, he who pays the piper calls the tune, right? So if, let’s say, vaccine manufacturers are paying a lot of the media, or let’s say if government is bailing out some of the media, as I know happened in Canada, New Zealand and other countries, that they will then now not criticize and they will now not ask any good questions. They’ll just sort of give the very, just a very easy interviews, never ask any hard questions, and then just sort of act like a PR machine. And in a way they sort of vacated the space and have forced the citizen journalists to really step up, in a way.
Benjamin Carlson – 00:35:46:
And they have. What’s interesting to me is I don’t believe there’s a strong profit motive to explain what we’ve seen going on in the last several years with COVID I might be wrong, but what I see more is class alignment. Meaning there’s this perception who are the good guys, who are the bad guys? Who are we rejecting out of hand without even considering what they say? Okay, anybody we deem Anti-vax. And so we have this whole mythology about Anti-vaccine beliefs and how the people who preach them can’t be trusted. And so that’s just slapped onto anybody who’s raising questions about what’s being done and what’s being prescribed is the right way to deal with the COVID epidemic. That’s what I see more, because in reality, the Advertisers just don’t have that much influence directly over reporting. It might surprise you to hear that I think that’s still the case because it’s too transparent and unseemly, and most reporters would feel appalled to think, oh, Pfizer is influencing what I say. A lot of really good reporters and bad reporters think they’re being authentic and honest. It’s just that their interests and their class beliefs align with people who are trying to manipulate them. To be totally frank.
Stephan Livera – 00:37:02:
Yeah. I’ll tell you one interesting theory I’ve been looking at recently. There was a guy named Jeff Leskovar, and he was trying to explain some of this through a prism of social hierarchy. Right. So there are people who actually want to assess the facts or assess from a first principles view, and then there are people who just merely want to assess their position in the social hierarchy and try to rise within that social hierarchy. And I think it sort of aligns a bit with what you were saying about the class alignment, because the Zoom class, the professional, let’s say, white collar world, it was unfashionable to hold views anti the lockdown, anti-vaccine mandates, anti-masks, et cetera. And I think to some extent, they created a culture where you weren’t allowed to criticize, and if you didn’t say the right things, you were kicked out, and you’re not invited to the parties. And it could also matter in the sense of access. Right. So if you’re a journalist, it may be that if you don’t align with the narrative, you won’t get access to the right people to ask the questions, and then you’ll be shut out. I’m curious if you have any insight into that area as well.
Benjamin Carlson – 00:38:14:
Look what happened to one reporter, Matt Taibbi. If your listeners don’t know the name, he’s an amazing journalist. He’s won the National Magazine Award. He worked for Rolling Stone for many years. I have followed and enjoyed his work on other subjects. So the the bailouts and the whole notion of describing Goldman, Sachs as a vampire squid, that’s what he used to be famous for. He’s not famous for that now. He’s been completely shunned from the world of mainstream media, by and large, because he was the lead reporter, the first reporter on the Twitter file story, and even before then, he was on the outs. But this has, I think, sealed his pariah status. He called into question the things he wasn’t supposed to. He wrote stories about how Twitter, with the intervention of FBI, Department of Homeland Security, even the CIA, but under other names, had worked to prohibit, or at least restrict the kinds of questions that you’ve mentioned here about COVID and what the right way forward is and created in the digital space the equivalent of things that you can say at the dinner table and you can’t. And that was applied to all of society. And he, by calling this into question and exposing the truth of what was done for multiple years at Twitter, has now been if you look at the testimony that he gave earlier this week before the house in the US. People were asking him, calling him a so called journalist and asking him if he was trying to profiteer off of this Twitter file story, which has cost him hugely and his reputation because of what I mentioned, that he’s been shunned by media. It’s amazing to see. So, yes, this is what happens when you step outside of the approved narrative within your class and start flirting with other maybe totally truthful, unapproved views. You get shunned.
Stephan Livera – 00:40:17:
So in terms of where things go from here, do you believe the trend will just be towards individual journalists like this? And I guess the internet can give and take in some ways, right? And so perhaps it robbed certain media companies of their business model, in a sense, like, loosely speaking, obviously, but in the sense that it enabled individual contributors now to have reach, right? Like a Glenn Greenwald, like a Matt Taibbi like yourself, for other people to have, let’s say, a substack or a podcast or something like this. And maybe that’s one pathway forward is that people just start looking for individual contributors or journalists to get a view on something.
Benjamin Carlson – 00:41:00:
I think the pendulum is swinging and every reaction, every action is a reaction. In this case, it’s not brand new. The rise of the blogosphere in the early two thousand s and two thousand and ten s. What an old sounding word, right? Blogosphere. But it was big not that long ago and it disappeared for a good ten years during the Obama years. I’m just going to choose a random name, but it more or less disappeared because of, once again changing business models. It was a passion pursuit by a few people. But most people don’t read blogs anymore. Where have they gone? They’re doing substacks and they’re on growing social media platforms. They have YouTube channels and all of these, I think, are contributing to a renaissance of individual writers who can writers and communicators and media and journalists who can have their own audiences and deliver good quality analysis or even reporting. That said, the platforms are still a big question mark over everything. To what extent? YouTube is a place where you can truly grow an audience around any topic you want. That seems increasingly in question, from what I hear. But all that said, yeah, there’s an amazing array of individual creators and reporters and journalists out there that are doing very well and are even forming their own publications like the Free Press, which Bari Weiss launched out of her Twitter files, reporting. This is a publication that’s on substack where they’ve grown a new publication basically overnight, seemingly overnight, with contributors all of whom have their own audiences and collectively have an even greater audience. So I do think there’s a lot of hope there. And it’s exciting to see there’s always growth of new brands. You see what’s happening with Vice. Vice came out of nowhere and blew up with its new at the time, new way of approaching the news and the world. Now it’s collapsing. But there will be something again soon.
Stephan Livera – 00:42:58:
Yeah. And I think it may also be that even journalists inside a company like, let’s say you work for some big name brand, you still want to build up your own name on your own personal Twitter account or your own personal thing. Also because having notoriety in your own name, as opposed to just writing in the masthead name helps. Obviously it benefits your personal career. Right.
Benjamin Carlson – 00:43:23:
I’m glad you mentioned that. One interesting thing about Twitter and another social media, but Twitter, I think even more than most. It’s where you can see the middleman cut out. So what I would do as a reporter is I would call up an economist and I’d ask for the economist’s opinion on what China’s GDP figures meant. And I would do that with three different people. I might have to call eight people to get those three quotes. I’d work them into a story. I’d draw on some analysis from investment banks, other research notes, and then my own experience and expertise. Well, now you can read most of those economists directly on Twitter in real time with more than I would be able to put into a story. And if you’re following the right people, you’ll get all of them all at once. And this is happening with every issue. You can tell me where the best place to find crypto news is. Of course being this podcast. But that’s the way that I think really hardcore news consumers are finding their information. It’s from people who are still at still in the arena doing the work. So they have authority, they have insight, and they have a platform that’s incredibly valuable. You no longer needed to be filtered.
Stephan Livera – 00:44:34:
I see. Also, I saw you say something really interesting as well. Your biggest friend in a cover up is time. The longer the search for truth drags on, the less it matters to change real world events. The stakes have already been settled. Just as there is a time value to money, there’s a time value to truth. So I’m curious if you could elaborate or are there any examples you can give us there?
Benjamin Carlson – 00:44:54:
That was what I wrote right after the revelation that the Department of Energy had assessed that the origin of COVID was the lab in Wuhan. That’s incredibly huge, important news, if that in fact is true. And I think it seems increasingly the consensus that, yeah, that makes sense. But it’s now three years on, right? What does it matter? So the time value of truth in that case is the historical record may be corrected or there may be an asterisk next to the approved narrative for a certain amount of time. But consequences, whatever they might be, consequences for how vaccines are developed and how viruses are studied and what consequences, if any, are warranted for China and the way it handled the pandemic and its relationship to the rest of the world, all that’s now a dead letter. It doesn’t matter. It does matter in an ultimate and cosmic sense, but people have moved on. And I think that’s the larger point I was making is it really does matter how long you drag out the search for truth. Because look at JFK, we may have found out, if you believe I think it was Tucker Carlson and maybe some other sources, that the CIA has been confirmed as the ultimate assassin of a President of the United States.
Stephan Livera – 00:46:12:
Yeah, mind blowing, right?
Benjamin Carlson – 00:46:14:
World changing news, but it dropped like a little nugget of trivia and disappeared.
Stephan Livera – 00:46:20:
Yeah. And it’s like I guess when people are doing wrong things or bad things, they know if they can delay the time, they get found out, obviously, because, as you’re saying, the time value of truth. And so even with vaccine side effects. Wasn’t that another thing where they were trying to push that off, like 70 years or whatever, and then people might never have really found out until it was too late, obviously. And so I think that’s an interesting way to frame it right, this time value of truth, that it matters, that you could get the truth out. And I think maybe in the Bitcoin context as well, there’s this idea and notion of decentralized social media, Nostr being an example. And so it’s like this uncensorable network and it doesn’t need a blockchain, it doesn’t need a token. It’s just a platform that you have notes that you’re broadcasting, just like kind of like tweets and they’re just being relayed around and people can pay for service, right? You pay for your relay, you pay for these aspects of it, but it’s not censorable. And so I think it offers something that’s meaningfully different than, let’s say, the gabs or the truth socials or the mastodons of the world because it’s more genuinely decentralized. That said, there are criticisms of it also. I know there are some people in like, DID, decentralized identity space and things like this, but I wonder if we’re going to start seeing more alternative platforms as well. And I guess one other point that’s interesting around the time value of truth is Elon Musk buying Twitter, right? Like, would we have Twitter files? Would we have even been able to speak freely about some of these things if he didn’t take it on himself to just buy Twitter?
Benjamin Carlson – 00:48:02:
Probably not. Probably not. And even so, you can see the genie being stuffed rapidly back into a bottle. At least the effort has begun. Here’s the problem. Look when it went to Capitol Hill for the hearings, they might actually do some good. I really couldn’t comment on that, and nobody knows just yet where it’s, where it’s ultimately going to lead. The hearings, unfortunately, will also have the side effect of making this just seem like a Partisan issue. And I’m sure you’ve observed this too, once it becomes and this already happened to some extent, but now it’s explicitly associated with different parties. The Republicans were questioning Matt Taibbi and Michael Schellenberger, sympathetically. These are the reporters, the Twitter files, and they were trying to understand what they had found and the implications of it. On the other hand, the Democratic Congressmen were impugning their credentials, asking where they got their money and trying to talk over them more or less anytime they tried to bring up something substantive about it. Now, the way I describe it, you can hear I think there actually is something really valuable in Twitter files. But for people who really believe whatever comes out of the left side of the aisle’s mouth just because they trust those leaders more, they’re going to dismiss it. They have a reason now because guess what? The other team cares about it. So if the other team cares about it, I don’t care. And that’s the way so many issues just get handled now. They only matter to half the population at most, and a lot of people who don’t even want to get involved in politics, once they sense that there’s something polarizing about an issue, they don’t want to delve into the details and figure out where they’re supposed to stand.
Stephan Livera – 00:49:34:
And this is I think you had a good thread about this as well, the nothing burger, right, how media can try to downplay a story. Could you elaborate a bit on that?
Benjamin Carlson – 00:49:43:
Yeah. How do you make a story go away when it’s already out there? You can call it a nothing burger, which is a ridiculous and meaningless work, but the point is, there’s nothing there. There’s a lot of hot air about nothing. That’s one favorite phrase. And especially if you, if you put it out on Twitter, you don’t even have to engage with the ideas. You can just call it nothing burger and kind of let that stand. You can deny it if you actually want to attack it, you can dismiss it as irrelevant, say, well, maybe it’s true, but who cares, right? So maybe the FBI actually did work hand in glove with Twitter to censor certain viewpoints, to suppress whatever was on the Hunter Biden laptop. That whole report from the New York Post banning account didn’t matter. Or you say, in fact, it did matter. There’s a whole array of ways to make to shrug at a story, to dismiss it, and to attack the person who brought it out for having illicit motives or some questionable methods that all ultimately amount to the media saying, we’ve looked at it, and dear reader, you don’t have to care about it. And they applied all of these things to the Twitter file story more or less successfully. You still don’t see many people outside of a pretty engaged Twitter audience, Twitter consuming audience, which is a lot of people, but not everybody by a long shot. They don’t see it as significant. And so it’s not. And I think it’s a successful strategy of managing an inconvenient and I think important story. But it’s not important if you can keep it out of people’s minds long enough.
Stephan Livera – 00:51:15:
Right. And this again comes back to the time value of truth, right? Because if, let’s say, the other people who do believe, it’s important they are able to make it a conversation, to force it into the minds, let’s say, of average everyday people, then that time value of truth starts to work in the favor of the people who do want to, who do believe, who think that, yeah, Twitter files was a good thing. It exposed a lot of big problems. So it’s an interesting, I guess, explanation and I think it makes a lot of sense the way each side is trying to do things. Obviously I’m kind of more aligned on the I’ve been anti-lockdown since day one, right? So I’m kind of obviously more aligned with the pro Twitter files, let’s say, in certain aspects. But I think it just comes back to giving people a way to figure out the truth. And I think maybe what we will see is more and more of a separation, right? And this is coming up as all the whole conversation around national divorce and things like this that are there ways that people can break away? And I think as a bitcoiner I’m also interested in that in a political sense that I think it would be a good thing for people who don’t want to be part of some of these other negative aspects of big state control that we can try to create our own alternatives or at least have exit. So at least that’s kind of how I’m seeing it. But I guess in terms of where things go with media, I guess that’s interesting, as we’ve been saying.
Benjamin Carlson – 00:52:48:
Stephan Livera – 00:52:49:
Yeah, sure, go on.
Benjamin Carlson – 00:52:49:
Point out another example of time value of truth, except in the other direction, just to show how it works. So you delay long enough and something doesn’t. Even if JFK was killed by the CIA, as he seems to have been, it’s too late. So these are going to be recent examples, but they already seem a little bit dated because they were so in the moment. MeToo. The MeToo Movement when it, when it struck 2018, I think, and I’m not trying to give a history of this or even come obviously the issues brought up matter, but what’s important in what I want to share here is just the time value of truth. There was there’s no hesitation between information being revealed and action being taken, so that the urgency of that story was so strong and everybody felt it. And being in any organization or just in the country, you felt that this was the paramount story going on and any new piece of information within that narrative that came to light needed to be acted on right away. So that there you can just see that the time value of truth was well, instantly when you discover something has happened, action is taken. And now, some number of years later, I do think there are people who look back at certain specific instances and try to figure out, well, how how appropriate was the the punishment or the recourse? And I don’t want to get into that. But you can see just how swiftly people act when the truth is revealed in the moment that they care most about it. And I’ll leave that example for where it is. The other thing I wanted to come back to, which is in your wheelhouse, but also indirectly in mine, is SBF Sam Bankman-Fried, right? He’s a media story, in as much as he developed his own brand so compellingly that I think valuations couldn’t really be separated from the sense that he was an important person, a genius, who had been validated by all of these high profile people who he courted and worked over very effectively. And so he got his Forbes cover and he was on stage with Bill Clinton, and he was featured in all the ways that somebody who has substance, authority and trust would be treated. He achieved that appearance very, very quickly. And his business, not necessarily just for that reason, but was helped by it. And so people put on blinders too, with SBF. I don’t know if you see the media playing a role in that story, but from where I sit, it seems in making it a mainstream option, from the Super Bowl ad to everything else that was done to make FTX seem accessible to people who are not conversant with all the different options in crypto. That was an important dimension of what happened there. And the way he actually pulled off his fraud. You can have a blank check for as long as people believe you’re trustworthy. And then once that started to fade and he couldn’t keep it up anymore, the whole house of cards fell down.
Stephan Livera – 00:55:38:
Yeah. So I think in this case, it probably I mean, we were talking about it earlier, but I think it comes back to advertising, right, that he was literally paying for it, right? He had committed fraud, right? He had basically created a Ponzi and created all these shitcoin tokens, and then off a small percentage of the valuation, was valuing them very high, and was getting collateral against this. And basically partaking he was running a shitcoin casino, basically. There’s a whole aspect of that. But I think he then ended up paying for I guess it’s pay. For play, right? That he was able to pay for the right kinds of coverage, pay to sponsor the right kinds of things and try to build almost this personality cult around himself, right? Like, think about it like this. He put himself his own face was on the ads for FTX, the exchange, right? You don’t see that. Like, you don’t see Brian Armstrong on the front in the Coinbase ads. Or it was really strange to me that you’d see a massive billboard just with his face, or there’d be some with maybe Tom Brady or Gisele, some of the other influencer, famous people. But for him to just put his face on the front of it as though that was the trustworthy thing, right. It became part of the model, in a way. So I guess in that example, I’m seeing that more like a pay to play. What do you think?
Benjamin Carlson – 00:57:01:
It wasn’t only pay to play, but they all reinforced each other. His PR strategy, which I have to think was intuitive, was brilliant, was really, really brilliant. Because you leverage one against the other. You pay for the billboard, but the billboard doesn’t look slick. And as a former journalist, you’re skeptical of anything that seems slick and trying to impress you. He doesn’t seem like he’s trying to impress you. He’s down to earth. He wears shorts. He doesn’t look like he’s showered. So that already takes you two steps in the door of trusting this guy. So the advertising strategy, I think, is inseparable from the way that he would come across in interviews and he would come and be fidgety and probably just be himself. But the effect of it was to create a sense that you had a real person who couldn’t possibly pull the wool over your eyes. And so the interviews that he got also were very, very favorable in organic media. I don’t think he was paying anything for that. But once you have the New York Times clip that makes you look really good, it becomes a lot easier to get Tom Brady to work with you. And once you give Tom Brady, then you get Larry David and you can trade up the chain. And he did it very fast and very effectively. And his down to earth down earth is not even the right word. His nerdy on the spectrum kind of image where he was trying to be beyond question because he was so clearly not putting on a show that worked incredibly well on pretty much everybody, at least in the mainstream world.
Stephan Livera – 00:58:31:
Yeah, I think maybe people play up certain aspects of how they are. Like, for example, the whole stereotype of the Silicon Valley entrepreneur who walks around wearing hoodies and shorts and things like this because they try to counter signal almost, right? Instead of trying to wear a suit and a tie, they’re trying to signal the other way and say, oh, look, I’m so cool. I don’t have to wear a suit to impress you. So I’m just going to wear my hoodie and be like a tech guy, like the typical sort of thing. So I could imagine it being a bit like that. And maybe they’re trying to play that angle up. I mean, there were a lot of weird things about SBF and just the degeneracy and the weird behavior going on there. But yeah, to your point, yes, you’re right. It wasn’t merely pay to play. He managed to build up an audience or a fawning media around him as well. I know he also made a lot of political donations as well. So he was able to get I guess he was trying to push for favorable regulations and things like this on that angle also.
Benjamin Carlson – 00:59:38:
And by being accessible, if you want to win a reporter’s heart, it’s helpful. If you’re available and you seem to be giving important information, you can call up the CEO and he’ll be on your podcast.
Stephan Livera – 00:59:47:
Benjamin Carlson – 00:59:48:
Amazing. Awesome. You’re going to ask him hard questions, but you want him to come on the next time. So you’re not going to try and assume the worst about this guy. He thinks your podcast is cool, so he’s clearly intelligent and you can just see how the access that he offered, the very unusual amount of constant and seemingly transparent access also helped to make people predisposed, make reporters, journalists predisposed to like him.
Stephan Livera – 01:00:12:
Yeah, I think I agree with that. I think because part of his game is the PR game, so he needs to play this PR game. And by that, as you said, being available for media, being available to answer questions, almost too available as a CEO, if you’re really managing this multibillion dollar company.
Benjamin Carlson – 01:00:30:
Yeah. Doing podcast interviews constantly while playing video games simultaneously should raise a few questions.
Stephan Livera – 01:00:37:
Right. Yeah. One other area I’m keen to ask you about though, is you’ve been going through and finding these interesting old clips, and some of them are interviews, some of them are things like just interesting interviews or interesting clips. Can you tell us a little bit about that and how do you find these interesting clips?
Benjamin Carlson – 01:00:56:
So I think about it as a way to connect people on Twitter, which is where I’m sharing them, to great thinkers who are not that far removed from us. Obviously, it has to be since the dawn of video, but a lot of these videos are very seldom watched and they’re not seen in the context of Twitter, and especially if you put captions on them. So people can consume them as basically a book or an article, but they see the face of the person that they might not you might know the name of Dwight Eisenhower from history books, but to actually see him delivering his farewell address and even to listen to it if you choose to turn on the audio, it gives a different effect. There’s a little bit of, I think, nostalgia that comes from it. But I also find it compelling, especially in an era of podcasting like we’re doing now. You want to connect the person to the ideas. So I’m trying to find some of the most interesting thinkers who have ideas that shed light on our world today, and to find the moments when, at least to me, there’s resonance for things that are happening in technology, whether it’s AI. Or going to Mars or the possibility of going to Mars rather, or identity in a digital era like we’re living in now. It’s amazing the profundity of observations that were given in random interviews in 1970, 1955 by Aldous Huxley, Ray Bradbury, Marshall McLuhan, who’s a media theorist from Canada who is an incredible thinker. All of these people blew my mind when I listened to them. And as I started to share them on Twitter, I found that many, many people, including Elon Musk and Jack Dorsey, liked some of these videos, engaged with them, commented on them, and it told me that I was giving some value to people by going through and finding them. So how do I do it? I actually listen a lot to what my audience tells me in response to things. So if people mention, oh, Marshall McLuhan is fantastic, I also really like, well, you could mention Michael Crichton, somebody they shared recently, the novelist who wrote Jurassic Park and many, many other books, and has, I think, a reputation for being prophetic. So that prompts me to go and look and see what he’s said in different videos and try to find that moment that will connect with people. That’s the basic process.
Stephan Livera – 01:03:07:
Yeah, well, that’s interesting as well. Yeah, and I think you’re right. Sometimes as you start talking about certain things, people who are commenting or reacting back to you will give you ideas on what you could look at next. And I think that’s even for me, as a podcaster, that’s something I’ve seen. There may be listeners who reach out and say, oh, hey, you should interview this guy or you should, et cetera. So I think I’ve seen a similar thing in my world, even so, yeah, I guess those are some interesting things. Yeah, I found the chat interesting. Do you have any, I guess, closing thoughts for listeners, what to keep in mind around, let’s say, the time value of truth, or any closing thoughts about where you see media is going?
Benjamin Carlson – 01:03:48:
I would say if you’re listening to this, you’re already on a good, you’re on a good path and you’re consuming the kind of in depth content that our era is really, really good at. So it’s certainly not all a negative story. And I left journalism, but I’m writing more online than I ever was before. This is one example of many in the world where people are trying to bring value. So I think the broader point would just be to come back to one that you made. Individual creators and journalists and writers, however they identify themselves, people who are providing insight into what’s happening in the world and what matters. There are more of them than ever before, and I would say Twitter is my favorite place to find it. But unfortunately, there are other platforms out there. Don’t just trust legacy brands. There are organizations that are constantly rotating through staff and are, in many cases, hollowed out. But if you hear somebody or see somebody say something that actually resonates with you, give that person some feedback, give them a follow, and that will send you down the path of finding and curating your own portfolio of sources that can give you information that really does feel trustworthy about the world.
Stephan Livera – 01:04:58:
Fantastic. Well, Benjamin, where can people find you online?
Benjamin Carlson- 01:05:01:
Check me out on Twitter and on Substack. My handle is BFCarlson, and it’s called the Carlson Letter on Substack.
Stephan Livera – 01:05:09:
Fantastic. Benjamin, thanks for joining me.
Benjamin Carlson – 01:05:10:
Thanks, Stephan. It’s a pleasure.
Stephan Livera – 01:05:12:
Now, the show notes are available over @ stephanlivera.com. Make sure to share the show if you like it, and I’ll see you in the Citadel’s.