I first met Stephen Miller on Twitter in the relatively gentle days of 2012, when he called me a "ridiculous hack" in the course of criticizing our coverage of Mitt Romney.
Miller, who writes under the name @redsteeze and isn't to be confused with the White House adviser of the same name, is among the most effective of the self-appointed public editors who harry journalists on Twitter. (He also got some attention recently for attending a women-only showing of Wonder Woman.) He comes from the right and has an, in my view unfounded, belief that most media sins can be tracked to an attempt to push a progressive agenda. But in a universe increasingly dominated by bad faith trolls whose explicit goal is to destroy the traditional media, Miller — despite his vitriol — is usually in good faith.
Miller is also a member of one of the most interesting groups in American politics right now: Anti-Trump conservatives. They're politically homeless, ideology untethered from party, and so they often have interesting things to say.
(Slightly edited for clarity.)
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Ben Smith: You're part of, among, the first media critics on Twitter who was reading very closely the mainstream media. I guess which is a category that BuzzFeed sometimes claims to be in. But the thing that struck me is like that kind of media criticism is now the favored sport of the President of the United States, and there's a huge number of people now attacking the media from I guess what you'd call the right, the kind of fake news crowd.
But increasingly some of them really aren't good faith at all. Like the idea is really just to troll you, and their goal is to destroy the idea of a free media and reporting.
You're in the other category, which is like, when you get things wrong, you tend to admit it. You focus on facts.
Stephen Miller: I'm not pushing Pizzagate.
You're not pushing Pizzagate. There's a world of like, bad faith trolling. And a world of good faith trolling. Do you consider yourself a troll? Is that bad word?
SM: I think the problem is that trolling has become a lazy word for a lot of people in positions like yours, or people at the New York Times or the Washington Post or CNN, to just write off anybody who, you know, fires off a criticism toward them, when good trolling to me is actually just getting someone to admit they're wrong by using their own point of view.
So, a good example about this was I love seeing stories about Planned Parenthood throwing $1 million fundraisers, and they're throwing these galas and stuff like that, and I love kind of just going—“Huh, if Planned Parenthood can raise, fundraise money, hmmm, it's nice that we're giving them…” They can make their own case for eliminating public funding, and then you'll get people kind of coming in saying, you know, "These galas and these celebrity balls, well they need to raise funds." And you kind of use this to make your own point. So you're using their argument to make your own point. It's not so much just throwing criticism their way. So, yeah, I think trolling has become the lazy word for anybody who criticizes anybody else.
The word used to be blogger.
I remember when I broke some news for Politico years ago and Rudy Giuliani dismissed it as having been broken by a blogger. And you're sitting here in our lovely little podcast studio, wearing a “New Fucking York” t-shirt under what looks like a blue blazer, and having just gotten off the subway, and you look basically like your Twitter avatar—kind of spiky hair. The only time we met was at a bar in Williamsburg where you live, which is not I think the stereotype of conservatives in America. But I guess I was wondering: what's your deal? Where did you grow up?
SM: I'm from Midwest, originally from Denver, and basically spent every day from the time I was 15 years old on trying to get out of it. I spent a little bit of time in Los Angeles doing film rejects stuff, which, you know, I fell out of love with that real fast. And I went back to Denver and got my degree, I studied multimedia design, so it's anything from web design to graphic design to—
And this is what you do for a living, right? Did for a living, before you became an Establishment Media figure?
SM: Right, and I still do some of it on the side, but none of you guys will ever find it. So, I do a pretty good job—
Don't go issuing challenges like that to crazy people.
SM: I did a pretty good job covering my tracks.
That's what Gary Hart said.
SM: I spent about two years in Portland, which again, for a guy who's politically conservative, I've grown up in liberal social circles.
And tell me, did you have a political awakening at some point? Were you radicalized on the internet?
SM: No, no, I've always been conservative. My father basically drove Rush Limbaugh into my skull for about five, six, seven years, so I mean he's just the guy we'd listen to, he'd turn it up in the car. Some of that stuff kind of stuck.
It sounds like, desensitizing.
SM: Right. Yeah. Child torture. But I've always kind of had a problem with authority figures and I've never been really good at people just saying, "This is what you're supposed to do and this is what you're supposed to think." And I ran with crowds of basically all thought kind of the same way.
You know, though, I basically became really politically active, I would say, around the 2004 election with Kerry and Bush. And I just, like I said, I've always kind of been a right-leaning guy, I'm still an avid George W. Bush fan. And, you know, I would just kind of have all my friends pushing this campaign stuff, and then I was in Portland Oregon when Obama won, and they're running out in the streets banging pots and pans and singing Bob Dylan songs, and I was just kind of like—I was at a friend's house and all I remember saying to that was, "Gee, gosh, I hope he lives up to it."
Yeah, I wonder. It does make me thing if you'd been in Colorado Springs you would have wound up a left-winger.
SM: I mean, maybe! Probably. Probably would have.
And when did you discover Twitter? When did you get on the internet politically?
SM: I had one Twitter account that I just used for kind of my friends and just to do cool design links from design blogs, which is kind of what I was involved in with work, so I would just share kind of fun things, like, "Here's this and here's this."
But even going back to MySpace, I was posting kind of political—everybody who remembers MySpace, you could post your own separate blogs in your own box and everything like that. And so I would be posting kind of political rantings there a little bit. But as far as Twitter, I would say it was roughly around Occupy Wall Street when I moved to New York, when the whole media was just on top of this Occupy thing. "Oh, this is beautiful, it's Les Mis, down in like, Zuccotti Park right in the shadow of Wall Street. God!"
And you know, and I lived right down there at the time. I just moved here. And I walked down there, and I took a look at it, and it wasn’t what anybody in media was saying it was. It looked like something out of Mad Max. I mean it was just guys strung out all over the place—yeah, you had a lot of like socialism, communism, stuff like that. But you know there was also reports rampant sexual assault, there was guys just seriously just getting in cops faces, a cop will just be standing on a thing and a guy would just run up and scream at his face.
So, that was it for me, that was kind of my breaking point, and that's kind of when I started a political Twitter, which was kind of anonymous, it was not my name or anything like that.
Is this @redsteeze? It was another one?
SM: No, it was named something else, I don't even—it was like, I did like some really weird distressed punky elephant logo too, for the GOP. But I was just kind of unhappy with state of conservative media, and Twitter is the only place where people like me, where I didn't come from journalism school, I don't go from Ivy League straight to the Washington Post. So it's a place where people like me can voice our opinions, and if you're good at it, people I think eventually catch on. And you know, I basically said, "Well if I get five thousand followers, I'll start a blog and if I get ten thousand, I'll do this,” and that's kind of what happened.
Yeah, Twitter, I mean it's small-d democratic, right? I mean you can, you can fight your way into the conversation, right?
SM: Right. Right. You still have to have a good sense and kind of know what you're talking about. If you're just throwing a bomb, and you're just using it to vent, well, yeah you can use it that way. I never understand these deep conversations about harassment and trolling on Twitter, and all these things, that we have to get this stuff under control.
Twitter to me is whatever you want it to be. If you want drama on your timeline, you're going to get drama on your timeline. But you can easily shut drama off of your timeline. It could be anything you want. You can reveal anything you want about yourself. You can put your kids up there or not. I'm pretty guarded about my personal life. Accidentally one time I snapped a photo off my phone of my bedroom of my cat sitting on the thing, and it uploaded to Twitter. I had no idea it was up there. And people laughed and said, "Oh no, don't take that down! It's like seeing a unicorn."
So people, you're as open as you wish to be on Twitter, but it's anything you want it to be. You can control almost 100 percent of that environment that you exist in—if someone's screaming at you, block them out, mute them, block them.
Obviously there's going to be cases where people are going to use this sense of cyberstalking and things like that, but for the most part when you hear about harassment and bullying, I just don't buy it. Twitter is whatever you want to use it for.
I mean you—and I actually—have been very careful about what you reveal about your, who you, on Twitter, are off Twitter: your family, your personal life. Lots of people don't have that luxury. Lots of people, all of that is all that is Googleable, easily found.
You know, and obviously like you and I probably get fewer rape threats than like some of our female colleagues on both sides.
SM: You'd be surprised.
On both sides of the aisle. And maybe you and I have like thicker skin than most people about vitriolic personal attacks, and people on the internet wishing you death. Like, I certainly have a thick skin about that.
SM: I don't get that many death threats though.
Oh, well, congratulations.
SM: I'm really disappointed, but that's the thing, I hear people talking about death threats.
But I also think like you're saying like, there's a kind of like glibness to saying like, "Come on, deal with the death threats. I can deal with them." I mean, isn't that kind of a lot to ask of a regular person?
SM: No, no it's not. They can, if someone says, "I hope you die, you dumb bitch," you can block that and go about your day. There is this kind of—
You can also block that and be really freaked out by it, right? Are you wrong to be freaked out by that? Is Twitter required—
SM: I'm not going to say somebody's wrong.
But Twitter's required to host that content, it is important that Twitter hosts that content, promote it, circulate it, like it's their obligation?
SM: No, no. I'm not a Twitter free speech—I'm not one of these guys who thinks Twitter is a right. Like, you're seeing these articles about people who Donald Trump blocks on Twitter now that are suing. These people are ridiculous. You know, like I said, Twitter can be whatever you want it for, but they can also do whatever they want, that's because when you sign up for it, you're abiding by their rules.
So, yeah, if somebody commits a death threat, you should be able to report that and that should be dealt with. But I'm talking about, you're kind of talking about that could freak you out and stuff like that. Yeah. I fully believe it shouldn't freak you out. You're on the internet.
I had a friend who was not political and he jumped on Twitter for about three or four months to kind of promote some of his own music and then he's gone. He was basically like, "No, this is like a political mosh pit, I can't do this." And that's kind of how I look at it. But, no, I think, I mean you might be right about that—where you can take something like that and just brush it off and I can take something like that and brush it off. I'm not going to tell someone else how to feel, I'm telling you from my perspective. It's pretty easy to just go about your day.
Right, and I think I've always enjoyed being called a ridiculous hack by you.
SM: Yeah. You have gotten better.
Because that's like within the spectrum as a reporter on the internet, like that’s sort of how I've lived since 2004. It used to be comment sections. At one point, Media Matters was sending around reporters’ email addresses and I got like 1500 e-mails one day from them. That was actually, of all the annoying things, that one is harder to block.
You're part of a kind of intellectual world that I think is one of the most interesting places on the internet now, which is conservatives who are not fans of Donald Trump. Beyond not fanSM: conservatives who hate Donald Trump. And it seems like it means that you have nothing to lose in a certain way. Like it feels liberating. Like I feel like you're better at this now.
SM: It's only the country!
Just the country. But back in the day when you were defending Mitt Romney, I don't know, there's a kind of handcuffs that come with partisanship. Do you feel liberated? By the fact that you've got nobody to champion?
SM: No. I kind of, I just like, kind of snarked about, all we have to lose is the country. I think that's how a lot of us look at it. I think that, that was also part of the problem with Trump is, even upon his election, he may be successful short-term and Trumpism might be successful short-term—he's going to give people what they want—but inevitably he's probably going to end up destroying the right, is going to end up destroying conservatism. And there's a lot of people who like to associate Trump with conservatives, and he simply has never even claimed that he's a conservative, I don't believe. He tries to kind of wedge himself into there, but that's just what he does.
So whenever people say, you know, "Conservatives are allowing this." No, I mean conservatives were the only people who tried to stop this. Like really, genuinely tried to stop all of this while CNN and MSNBC and the whole media—MSNBC—and the whole media was just loving him beating up on all the golden boys. They loved that Trump was just going after Cruz and Paul and Rubio and all these guys.
I think they loved the ratings.
SM: Well of course they did, but they love the show. And then of course you have Trump on Saturday Night Live and you have all of this stuff, so it was great when he was doing it to the right, it was great when, you know, Trump is going after the people that generally, the, you know mainstream media who also finds you know, "We don't really like these guys."
And all of a sudden, conservatives for six, seven months, you know, we're the ones seeing this happen, he steamrolls us, which we kind of just had to accept, like, "Okay, well that's over with." Then he of course steamrolls Hillary, and now he's of course trying to steamroll media. So, is it kind of liberating? I mean no, because we care very deeply about what long term health of where this is going to lead. Not just of the party and not just our ideology, but also what it's going to do to the country.
You know, I wonder, this was actually a question, we were tweeting about the interview with Bill de Blasio, the mayor of New York, who told me he thinks the corporate media should be replaced by people's media.
SM: He wants just about everything publicly funded.
But, he's been incredibly critical of—bitterly critical of—the New York media that he deals with. And I said to him, "These are criticisms I understand at another moment maybe, these are reasonable arguments to have. Doesn't this just make you fundamentally an attack dog for the White House? I mean aren't you basically kind of a soldier in Donald Trump's Army? If what you are doing all day is attacking and chipping away at the media institutions?"
SM: I think there's a big misunderstanding with, I think people in your industry and people again with bigger outlets as well as you know—we are unwilling soldiers, every time we're attacking media, we're we're kind of doing Trump's work for him while he sits back and kind of does the Mr Burns, "Excellent."
But here's what I'll tell you. Our media right now is really the only thing that can hold him accountable. Conservatives can't hold him accountable anymore. The Republicans aren't going to hold him accountable anymore. And that requires a good media and right now 90 percent of our media is bad.
So a good media has to hold him accountable on serious issues, not things like his ice cream scoops, not things like a video breakdown of every second that he shook a Emmanuel Macron's hand for 25 seconds, you know?
These are things that make it obnoxious and these are things that empower him and so where I come from is when I'm lobbing bombs at you guys, I'm coming from a spot of like you guys need to be better because you're the only ones that can hold him accountable now. This isn't about so much bias, it's about the need to drive content and the need to drive, like you said, ratings, overwhelms anything else that we've been hearing about this new golden age of journalism. It's just, it's not that.
So I'm kind of coming from the part of some tough love of saying, "You know what you guys? You're screwing this up." Like what you're doing is not going to hold him accountable, it's probably going to end up leading to more of him. Does that make sense?
That's actually kind of partly why I thought I wanted to talk to you. Because I think that right now it's so noisy out there, that a lot of people in my profession who perhaps spend less time on Twitter than I do, it's like very hard to distinguish between you and someone like my Mike Cernovich, who, you know, like Charlie Wurzel had a great piece about. But kind of these broadcast news interviews with someone like that, who really isn't interested in—he's not trying to make the media better. He's trying to destroy it.
SM: Right. But the media's never going to be destroyed. These guys have this myth in their head that they're going to be able to take down CNN, and they're going to be able to take down BuzzFeed.
Right, but there's not a good faith critique of our ignoring Pizzagate to be had. Right? Like that's not a good faith argument.
SM: But on the other had, I read Charlie's stuff, I think he is probably your best reporter right now, but nobody does more to elevate these guys like Cernovich on the alt-right than our medias. I mean, when CBS gives him a primetime slot—and they do this for a reason. They do this to hold somebody like him up, and say, "This is what the right is now. This is who the right has become. They're overwhelmed with Trumpism."
I think you overthink the amount of theory that goes into this stuff.
SM: Well, maybe, that's kind of how I look at it. We're going to give Cernovich, we're going to give these guys so much attention, that, see, this is what conservatives are. Just like they did with Trump.
Right, but it sort of squeezes out the more responsible right, the real red, in a way. Like, because I think that you have folks who really don't believe in anything and are looking to destroy us—I think Trump essentially represents this. And that it's very hard to engage in good faith. Donald Trump, the media's not having a good faith argument with him, he's not listening to the response to his criticism and modulating his tone.
SM: Well, but neither are they. We saw this with Cuomo's interview with Conway, this 35-minute just, "Nuh uh, you are!" "Nuh uh, YOU are!" fest. There was nothing involved in that benefits anybody. I mean there's not one side making their argument and another side making their argument or challenging—it just becomes this constant slap fight. And that's where I think people tune out. And they just say, "Well, we've had enough of this."
Right. That's why I assume you sort of adopt such a kind of like calm and soothing tone in your rhetoric on Twitter.
Because I think my colleagues who block you or who aren't a fan of yours, I think it's mostly because they feel like you're hyper-aggressive and that there's like kind of a hyper-aggressive voice on Twitter that makes it hard to engage the criticism.
SM: Well I'm a blunt instrument. And I do believe, like I said, Twitter can be whatever you want it to be. I believe it to be sort of a weapon, again, where someone like me—and I don't mean that in the sense of like, I don't want to be someone who like tries to dogpile somebody with 200 followers, I kind of don't ever really believe in punching down social media. It's just not what I do, unless someone makes a really, really fun comment or really make one so easy that I just can't pass it up.
But I do consider it to be a kind of weapon that I can use, especially someone, like I said, who just was a guy who kind of stumbled into this whole thing, and for some reason, ungodly reason, I have no idea why you amass a little bit of a following, and it kind of gains and it kind of gains.
Do you feel like you have to constantly modulate what is punching down as your own voice gets bigger? Like I certainly found that. Right? Like, for me to pick a fight with a junior reporter somewhere now is like really obnoxious, where like, years ago, I was a junior reporter picking fights with other people. I mean, you sort of are the medium now. You have a column at Fox.
SM: I'm doing a lot—I'm contributing Game of Thrones to Fox, so let's not get too—I'm not like, you know, fluffing Hannity here under the desk. And we just talked about this on my podcast where I got a little bit of shit for selling out.
What's your podcast called?
SM: It's the Conservatarians with John Gabriel at Ricochet, so, which we kind of try to keep it humorish, and this is kind of where I come from to write. I try to keep things at least funny, in any sense, even if it's hyper-aggressive, I want there to be some brand of humor in there because I think that that's where—and this is where your industry doesn't understand the guys on the alt-right and the guys who post means and stuff like that—is if they can be funnier than a lot of people, you're going to lose that argument.
So as far as like modulating, yeah, I mean, a little bit. But a guy like me with just a blue checkmark and, you know, I think I have like 90,000 followers, but in all honesty, with Twitter engagement, it's probably twenty thousand you know and then even more people that engage with me is probably 20,000, and even more that people engage with me is probably 25.
So I do believe in using it a little bit responsibly. I'm not there to, you know, go and try and sickly own and destroy Sharon and the photo with her two dogs with an American flag, who's typing in all caps at me, "MAGA TRAIN BABY, MAGA TRAIN" and just going crazy. That's not what I'm, they're using it for.
Even if I have veterans who jump on me. And there's a lot of veterans use Twitter, this is one thing that I found really interesting, even if they disagree with me and you know they, they throw the worst insult at me, I generally go and look at a bio and if it's a veteran, I just leave it alone.
When I disagree most with you, it's when you kind of like impute motives or like make guesses about how things are working internally here or somewhere else when I'm like, "No, sometimes we screw up." Sometimes, like, you sort of take a political lens to something that isn't being thought about politically.
Do you feel like you've learned or changed your view on how these institutions work over four or five years of really like, engaging us pretty frontally and inviting with people?
SM: No. No! I think for the most part you guys are pretty much everything that I still think. And when I say "you guys," I mean media at large. And generally when I mean media at large, I mean obviously the networks, I mean obviously WashPost, the New York Times, New York Daily News, even some of the right-leaning stuff.
Who do you think is good? What do you like?
SM: In media, or both sides? Who do I read?
In the MSM, I guess, which is—it's sort of still a useful term. Like, who is doing it well.
SM: Nobody. (laughs) Just nobody. But here's what I'll say: I read a lot more left-leaning stuff than I do right-leaning. Like I haven't I haven't gone to the Drudge Report in years. I mean literally, I don't go to that website.
You're missing out.
SM: Play, "Which one is the Alex Jones link?" If you just go up and down. I think I went to it when he linked to a couple of things, and I'd go like that.
I mean for the punching bag that they are, I read Vox every day. I do read you guys occasionally, I do read the New Republic a lot, I do read the New York Times, I do read the Washington Post. I read a lot of this media more than I would say I read National Review or if I even read Fox News or Red State, or the Federalist, these right blogs that are out there. I like to know what the other side is thinking and more importantly, I like to know what they're arguing.
But most of what we're doing is reporting and I think that's like a big part of the imbalance. Like there aren't really meaningful conservative reporting institutions at the moment. I know there are sort of attempts to build them, but like, I think like 95 percent of what I think about, what Dean Baquet thinks about, this less true obviously of Vox, of more sort of politicized places, is like, "Are we sure that those girls said those things to R. Kelly?"
You know, is the reporting on stories. And not that we don't have blind spots, and not that we certainly don't like, culturally come from a certain place here.
SM: Do you think that you come from a standpoint that's either inherently from the left or progressive—and I think you can say progressive without meaning, "I'm talking about Nancy Pelosi?
I think the blind spots tend to be kind of a cultural and generational. Like, my newsroom is full of people under 40, who mostly live in New York, and wanted to be journalists. Some of them come from the right, some of them worked in conservative media, including myself and our political editor, but I think like our blind spots tend to be like most of all generational, honestly.
SM: So you so you just think that based on the fact that you're hiring these younger people and younger people are now coming from more progressive institutions?
But even mostly the kinds of people, mostly came out of—not all, but most of them college graduates.
Certainly not a requirement to be in this business.
But there's like an obvious kind of demographic skew, there's like all sorts of cool-kid, inside-Twitter blind spots that you have as well as I do probably, about how we see the world. Some of that overlaps with ideology, some of it maybe overlaps like, more like if the word neoliberalism is back en vogue.
SM: Here's a good example. And I wrote about this. When there was a case a Yasmin Seweid who was a woman in New York City who claimed, she went and told cops, she had her hijab ripped off.
This is actually a really good example. I was going to bring this one up, too, because I think it's good for us to talk about this one.
SM: And you're original headline was, "Drunk Men Yelling Donald Trump Attempt To Remove Women's Hijab on New York Subway."
That headline should have said, as the story said, "She Claims."
SM: Right. Exactly.
And actually, after you pointed it out, I think we changed it.
SM: You changed it to, here's what you changed it to: "Woman Arrested For Allegedly Making Up Story of New York Subway Attack."
Well, the story did change. But here's the thing, like, when somebody makes a police report, that's an allegation. But it is something that, if you pick up the Washington Times today, you will see the word alleged a number of times in that newspaper. It's a convention of journalism—may be it’s wrong—but that when somebody has filed charges of some kind of crime being committed, you report it! And you do say allegedly, right? And I think our initial headline obviously should have had that. And then, appropriately, when it turned out to be that she'd made it up, we went with that.
But I feel like to me what you were implying was the media sort of conspiring to create an impression that like there's this anti-Muslim wave in America which doesn't exist. To me, there's lots of other evidence that it does exist. Of course that's why the media is sensitive to that kind of incidents, because you just had a guy running for president just like attacking Muslims wholesale.
That seems reasonable. But also obviously like I wrote about the woman who said that an Obama supporter had carved, what did she supposedly carve? She carved a B into her face?
SM: She carved a B into her cheek.
She carved it. But it's a huge challenge for journalists that people lie to them and make things up and lie to the cops.
SM: Right, but skepticism to me should override anything that Donald Trump is saying about Muslim bans, and there's this wave of crimes—I mean skepticism to me is the absolute most necessary thing, to me at least, from what I see in journalism today. And there's not a lot of it. Everybody is kind of rushing to prove their confirmation bias, like, "Oo, this woman had her hijab ripped off, so we gotta go and report that." As opposed to going, "Okay, let's wait and see how this goes."
There was one instance in Oregon as well which people just dropped it. It was really, this guy claimed somebody broke into his house and spray painted and wrecked his house and they put a cross and bullets all on the table, and stuff like that. And this one wasn't really picked up by national media, because I think they looked at this and went: something doesn't smell right here. This doesn't pass the smell test. Like the words were misspelled, it was like, "GEET OUT OF AMEERICA" or something. But then there was no follow up to this at all, and it was kind of like—and then he ended up on a GoFundMe where it was supposed to go to repairing his house and then he actually puts on his GoFundMe, "Oh, by the way, I have a friend who's going to do all of this so I'm just going to keep the money."
Right, then like the reality that there are liars and disturbed people who make up crimes and they often latch on to a sort of plausible narrative and sometimes those crimes, like those fake crimes, are sort of have a "too good to check" quality ... I mean the woman who carved, "B" and "O" into her face—
SM: Are you doing "What about"-ism right now? You're doing "What about?"-ism.
I remember Michelle Malkin actually of all people immediately said, "This, this is like too much what I want to believe to be true for it to be true." I think that's an important reflex to have. But I guess what we have tried to do, and it's so hard with this stuff, is to report the hell out of and document: Is there an uptick in bullying in schools? Like we tracked down dozens and dozens of incidents and parents and teachers saying like, "Yes. And here's what actually happened, in great detail." And I'm not sure there's a real substitute for just trying to report these things out.
And then when you're wrong, and to me this is actually one of the things that distinguishes what I see as a legitimate media from the really kind of new, totally bad faith media, is that when the story—when either you've made an error or you've been lied to, and the police have been lied to in that case, you like very aggressively and thoroughly rewrite the story to say the opposite of what it said.
As opposed to trying to argue your way into some position of consistency.
SM: Right. Right.
And actually, I think one of the things that I see in you is that you're very attuned to hypocrisy, and to people being inconsistent. And I think for reporters, you shouldn't be invested in your previous theory, your previous story being true. You should be invested in getting the thing you're writing about right, and if that contradicts something you wrote before, better to have the contradiction than to sort of feel some investment in not correcting. Like, that's always the sort of, when people are like micro-arguing about corrections, that's always the red flag for me.
SM: Right. I mean my problem is—
But you're not going to find someone who hasn't at some point been lied to, and, you know.
SM: No, but again that this, this comes from a place of, "Are you eager to believe this person because, like you said, they're giving you something that proves your narrative and I think that narrative journalism is a big problem."
I mean it's a human problem, it's a like—I agree.
SM: The thing about narrative journalism to me is, and this is mainly where I come down hard on BuzzFeed is, anybody who kind of notices me on Twitter: I don't go after Media Matters. I don't go after ThinkProgress. I don't go after Mother Jones. I don't go after Salon—I don't even read Salon.
I can't believe you don't go after Salon. Man you gotta hold those guys accountable.
SM: Salon gets more traffic from people on the right. I think that's your industry, is just, "Hey, let's go piss off some conservatives and we're just going to get our ad money there."
Oh, that's unfair.
SM: But I don't pick on these people. I don't go after ideological differences on Twitter. What I want and what I look at is when I see outlets who say, "Well no, we're, we're just, we're down the middle and we're doing these things and we're hip like this." All I care about is what somebody admits what they are. And BuzzFeed's kind of this thing to me where you have this progressive ideological bent to you, and you are very, very very skilled at kind of hiding that behind the rest of the brand and the content which, in all honesty, you kind of inherited when you came into BuzzFeed.
BuzzFeed was, I mean I remember, clicking on the site 15 years ago, and it was just like—
It was the world's leading web culture and cat site.
SM: The lowest common denominator for the web.
How often were you clicking on it again?
SM: Oh, well no, no, no.
No, I mean, we still do tons of kind of web culture.
SM: Right, but you guys aren't like what I said about Mother Jones and stuff. Like, Mother Jones isn't presenting their arguments about the problems of why the Republicans are going to kill everyone with their health care bill, and oh, by the way, here's a video of a cat eating a watermelon kind of thing. And so always my thing—and if you've noticed, I haven't been very tough on you guys lately—mainly because I think you guys have admitted what you are. I think you guys are leaning into your progressive bent a little bit.
That doesn't mean what you do isn't credible. Like some of the journalism that you're doing, because I think there is credible journalism on the left. It's just again—
It's interesting, because I see it, again, almost in the opposite way. Like, certainly we come from a place which is actually, the watermelon—it's hard to picture a cat eating watermelon, but I get the idea—really what that is a culture. That's like the web culture, of your and my 2000s, sort of 90s youth, right? That's more a culture than it is certainly an ideology.
But any culture comes with its, you know, the Upper West Side culture the New York Times comes out of comes with its set of beliefs. And some of them totally uncontroversial, right? There's probably not a news outlet in America that's like, "Well, on the question of racial segregation, there are two sides, right?" A lot of this stuff is banal. The assumptions that you make.
SM: Right. And that was kind of your famous ethics thing, where you said that on certain issues, there aren't two sides.
In the culture that we are part of and come out of, the question of whether gay people are equal to straight people or whether being gay is like a psychological disease, like that's not an open question. I don't want to pretend that we treat it as one.
The question of how, whether a florist should be required to provide services, like that legal or constitutional question, that's something we're going to cover in a straightforward way and don't have a, sort of have some kind of fixed perspective on. But I guess—what I actually think like from my perspective, and I think sometimes what I found frustrating, and when I was at Politico we got this from the left all the time, which iSM: "All we're asking is you admit that what you're fundamentally about is pushing an ideology, and everything else you do is in the service of that."
And like, if you've come up, as I have, as a reporter like I covered city hall for years, no, like what we're fundamentally about is trying to get good stories and print stories somebody didn't want printed. In the course of that obviously we come out of a place and often we put a lot of internal energy into checking our instincts and sometimes failing at that, but I think that like people who are interested in and motivated by ideology project that on an industry that like surely has its blind spots and is swimming in the same ideological waters as everybody else, but it's not, it's just not what we spend our time thinking about.
SM: No, and I'm not one of those guys who thinks you guys go into a boardroom and go, "How can we make...?"
The Star chamber?
SM: Right, but I mean, there was one major instance of this, and this was to me kind of one of these seminal moments in media, which was the all-famous Barack Obama selfie stick video that you guys did. I mean there's so much working in that video.
If I could get Donald Trump to goof around with a selfie stick, I would. We had Ted Cruz in here doing them.
SM: That's the problem. You shouldn't.
We had Ted Cruz, I think he did a Simpson's impression for us.
SM: Right. It wasn't that it was the selfie stick. I mean you're going to get the scold tour. I was going to say: "You know, there's more important things happening."
That was the day Barack Obama became president.
SM: Right. But my problem on this, and not even my problem, but what I said is kind of, well, this video was done to promote Obamacare. Like this wasn't just Obama dancing around, you know, being goofy with sunglasses and a selfie stick. This was BuzzFeed actively participating in pushing the President of the United States' health care law, which was trying to get people enrolled into, and in return for that, what it looked like in return for that is that he gave you guys an interview.
And so you're basically trading access to go out and push Obama's law. Now, to me that looks like well, there are several reasons why you would agree to that. One, because Obama's cool. Okay, he's everywhere in culture, he's on award shows, he's on ESPN, he's hanging out with celebrities and Obama is kind of this cultural cool guy, more than he is a politician and a president.
But even more so, you're helping him push this agenda basically forward. And so I look at things like that and they state, to me, that's the problem. The problem isn't the selfie stick. The problem isn't the video. The problem is you have news organizations actively stepping in to push their agenda.
I think any time you get access to a public figure, that public figure is going to use that to push their agenda. Like when I interviewed Bill de Blasio, he was pushing his public—there's just no circumstance in which a public official figure goes on any forum where they're not. And that, and I think like that exchange, like I basically am a believer in that line that “access is a curse,” and that exchange of access for the person's use of your megaphone should make everybody nervous. It's part of the balance of that kind of journalism.
But it is interesting, I think like you also—the sort of critique of like blending entertainment and news is something we've thought about a lot. And we have more much, more separate entertainment and news divisions than we did than at that time.
But I guess I also felt there was sort of absolute value to getting Obama to participate in the Thanks Obama Reddit meme. So, you know, it's like you balance.
SM: So I mean.
Such a value, they shut down the whole subreddit.
SM: Those are the things that I look at, when you talk about hypocrisy and then you talk about, "Well no we're just, we're kind of looking for good stories." Things that are glaring to me, and things that kind of stick out to people on the right who look at this stuff, a good example is, and I'm by no means like a hard pro-life guy, this is not my, this is not my issue.
You're not. That's interesting to me. Because you tweet a lot about it. You feel like there's an unfairness to that point of view, in a way?
SM: Oh, of course there is, and it's not even unfairness, it's institutionalized. And it's—there's all this umbrella pushed under women's rights and things like that, but I think what became really evident is when David Daleiden went undercover at these clinics and then it became automatically written off as, "Okay, these are edited, these are illegal," and things like this. And Mother Jones wins awards for doing this very same thing, when they go undercover at animal plants, basically.
And so the problem where I look at this, and I go, "Okay." People who remember when these videos broke, Planned Parenthood was spinning. Their head was just going, you know? Cecile Richards apologized, she looked like a deer in the headlights, SKDKnickerbocker gets involved, which is, I'm sure anyone in your audience knows who they are, it's basically the biggest Democrat PR firm. And I admire these guys—it's funny.
I think we did a story basically saying this, right, that prosecuting people for obtaining undercover recordings that probably do violate California's one-party consent whatever, whatever. That said, reporters often rely on sources who record things and give them those documents that maybe like, putting aside the law, which we all respect briefly, like reporters sympathies instinctively ought to be with people who are making undercover recordings and publicizing them.
SM: But the thinking where I look at this and go, "Okay, so and I see kind of how the sausage gets made, and nothing on, a reporter like Kate Nocera, but she came straight from BuzzFeed to SKDK back to Buzzfeed.
A reporter of mine who made a brief career choice, did not work on this stuff.
SM: I know. But even more so to the point, BuzzFeed's health reporter accepted awards from Planned Parenthood at one of their galas, which is fundraising.
Somebody who is not in our news division and would not have if it was in our news division.
SM: But, I'm showing you and for your audience how somebody like me looks at these things through a lens and goes, "Huh, this is interesting."
And I feel like somebody like you can easily like put dots together like that. And not sort of look into newsroom and see like, "Oh actually, like, perhaps some of the people you mentioned are like having a very intense conversations about how can we make sure that we are accurate in the way we cover those stories, you know?"
And I do think there's a glibness sometimes, when you come with the expectation that those dots are going to form a picture, you can find it. I mean I think something you said earlier that was kind of interesting that like the media doesn't point to these Planned Parenthood fundraisers and say, "Why do they really need public funding?" I mean, that's certainly true though of Sloan Kettering, the cancer center in New York, has galas with celebrities that raises lots of money. So, I mean, it's not in any way unusual. I mean obviously Planned Parenthood in their celebrity is on the extreme edge of it, but there aren't major institutions in the country in healthcare that don't try to have star-studded galas.
SM: You're doing, "What about?"-ism again.
"What-about?"-ism. This is now the way to end the conversation on Twitter. We're all living in the 1970s Soviet Union now.
I think that folks like you, there's this strange moment, and I've hired a lot of people who come sort of from where you do. Where you're like, "Wait, I'm a journalist. I'm part of the problem."
Do you feel that? Do you have trolls?
SM: Oh, of course. “You are the media!”
SM: Yeah, it's funny, I always tell people when they insult me, I'm like, "Just don't call me a journalist. That's like the lowest form of insult you can actually do for me.” So, um, yeah, but that's going to happen anyway. So, I mean, it's again like I said the charge of, now as I'm contributing to Fox, doing some culture/media stuff for Fox, people are like, "You're a media critic! How are you in the media?" And stuff like that.
Does it make it hard for you to criticize Fox?
Concerned you're going to lose your Game of Thrones column?
SM: Right, well, I'm going to lose it in five weeks anyway because, it's a six-week season.
But basically, this thing about being in the media: I mean yes and no. I mean the thing is that the people are pretty familiar with my Twitter feed and they're pretty familiar with the kind of tweets that I put out there. So if you want me to come write for you and then tell me, “You need to moderate your Twitter feed,” then obviously you’re not wanting me to write for you for the right reasons.
So I've been really fortunate with that. Even at National Review.
You've got to stay true to your Twitter feed.
SM: I got the words, "Poop Swastika" on the front page of National Review online. That was the watermark.
Congratulations. I do think it's an interesting thing for writers who've come up on Twitter and social media that you have a sort of obligation to your voice there, and to your following there, that you can't then betray when you get a job. That can actually be like a challenge for people, I think, in some ways.
SM: Right, but that's also been one of the easiest things for me. I haven't had to ever worry about a 9-to-5. People do. And I completely understand that, and this comes down to, again, this fun new discussion we're having about internet anonymity with content and gifs and memes and things like that is—I've had that luxury to be able to kind of say not only what I've wanted to say, but also when people who I think are in these jobs where they can't read, but be on Twitter, you call it the heartbeat of news. Which I agree with. So I can also kind of be that conduit for them. I'm not pretending to be a shepherd here, I routinely tell people I'm going to let them down eventually.
You're not anonymous but you have a very sort of like clear and simple public identity that allows you—
SM: Right. I'm there for a purpose.
And you can always be confused with the other Stephen Miller. Does that happen a lot?
SM: Not anymore since Elaina Plott wrote a piece about it—and I contemplated even letting her do it. She said, "Everyone's mistaking this anti-Trump guy for Trump's—" you know, whatever.
Have you ever talked to Stephen Miller about it?
SM: No, I know nothing about the guy.
We're so pleased that White House advisor Stephen Miller was able to join us for this conversation about immigration policy. But yes so we will probably like edit this as misleadingly as possible.
SM: I'm sure.
And put it on the web. Thanks for subjecting yourself to this. Appreciate it.
SM: No! Thank you for having me.
Ben Smith is the editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed and is based in New York.
Contact Ben Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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