Episode 195: David Leonhardt and the Elite Consensus Manufacturing Machine
Nima Shirazi: Before we get to this week’s episode, we also want to remind you that on Tuesday, January 30, at 8:30 pm Eastern, we will be hosting our next Citations Needed Beg-a-thon. We do these every so often to entice our amazing listeners–that’s you–to become supporters of our show through Patreon, if you aren’t already, and if you are, for you to stick with us. [Laughs] We do this every so often by bringing on some amazing guests talking about some more lighthearted topics, and we give out fun prizes.
Adam Johnson: Yes, we’re going to be dissecting social media Grindset influencers–the likes of David Goggins, Andy Elliott, Ed Mylett–who tell you to wake up at 3:30 in the morning, work out 15 times a day, and just be an all-around shredded, awesome alpha male to bag escrow and close a trad wife. And so we’re gonna talk about their influence, and we’re gonna discuss their ubiquity on social media, so we’re doing a little bit different, usually we do corporate media or big media, now we’re kind of doing social media trends, all of which have developed their own sort of quasi-corporate position in our society, so we’re excited to get into that.
Nima: We will be joined on the Beg-a-thon by writer Hussein Kesvani, and if you’ve joined any of our previous Beg-a-thons, like the ones on pseudoarchaeology or Star Trek or pro wrestling, you’ll know that they are a good time. So we hope to see you there, again, that is on our YouTube channel, streaming live on Tuesday, January 30, 8:30 pm Eastern. Look out for the link that day.
Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.
Nima: Welcome to Citations Needed, a podcast on the media, power, PR, and the history of bullshit. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.
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Nima: This is also our first episode of the new year, 2024. So Happy New Year, everyone. We are thrilled to be back and we are excited about the shows that are coming up. So, away we go.
“Make sense of the day’s news and ideas,” urges The Morning, a daily New York Times newsletter. “Get smarter, faster on news and information that matters to you,” Axios assures its readership. “This is how the news should sound,” The New York Times again declares, via its podcast The Daily.
Adam: The past 10 years, roughly speaking, we’ve seen the proliferation of daily digest-style newsletters and podcasts at legacy and new media organizations inspired at least loosely by the so-called explanatory journalism of Vox and similar outlets that arose in the mid-2010s. Publications now commonly offer bite-sized breakdowns of the news that allegedly matter most, delivering to the inboxes of upwardly mobile dinner party-hosting, permanently on-the-go professionals, or at least those who want to think of themselves as such.
Nima: Now, there’s certainly nothing wrong with accessibility in news media. Quite the opposite in fact. But for corporate “explanatory” news models, it’s worth asking who makes the decisions about which news is the most important and about how that news is framed. How do seemingly benign, even folksy promises to “make sense of the news” mask the ideology of corporate media institutions? And what are the dangers of shepherding audiences into a center-right political consensus that issues complaints like “campus speech is vexing” and “the left is less welcoming than the right”?
Adam: On today’s show, we’ll examine the rise and hegemony of centrist micro news platforms — from Axios’s trademarked “Smart Brevity” to The New York Times’s David Leonhardt’s newsletter The Morning and The Daily podcast — looking at how they package left-punching, pathologically incurious, glib news nuggets served up to busy, upwardly mobile, well-meaning liberals.
Nima: Later on the show, we will be joined by Jacob Bacharach, a novelist and essayist whose writing has appeared all over, from The New Republic to The Outline, The New York Times itself to New York Magazine, The Baffler to Jacobin. He is the author of three books, the most recent of which is A Cool Customer: Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking.
Jacob Bacharach: If there’s a fundamental underlying ideological tendency within The Morning and this genre generally but certainly within Leonhardt and his newsletter for The Times, it’s a tendency that I would call it the “move along, nothing to see here” tendency, which is to say, a sort of acknowledgment that there are imperfections in the way that society is organized, that there are inadequacies in the ability of our political structures and the actors within those structures to respond to certain events, contingencies but nonetheless, that broadly speaking, things are okay. At least within the United States, relatively responsible people are in charge. Systems broadly work and outcomes while not perfected are broadly speaking, relatively just and relatively justly distributed.
Adam: Of course, we cannot begin the new year without letting you know that this is a spiritual successor™ of a previous episode, Episode 87: Nate Silver and the Crisis of Pundit Brain where we discussed the descriptive normative shuffle that media does. This is an outgrowth of this, specifically the sort of amoral, “data-driven” pundit brain. And it’s positioned within the micro news inbox nuggets for upwardly mobile professionals, and specifically how this idea of curating and aggregating the news because you’re so goddamn important and busy that you need to have a few talking points at the water cooler or at an office party really kind of masks some pretty gnarly ideology and a sort of, I would say institutionalized moral and intellectual lack of curiosity. It really is a kind of outgrowth of the kind of ossification of news we saw in the early to mid-2000s, which did embrace this kind of end-of-history ideology. Weirdly, Vox doesn’t actually have that ethos as much anymore. I think they sort of changed editors. But when Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias began Vox, this was definitely their MO. And that kind of aggregating or explaining the news conservative ethos lives on in these kinds of newsletters and podcasts, specifically those at The New York Times. So, we’re gonna get into that today.
Nima: Yeah, and Adam, as we were talking about this episode, kind of preparing for it, one of the things we remarked on is while we over the past six and a half years, we’re now into our seventh season of Citations Needed. We’ve talked about a lot of sinister shit, right? This idea of the curated, aggregated, explained news nugget model, this is how you start your day so you can be informed. You can know what’s going on in the world. It can be spoon-fed to you by the smartest people you can think of, authorized, approved, made official by The New York Times, and other similar organizations. But Adam, I think through preparing this episode, we’ve kind of discovered that this is among the most sinister things that we have talked about so far.
Adam: This idea that the people whose inboxes are being aggregated here, if you look at sort of the New York Times’s own internal shareholder PDFs and what they claim — this is also true for magazines like the Atlantic — is they do tend to be far wealthier than the average person, they tend to be upwardly mobile, they tend to have professional jobs, doctor, like sort of high-status lawyer, bureaucrat, executive, and that those people genuinely do have influence over everyday working-class people’s lives. And so what they believe and what ideology they have does matter. Of course, it shouldn’t matter, but it very much does. And so, when you reinforce that conservative ideology on literally a daily basis, and you aggregate news to kind of reaffirm their worldviews, I do think this does have pernicious downstream effects, which we’ll get into in this episode.
Nima: So let’s start, Adam, with Vox, that kind of pioneered this model, which was instrumental in popularizing the so-called explanatory journalism in the mid-2010s. Here’s some background. Vox launched in 2014 with the stated mission of filling a gap between reporting and getting an audience to “truly understand why something happened.” On its launch day, April 6th, 2014, Vox published a piece by founder Ezra Klein entitled, “How politics makes us stupid.” The piece was a stark introduction to Klein’s brand of anti-politics, defined by his repeated insistence that politics are mostly a matter of psychology and idiosyncrasies. Three days later, on April 9th, Vox published a gentle dismissal of single-payer healthcare as a well-intended but ultimately impractical idea, thus affirming this kind of worldview.
Adam: The following years would see the debut of several more outlets attempting to recapitulate current events and political issues it deemed worthy. Axios, for example, was founded in 2016 and launched in 2017. A 2016 Vanity Fair piece on Axios’s founder political alum Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen stated that VandeHei “has joked with potential investors that Axios is best described as what you get if the ‘Economist mated with Twitter,’ and ‘smartly narrated all the good stuff its own reporters missed.’” Which is interesting because The Economist is already kind of in tidbits, but Axios wanted to break these tidbits down even further. At this point, Axios then secured $10 million in financing for multiple venture capital firms, NBC News, Laurene Powell Jobs’s Emerson Collective, and David and Katherine Bradley, owners of Atlantic Media. In early 2017, just prior to the site’s launch, VandeHei was interviewed by Harvard’s Nieman Labs. He called Axios “a very mobile-focused platform” and added, “Every item — whether it’s something that we’re smartly narrating or whether it’s an exclusive scoop that we have — every item is summarized in a screen, something the size of your iPhone screen. It’s written in a way so that if that’s all you read, that’s enough, and you’ll walk away satisfied. A typical Axios article included multiple bullet points below bolded headlines like “Why it matters,” “The big picture,” and “Between the lines.” Axios has now over a dozen major corporate partners, including Uber, General Motors, Bank of America, Boeing, Comcast, and Amazon. It does not disclose funding from these companies and its reporting on them despite the clear influence and advertiser like say General Motors would have on breakdowns of a potential UAW strike.
Nima: Now, this trend wasn’t limited to just new media legacy. Corporate media needed to get in on the game as well. The New York Times, for example, has embraced this brand of data journalism since 2010 when it began to host Nate Silver’s blog FiveThirtyEight. Now, after Silver left The Times to take his blog to ESPN in 2013, The Times developed and launched The Upshot, a vertical The New York Times claimed would synthesize explanatory journalism and data journalism. Now, we discussed Nate Silver as Adam mentioned at length in Episode 87: Nate Silver and the Crisis of Pundit Brain. If you have not yet checked that one out, please do. But let’s get back to The New York Times is Upshot and its editor David Leonhardt. David Leonhardt announced at the time that the vertical sought to “help people to better understand big, complex stories like Obamacare, inequality, and the real-estate and stock markets.” That quote is taken directly from a Guardian article on the launch of The Upshot. Now, Leonhard wrote in a Facebook post, that the vertical The Upshot would be written in “a direct, plain-spoken way, the same voice we might use when writing an email to a friend. We’ll be conversational without being dumbed down.” Now, after Nate Silver’s departure, Leonhardt would become the chief architect of the New York Times’s conventional wisdom breakdowns.
And I want to note before we get into platforms like The Morning and The Daily at The New York Times, we should note that getting news in the morning is not bad, that getting accessible news as we said at the top of this episode is not bad but when it is curated with the explicit purpose of reinforcing systems of power and wealth and those curated news nuggets are directly sent to the inboxes or earbuds of some of the most influential people in our society, thus creating one kind of pundit brain, one kind of Leonhardt or Mike Barbaro-influenced brain about how to think about the world, how to think about policies and priorities that actually affect so many millions of people’s lives whether it has to do with labor or whether it has to do with the occupation in Palestine. All of these things set up a system where there is not enough diversity of thought and the power structures are being reinforced again and again and again, every morning, every day.
Adam: In 2020, Leonhardt took the helm of the Times flagship daily newsletter The Morning. This followed a yearslong tenure as an opinion columnist and author of The Times opinion newsletter in which he authored such pieces as “The Case for Amy Klobuchar.” This already reflected the Times’ own semi-, quasi-weird endorsement of both her and Elizabeth Warren in 2020. And “Biden is Smart to Talk About a Republican VP” where he made the case for why Biden should appoint a Republican vice president. Leonhardt’s has effectively become the voice of The Times, determining what news its readers should be paying the most attention to and broadcasting this to an audience of a reported five million people as of late 2021. The Times in its press release announcing Leonhardt’s leadership of the morning newsletter described Leonhardt as “the guide through the day’s news.” It’s also confusing and jumbled, I’m gonna walk you through this. And who better to appoint as the official Times summarist than Leonhardt, the author of newsletters like the following. It’s hard to sort of show everything because it’s sort of a daily newsletter, but we’re gonna highlight some examples we think are sort of especially egregious.
Just days after the murder of George Floyd, Leonhardt argued that defunding the police was an impractical goal, but that reforms like training officers to de-escalate situations were working. Leonhardt claimed in his June 5th, 2020 article “Where Police Reform Has Worked” that “new policies” had resulted in a decline in fatal LAPD shootings in each of the previous four years, but shootings themselves had increased by then (26 in 2019, 27 in 2020), and continued to rise into 2021. During that year 2021, the LAPD shot at least 37 people and killed 17. So the police reforms didn’t work. He sort of cherry-picked one particular precinct and said, look, they’re working, but it ended up sort of not being true and wasn’t even really true at the time. This is kind of typical of how Leonhardt works, which is, again, any radical reforms, anything perceived as not conservative, is unserious. And here, I’m going to come in with data to prove to you why these more modest “reforms” work, reforms, by the way, which we have had at that point going on seven or eight years, right? After Ferguson. That’s the whole reason why the George Floyd demand became radical because we had this sort of banning chokeholds for the eight hundredth time and this sort of police training and all it did is funnel more money into police departments.
Nima: And the body cameras.
Adam: Right, and nothing fundamentally changed which incidentally remains the case today.
Nima: Right, but for data journalism, you just kind of cherry-pick one data point that follows your ideology, right? Like that’s so often how this works, it doesn’t really work the other way. Now, in subsequent editions of The Morning newsletter, Leonhardt would continue to manipulate and defy available evidence in order to advance certain politically expedient narratives, such as on February 11th, 2021, the newsletter had this headline: “Pandemic in Retreat” in which Leonhardt argued, “The pandemic is in retreat. What happens next will depend mostly on three factors: 1) how many Americans wear masks and remain socially distant; 2) how contagious the new variants are; and 3) how quickly the vaccines — which have virtually eliminated the worst Covid symptoms — get into people’s arms.” Now, this became a regular assertion from Leonhardt, as our guest on today’s episode, Jacob Bacharach wrote in The New Republic in 2022 in his article “Why Is David Leonhardt So Happy?” By April of the same year, again, that’s 2020, Leonhardt was castigating the as Leonhard put it “‘many vaccinated people [who] continue to obsess over the risks from Covid,” offering what we now know to be a highly inaccurate picture of the vaccines’ effectiveness at reducing transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and experimenting with an argument that would become a reoccurring favorite: that we easily accept tens of thousands of road deaths every year so why should COVID be any different? He soon announced that again, this is Leonhardt’s words, “the pandemic may now be in permanent retreat in the U.S.”
Adam: Now, this is important because Leonhardt’s obsessed with comparing everything to road deaths. And of course, he does this kind of binary well, there’s going to be risks, risks are inherent. And that’s true, right? But there’s some number of deaths from any disease where you say, well, that’s too much. And you sort of draw the line and you say, how can we reduce that or mitigate that? And for some reason, that line was road deaths. Tens of thousands of people die every year, therefore, COVID can do that too. Now, of course, what most people would say in follow up to that, who deal in public health would say, yes, the road deaths are also not natural, and it’s also not good that we’ve completely designed again, through human contrivance not through some natural process, our entire organization around a bunch of distracted drunk texting people driving two-ton machines at 75 miles an hour, that perhaps that there are better ways of doing that as well. But Leonhardt, of course, he doesn’t ask any kind of deep or even remotely deep, right? Not even the sort of kiddie pool deep questions about the world. That’s sort of that’s just the way it is, and we all need to move on. And the only people who want to ask these deeper questions about society are a bunch of freaks and weirdos and fringe types, and I’m gonna go around and slap them in this newsletter.
Nima: Now, the conventional wisdom put forth in Leonhardt’s daily newsletter, again, entitled The Morning has really dug into coverage of the ongoing Israeli genocide and assault on Gaza. And in so doing has become really a mouthpiece not only for the Biden White House but the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and everything that the Israeli information offices and military is putting out in the world.
Adam: So his news aggregation of Gaza has been extremely thin and very basically just repackaging White House and State Department press releases. So let’s begin. I’m just gonna say one example overall has been horrible or kind of nonexistent, but his coverage in the build-up to the Al-Shifa Hospital raid, siege, bombing, sniping at where Israel killed dozens, if not hundreds of people in a hospital because they were carrying out an evacuation order from October 13 in northern Gaza, which was framed as a hunt for Hamas, a raid. Now, we’ve debunked that on the show, both before, during, and after the supposed Hamas commander control center. But what’s important to know is that in the build-up to that, you didn’t really need to have any kind of unique access to intelligence. You just need to know that governments lie and they especially lie when they have very obvious self-serving reasons to do so. So, a little bit of context here, and the media lies around Al-Shifa Hospital and the media stenography around Al-Shifa Hospital leading up to the raid on November 15/16th, that’s going to merit its own episode. I’m working on a long-form article about that. We’re going to do probably either a news brief or a full episode on that. To show you what sort of power surveying little weasel David Leonhardt is, I sort of want to use this as an example. So, just to start off with a Washington Post report on December 21st confirmed again what I think any sensible person who was not doing spin for the Biden White House or Israel would know, which is that of course, Al-Shifa Hospital was not a Hamas command and control center as Israel alleged. Washington Post found “But the evidence presented by the Israeli government falls short of showing that Hamas had been using the hospital as a command and control center, according to a Washington Post analysis of open-source visuals, satellite imagery and all of the publicly released IDF materials. It was not a command or control center. There was one tunnel, the tunnel didn’t actually connect to the hospital, they showed some rooms which were almost certainly built by Israel in the 80s. No evidence at all of the command and control center, no Hamas militants in the hospital when they raided. So again, this is gonna have its own separate episode, we won’t litigate that too much.
Nima: But this was also the site just to make clear, this was the site that prior to the raid, Israel was saying, you know, this was like the Bond villain headquarters, right? They had, like, 3D models, like computer models. This is the beating heart of the Hamas infrastructure, showing like underground layers and meeting rooms and weapons caches, all these things. Obviously bullshit at the time, confirmed later by even the Washington Post, which, you know, they say they looked at all the open source stuff, but super normie, super centrist, super government connected, meaning even though they cite and credit all the open source material, chances are they’re also getting this from other backchannels, right, like approving this kind of reporting, saying that the Israeli “intelligence” really didn’t pan out. So, we hear this in late December. We have known this now for a month and a half. So, let’s now go back to what David Leonhardt was telling his millions and millions of subscribers in advance of the Al-Shifa raid.
Adam: Right, so this is, again, someone who’s deeply incurious, who is deeply deferential to power, who just assumes that everyone in power is telling the truth. And let’s look at the raw ideology of how he wrote about Al-Shifa. Again, this is days before the “raid.” This is directly targeted to influential liberals while there’s global calls for a ceasefire, right? So the stakes here, I think, are actually pretty high. “The battle over Al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza highlights a tension that often goes unmentioned in the debate over the war between Israel and Hamas: There may be no way for Israel both to minimize civilian casualties and to eliminate Hamas.”
So, let’s start here with the raw ideology here. Two assumptions are baked into this opening, right? Number one that Israel wants to minimize civilian casualties. We now know that’s not true. A CNN analysis and a subsequent New York Times analysis found that 50% of the bombs that have been dropped had been “dumb bombs,” which was saying they’re not smart. They’re literally just dropping bombs on whole buildings. By way of comparison, the US has not used those bombs in over 20 years. Israel used 50% of the bombs of their 30,000 bombs as of the time of the CNN report were dumb bombs. +972, an Israeli magazine found that they were deliberately targeting civilians and civilian infrastructure because they wanted to ruin morale among supporters of Hamas within Gaza. We now see entire cities that have been razed. They’ve razed greenhouses, graveyards, farms, schools, government buildings. We now know they’re targeting civilians and civilian infrastructure deliberately. This is not some incidental thing that happens in the “hunt for Hamas,” which again, is the second premise baked into this, but they are in fact, seeking to eliminate a mosque, whatever that means, when we now know that’s not true. They’re seeking to eliminate large parts of Gaza, at the very least northern Gaza, if not all of Gaza while doing forcible population transfers, a policy aim the Netanyahu administration now openly says they’re doing.
But David Leonhardt is not interested in any of those questions. He just takes everything, all the nominal sort of reasons for the White House and the Israeli government, he takes them at face value. Oh, they’re trying to limit Hamas, they’re trying to reduce civilian casualties. But they’re not. And we know they’re not because we have mountains of evidence they’re not. But again, they’re in power, right? And they represent the people he’s close with and the people he sort of defends so therefore, they’re taking them at their word. Now, if he said, you know, Hamas did their best to reduce civilian casualties on October 7, but unfortunately, x, y, and z happened, nobody would take that seriously. So, even though Israel deliberately targets civilians, and we know they deliberately target civilians and civilian infrastructure, this is not a question that David Leonhardt is interested in answering. So he goes on, and somehow it gets even worse.
The reality of this trade-off still doesn’t answer the question of what should happen in Gaza. Some people will conclude that the human cost, in the lives of innocent Palestinians, does not justify removing Hamas from power — or that Israel may be undermining its own interests by trying to dismantle Hamas. Others will conclude that Hamas’s recent killings of innocent Israelis and its repeated vows to destroy Israel represent a threat that no country would accept on its border. Nonetheless, Al-Shifa — a major hospital that includes a neonatal department — highlights the lack of simple answers in Gaza, and I want to use today’s newsletter to explain.
So, there’s no simple answers about whether or not fucking Israel should shell and fucking bomb a hospital. Right? This is the framing set up here that it’s difficult, it’s muddy, it’s fog of war while lying about it being a command and control center, building a 3D model with zero evidence, zero proof. They never presented any evidence this was a Hamas control center. It does matter. It matters if there’s not a fucking Bond lair villain in a silo full of missiles underneath it, right? Because it does matter obviously because it means they’re lying. And if they’re lying, it means their entire motive is suspect.
And so he’s saying, “There is substantial evidence that Hamas has used the hospital for military operations and has built a command center underneath it as part of Gaza’s tunnel network.” This is not true. This is simply not true. There is no substantial evidence.
He goes on, he would write, “A New York Times journalist in 2008 watched armed Hamas militants walking around Al-Shifa Hospital in civilian clothes and witnessed Hamas execute a Palestinian man accused of collaborating with Israel.” So, they’re around Al-Shifa Hospital. So, any time a military person gets around a hospital, that hospital is a command and control center.
“Amnesty International concluded that in 2014 Hamas used parts of Al-Shifa ‘to detain, interrogate, torture and otherwise ill-treat suspects.’” So again, a part of a broader hospital compound that was abandoned was supposedly used by Hamas militants. Therefore, it’s a command and control center.
“More recently, Israel has released audio recordings that purport to contain conversations in which Hamas fighters discuss tunnels under Al-Shifa as well as videos of interrogations in which captured militants discuss the tunnels.”
Now, these are forced confessions. And the audio recordings were fake. At the time, Channel Four News in the UK clearly said they were fake. Everyone who looked at it knew those audio recordings were fake, and Israel had released fake recordings before.
He would go on to say, “Israeli officials allowed Times reporters to view photographs that appear to show secret entrances inside the hospital that lead to a military compound underneath.”
Not true. No tunnels connect to anything. The New York Times reporters either deliberately spread misinformation or they got played by Israeli and American intelligence.
He would go on to say, “U.S. officials say their own intelligence also indicates Hamas has built a tunnel network under Al-Shifa that includes command and control areas as well as weapons storage.”
Oh, well, the US intelligence official said it, therefore, it must be true. Again, not true. They did not respond to the Washington Post when they asked for them to see that intelligence. They never provided any of this evidence at the time or afterwards.
Nima: And then there’s a final kicker that closes the circle here.
Adam: Final kicker: “Hamas has a long history of placing its operations in hospitals, mosques and other civilian areas so that Israel must risk killing innocent bystanders — and thereby damage its reputation — to attack Hamas fighters. ‘I’ve seen these things for myself,’ Steven Erlanger, a longtime Times correspondent, has said on “The Daily” podcast.”
Oh, so he’s seen maybe a few weapons in a mosque, and that’s the same thing as using a fucking hospital as a command and control center. Again, no evidence, no evidence, even after Israel raided the hospital, killed hundreds of people that had several NICU babies die. So what was Israel doing? Were they destroying the Hamas command and control center? Or were they carrying out an evacuation order from October that they announced on October 13, which they said they were going to do, which is evacuate the whole of northern Gaza. They called Al-Shifa Hospital dozens of times and said you need to evacuate everybody. Doctors said we can’t because if we leave, they’re gonna die. The doctors can’t do that. So what did they do? They were carrying on an evacuation order. Subsequently, Israel has bombed, attacked, sniped, or shelled a dozen hospitals in northern Gaza. They cleared out a dozen hospitals in northern Gaza. They’ve left babies to deteriorate and rot despite saying they were going to send an ambulance. They’ve shot at medical professionals. They are destroying the civil structure of Gaza because that’s what they said they were going to do.
And the biggest fucking power-serving dipshit in the world. David Leonhardt doesn’t consider any of those possibilities. Even though Israel said they called the hospital and said, we’re going to raid you and force you to evacuate per our evacuation order of October 13. But David Leonhardt is not interested in any of those questions. So he does this fog of war, here’s this intelligence justifying uncritically passing along the rationalization to attack medical facilities and to kill medical professionals and to condemn hundreds to die. These are people, these are babies, these are children, these are infirmed old people. And he just goes, eh, you know, intelligence says there was this guy in 2008 who saw a Hamas guy with a gun, maybe, perhaps who was wearing normal plain clothes, just militarizing an entire population, which we now know again, according to the Washington fucking Post, was total bullshit. And this is the kind of stunted morality we’re dealing with these conventional wisdom aggregators.
Nima: Right, so you have this newsletter set up to explain. You then have your requisite bullet points. And over the course of those six bullet points that Adam just walked through, you have the manufacturing of consensus toward saying, Oh, man, this is such a tough decision by poor Israel. But I guess when looking at all this evidence that’s now been explained to me by a voice that I trust that I look to every morning to kind of frame things up, to see how I should think about the world, to make the news, which is so complex and convoluted, but to parse it out. To explain it to me, to make it bite-sized, to bullet point it for me. I now have six bullet points, at least, to say over the water cooler why I also now think that it’s okay for Israel to bomb children.
Adam: And then after that, they just kept attacking hospitals and didn’t even bother calling at a command center. They had one that looked very bad because they killed a bunch of babies. So then they planted loose bullets inside of an incubator, a baby incubator machine, which, like, no one believes. This is bush league Trump election-denying, like MyPillow-type propaganda, just completely fake. And it’s just eh, fog of war. Israel says this, but you can’t trust Hamas. And so, tie goes to the runner, we’re just going to kind of defer to the IDF. And time and time and time and time and time again, leading up to this Al-Shifa Hospital, Bond villain lair lie that again, nobody I think credibly believed even at the time, they had manufactured other evidence, fake audio recordings. They had claimed there was a video of a nurse and an official Netanyahu advisor tweeted out saying that they were at Al-Shifa, and there were Hamas militants everywhere, and the woman had an Israeli accent. I mean, we’re talking really shitty, obviously Borat-like propaganda that they’re just kind of rolling with it, and the whole thing was just vibes. And the Washington Post says in their hunt for Hamas, you know, there’s hospitals caught in the crossfire. There was no crossfire, there was no one shooting from the hospital because there was no fucking Hamas militants in the hospital. It was completely made up. And this is the kind of thing that they’ve laid out as pathologically not interested in dissecting or it’s just about defending power because the smart, savvy, educated, Harvard, Yale, Brown, Columbia educated people, they’re in charge, and they know what’s going on. And I’m going to tell you what they’re thinking because that thinking is always in good faith. It’s never bullshit. And we can’t trust anyone who doesn’t operate in those social and economic circles.
Nima: Right, so that kind of structure gets filtered down and filtered through newsletters and these daily podcasts. Leonhardt does this, of course, when he’s not talking about Gaza too. This deeply incurious consensus-making kind of format. For instance, when he writes about labor. So on October 20th, 2021, his newsletter that day had the title, “Where are the workers?” with the subheadline “How can so many Americans afford not to work? And will it last?” In this newsletter, which came out still during the COVID-19 pandemic, right, like 2021, this thing is still ongoing as it continues to this day, but we were deep in it then. Leonhardt fearmongers in his newsletter about what else? As we’ve discussed on the show before, Adam, the labor shortage, right? There are no bus drivers, no servers. He then claims that Americans are choosing not to work because stimulus checks, of course, had rendered them as he writes, “flush with cash.” Now, we discuss this exact thing as I’ve been saying, the labor shortage canard in Episode 135 back in April of 2021, six months before Leonhardt put out this particular newsletter using the same bullshit talking points.
Leonhardt also claims in a separate newsletter that “the cash glut,” not corporate profiteering or just in time supply chain strategies “is also causing rising inflation and supply-chain problems like backed-up ports.” Leonhardt, of course, didn’t find it necessary in these newsletters to point out the dire straits many Americans were in financially before the onset of COVID. Namely, as of the summer of 2019, before the pandemic, 40% of Americans were reporting that it would be a struggle to come up with just $400 to pay for an unexpected bill. These financial straitjackets were only tightened during the pandemic, when so many people couldn’t work or they didn’t want to continue at their jobs because things were very difficult, either staying home or actually trying to go out in the midst of the pandemic. But what Leonhardt does time and time again is condemn any semblance of government assistance, any kind of state welfare to allow people to live and survive, maybe not just get by in the most precarious of scarcity kind of scenarios, right? This is not good enough. We all need to just buck up, get a shot, and go outside and get back to “normal.”
Adam: In September of 2023, after The New York Times wrote a 12,000-word piece on widespread child labor abuses and the corporations that enable them, David Leonhardt’s newsletter came out a couple days later and sort of spun this again in favor of corporate America and the Biden White House by redirecting blame in a pretty sinister place, which is too lax of immigration laws. So in his mind, the problem was that Biden was too weak on immigration, and the solution was to clamp down on immigration. So here we have Fortune 500 corporations using child labor and a White House that looked the other way for years or pretty much endorsed it, right, because they wanted to get more labor back into the pool, did nothing but token finds, a Congress that has no interest in finding anyone or stopping child labor. But the solution is to actually clamp down more on immigration.
Leonhardt would write in his article from September 19th, “Child Labor and the Broken Border.” He wrote, “Over the past 15 years, entering the U.S. without legal permission has become easier, especially for children. A 2008 law, intended to protect children from harm on the Mexican side of the border, has meant that children can usually enter the country without documentation.” See, the underlying problem is not actually unaccountable corporations. It’s because we were too nice to children to come into this country. Therefore, we need to clamp down on children coming in and let them starve and famish and die at the border, therefore preventing child exploitation labor. The solution isn’t locking up corporate executives, it’s not jailing the subcontractors who use child labor, jailing the corporations that knowingly use child labor. The “underlying problem” is actually we’re too nice to immigrants. And this is, again, the Leonhardt way. You take this horrible thing that shocks the liberal mind. And your solution is to do something in response that is pro-corporation and illiberal, which is not pin responsibility on the CEOs and executives and the decision makers and the politicians in the White House and the Department of Labor who looked the other way while this was happening, it’s actually we need to clamp down further on immigration when you take a more conservative approach. And you frame it in liberalese when you do so because that’s really the key. That’s really who you’re sort of appealing to here.
Nima: We could talk for many, many more hours, Adam, about David Leonhardt’s newsletter The Morning, but let us now shift focus to The New York Times’s other marquee platform for daily aggregated news: its podcast, The Daily, which debuted on February 1st, 2017. It was and still is hosted by longtime New York Times correspondent Michael Barbaro, co-hosted by New York Times reporter Sabrina Tavernise. Now, Barbaro cut his teeth at The Times reporting on retail and shopping trends, then moved on to praising figures like Michael Bloomberg for his “generosity” and Jeb Bush for his “depth of knowledge.” That’s the level at which Barbaro has been writing analysis.
Adam: So it’s incredibly petty for us to bring up a stupid tweet someone did eight years ago. But I make one exception and that’s the infamous Mike Barbaro subway tweet that Gawker did like five articles on where he took a picture of the guy sleeping and then tagged the MTA and said, “Situation at 123 underpass at 41st and 7th Ave has become dangerous and unacceptable.” And anyway, he was made fun of that. But that’s sort of the ethos of your kind of average New York Times nerd.
Nima: That’s right. That’s your daily podcast pearl clutcher, which maybe you know, goes to show just the kind of perspective that we’re actually getting. But let’s get back to The Daily podcast. The show is effectively the audio equivalent of Leonhardt’s daily newsletter. It traffics in much of the same centrist conventional wisdom aggregation, routinely spurning left politics while being significantly softer on the right. Now, just one example, for instance, was from a 2019 episode of The Daily, “explaining but not justifying” why Venezuela should be skeptical of Trump’s so-called “humanitarian convoy.” The way Barbaro promoted the podcast on his Twitter feed was by writing this, “On today’s Daily: a history of US intervention in Latin America, which may explain (but by no means justify) why Venezuela’s Maduro is blocking badly needed shipments of US food to feed his starving people.”
Adam: Now, this doesn’t make any sense. So how can decades of US intervention, coups, and assassinations, to say nothing of the actual literal ongoing coup at the time from Trump, Rubio, and John Bolton who were openly calling generals and telling them to openly overthrow the government, how can that explain but not justify Maduro’s skepticism for letting a US “aid convoy” in, a convoy we now know was a pretext for regime change because two years later, USAID did an internal audit. Again, this isn’t even like a credible liberal intervention. This is Trump, John Bolton, and Elliott Abrams. Now, what Barbaro doesn’t mention, what Nick Casey, his guest has not mentioned in this particular episode, is that Elliott Abrams literally did the same thing. In the 1980s, he used the pretext of aid to ship weapons to the Contras. Here’s an article from the AP from August 17th of 1987. This is the Associated Press, “Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams has defended his role in authorizing the shipment of weapons on a humanitarian aid flight to Nicaraguan rebels, saying the operation was ‘strictly by the book.’ Mr. Abrams spoke at a news conference Saturday in response to statements by Robert Duemling, former head of the State Department’s Nicaraguan humanitarian assistance office, who said that he had twice ordered planes to shuttle weapons for the contras on aid planes at Mr. Abrams’s direction in early 1986.” Huh, so why would Maduro think Elliott Abrams would use a humanitarian aid convoy as a way of sneaking in weapons? Huh, because he literally did the exact same thing 30 years prior so this is completely omitted from The Daily podcasts. This is a very sort of liberal position where you sort of vaguely gesture towards, like, the reasons why Latin American leaders would be skeptical of the motives of psycho Cold War veterans and then say, uh, but this time is different. This time, he should have done it.
Nima: Which is why you explain and not justify because you’re supposed to walk away from this still thinking Maduro is a bad guy. We support exactly what the US government is doing, but we’re going to have some talking points about why Maduro and other leaders in Latin America may be paranoid about US humanitarian aid, but that doesn’t mean anything should change, it just explains, but not justifies. Now, for a glimpse into this kind of consistent right-wing leaning of The Daily podcast, let’s consider The Daily’s inaugural episode, which focused on Trump’s first Supreme Court nominee at the time, Neil Gorsuch. Mike Barbaro, the host of The Daily podcast interviewed several of his own colleagues at The Times including Maggie Haberman in order to “understand more about Judge Gorsuch.”
Barbaro also spoke very politely to David Green, the CEO of Hobby Lobby, which was the company at the center of the court case that allowed corporations not to provide insurance coverage for contraception on religious grounds. Now, Gorsuch had ruled in favor of Hobby Lobby in 2012 when it sought a religious exemption for providing insurance coverage for contraception, which is why this was so relevant to him being a Supreme Court nominee. Barbaro conspicuously, despite all The New York Times’s own resources, did not interview a Hobby Lobby employee or any employee working anywhere for that matter who may have been adversely affected by Gorsuch’s own court ruling. So, to give you a sense of the deeply incurious approach that The Daily from its very first episode takes to explaining the news, this is what we mean. Now, a separate two-part episode from May of 2022, was released after the leak of the Supreme Court draft opinion on overturning Roe v. Wade and before the ruling was made official by the court at the end of June 2022. Now, part one of the episode was devoted to “what comes next” for the anti-abortion crowd. And part two covered that same kind of “what comes next” approach but this time for abortion providers. Here’s a clip from part one in which daily co-hosts Sabrina Tavernise conducts absurdly friendly humanizing interviews with extreme right-wingers, including, for instance, Samuel Lee, an anti-abortion lobbyist in Missouri. Take a listen to the way that these questions are framed.
Sabrina Tavernise: So, where were you when you heard the news of the leaked decision?
Samuel Lee: I was leaving St. Louis to drive to Jefferson City about two hours away. We had had a confirmation of kids at our Catholic Church where I’m a deacon and had just finished up with that and was checking my phone for messages. And some of my colleagues who are state legislators, they were tweeting out the political story. And it’s like, whoa, what’s this?
Sabrina Tavernise: What’s the first thing that went through your head when you saw that news? What’s the first thing that came to mind?
Samuel Lee: I am still not convinced that the Supreme Court will use this case to overturn Roe vs. Wade. I hope I’m wrong in my analysis. But I’m not convinced it’s going to happen. So, skeptical but also happy. Maybe this is, I’m not gonna say the end or the beginning of the end. But maybe this is the transition point that the pro-life movement in this country needs to get away from court-supervised abortion law and return it to the states to decide. But we’ll see.
Nima: Yeah, that’s the level of deep interview that The Daily is invested in, Adam. This is someone who has committed his professional life to destroying rights in this country, to making healthcare difficult for people to access. And we’re asking like, you know, oh, what did you do? Who did you call? You know, are you celebrating yet? This is the deep inquiry. This is what Daily podcast listeners, Adam, need on their commute to work.
Adam: Yeah, there’s always this like, I mean, again, it’s the ethos of The New York Times which Jim Naureckas described as the far left-wing of Wall Street where it’s like, there’s always this kind of wonder and sort of feigned credulity about the world, like, the right is always taken in good faith. People in power never have ulterior cynical motives, everything is kind of on its face true. Unless it’s about an enemy state and then there’s always a sinister conspiracy or sinister plot. And there’s nothing really sort of behind the veil, right? There’s nothing sort of behind the scenes going on. Everything is earnest. Everyone in power who has the same, you know, sort of ideological and racial complexion as I do is more or less in good faith. And here’s the news, and we’re going to aggregate it.
Now, you know, we mentioned earlier that there’s nothing inherently conservative about daily news aggregation. You know, Noam Chomsky somewhat famously made the argument that concision was inherently conservative because if you have to subvert conventional wisdom, you necessarily have to explain yourself. Whereas if you just assert a truism, like, you know, the US promotes human rights and democracy, no further explanation is necessary. So while I don’t think news nuggets, little McNuggets in people’s news box is inherently conservative, I do think it lends itself to conservatism.
And I think that the rise in these kind of news explainer sort of Daily News curation, I do think one of the reasons it is so popular, it is a feedback loop because you get wealthier subscribers as well. And you sort of want to reaffirm their ideology, but it’s just so pathologically incurious about bigger and deeper issues. Now, they’ll bring on reporters sometimes who have done deep reporting, I mean, that’s kind of what both Leonhardt and Barbaro sort of claim to do. They’ll either have them as an interview or they’ll cover the reportage. As Hannah Dreier wrote for The New York Times about child labor, even when you have that kind of story, it becomes very superficialized and then gets steered into a kind of dopey conservative policy solution of making sure we clamp down on immigrant children. And that’s what they do. They’re sort of dumbing down conservative sizing machines that need to make complex or difficult questions seem easily digestible to people who seek out news that reaffirms their worldview that doesn’t really subvert or have them question too much, but still makes them seem smart. And we’re pathologizing a little bit here, but I think that’s a fair summation of that market and the reason why they target that market.
Nima: To discuss this more, we’re now going to be joined by Jacob Bacharach, a novelist and essayist whose writing has appeared all over, from The New Republic to The Outline, The New York Times to New York Magazine, The Baffler to Jacobin. He is the author of three books, the most recent of which is A Cool Customer: Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. Jacob will join us in just a moment. Stay with us.
We are joined now by Jacob Bacharach. Jacob, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.
Jacob Bacharach: Thanks for having me, really happy to be here.
Adam: So let’s begin by discussing the subject of your article and the primary target of our criticism at the top of the show, David Leonhardt who’s the most, I would say most important conventional wisdom curator at The New York Times if not, kind of all the media. I think by being the most important person at New York Times, it kind of makes you the most important person per se in certain ways in terms of influencing those who have influenced or influencing those who are in power. We discussed the stick at the top of the show as someone who kind of starts from a position of what power needs and sort of works his way backwards, to sort of suit those needs, especially the kind of current administration for whom he’s been very, to the extent to which the administration has right0wing tendencies, he supports them and to the extent to which they’ve had the occasional non-right-wing tendency, he’s scolded them. But whether it’s kind of downplaying child labor and blaming it on lax immigration or COVID denialism or his kind of general optimism about the kind of post-COVID austerity regime to his constantly downplaying or ignoring the situation in Gaza, his tone is always kind of one of like, ignore the crazy radicals, everything’s kind of fine. It’s the tone that has many, many antecedents, but we’ll get into those later. I want to sort of begin by kind of talking about how his position fits into a broader ideological genre of what we’ve been discussing today, which is just kind of repackaging conventional wisdom into little nuggets for like super important busy people.
Jacob Bacharach: Yeah, I think that’s a good way to put it, although I might, maybe quibble with the important people portion a little bit.
Adam: Only capital I, capital P important.
Jacob Bacharach: Yeah, well, I guess insofar as I have a quibble there what I would say is, in some ways, it’s about repackaging the capital I, capital P important people for the lowercase i, lowercase p important people if that makes a lot of sense. If there’s a fundamental underlying ideological tendency within The Morning and this genre generally but certainly within Leonhardt and his newsletter for The Times, it’s a tendency that I would call it the “move along, nothing to see here” tendency, which is to say, a sort of acknowledgment that there are imperfections in the way that society is organized, that there are inadequacies in the ability of our political structures and the actors within those structures to respond to certain events and contingencies. But nonetheless, that broadly speaking, things are okay. At least within the United States, relatively responsible people are in charge. Systems broadly work and outcomes while not perfected are broadly speaking, relatively just and relatively justly distributed. I think that that’s kind of the fundamental, underlying premise. And then I think you use the word curation, and I think that generally speaking, when you look at the way that he and his co-writers and editors select and present stories and then the way that they interpret them within that selection, and presentation, they are doing so in a way to basically show that things are okay, that marginal, incremental improvements can be made within the structures that we have and that exist but that anything that deviates from that, anything that seeks to look beyond that, or anything that says, well, if you lift up the hood, you’ll find that this smoothly, purring engine is, in fact, full of sawdust is more dangerous, right, is more problematic than the problems that sort of deeper dive supposedly uncovers, that the questions are more dangerous even than the proposed answers in some ways.
Nima: Yeah, to that point, I mean, I guess something you were talking about really made me think of, if I can kind of reinterpret Kurt Angle’s three i’s to be like, as you said, intention, interpretation and then ideology and kind of how those work together. This idea that to be power flattering or power serving, you kind of assume that there are good intentions at the top and kind of in policy, in politics. And so how do you think that kind of framework and the interpretation that comes from it and then the ideology that kind of is that kind of undergirding infrastructure? Like how do you think that flows throughout this entire genre of explanatory journalism, that kind of sets people up to, you know, as you said, have this sort of “nothing to see here, move right along,” we’re doing okay, but at least you can say one interesting thing over dinner.
Jacob Bacharach: Yeah, a lot of it is clearly designed for exactly those conversations, right? Where, oh, I read an article. Oh, I heard a story on NPR. And that’s the conversation starter. And look, we’re all guilty of it. I’m guilty of it, of speaking in that mode myself. We’re recording around holiday time, about to go spend some time with my mom and dad and a bunch of aunts and uncles, and I’m sure I’m gonna say, oh, I read an interesting article in The New York Times about 150 times in order to come up with something to talk about. I think that the way that it flatters in two directions, as you said, you know, it flatters the reader by almost saying like, we’re going to draw back the curtain and we’re going to let you see the data and the mechanics that are being used by the experts who are really running things to make decisions in society. And then it flatters the people who are really running things, you know, not the mid-level lawyer who makes a lot of money but just works for some firm in some city in the midwest somewhere but the people who are really running things, it flatters them by taking as given that they are, in fact, experts who are applying domain expertise to parse through this data and make scientific decisions about the direction of society, about the creation of policy and so forth. And the fact that those capital I capital P important people who are being flattered in that direction or in many cases, I think as we see right now, like in the Biden administration be sort of almost like powerless, reactive caretakers of this machinery that operates almost independently in so many cases is something that gets really obfuscated here.
And so, it flatters them like pretending that they know what they’re doing, it flatters the people who are their sort of notional political constituency, the sort of, like, sensible center that’s having a window into this kind of program of scientific government. And it makes everyone feel like there is a steady and measured hand on the wheel, which again, is very flattering for people who have achieved a certain level of professional and social and material success and status in life because if you believe that our society is basically being governed using scientific principles, principles who are always drawn from a sort of natural law, in a way, being appropriately applied to social problems, then that allows you to very easily believe that whatever it is that you have in life is all wholly merited, and was earned on the basis of your own application of some sort of intellectual and scientific principles to the material struggles of life in the 21st century.
Nima: Totally. It’s like the order of the universe is just so you’re okay, so then, like, feel good about yourself listening to this podcast?
Adam: Well, right. And then all that’s left is kind of scientism or this kind of faux empiricism, which we’ve talked about the show before, we talked about Nate Silver, we talked about The Economist, and it’s part of that continuation. So, I want to talk about this idea of post-ideology. We are infinitely fascinated by that on the show because it’s like once you sort of assume that the ideology is settled, then you move on to this idea of how to kind of manage the end of history. And then politics is not a terrain of competing moral frameworks or competing moral interests or even a zero-sum game really between the haves and have-nots, but is in fact, something that requires minor iterations over time, like the new iPhone, you sort of introduce a new camera or maybe even a sort of sharper lens, but ultimately, nothing fundamentally changes or more importantly, needs to change. And the explanatory journalism, there are kind of early days of Vox, they don’t do this as much anymore. The Economist, Semafor does this, Politico, of course, being where the most dead-eyed immoral people somehow end up. Where everything’s a game.
Nima: Axios might take offense to that, Adam.
Adam: Yeah, people dying at the border or dying in Gaza is sort of seen as a barrier to re-election versus a sort of moral consideration. I want to talk about this kind of post-ideology framework that is inherent in the explanatory journalism. We talked about that one particular instance of David Leonhardt was giving this breakdown of the bombshell New York Times report about child labor. And there’s this paragraph, which I won’t read again because we read off the top of the show, but I’ll summarize here. Basically says that the surge in immigration that led to the child labor was caused by Biden effectively being too lax or too informally lax about immigration. He basically blamed being too nice to immigrants for the surge in immigration and thus, the rise in child labor. There was really no sense of like, any moral properties whatsoever to what they were discussing, to what he was writing about. There was no sense that like, we should punish the corporations that incentivize and use and knowingly use child labor. It was just like, this is the way it is. It’s a process tweak. And to the extent to which we can tweak something, it’s making life more miserable for immigrants. And you’re just like sitting there with your jaw open and going like, does this man believe in fucking anything at all? Or is it all just again, a sort of game on a chessboard?
Jacob Bacharach: Well, I think that it first of all, is indicative of something that you pointed out before which is that insofar as Leonhardt, in particular, this genre in general is going to be critical of the current Biden administration, it’s generally to criticize it for being insufficiently open to ideas that burbled up out of the far right-wing, like being much, much meaner to immigrants. And it’s worth noting that one of the main areas of continuity between Biden and the prior Trump administration, it’s in areas of immigration and border enforcement. So, I think that’s worth noting, you know, and to the sort of, like, ideological question at root here or the analytical question, it’s maybe even a better way to put it. I do actually think that it’s almost if not post-ideological than sort of post-moral in terms of politics.
Adam: Post-moral sounds bad.
Jacob Bacharach: Well, for example, looking at this specific story, it treats a series of very deliberate choices on the part of industry, for example, as being again, a sort of like a natural process like corporations utilizing children as roofers, one of the most dangerous professions in the world. It’s just water flowing downhill, water finds the fast path to the sea. So, if there is an untapped labor resource, then corporations, not directors, not managers, not executives, no individual, they’re just going to flow into that gap and utilize that labor resource, neither because they’re good nor because they’re bad but just because it’s there. So, it exempts all of the actors in that process from any type of moral culpability, of ethical judgment. Then at the same time, you know, treat something like the increase in the number of migrants arriving at the US border as being — and this to me is like completely hysterical — the result of rhetorical choices being made by an American president as if people like Salvadorians or Hondurans, who are about to risk the crossing of the Darién Gap are sitting around at night parsing the specific way that Joe Biden is talking about US immigration enforcement, rather than making decisions on the basis of a whole complex of environmental, social, and economic factors, not to mention social and economic connections to existing communities in, for example, the United States. So, it’s just, like, weirdly depersonalized way of looking at something while at the same time being completely nonmaterial in the way that it analyzes these phenomena.
That’s, like, the paradox to me, at the heart of this, it refuses any sort of individual personal culpability, blame, or analysis while at the same time also basically rejecting material analysis. And that’s why I keep kind of reverting to this idea that it sort of just treats all phenomena as if they’re just, like, natural occurrences that happen because of some sort of law of nature. And our job is just to go to work and to sort of know that they happen, but not to think any further than that.
Nima: And maybe not to feel like you have a role in that. So, you kind of set your framework for what’s going on in the world without feeling like you necessarily have much at stake in there. And I want to be clear, like, we all need to get our information from somewhere. And there’s a lot happening in the world all the time. So the idea that there is all the Daily Facts in your inbox, I don’t want to like shit on that idea kind of in total or the ideas you brought up earlier, Jacob of you know, as you said, it’s okay to start a conversation like, oh, I read this thing. We’re talking on a podcast right now. I kind of hope someone will be like, oh, I heard on this podcast at one point, like, that’s fine. But I think the issue here, which I’d love for you to speak to is, what are the stakes here, right? What happens over time if like, the big centrist decision makers within a, you know, nominal democracy, right, doctors, lawyers, CEOs, etc., all are being fed the same three or four daily conventional wisdom, curation platforms, or curators doing that people like Leonhardt, people like Michael Barbaro, people like Ben Smith, like what ideology is then being reinforced and upheld and what might be lost if everything is curated that way? I think let’s just talk about the stakes here so we’re not just like shitting on daily morning newsletters.
Jacob Bacharach: Yeah, one of the effects, it’s to transform the news from being a precursor to political action into being merely social commodity, which is to say that what strikes me about these newsletters for the majority of their consumers is that what I think they’re really designed to do is to turn current events into a kind of social currency that can be used for conversation, that can be used to position oneself as sort of being in the know, understanding what’s going on, being relatively savvy about, you know, what’s happening within politics. But by reinforcing the sense that politics is a distinct and professional domain of politicians and maybe some media people that is sort of, like, separate from life/work management, personal economy, etc. And so one of the things that it does is it takes that sort of that self-flattering, centrist self-image of a lot of the people who consume these products, and it says politics is a profession. It is a thing that exists siloed from the rest of society, and those who attempt to act politically, outside of the professionalized realm of politics, and outside of occasionally, you know, voting, I guess, are disrupting a sort of natural order of things like why can’t they just take their ration of news that they get each morning and do what normal people do with it, which is exchange it with other people over dinner at a restaurant.
Adam: Yeah, it’s news as commodity versus news as something that say, like you said, are sort of precursor to political action. And that’s kind of the take home point here, I think for us. Again, this is part of an informal trilogy with I think, The Economist and the kind of neoliberal pundit brain where it’s like, it’s about sort of being informed about the inevitable water on cement going to its lowest point, rather than this idea that you can sort of change the trajectory of that water or that there’s moral content to that discussion at all. And even sort of Leonhardt’s recent, very sparse coverage of Gaza, you would think it was an earthquake, the way it’s talked about. It is not something that Biden can do much about, he’s kind of bumbling around, and many are seeking answers, and it’s very complicated. Everything is so again, by design, I think I think he sort of knows what he’s doing, everything is so politically impotent and disempowering. It’s a very disempowering way of viewing the news. And I do think it comes along with again, as we discussed at the top of the show, I think there’s a market. I think advertisers want wealthier listeners. I remember, sort of one example like the famous example is that for seven or eight years, The West Wing was like, not even a top 30 rated show, but it was always number one with people who made over $150,000 a year. So, advertisers loved it, like it made a ton of money. I think this is sort of a version of that. It’s like wealthy people are more likely to want to have these kinds of savvy insider news nuggets versus something that’s going to challenge them for obvious reasons, right? Not only that, but people like you said, who want to be that, who are kind of aspirational. I once knew a guy who used to carry The Economist in his back pocket on a subway in New York because he thought it made him look like he was sort of in the know.
But did he know that everybody who writes for that magazine is 19 years old?
It’ll destroy your worldview pretty quickly. And I think a lot about that, it is almost like a bit of an image thing. It’s like all I saw on Leonhardt’s newsletter. You know, I heard on The Daily.
Jacob Bacharach: I actually think that you’re very much identifying one of the reasons, not the only one, but one of the reasons why I think there’s been so much institutional investment in these types of products by, for example, The New York Times, which is that you mentioned advertising, but actually is that as advertising has increasingly become a loser and a non-factor in the financing of these major media outlets, especially print media outlets. And as they have moved into a model where their most important revenue source is subscriber revenue. They need to find markets of people who are willing to pay, who are willing to subscribe. So finding the doctor, the lawyer, the mid-level professional, the executive, the computer engineer, you know, whatever, the low six-figure salary and above who is able to sustain multiple subscriptions to a variety of, you know, a couple of newspapers, their local NPR station, you know, whatever else, I think is very, very important, because those are the people who are driving these like major consolidated national media products, like The Times like the Post, etc. So, I think that there’s a real underlying business rationale within these enterprises.
Adam: I think of the kind of Noam Chomsky adage about how brevity is inherently conservative because if you’re saying something subversive, it necessarily requires further explanation. Whereas if you’re saying the conventional wisdom, it just sort of is accepted, like, again, like gravity or the tides. It’s sort of always been, you know, again, clearly, the US is a force of good. Clearly, Iran is a terror state, no one’s going to question that. But if you say, you know, Israel is a terror state. Oh, oh, now you have to explain it.
Nima: Then things get really complex.
Adam: Because again, the question then is, can you have something that isn’t a sort of daily news newsletter in your inbox, explaining the world that isn’t inherently conservative or is the genre itself inherently going to be just conventional wisdom repackaging?
Jacob Bacharach: Yeah, well, my answer to that is no, the genre, I think, is inherently conservative in the way that a publication like The Times is inherently conservative, and I think what I mean by that, and not to put words in either of your mouths, but I think what you mean by that is not conservative in the kind of modern slavery weirdo Republican Trumpist sense but conservative have in the sort of older sense of the word, of being institutionally oriented, resistant to change, invested in conventional wisdom invested in incrementalism at maximum when it comes to any type of social or political change, sort of like Burkean horror at the possibility of the masses rising up and storming the palace. And I think that these types of products are, by their nature, by their structure, by their length, by the way that they’re curated or designed fundamentally to uphold the existing order. The ancien régime. And to say that it’s okay, and that we should be satisfied within it. And that our demands should be moderated if we make demands at all and that anyone who’s not moderate in their demands is a greater threat to the order than anything that the order itself is actually doing or is capable of doing.
Nima: Yeah, I mean, I think you’re so right about, like, how it markets the system, but also how these are marketed to a specific kind of listener, people who self-identify as being busy. And so you need this curation, you need just a few points because you’re assuming that your day is going to be so busy constantly because that is now the identity that you hold. And that is the way that you maintain your job or your status or how you interact with your family. You are a busy person, and I totally feel that as well. And so, it’s being marketed to someone who “oh, just the facts, ma’am” kind of stuff. But because of the curation, it just leans into the idea that, well, that kind of middle management busy person is going to endlessly be busy because their lot is never going to change. If they want to be who they are, who they are invested in being, they will not have more free time in their lives, that is not something that they are going to fight for or that they are going to win. And therefore, who they are needs to just be marketed to without changing the circumstances in which maybe you could get more nuanced. You could read more, you could hear more, and therefore, have a different take. You need that curated soundbite because that is all that your identity allows for.
Jacob Bacharach: Yeah, if you ever want to do an entire episode on the American concept of leisure as being a form of moral turpitude, you can have to come back. But yes, I agree with that characterization. I think that even a lot of these people who aren’t nearly as busy as they self present and who spent as much time just sitting and fucking around on the internet in their middle management offices as they do actually working are deeply, deeply personally invested in this sort of idea that they’re on the grind from the moment that they wake up through their commute all through the office day. And at the end of it and feeling like yes, they’re kind of getting, this is their walk and talk moment. I mean, you mentioned The West Wing. This is like imagining myself as, like, an executive walking down the hall with my lackeys trailing behind me and giving me my sort of briefing book for the day, it’s a very self-flattering portrait. And a lot of people I think quite like that even if their version of it is sitting on a commuter train or being in mind-numbing traffic and just digesting these little bits and pieces of news that have been chopped and screwed for them by one former business reporter in New York.
Adam: I think the busyness aesthetic is definitely a thing. I think of Luke Savage’s criticism of that behind-the-scenes Obama administration documentary The First Year where they kept cutting to, like, garbage cans with a bunch of Red Bull and coffee cups in them. And it was sort of like this. But like the moral content of what they’re actually discussing was pretty fatuous and like, not that interesting, but they were busy, and they were super busy, and they were working hard. And again, that kind of Ivy League sort of sensibility. And again, I think one can be sensitive to that as maybe a pathology of what it’s like to have to work all the time, but I think the take-home point is that everyone on this call is overly educated and downwardly mobile and we’re jealous of people with money. I think that’s the take-home point.
Nima: We want our news curated.
Adam: Who live happy lives and don’t live in existential dread over genocide and truly, we want to be them but we’re just so morally superior, we can’t help it.
Nima: That must be what it is. Jacob, this has been so great. Before we let you go, let us know what you are up to these days. What can our listeners look out for you? Are you working on anything?
Jacob Bacharach: I have actually been doing a lot of book reviewing lately largely for New Republic but for a few other outlets. I have a few things in the hopper. I always host and promote them both on my legacy Twitter account @Jakebackpack as well as my Blue Sky account, @jacobbacharach.bsky.social, however you find a person on Blue Sky, and so keep an eye on those spaces. And you can certainly find any of my books wherever fine books are sold.
Adam: You do that for the love of the game, I feel like.
Jacob Bacharach: Oh, you know, that’s true. But it was actually a moment of moral exhaustion where I had been doing a ton of more sort of like, quick hit hot take, political issue of the day, types of op-ed pieces, and I got so tired of it and realized that I wasn’t moving the needle at all. And I just thought to myself, if I can make one less person pick up a Matthew Yglesias book in an airport, and that’s probably more impactful.
Nima: I really feel you’re a hero.
Adam: You’re doing God’s work.
Nima: Well, I think that’s a great place to leave it. We’ve been speaking with Jacob Bacharach, a novelist and essayist whose writing has appeared all over, from The New Republic to The Outline, The New York Times to New York, The Baffler to Jacobin. He is the author of three books, the most recent of which is A Cool Customer: Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. Jacob, thank you so much, again, for joining us today on Citations Needed.
Jacob Bacharach: Oh, it’s such a pleasure. Thanks for having me.
Adam: Yeah, I think he hit the nail on the head when we talked about how politics and the news of politics or this passive thing you sort of observe, there’s something that smart savvy people do. But the idea that you can be motivated to affect that or to change that through protests or through boycott or through political action is sort of unheard of. It’s just these are the smart people, they’re kind of tweaking the levers of policy, they’re sort of trying to perfect the craft, they sort of iterate policy as one iterates an iPhone, they’re sort of doing their best to perfect the machinery of policy. But there’s no real ideological battles. And I’m here to sort of explain to you that the thinking of the elites and how they’re, again, totally in good faith trying to maximize the utility of everybody. And it’s all very childish. It’s sort of a childish way of viewing politics. It’s a very comforting way of viewing politics for people who, again, have a station in life for which they’re not going to be meaningfully subversive. They’re sort of older, they’re settled, again, they have well-paying jobs, they’re not going to really go out and protest in any meaningful way.
Nima: And again, part of that identity, Adam, is being busy, right? So, they need to rely on the elite filters that allow them to trust what they are hearing that decide on what framing, decide on what is curated. And then they receive that easily in their inboxes or in their podcast feeds so that they can stay informed. Now, this again, as we keep saying there’s nothing inherently terrible and in the kind of wanting to be informed without, you know, being able to read things cover to cover every single day. People have things to do. Sure. But who gets to make the decisions about what information is shared, who the experts are, who the voices are, that we are supposed to trust, these all matter.
Adam: It’s genuinely sinister that David Leonhardt just casually in this kind of wonk speak throws out these incredibly flimsy arguments for why it’s okay to siege snipe at, shell a hospital with patients inside of it because, you know, he cites supposed hearsay from 2008 about a Hamas fighter in civilian clothes near a hospital in 2008. If I saw an IDF soldier in plain clothes outside of a hospital in Tel Aviv in 2008, would that justify Hamas shelling and blowing up a hospital? No. It’s just vibes. He’s literally just working backwards to provide a justification for what his ideological confederates in the Biden White House have signed on to. It is pure sophistry. It is pure propaganda. It is taking an already settled position, which is that Israel is going to invade, bomb, shell this hospital, and condemn dozens if not hundreds to death, and the White House has signed off on it. So we’re just going to kind of float six, five basic talking points that you can tell your friends and family over dinner at the water cooler at work to kind of make yourself feel good about yourself because again, you cannot live in a world where Biden is not fundamentally good because what are you gonna do, vote for Trump? And so that’s pretty much your only option. And he starts from that position, and he works backwards because again, that’s what he’s paid to do. He’s a well-paid sophist for power.
Nima: And so that’s why the idea of aggregation of explanatory journalism especially delivered in this news nugget format, winds up just reinforcing the vast inequality of power, of wealth on all of these levels of how the media operates, which is why we thought that would be a good thing to start off 2024 with. We are now, unfortunately, Adam, in a presidential election year once again. So, we are definitely going to see this continue throughout the coming year and of course, Citations Needed will be here the whole way.
So Happy New Year again to all of our listeners. Thank you so much for continuing to listen to the show, share the show, rate the show on Apple Podcasts or wherever else you happen to listen to Citations Needed. Thank you so much. We cannot thank you enough so we’ll keep doing it for your ongoing support. Of course, you can follow the show on Twitter @citationspod and on Facebook at Citations Needed. Not only can you listen and share and support the show, but you can also help the show continue by becoming a patron of the show through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast. All your financial support through Patreon is so incredibly appreciated as we are 100% listener-funded and as always, a very special shout-out goes to our critic-level supporters on Patreon.
Our senior producer is Florence Barrau-Adams. Producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Newsletter by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Mahnoor Imran. The music is by Grandaddy. Happy New Year. We’ll catch you next time.
This Citations Needed episode was released on Wednesday, January 24, 2024.
Transcription by Mahnoor Imran.