Transcript: Freddie deBoer
My interview with the journalist, author and Substack writer
This summer on her podcast, Bari Weiss described my guest today as one of the best writers in America. I think she’s right.
During the month of December, here at Lean Out, I’m speaking with independent journalists that I admire. And I’m particularly pleased to bring you this conversation, with a Substack writer who’s had a big impact on my thinking.
Freddie deBoer is an independent journalist in Brooklyn, New York. He’s the author of The Cult of Smart: How Our Broken Education System Perpetuates Social Injustice, and he writes an eponymous newsletter at Substack.
This is an edited transcript for paid subscribers. You can listen to the full interview for free here. (Note: this was recorded on December 6, before the latest revelations on the Twitter Files from Bari Weiss and Matt Taibbi.)
TH: Freddie, welcome to Lean Out.
FDB: Thanks for having me.
TH: Thanks so much for coming on. As you know, I’ve been following your work closely, so it’s a great pleasure to get to speak with you today. Your work spans a range of topics, including education, politics, mental health, modernity. Since this series is on independent journalism, I want to focus on your writing on the media. Probably your most famous piece of media criticism is the essay, “It’s All Just Displacement.” In it, you argue that the outrage that mainstream journalists have directed at Substack is displaced anger about the state of our industry. Walk me through the material conditions in the industry that you were drawing attention to in that piece.
FDB: Sure. So, if you look at newsrooms — newspaper newsrooms specifically, which was once the heart of the American media — in a 10-year period, from 2008 to 2018, the total staff headcount was cut in half. So the papers that were producing not just national news, but crucially local news, many of them have been gutted. Some of them have been shut down in entirely. There are mass layoffs in that space all the time. Gannett, which is an umbrella company that owns many smaller papers and USA Today, recently had a brutal round of layoffs. The newspapers are in bad shape. The New York Times is flourishing right now because they got into the digital subscription business in a big way, and it’s been very effective for them. But other papers have had a much harder time matching their success. Even The Washington Post — probably the second most prominent newspaper in the United States — they recently had to close their magazine division for cost-cutting reasons.
Ad revenues have been stagnant or declining for a long time. Unfortunately, part of the problem with online advertising is that, like anything else, it’s subject to the law of supply and demand. And there is effectively unlimited supply of space for online advertising. So if you want to advertise on a billboard in the New York metro area, there is just a certain number of billboards on which you can place your advertisement. That puts a certain cap on the overall supply, which drives up prices. That does not exist in online spaces, right? There is just always more online space in which to place ads. And so that’s connected to — just aside from newspapers — a constant series of layoffs that have happened in the digital media space. The shuttering of many different publications, like Gawker, like The Outline. I could sit down and make a list of a dozen, easily, from the past five years alone. Every time that one of those places closes, or goes through a big set of layoffs … Buzzfeed is another very prominent organization that’s been cutting recently. Every time that happens, it’s essentially a game of musical chairs. Which means that there are fewer positions in the industry, and just as many people who want to fill them.
So, the more prominent people who get let go ... So for example, CNN has had a big bloodletting recently. Chris Cillizza — who is sort of like a CNN star, or one of their stars — he was let go, and he’ll be fine. But the question is not the people who are considered stars in the industry. It’s the marginal, or median, worker. Unfortunately the space is contracted, and there just is not as many jobs as there are people who want to do this.
One of the things that you have to understand about media, particularly in New York, is that there’s a lot of really young people — some of whom are able to survive because they have their parents’ wealth to essentially subsidize their lives in New York — who will work for close to nothing. This is one of the fundamental problems. People will say, “Well, I need to get my foot in the door, and there’s no way that I can afford this lifestyle longterm. But I really, really want to work for someplace professionally. So I’ll take $40,000 a year and live in New York.” Which puts a downward pressure on wages for everybody.
I think that this crowdfunding revolution that’s happening with Substack and Patreon, I think it is salutary. I mean, it’s subsidizing my life right now. It’s paying for my life right now. But it doesn’t work at scale, and it’s not a good fit for hard news. So the outlook is pretty bleak right now.
TH: I do want to come back to that, for sure. But first, I want to talk about the ethos that is driving the mainstream media — that you’re talking about in this piece. I want to quote this paragraph. Because I think this paragraph had more impact on me than any paragraph I’ve read in a couple of years:
In the span of a decade or so, essentially all professional media not explicitly branded as conservative has been taken over by a school of politics that emerged from humanities departments at elite universities and began colonizing the college educated through social media. Those politics are obscure, they are confusing, they are socially and culturally extreme, they are expressed in a bizarre vocabulary, they are deeply alienating to many, and they are very unpopular by any definition. The vast majority of the country is not woke, including the vast majority of women and people of color. How could it possibly be healthy for the entire media industry to be captured by any single niche political movement, let alone one that nobody likes? Why does no one in media seem willing to have an honest, uncomfortable conversation about the near-total takeover of their industry by a fringe ideology?
This question is central. But when you put this to many of our colleagues, they would deny — and, I think, quite sincerely — that this bias exists. How do you think through that?
FDB: I think that the first thing is that if you look at any rigorous empirical effort to determine the partisan composition of media, it finds that it is dominantly Democratic, registered Democrats. So if we want to keep it simply in the realm of partisan politics, and party identification, if you go to The New York Times, the vast majority of the people who work there will be registered Democrats. Now, the social justice politics that I’m talking about in that post are not synonymous with Democratic politics. In fact, most Democratic voters do not endorse them. But they are overwhelmingly popular within the media.
I would argue that simply the existence of that intense of a numeric advantage that people who embrace those politics have — simply the fact of that numeric advantage in these positions — implies the existence of bias. The reason that I feel comfortable saying that is because if it was the opposite way, if it happened to be the case that the vast majority of the media was made up of people who identify with the alt-right, there is no way that liberals would not conclude that that was somehow nefarious. In other words, if there was a very strong Republican bias and conservative bias in supposedly nonpartisan media, then people would cry foul. And you have to apply the same standard to the other side as you apply to yourself.
I also just think that the way that these politics have spread — and the way that left politics are spread, in general, in the last several decades — is by treating them as a fad, or an in-group with which to belong. So, rather than a more traditional way of working out the position as a kind of political science, and gradually winning converts over through persuasion, and through reference to material conditions, the way that socialism, for example — and I’m a socialist — the way that socialism became so common within the media is because it became cool to be one.
The problem is that these things are inevitably fickle. Fashions go in and out of fashion. They go in and out of style. But it’s also a very bad match with the current era of media, because — look, it’s always been the case that there have been newsroom dynamics where people want to fit in. If it’s 1975 and I’m a staff writer for The New York Times, there are certainly pressures on me to try to fit in with the other people who work in the building. However, the building is only so big. There’s only so many people. I’m speaking to a broader public and I don’t necessarily have an echo chamber of people around me who are watching everything that I do and commenting on it.
With the rise of Twitter as being essentially the interior conversation of the entire media — as Twitter became more and more prominent as the way that the media understands itself, communicates with itself, digests what’s happening within it, and crucially enacts punishments for people who step outside of the Twitter consensus … So that if you write something that is considered offensive to Twitter, you will be subject to intense group shunning and admonishment, et cetera … That means that these politics spread even to people who would not ordinarily feel particularly comfortable with them. Because they feel like there isn’t a choice. That if I’m going to log on to Twitter every day — which people have convinced themselves as necessary for their careers — and be a member in good standing, I have to have the right politics. And the right politics happen to be a particularly weird, narrow vision of social justice politics that comes out of the English department at Brown, et cetera.
TH: It’s interesting. I think the popularity contest part of it is something that the public probably doesn’t understand a lot about. And, I think, is even incomprehensible sometimes for those of us who are in it. Another one of your lines that’s stayed with me is this one: “Everyone who works in the industry lives with a dim but persistent feeling that they have committed some kind of faux pas, and are paying for it, but never know where, what or why.” Give me an example of what that looks like.
FDB: The way that I would describe it is almost like an immune system response to the existence of a scenario in which your career could very suddenly be essentially decapitated if you write or say the wrong thing. So, you want to police yourself in order to maintain the right public-facing politics, so that you don’t become the subject of the next cancellation attempt. I think it creates in people this sort of constant, gnawing, low-level fear. Everything that they put out there is like, “Is this the thing that’s going to ruin me?” What that tends to produce is extremely conformist writing. It produces a narrowing of the available set of potential points of view. And it results in a lot of people who never find themselves in the position of being the enemy of their profession, but they also don’t have any way to really distinguish themselves.
I think that one of the things that people chafe against, but don’t know what to do about, is that writing safe keeps you from becoming Twitter’s main character of the day, but it also probably keeps you from being someone who is individual enough to be able to do this professionally for the rest of your life.
Again, there’s just a limited number of seats at the table. The industry is shrinking rather than growing. Especially if you want to write for places that are prestigious, that can do things like get you a book contract someday. So, working for The New York Times is not very well paying — this is an open secret in the industry — but one of the nice things about having The New York Times next to your name is that you can get an agent very easily, a literary agent, and you can go sell a book.
I think people are aware that they need to do something to distinguish themselves, but they’re not sure what to do that won’t get them in trouble.
TH: Jesse Singal had an interesting piece recently. He was saying that if you want to look at some of the Substack people’s superpowers, their secret superpower is that they’re willing to ignore this dynamic on Twitter. You yourself are not on Twitter at all. Do you think that gives you a big advantage?
FDB: Well, it’s good for my mental health. I will say that I have a Twitter account that has never tweeted, or liked anything, and is followed by no one. But which I just use to have a feed. I check it twice a week. On Tuesday and Thursday mornings, I’ll spend a half hour looking at what’s happening on Twitter. I feel like I have to know what’s going on in terms of the broad dynamics, in order to have things to write about. But that’s it. Unless something very big happens. I mean, I checked Twitter a lot the day of the midterm election, because there was so much information coming in. But generally I’m the opposite.
And, I mean, it’s a superpower to extent that I’m just a very bad match with Twitter for my particular kind of neuroses. And I just don’t know what people are saying about my writing most of the time. That is good for me. My commenters certainly let me know when they don’t like something — and they frequently don’t like what I write. And I can track and see how many subscriptions I’m losing versus gaining. But in terms of fitting in with the broader media narrative, I don’t even know what it is half the time. So I’m not in a position to have to conform to it.
TH: Coming back to this social justice politics that we have been touching on, you used the term “social justice politics” instead of woke. Those of us who are trying to critique this particular political ideology hit a roadblock in that the movement so strenuously resists classification. You have written about this in, I think, one of your funniest essays: Just give me a term I’m allowed to use for the sweeping social and political changes you demand. But as you pointed out in other essays, this is part of a broader unhelpful trend, which is that participants in social justice politics keep trying to exempt themselves from doing politics. Talk to me about that tendency.
FDB: Yeah. So, one of the things that I like least about social justice politics is that they have this sort of endlessly expanding definition of what it means to be harmed, or of what violence is. So that more and more and more things are presumed to do harm, or be an example of violence or whatever. And more or less the explicit position of many people is, “To disagree with me is to do violence to me.” It’s a perfect example of the rhetorical sleight of hand that goes on in this world. Which is that you’d take a banal statement about things that we hope to achieve in our culture: “We want people who are from marginalized groups not to feel that they are being harmed by the dominant majorities.” That, in and of itself, expressed that way, is not offensive to me. But if you then say, “Trying to name my movement, and pin it down for what it is, and to criticize it, is an act of violence against me” — that’s where I cry foul.
Part of the difficulty in opposing social justice politics at the moment is that there’s always this “woke just means believing in equality” — a line that you hear a lot. When, of course, it also encompasses things like when disability activists say that phrase “I see what you mean” is ableist, because not everyone can see. That taking things to their most absurd possible conclusions, but then defending them under the rubric of “I just want equality.” That’s the situation that we’re in. Another big one is talking about how “writers should read” is a ableist statement because not everyone can read. I don’t know anyone who can’t read who can write. So, it’s a question of having a superficially unobjectionable politics about equality, and harm prevention, but that the expression of which is taken to these absurd extremes in ways that undermine the rights of all the rest of us.
TH: I did want to ask you, too, about the left’s opposition to free speech. I want to quote from another one of your essays here, “I need free speech because I don’t have the faith this army of sneering white dudes has that I know everything. That every debate has already been settled, and we just need to let the goodies rule over the baddies. I don’t think everything is obvious. I don’t think all political questions are easy.” In that essay I just quoted from, you are criticizing NBC reporter Ben Collins. He was one of the most outspoken, and nastiest, critics of Matt Taibbi in recent days, claiming Taibbi’s reporting on internal Twitter documents around the Hunter Biden laptop story was essentially PR for the richest man in the world. How do you think through the Twitter Files story — and what does the mainstream media’s reaction to it tell us?