If you’re a regular listener of the Lean Out podcast, you know that it has not been a good couple of years for the media. From the lab leak theory to the Hunter Biden laptop, we in the press have gotten a lot of big stories wrong. My guest on the program this week is a media veteran, and he has some insights on how this all has happened — and where we go from here.
Steve Krakauer is the executive producer of The Megyn Kelly Show and the host of The Fourth Watch podcast. His new book is Uncovered: How the Media Got Cozy with Power, Abandoned its Principles, and Lost the People.
This is an edited transcript for paid subscribers. You can listen to the episode for free here.
TH: Steve, welcome to Lean Out.
SK: Thanks for having me, Tara.
TH: Really great to have you on. The debate over the state of the media is quite polarized, and your book manages to move beyond that. I thought it was significant that you only took on-the-record interviews, and that you had interviews with a huge range of media people — left and right. And that you yourself have experience throughout the media ecosphere, also on left and right, working as an executive at CNN and now also in the independent media, as executive producer of The Megan Kelly Show, which I have appeared on. And you also stress in the book that what you want here is a healthy mainstream media, that criticisms of aspects of the media are not indictments of the whole. So, let’s start with the Hunter Biden laptop story. Why did you choose to open your book with that?
SK: I think it was such an eyeopener for me. In the book, we start there and then we go backwards and look at 2015 through 2020, 2021. [The Hunter Biden story] came at the end of the Trump era; it was really the end of one era, but the beginning of another. Something that I think, actually, is more pernicious than even some of the mistakes and incompetence and biased coverage that we saw during the Trump years. This was something different because, yes, the coverage was bad — as I lay out — with the media getting the story wrong, and only taking one side, but it was the sensorial nature of it. It’s what I describe later in the book as anti-speech activism, that we saw, which I think really became the defining narrative of the press over the last few years. You look at stories, like with Covid and others, that I lay out — it felt like almost the beginning of it. Something really new and different. It was the first thing I did, in writing the book, was going back and reliving that, and trying to piece together what happened there.
It was shocking to me even to see, as I went back to it. The idea that, yes, Twitter took unprecedented action — as we now learn from The Twitter Files — in at least a collaboration with the FBI in this idea of locking this down, that this was potential Russian disinformation. So there was a partnership there. But also with the media. Because The New York Post was locked out of their Twitter account, the link was unable to be sent. Just a shocking overreach by Twitter. Something that has never happened before that, and never happened since. And there was not universal outrage by the press, in the way that I think that there really should have been. I lay out the story of Jake Sherman, who’s at Punchbowl News. He is a normal journalist. He’s not an overly partisan guy. But he linked to the story and he said, “Oh, I wonder if the Biden campaign will respond to this.”
Then, of course, he was locked out of his Twitter account, because he linked to The New York Post. So he deleted it and he was able to get back into his account. But he wasn’t outraged by that, or at least jarred by the experience. No, he then laid out, in a three-tweet thread — which was full of misspellings, I mean really just a full panic —about how sorry he was that he had dared to do this. “Now I’ve learned my lesson,” essentially. I mean, just crazy behaviour by a media that should have seen this as really damaging to the First Amendment and to the free flow of ideas and free speech.
You don’t have to say The New York Post is definitely right, even though they were, as we now know. At the very least, you have to defend their right to publish something like this, and to not be seen in this censorious way. So I think it’s just such a telling story of where the rest of the industry went. The fact that they weren’t outraged is something that really bothered me. I think it shows where we’re at with the press today.
TH: An interesting detail in the book: You interviewed Tucker Carlson and he says he knew the laptop was real because he saw one of his own emails to Hunter Biden. Tucker had quit drinking; Hunter famously was struggling with substance use. And I guess Tucker was communicating with him on that. I thought that was such an interesting detail. But also, just to raise a point that Ben Smith, formerly of The New York Times, raised with you: He says this story still stands out because it’s such an isolated incident. Because there has been no other major suppressions of journalism that favoured the conservative viewpoint since. Do you agree with that?
SK: No, I don’t. I think that it stands out because it was just the most obvious, blatant one. Ben is also pointing to the fact that it was a few weeks before an election; we also got that — this October surprise. So, yeah, we have not seen that. We’ll see what happens in a couple years, here in 2024, when we have our next election and see what happens. If anyone has learned any lessons from that.
But no, I think we see this in case after case, maybe on a smaller scale, of the absolute overreach and lack of interest in the press in calling it out, and in fact joining in with it. I call it the “elite censorship collusion racket” because I think that it is, whether consciously or subconsciously, the media themselves joining with tech platforms and with intel agencies and government forces to clamp down on speech. It happens in story after story with Covid.
There was the “disinformation dozen” that was highlighted by the Biden administration, and they were then, in coordination, shut down on platforms like Facebook and Twitter. The media was a participant in this. I mean, they were passing this along as if it was a reality, and totally fine with the suppression. So, no, I think [the Hunter Biden laptop] was maybe the most blatant example, but it certainly was just one of many that we’ve seen before that and since.
TH: Just to back up, in the book you outline five major problems with the current media landscape, and one of the first ones that you focus on is geographic bias. The public will often express that they’re concerned about political bias, but you say geographic bias is actually key to understanding the mess that we’re in. I want to refer to a quote from the book, “When you have a geographic bias and are tasked with covering a country that’s unfamiliar to you, journalism becomes more like anthropology. You’re on a mission to explore new cultures and report back about the strange locals you’re encountering.” Walk me through your thinking on this geographic bias.
SK: To be honest, Tara, this is something that really has become clear to me since I left New York myself. I grew up on the East Coast, it was New Jersey, and I went to Syracuse University in New York. And then I lived in New York City for a long time, working at a variety of outlets. There was a general — I don’t want to say groupthink, because maybe that’s a little bit too much. But there were certainly blind spots that existed that I wasn’t even necessarily aware of myself until I got outside of the physical geography of where so much of the media is centred, in New York and D.C. I describe it as the “Acela media.” Because of the Acela [train] that goes between New York and D.C. Everyone takes it in the media industry. You go back and forth. It’s the fast train that goes between the two cities, and you miss so much.
The truth is, there’s always been political bias in the American media, in the corporate media structure. The people that I worked with at CNN, when I was there, generally leaned left. They generally would vote for Democrats when they voted at all. And at the same time, there was a mission where — unlike other occupations — you tried to put your own personal beliefs aside for the greater good of objectivity, and getting the story right, and showing both sides, and being fair. So they were able to suppress their political bias in the service of telling the true story. And that has always existed.
Something else major has changed since then, and I believe that it’s the geography side of it. Yes, the media has largely been in these general centres for a while. But it’s gotten worse and it’s gotten worse for specific reasons. The fact is that when Donald Trump was elected in November of 2016, it was such a shock to the system. There was a brief moment of introspection, “Why? How did we get this so wrong?” But that quickly morphed into not just that, but, “Why did these people put him here?” And it was not just an attack — this fight that they were in with Trump himself, or the Trump administration — but also turning against more than half the country that don’t see the world in the way that they do. That there is this existential threat that they were fighting against to save democracy, and going through Watergate every day.
Most of the people that I encounter here in Dallas, in Texas, who are not overly political — maybe lean left, maybe lean right — they are not thinking about the world during those years in the same way that the media did. So it is geographic as well. People are complicated, and have messy points of views. That is not reflected in what we see in our corporate press.
TH: You point in the book to the work of Selena Zito as a kind of counterpoint for this. Tell me about what she’s done in her reporting.
SK: Selena has been great. As you mentioned, I talked with Selena for the book. I talked with more than two dozen people in the industry, including places like The New York Times and The Washington Post and MSNBC. There are good people at all these outlets, that I think are at least thoughtful and curious and are trying to fix the problems of trust that exist today.
Selena is someone who saw the Trump wave coming, perhaps better than anyone else. Because unlike the anthropologists in the media — that helicopter in to a place and go to a diner and talk to a few people and then helicopter back to their newsroom — Selena is someone who drives through the country. She drove through the country in 2015 and 2016, and talked to people all across the country, and saw it coming and documented that in her reporting. She tells me a story in the book about how she was hired at CNN, specifically for that reason, by Jeff Zucker. She describes talking to the newsroom in a kind of town hall, to describe what they might be missing.
But then she also says very quickly, shortly after Trump took office, instead of just being asked, “What do these people think? What do these Trump supporters think?” it went to, “Why do they think this? How could they possibly believe these lies?” And she’s like, “I don’t know, I’m just a reporter.”
But Selena is someone who’s not an ideological person. As she describes in the book, her bias is towards the people of the country. She cares deeply about the people of the country, and her point of view was not represented in the subsequent years. Of these Trump years. So, yeah, I think she’s a great example of someone who’s doing great work and the corporate press would be smart to listen to. They had a brief moment where they did, and then they just turned against it.
TH: Another thread I wanted to pull is this sort of conspiratorial tone in the public’s perception of us in the media. Anyone who works on questions of media criticism will encounter this. But you make the argument that actually laziness and incompetence is way more to blame. There’s a great quote from Josh Rogin from The Washington Post, “I don’t think there was a conspiracy in the media. I think it’s basically a mix of source bias, confirmation bias, anti-Trump bias, fighting-the-right-wing-attacks-on-us bias and general incompetence. I’ve worked in eight different newsrooms in 18 years, and I’ve seen all of that in one degree or another.” Walk me through why is this not a conspiracy in the media.
SK: Yeah, Josh is great. Josh is someone who is a really trustworthy voice and has done great work, specifically on the lab leak theory. Which is what he was referring to in that quote, but really, across the board on Covid and on China. And he’s fearless in a way that I think — so many in the industry are not just incompetent, in some cases, and not so great at their job and lazy, but they are fearful. Really fearful of the backlash that they might get for doing anything that deviates from the consensus.
Yes, I think that there are certain stories like the Hunter Biden laptop story where we see a real collusion, a real conspiracy that emerges between media outlets, the institutional elite, and tech platforms and government officials. That is true. That happens sometimes. But more often than not, in little cases and in even cases that are bigger, it’s a much more complicated and nuanced situation.
Look, if you need a plumber, maybe you’d look at Yelp and say, “Okay, this one has good reviews. This one seems to be not so good at their job. This one is lazy.” And then you pick the ones that are the best, and the rest would get weeded out. The best would rise to the top; they would get the most work.
The journalism industry doesn’t work that way. In fact, I think it almost is the opposite. A lot of times the people who are the least competent, who are the worst at their job, get rewarded in very real ways. Because they are good at other aspects of what it is these days to be a journalist, whether it’s through their Twitter accounts and becoming kind of influencers themselves, accruing real power, saying the right things in certain situations.
That’s not great. The business is hurt by those who are not as good rising to the top by it not being a real meritocracy.
[You can see it] in story after story that I give in the book. I mean, stupid corrections of stupid stories. Like on CNN. Just one small example: CNN published a story after the January 6th riot in the Capitol about this congressman Ted Lieu, a Democratic congressman who’s a regular on cable news and green rooms — a real cozy guy with the media members. They described how he was hiding in an office, and then he grabbed a crowbar and went to go into the hallway to potentially encounter the mob. You’re picturing this like, “Oh, this is like The Walking Dead here. Ted Lieu with his crowbar.” Four journalists were on this story, four had a byline on this story. How many editors saw this? Well, a few hours later, the story was corrected: No, he grabbed a Probar energy bar and went into the hallway. So it’s totally ridiculous. This is not some big conspiracy between Ted Lieu’s office and CNN to make him look like this hero. It’s just general incompetence, and not thinking through the story. The media does that, and the public should understand that.
TH: You just alluded to the idea of coziness to power, which is another thread in your book. And that media power players are now in close proximity to corporate and government decision-makers; they are no longer really aligned with the interests of ordinary people. I think there’s something that’s hard to square with that idea. That’s the state of journalism, which is a collapsing industry. There’s a lot of precarious work, and pretty low wages for the majority of workers. How do we reconcile these two ideas — that we’re underpaid and that we’re also somehow elites?
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