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Interviews

An Interview with Jonah Goldberg, Editor-in-Chief of The Dispatch

Jonah Goldberg is Founding Editor-in-Chief of The Dispatch and has been a Los Angeles Times columnist since 2005. He holds the Asness Chair in Applied Liberty at the American Enterprise Institute. He was previously Senior Editor at National Review, where he had worked for two decades. He remains a fellow of the National Review Institute. He is a weekly columnist for The Times, a Fox News contributor, and a regular member of the “Fox News All-Stars” on “Special Report with Bret Baier.” Goldberg appears regularly on NPR’s “Morning Edition” and is the author of three New York Times bestsellers, the most recent of which is “Suicide of the West.”

The Politic: You’ve been in the journalism game for 30+ years. What’s been the most noticeable shift in coverage/conventions since the late ‘80s or early ‘90s?

Jonah Goldberg: Journalism is more Wild Wild West than you would expect in a fully-formed democracy. The big change in my life is that when I first started out as a researcher at the American Enterprise Institute, the internet barely existed, and it really wasn’t the dominant medium for what seemed like a very long time. What we’ve now seen is a vast amount of disintermediation, where the big institutions that used to be the anchors of a media culture have all broken loose from their mores. 

In the first 10 years of the internet, a big chunk of what everyone did was just comment on what dominant publications like the NYT or the Washington Post were reporting. They were the frames of reference for vast amounts of commentary. Places like that are still important, but not important in the same way anymore. It’s like when you’re at sea and you have a couple of landmarks in mind to help you triangulate your position. When all the landmarks are also moving, it’s really hard to do that.

What’s been the major impact of disintermediation?

I think that sort of drift has affected a lot of different things, especially when combined with the idea of Yuval Levin’s new book on institutions. One of the things that has happened–and this is largely Yuval’s argument–is that we no longer think of institutions as things that form character. But look at the Marines–you go in there as a hippie and come out as a Marine. Same with the Boy Scouts. 

With journalism, these institutions were supposed to create journalists of a certain type, but what’s happened is that we’ve now internalized the romantic idea that institutions are platforms on which we perform and shine a light on ourselves instead. Every day there’s another example. Take Colin Kaepernick. To be clear, I’m not supporting or defending him–say what you will, but he did use the NFL as a platform for his own agenda. Journalists do this all the time, where they use the authority of a larger institution to signal boost their own brand. That’s been happening for a long time. It’s a problem with the larger culture and not just journalism, but it’s really noticeable when everyone wants to be a star and use platforms to cast a light on themselves.

Is it possible to be a journalist nowadays without a Twitter platform? Do you know anyone who doesn’t use Twitter?

It’s very hard to be a journalist and not look at Twitter, but there are a bunch who don’t tweet, and there are a bunch who just lurk. It’s a very useful platform for gaining insight into the zeitgeist–into where conventional wisdom is heading or where the very online Left or Right are going–if you know how to put it into context. It’s a window, though maybe a distorting one, into a lot of what’s going on out there. But, there’s Kevin Williamson from the National Review who no longer tweets, and there’s John Podhoretz who realized he couldn’t keep tweeting because it would take him to unhealthy places if he kept engaging. There are more and more people who are trying to kick the Twitter habit. Personally, I just think the world needs my dog videos so badly that I can’t stop.

Social media has been around for 20+ years at this point–why’s it such a problem?

On a broad perspective, Megan McArdle says that all new forms of media–social media or otherwise–are disruptive. Starting with the printing press, I don’t think you get the Protestant Revolution without it. She makes the point about the radio: The time between the first one coming off the assembly line (circa 1920) and 50-percent household penetration (1929) was a decade. It’s not a coincidence that the amount of social upheaval in the 1930s came from the existence of radio. The same thing happened with VHS (1977), which was disruptive to all sorts of things.

Social media is incredibly disruptive. Eventually, cultures figure out how to adapt to new forms of media. The problem with social media is that it’s so rapidly transformative that we’re still in the throes of the adaptation process. People are just now realizing, “Holy shit! Maybe I shouldn’t be tweeting all of my unfiltered thoughts.” Some people learn faster than others.

The issue isn’t just Twitter but also Facebook, which tends to reward those who feel most passionately, whether that’s passionately angry, passionately defensive, or even–though very rarely–passionately happy. Social media monetizes dopamine hits, so it makes people feel more strongly, and the disruption is coming at the worst time. Our institutions were already dissolving long before Twitter and social media came along, but the process is now accelerating because of these platforms.

Why don’t publications ban their journalists from promoting personal opinions on Twitter?

A lot of big newspapers are struggling to find a balance with their social media policy. You saw this recently with the journalist who tweeted after Kobe Bryant’s death. I think the Washington Post made the wrong decision in punishing her, but part of it really depends on your lane. I’ve always basically been an opinion journalist–I put my opinions out there. I’m trying to learn restraint as best as I can, but I don’t have the same job description as a straightforward reporter.

It used to be considered a grave faux pas for reporters to tip off their own opinions to readers. It was like a judge showing bias–it would be wildly inappropriate for a judge to tweet strong opinions about contemporary politics or what might come before his bench. It’s much different for a defense attorney. I think one of the problems is that a lot of people who’re supposed to stay in one lane think they can cross a bunch of different lanes without any issues. When it comes to an opinion columnist who tweets a lot, the content might matter, but it matters less than it does for the Whitehouse Correspondent to the Wall Street Journal.

The idea of journalistic objectivity is relatively recent, right?

There’s a strong case–I’ve been making this argument for a long time. In the period from 1900 to 1980 when CNN came out, there’s a big chunk of time, particularly after WWII, during which the mainstream media really bought into this idea of objectivity. I’ve always had some problems with the idea of objectivity, but the idea basically came out of technology. The telegraph brought a whole lot of instantaneity. You could report on events in minutes instead of weeks. If you sent Stephen Crane or whoever to cover the War of 1812, he would have had to send his dispatches back home by horseback. It was sort of baked into the cake that there would be personal bias under those circumstances.

But with the rise of television followed the idea that you could remove the perspective of the journalist from the entire enterprise and then have objective facts reported. That’s not the way the rest of the world went. It has to do with an American fetish with technology. In the U.K., the newspapers have always been noticeably biased. The Guardian is Bolshevik or whatever. That doesn’t mean they’re bad papers. You know where they’re coming from. You know the angles they’re inclined to bring to these stories. That’s okay because the reader is in on it. 

If you go to the 19th century, newspapers were wildly biased. The backbone of America is political association. Think about papers like the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. If you look at the way they covered the anti-slavery vs. pro-slavery debates, it was really amazing. The pro-slavery papers would say something like, “Lincoln was so enraged by the superiority of Stephen Douglas’ argument that it took 12 men to hold him back.” The pro-Lincoln papers would say, “The sheer force of Lincoln’s intellect reduced Stephen Douglas to a blubbering baby.” But you sort of figured it out, and that was the norm for most of American history, particularly until the post-WWII era with AM broadcasting, the radio, and eventually the internet. So, in some ways, we’re doing a reversion back to the norm.

Do you think the journalism industry will become more centralized as we increasingly look for trustworthy sources?

I don’t know if it’s a problem, but what’s really different is that because the internet is not only national but global, a lot of the economics that made local newspapers viable have gone out the window. You can get a lot of the content you want from outlets a hundred or a thousand miles away. Because the advertising has gone elsewhere, particularly classified advertising, it makes it difficult to sustain local newspapers. People have access to more information, but it’s nationalized. I think there are always going to be a lot of different news and opinion outlets, but there are going to be real deserts in terms of local reporting, because a lot of the great local newspapers and outlets are devastated by changes in the economy.

I read your piece, “The Intellectual Wet Market.” Some people have said there’s no market for The Dispatch–what’s your theory?

We think there’s a market for what we’re doing at The Dispatch, but it’ll take a long time to find out for sure because we’re small now and need to scale up. Part of the reason we see a market opportunity is that, even if you count all the institutions on the Right that do reporting and you think it’s all great, that’s still only a fraction of what you get from the Center and the Left. 

There’s a lot of stuff out there that’s basically based on the Twitter clickbait model, but we think people are turned off by that. We think there are a lot of outlets which do miserable things because they need massive amounts of traffic. How do I stop that video? How do I stop pop up ads? Part of our theory is that there are enough people out there that value their time, that don’t have a lot of it, that want to know about the news, and that want serious analysis and reporting which isn’t filled with outrage. They want news that tells them stuff they can trust is accurate.

One of the advantages of this climate is that you don’t need 30 million people to sign up. That would be great, but if we’ve got 300,000 people that are willing to subscribe and pay for what we’re offering, or even the 30,000 we have right now, we can scale up like gangbusters.

I’ve often wondered how many people care about being informed. Isn’t the fact that most people aren’t all that interested in politics?

It’s lost on a lot of people. You ask them, “How many people do you think regularly watch Fox News?” They think half the country is red, or Conservative, or Republican. I’m a contributor to Fox News, so I’m not trying to beat up on them, but Sean Hannity gets 3.5 million people watching. The universe of people who watch Fox News is probably a little broader than those who watch Hannity, but that still leaves 328 million people not watching. It’s even worse for MSNBC.

With CBS, you can maybe get 30 percent of the country. (On February 3, 2019, 98.2 million people–30 percent of the U.S. population–tuned into CBS’ broadcast of Super Bowl LIII.) When you have that large a cross-section of America, it’s much easier to tell people what they need to hear and what they want to hear–it’s easier to feed them their spinach. Advertisers are desperate to get their products in front of eyeballs, so they’ll pay a lot.  But they also don’t want content that pisses off the public, so there’s an extreme bias to advertising in the old days that’s largely gone now.

Everyone is looking for a market of 2 percent of the public that’s really sticky and stays with you no matter what. We have a theory that there’s a sticky group that doesn’t want to be pandered to, that’s interested in a smart Conservative perspective, and that isn’t just responding to stupid tweets. You don’t need a lot of them to be successful. But we’re entrepreneurs–we’re giving it a shot. We’re more in it for the mission than the money, but we think there’s a market for what we’re doing.

Which other outlets do you think are giving a smart Conservative perspective right now? Which ones should students be paying attention to?

National Review is worth looking at. I didn’t leave as some grand indictment–you can disagree with this or that, but I think it’s a worthwhile publication to read. National Affairs is a treasure, too, and Commentary is also great. Basically, I think politically-engaged youth should have a really diversified media diet. They should spend much less time watching TV and more time reading. If you need electronic media, podcasts are great. I can’t stress EconTalk enough.

This is not a knock, but at the end of the day, TV is simply an entertainment medium–and once you understand that, it helps you put it in perspective. Particularly when you talk about anything that isn’t serious news reporting television, it’s just entertainment. It can be highbrow or lowbrow, but it’s still what a specific personality says in an argument with another personality. It’s nutritionally deficient. It reduces things to soundbites, and it rewards people for yelling at each other. Again–there’s good stuff on TV. But if you’re only getting your news from TV, you’re not getting informed.

On your point about having a diversified media diet–that’s common advice, but realistically-speaking, isn’t that impractical? I.e., If I’m a busy student, I don’t really want the redundancy of multiple outlets. How many people are actually interested in that?

Part of our business model is to appeal to really smart people who don’t have the need to do deep dives on stuff but also want stuff they can trust isn’t manipulating their opinions. If you’re an engineer who’s busy doing your job, but you’re smart and engaged and all that but want to get up to speed quickly, we want to provide that kind of resource. That said, there’s also the harder part of the problem is that everyone feels like they’re supposed to have strong political opinions, but relatively few people want to put in the time and the effort to understand the reasons for those opinions. 

It doesn’t bother me that people aren’t engaged in politics. I generally see that as a sign of societal health, since we’re not supposed to think everything is about the government. But to the extent that you’re going to take voting and politics seriously, you’ve got to do your homework. It wouldn’t bother me if they didn’t follow through with really extreme, ill-informed opinions or with them calling others bad people. The problem is that people are incredibly passionate about politics. They wear it on their sleeves, and they only go looking for stuff that confirms their opinions rather than challenging them.

How much of that do you think is signaling? 

There’s an enormous amount of signaling going on. For instance, I like The Economist a lot–it often has great stuff. But at the same time, there’s a really high ratio of people who subscribe to The Economist but don’t actually read it. Instead, they just like to have it on their coffee table.

It’s the same in publishing, too. There’s a really huge delta between the number of books people buy and the number they actually read. There are certain books that people want to signal that they own but don’t actually read because they feel like they got everything they needed from a book review or even the dust jacket.

To be fair for the sake of argument, let’s say 20 percent just do it for the signaling–there’s probably another 20 percent that don’t think they’re doing it for the signaling. They read one article and believe, therefore, that they read The Economist. People do that with The New Yorker, too. They even do that with their NPR tote.

Can I get my Dispatch tote yet??

We don’t have swag yet. But look–we’re not above some of this. We’ve hoisted up the pirate flag, and we’re calling people to come to our aid. There’s nothing inherently evil or immoral about this kind of stuff. But we’re looking for allies. We’re looking for people who want to be a part of something. That’s why we want a big community component to what we’re doing. We want readers to feel like there’s a place with like-minded individuals.

There’s a reason I call my podcast “The Remnant.” It harkens back to a 1980s essay in The Atlantic Monthly by Albert Jay Nock. It’s about a certain irreducible amount of people out there that don’t get caught up in the populist hysteria. It alludes to other things, too, like the Book of Isaiah. We think there are a whole bunch of people out there who are really interested in politics, arguments, and ideas, who maybe even aren’t conservative themselves, and who are interested in what thoughtful Conservatives have to say but don’t want the screaming or drama. That’s the brand we’re going for, and it’s a tricky brand to go for, because you don’t want to be dull, or finger-wagging, or sanctimonious. You want to be engaging. It’s not like we’re the only ones trying to do that, but we’re the only ones doing what we’re doing as well as we’re doing it.