August 10, 2023
Besides the need to attract attention, what are some other drivers behind the news media's tendency to "catastrophize the normal"? To what extent does paltering take place on the politically left and right ends of the new media spectrum? Should journalists try to be as objective and unbiased as possible, or should they strive to make a difference in the world by highlighting particular issues that are important to them? Is the US on the verge of a civil war? Are prophecies of civil war self-fulfilling? Is it (and should it be) okay to reference certain taboo phrases by saying them explicitly? To what extent do journalists pull their punches because they fear angering the wrong crowd?
Mike Pesca is host of The Gist, the longest running daily news podcast in history, consistently ranked in Apple's Top 20 Daily News charts. During his 10 years as a correspondent for NPR, Mike guest hosted All Things Considered and the news quiz Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me. His work has been featured on This American Life, Radiolab, and Planet Money. He has frequently appeared on MSNBC, CNN, and The PBS Newshour, and written for The Washington Post, The Guardian, GQ, Slate, and Baseball Prospectus. Listen to Mike on The Gist, or follow him on Twitter at @pescami.
SPENCER: Mike, welcome.
MIKE: Well, thanks for having me, Spencer.
SPENCER: As someone who's spent a long time in media, you, more than just about anyone, see how the media influences what we think is going on in society today. And there's this funny thing that happens, which is that the media is incentivized to make everything seem like a catastrophe. That's where I want to start this conversation with you, this idea of catastrophizing the normal. Do you want to start us off on that?
MIKE: Yes, for a few years, there was a disinclination to, not catastrophize the normal, but normalize the catastrophic. You can't elevate or platform a neo-Nazi, that's a catastrophe; you're just normalizing him. And the normalizing conversation generally left me cold. I don't think we were normalizing much, we as the media, in covering unusual phenomenon or even outrageous phenomenon that actually happened and has a chance to threaten us. That's what we do, and it's kind of up to the audience not to hear that interview with a Nazi and say to themselves, "Ooh, I want to be a Nazi." It's the other part of it, catastrophizing the normal part of it, which we really are inclined to do. I think the easiest way to recognize this is to see that the other side does it. Now, I'm not a binary thinker and I know there's a lot more than Republican-Democrat, Right and Left, but there are a couple of big news channels, and one is almost entirely of the Right and one is almost entirely of the Left. So it's hard for me to get my NBC-watching friends — and I've been on MSNBC 100 times — but it's maybe hard to get them to see what's going on on their side, so I say, "Well, look at the other side, and now I'm going to make some parallels about what happens on your side. It's kind of the same thing." So I will only talk about, "Look at their overemphasis over there on Fox on migrant crime, or the caravan. Now, is it false that the caravan is happening? No, there really was a caravan. And do migrants — or what Fox called illegal immigrants — commit crime? They certainly do." And they can make a story about all of it. Now, is there an equivalent? Is there something like that that happens on MSNBC? Well, for a while, there's a really bad thing when, say an illegal immigrant gets drunk and kills someone, that's bad. And when cops shoot someone who maybe had a gun and wasn't pointing it or didn't use it, that's bad. But they're both somewhat rare phenomena. They both get at public policy. And they both are elevated by their respective media to get us quite agitated, but only based on one side. So I can sit you down, and you can listen to a newscast, and if the last news item is about a shooting in Chicago, you could reliably tell me, "Oh, that's more on MSNBC Left-wing media." And if the last item in the newscast is about an illegal — or what we would call an undocumented person — committing a crime, you could say that's Fox News, but it's pretty much the same thing.
SPENCER: I just recently learned this word 'paltering,' which has a technical definition, and it means saying something that's factually true but where you've cherry picked it so as to try to persuade someone towards what may be a false conclusion. Basically, it's like, let's say there's 1000 crimes committed that week, you choose the crimes you're going to focus on to try to tell a narrative about, "Oh, it's this group committing the crimes," or "It's that group committing the crimes," and you're technically not lying because it's not like you made up that example. But you did choose that example in such a way as to promote the narrative that you want everyone to believe.
MIKE: I don't know the derivation of that. This is the first time I've heard it. I like it. It basically is the mode of operation of opinion journalism. Sure, some of the worst exemplars of that don't even care about the truth. But in general, the mainstream media that will acknowledge they're from the Left or from the center Left or from the center Right, that's what they do. And that's all they do. And that's their stock in trade. And I've always said that one of the marks of a really good story is if I told you three facts that are totally true that cut entirely against the story's narrative or conclusion, would the story still be strong? And I do think more than ever, fewer stories are — maybe there are just so many more stories — but a lower percentage of stories are fitting that criteria. I also think that the paltering, it's not a trick that's being played. It's literally how the crafters of the stories, the definers of what is important, see the world. So while it's true that in America every year, I'm talking a lot about cops shooting Black men — we can talk about 100 other things — but it is true every year that according to The Washington Post database, this happens a dozen times a year, and according to the Mapping Police Violence database, this happens 20-something times a year, cops shoot an unarmed Black man and that happens, that didn't not happen. The question is, how often does that make the news versus something that can also be plausibly called newsworthy? And the answer to that question, depending on what publication you read, is influenced by paltering.
SPENCER: I've done some experimenting with trying to get my brain to really process how often things happen. One thing I did is, I looked at the database of shootings where more than one person was shot in a single incident, and I just randomly sampled it. And I just kept doing this for an hour, randomly sampled case, read it, randomly sampled case, read it. And it's so fascinating what a different perspective that gives you on what's going on, than if you look at what the media says. For example, my experience doing this random sampling was that a huge number of these cases were young men with a gun going somewhere, getting in some fight, and then shooting a few people, like at a party, at a gas station, at a McDonald's. But if you actually look at the coverage, the ratio of things happening to the ratio of them being covered is just totally out of whack.
MIKE: Yeah, I do that, too. I've done that exact thing with the database. Now that database or the databases you're talking about, there's something really interesting going on with mass shootings, which are really rare, they really are. And NRA types or second amendment (I don't wanna say absolutists) defenders make the correct point, that we could ban AR-15s or weapons of that ilk, and it will really only affect one or two percent of the murders. But I say from a public policy perspective, these happen to be the murders that upset us the most. They get the most attention. They make us feel most vulnerable. And you can have a racial interpretation of that because most of the murders — not even disproportionate, literally most of the murders in America — are committed by African Americans. And the victims are African Americans, even though African Americans are only 13% of the country. So isn't it odd, convenient, or in keeping with what they would call White supremacy ideology that we care about the ones where there's mass killings that kill White people? Fine. That's definitely something to think about. But it is so rare to have these mass murders. They affect us so much. They shake our faith in our safety, our country, the efficacy of our politicians, that it has so many add-on effects. I advocate having strict gun laws against AR-15s, knowing (as the NRA type people say) this will at most affect two percent, let's say, of gun crime. But then there is another phenomenon where you'll read news coverage, there'll be a school shooting that we all pay attention to, and then they'll say something to try to get us agitated or to realize the scope of the problem. "This is the 234th school shooting this year," and you're like, "What in the world is going on?" You delve into the database, and sometimes they define school shootings so broadly as to include anytime a gun was shot on school grounds. Same thing with mass murders. There is a database put together by The Violence Project that hews to FBI statistics, which is, you have to have four deaths, not the shooter. And also there are a couple other criteria like it can't be in the home, and I think they also include victims unknown to the shooter. Now, if we go by that, there are very, very few mass shootings, but other mass shooting databases and the Gun Violence Archive, for instance, which wants to emphasize how rampant gun crime is, it makes it seem like (and you'll hear this), say after the shooting in Highland Park, Illinois, "This is the 89th mass shooting this year," and it isn't. It isn't if you go by mass shootings, what we all think about, which is gunman on a roof or gunman in a mall. And the effect of this — a really good way to think about this and not over catastrophize it — is to do what you did, to go and to see what's actually happening. And then you realize, the thing that's going on isn't just that we're — and this is one of the terrible things with over catastrophizing, we only have so much (let's call it) bandwidth in our brains to pay attention to phenomena — there's so many catastrophes we're not paying attention to. It's the ongoing ever present catastrophes of gun crime in very specific zip codes, and it happens all the time. Do you remember a couple months ago, there was a mass shooting in Philadelphia, but it was downtown, and I think they blamed it on (or at least they charged) gang members or actually, young Black men who had beefs, who started shooting at each other in an outdoor area on South Street. Do you remember that one?
SPENCER: I don't follow the news nearly as closely as you but I'll believe you that it happened, yeah.
MIKE: It made the news and it was at a time right after Highland Park where they wanted to make this emphasis on how common gun crime was. That became one of the weekend stories. "Already, there was another mass shooting," people said, the news men said, the news women said, "Yet another example of a mass shooting." And I said, "Well, the numbers were a little higher. But this goes on all the time. You could have done this story every single week." It's just that it was maybe top of mind after this suburban Chicago shooting. And in fact, since then, there have been a half a dozen shootings exactly like that Philadelphia mass shooting that got quite a bit of attention. It's just what we — not randomly, but due to the inclinations or vagaries of the news business — choose to shine the spotlight on or not.
SPENCER: What do you think the selection criteria are? That story, as you point out, could be told very often because these things are happening a lot. But it happened to be told on that particular day. Why is it that they singled in on that case, and not others? And in general, what's driving this choice of stories to highlight?
MIKE: Well, it's mostly what will interest the audience. And that makes sense especially since, without an audience, you're just doing news in a forest and the tree is not being heard. Of course, there's the economic rationale for that. But it's also the people constructing the news and defining the news. They have (you could call it) an ideology, just an orientation in the world where there are important things. It's called news judgment. And at the time that a mass shooting like Uvalde or suburban Chicago is in the news, that's on their minds. They figure it will be on the minds of their viewers or listeners, so they're attuned to it. And so this normal background phenomenon that's not exceptional, gets elevated as news without anyone really realizing they're doing anything wrong. And in fact, they'd probably say, "We're not doing anything wrong. How can you tell me that people rampaging through the streets — South Street, Philadelphia — America shouldn't know about this? Of course they should. That's the country we live in. That's why I got into the news business." But of course, like I say, this is a background phenomenon that takes place all the time. Other stories, the routine stories about what happens, and orphaned kids from gun violence, have a hard time being told, because of very human heuristics, because of the economic incentive. I guess if I were a big Second Amendment guy, I would say something because of ideology or try to put one over on viewers; I don't really think that's what's going on. But the effect is, we're not getting the best glimpse at the truth of America.
SPENCER: You can imagine at least four different determinants of what gets written about. One is how often something happens in the world. At least to some extent, the more something happens, the more likely the journalist is to write about it. You could call that the frequency of the event. The second is the economic driver, the number of clicks it's gonna get. Will the reader want to read this? A third thing is the importance according to the journalist or the journalist's own ideology, and what they think is important, regardless of how often it happens in the world, regardless of how many clicks they think the story is going to get. And the fourth is social status. And this is something that people talk about more and more, that maybe journalists are being influenced by what other journalists will think of them based on what they write, or maybe they're worried about what people will say on Twitter, or want people to say good things about them on Twitter. So you've got these four different drivers of what could determine what gets written: the frequency of events, the real world clicks and money, the importance or ideology of the journalist and finally, the social status effects based on what other journalists would think. And I'm just wondering, how would you divvy up those four bins? It sounds like you think the ideology of journalists themselves is not that important. But would you say that the social status effects where journalists are trying to look good to each other is a major driver?
MIKE: I'd say the ideology is so important, but it's almost as fundamentally important as the fact that, say we're human beings, or socialized in the society that we're socialized in. When we talk about the frequency of events — let's take it to shootings again, cop shootings — one of the reasons I'm sure people listening to this would say, "Well, one of the reasons that we give a lot of attention to cops shooting Black people is that it happens disproportionately," and it happens a shocking amount. Yeah, but just in terms of pure frequency, more White people are shot and killed by Black people.
That alone doesn't prove much. White people are 60% of the population, Black people are 13 or 14% of the population. But if it was just frequency, and you wanted to think about the laziness of the person constructing the news, it's easier to point to those examples. So then you get into, "Okay, what about the ideology?" More and more, people are not just graduating from journalism schools — which I have a lot of ambivalence about, the institution of the journalism school — but people are attracted, or the pitch of journalism schools is something like, "Make a difference in the world." And I think your life should have meaning and you should want to walk upon this earth and afterwards have left a legacy. But specifically to go into journalism to make a difference is not exactly how the journalism that I was brought up in was pitched. And there's a whole line of thinking saying, well, that was wrong, and you thought you were just being neutral or objective — there's a fraught word — but in fact, you were advancing an ideology. And so now there is a correction about that. But I do think it has changed things so that a lot of the journalists now very much want to tell certain kinds of stories, because this is very important to them and how they see the world and where they think America has to go. And then perhaps the old school, the old guard, people like me, are cowed or pushed out, or maybe we have — not me personally — but many of us have changed our minds. There's many good points to the argument that the old way of seeing and defining the world and deciding on what things were covered, has a lot of flaws so now we have to correct those flaws. And I also think there's an inclination, when you're engaged in the project of correcting the flaws, you're collecting flaws. But when you are engaged in that project, you give yourself a big pass in terms of overcorrection. It's really hard to spot the overcorrection. Binaries are kind of an easy correction. Okay, I know it's different from the past overcorrection. Well, that's a new area, right? That is, this was wrong. Now we're in the realm of the right, when does the right somehow become, "So how would it work?" So right that it's wrong, but that's what an overcorrection is.
SPENCER: Right. So you could think about altruistic journalists having at least two different motivations. One is to really tell the truth, to try to be as objective as you can, to stick to the facts, to keep their own perspective out of the story as much as possible, and just to say what actually is there. And then the other way you could try to be altruistic as a journalist is you could try to make the world better through your journalism, which is different, because maybe there's a fact about a politician you think is really, really harmful but it makes a politician look good, and maybe you want to omit that from your story, because you think that politician's causing bad things in the world. And you want to actually tell stories that you think make the world a better place, less focused on coming into the story objectively. And I'm wondering, it seems to me that there has been a change where more and more journalists are moving from, "My job is to tell the truth as objectively as possible," to "My job is to make the world better." Am I right about that? Is this actually a trend?
MIKE: Yes. And what happens is no one in the second camp — "My job is to improve the world" — looks at that first criteria. You can't possibly think it's legitimate. You have to find fault with it. And it's easy, because there is fault with it. Throughout the history of so-called objectivity, things that have been said to have been objective truths are then one day revealed not to be true. And the objectivity was really just a complicated way of expressing subjectivity, which entrenched the interests of the powerful. That is true, that is all true, that has definitely gone on. The eugenics movement would justify itself by saying, "Oh, we're just being objective." However, the era that I really started doing journalism, began to think about journalism, was the late 90s, where the idea of objectivity had waned, not the idea of fairness. But the thinking back then was, the word 'objectivity' and conceiving of objectivity as 'both sides-ism' — which it never was — but the idea that there is one truth that could be obtained, was really flawed. We had recognized that, in general. We knew not to cite it as the North Star, but the idea of fairness had taken its place. David Greenberg wrote a good paper about objectivity. And he did point out that, when the idea of objectivity took hold in journalism, it was 100 years ago, and the idea is, we could really use statistics, we could really use the scientific method to arrive at an objective truth that quickly was realized as a little too pie in the sky. But then the idea was, we can, in general, take ourselves as journalists out of it and try to be guided just where the facts led us. And ever since that was proposed, there were people who are correctly saying, "Well, that's kind of impossible." And maybe it's an ideal to aspire to, but along the way, you're going to have a lot of detours and dead ends. But that's always been a part of the idea of objectivity. So, in the 90s, fairness reigned over objectivity. There was always a rejection of balance as a part of that. But I do think that in general, the idea of — maybe not that there is one great truth — but the idea of, there is a value in putting one's own pre-definition of good people/bad people, right side/wrong side, very much putting that aside as a court officer would, as perhaps a juror in a trial would — not that it implicates anything about objectivity in general — but there is a value to openness to hearing arguments that you may at first, if you weren't playing the role of the journalist, say, "I'm not going to be swayed by that." The value to that has been diminished. I think in general, the postmodern idea of, "There is no truth, there is only power," has risen in the academy, and people who graduate from the academy are now in the world of journalism. So you have an assault on objectivity. "Objectivity is a lie," is a mantra among a lot of young journalists, and maybe journalists who are operating outside the system of, say, the five big newspapers in the United States. And you have to have that in order to have the second one. Objectivity should never have been followed. What we have to do is point our lens at injustices of the world. But I really do think — don't call it objectivity, I think of it as fairness — but allowing for the idea of, "Look, it's not going to be possible." There are a lot of states in the world that are impossible. A Christian would say, "Grace is something to always chase but never attain." And yet still, I as a Christian, will benefit from the idea that a state of grace or holiness or morality is something to orient myself towards. That's what I'm trying in an overly long way to articulate, that to have that idea — I think that there is a fairness out there. I don't think that I have the answers. I think that hearing from people I might find objectionable, I think that really testing my theses is as important as anything I do as a journalist — that ideal has waned.
SPENCER: One thing I think about a lot is how complex it is to figure out how to help the world. And so one of the things that worries me, when people are idealistic and say, "Well, why try to be objective? It's so hard to be objective. If you already know what's right, just fight for what's right." Well, how do you know what the right thing to fight for is? Sure, you know that being racist is bad, obviously being racist is bad. You know that trying to promote well-being is good, that's obvious. But the question is, how do you actually promote those things? How do you know whether you should be fighting for this policy or that policy? And I just think that there's no way to know unless you go in really trying to be fair, really trying to figure out what's true, really trying to challenge your own biases to figure it out. I think nuclear power to me is an amazing example of this, where, as I understand it, people in the environmentalist movement, who really care about the environment, fought nuclear power so hard that they basically screwed over the environment to a significant extent. At least, that's my understanding of the story. And so that, to me, is a cautionary tale of the world's too complicated to just assume you know the right answers.
MIKE: Yeah. But even that idea is complicated, because with nuclear, the IAEA says that, if we are to get to a zero carbon emission world by 2050, we'll have to have nuclear in the mix, but it's only going to be about ten percent. And Farhad Manjoo wrote a really good article in the New York Times about, well, maybe nuclear has been overly pilloried, but look at how goddamn expensive it is, compared to almost every other form of energy, not even cheap coal, but solar.
SPENCER: But you know why it's expensive? Have you investigated that?
MIKE: One of the reasons is the regulatory industry has made it so expensive, all these hurdles, because they've pilloried nuclear. Yeah.
SPENCER: Yeah, exactly. If you look at virtually every technology, you look at its price over time. I'm not talking about commodities like oil, but I'm talking about actual technologies. Their price falls over time, and usually it falls exponentially. Nuclear is this magic technology that doesn't become cheaper over time. Hmm, that's interesting, even though the technology has advanced tremendously. I'm not an expert in this, but talking to experts about this, which I've done a bit of, it seems to be what happened is that the regulatory environment essentially guarantees that it can't get cheaper, and so we basically have regulated it out of existence. And so then people say, "Well, it's not practical."
MIKE: Yeah, in the United States. But if you look at France, which isn't so disinclined to have nuclear, and Germany just decided to re-embrace nuclear. So it wasn't so anathematized in France. It's still pretty expensive. But yes, in general, it's that effect of the death penalty opponent who will insist on so many layers of appeals and put the state — I think correctly — through so many hoops that they have to run through to execute a person, that it becomes exponentially more expensive than keeping that person alive. And then they have the argument of, "Hey, you know what else is bad about the death penalty? It's way more expensive than life in prison." That is absolutely going on.
SPENCER: Right, and I think these are — both the death penalty one and nuclear — good examples where, if you go in thinking you already know the right answer, then you may well not come to the right answer. I think to figure out the truth of these things, you have to go in and say, "I don't know what's true. Let me try to figure it out. Let me hear the best arguments on both sides. Let me assume that it's not completely cut and dry." Usually when there's a debate that's raged for decades, there's usually at least some valid points on either side, even if one side is much more right than the other. So yeah, I worry about turning away from trying to be objective. And yes, I mean, obviously, we're all flawed. We can't be perfectly objective. Nobody can. We're all riddled with biases. But there's a huge difference between trying to do your best to be objective, trying to do your best to figure out the truth, and just saying, "Well, no, that's not even my goal."
MIKE: Right. And to take a couple of really hot button issues, you talked about, look, we all want to try not to be racist, and then the definition of racist gets changed or debated. And then it's very hard to actually both embrace the idea that there is no truth, there is no journalism, but I'm going to advance an agenda that's not racist. You're (I would say) necessarily being an activist at that point. The word 'activist,' the idea that journalists and activists are different, I'll acknowledge there is definitely a long tradition of journalists that are activists. But now if you assert, activism isn't journalism — they're different things. They should be different things when practiced by, say, the New York Times or CNN — that does also get you labeled racist in some circles, and there's a disincentive. You talked about the social incentive. It's a very rare journalist that wants to put themselves in that space consistently, to talk about an issue like the trans issue, or to talk about the idea of racism and schooling, or even policing — like Radley Balko does from a more libertarian perspective — and raise issues that cut against the more progressive side of thinking. And I'm not saying that there hasn't always been this tension in journalism. I'm just mapping the 30 years of my career, and there was more agreed upon, well, even if the story cut against what you think of as the ideal for the first 15 years, that was the way to think about it. And now for the last five, that's become a much more dangerous ground to tread on.
SPENCER: So relate to this topic of catastrophizing. Some people say that we're on the verge of a civil war in the US. I'm curious to hear your reaction to that.
MIKE: Yeah, I think I want to write the essay — and most of my time is spent doing a daily podcast so it's hard to write an essay — but I think I got one in me. Headline: "No, we're not on the verge of a civil war." And the reason you haven't read that essay is that there's a chance something could happen and it would make the person look like an idiot. But I would just say — and I say to you, Spencer, and your audience — "No, we're not on the verge of a civil war." Does this mean that there won't be people on the far Right who want to enact violence and do enact violence? I'm going to say that it's a guarantee that will happen. And the reason I can say that is it's been going on since America was founded, and it goes up and down. And there's been lately more Right-wing violence, but they just did a large 10-year study and the people who want to talk about the threat of Right-wing violence point to this study. There's something like almost 300 incidents of Right-wing violence since they were looking at it. The ADL is one of the people behind this study over a time period of (I think it was) five or six years which, when you do the math, and you take into account that the vast majority of Right-wing violence is Aryan prison gangs, and the vast majority of that is being violent with each other, you find that there are a couple of instances — a dozen instances in a bad year — of Right-wing militants enacting violence based on ideology, and that's bad, but compared to everything else that's going on in America, it's of a piece. So it is very troubling, what's going on with many prominent elected leaders, (a.) not telling violent Right-wingers to shut it off, and (b.) actively courting them — Donald Trump saying, "Stand back and stand down," isn't exactly a disassociation with the Proud Boys — that is a bad thing. It doesn't mean we're on the verge of a civil war. People who have this idea will change the definition of civil war such that it's a pretty low definition, up to 50 violent acts in a country over a calendar year, which we've had, that's been going on for quite a while. So one of the big arguments that we are on the brink of a civil war, also would have to inexorably lead you to believe that actually we're already in a civil war. Do you feel like you're in a civil war? Have you taken up arms? Do you have a certain uniform?
SPENCER: It's a pretty lame definition of a civil war.
MIKE: Yeah, if you go by the really lame definition, we might be in it. If you go by the definition that made you perk up and agitated your central nervous system, it's not happening. But the thing I think — and this is where it's catastrophizing — the more Left-leaning, very-upset-with-Trump news channels (which, by the way, I'm very upset with Trump, too), the more of those that have that as the business model, they're entirely incentivized to highlight anything that advances this notion. And I've interviewed a lot of people who have been embedded with Right-wing militias in Michigan, and they say, "Don't sleep on it," these are dangerous people. And the Proud Boys are dangerous people. But of course, we're being pumped out a narrative that these people are dangerous, that they're potent, that there are so many of them, that even the people who right now don't have 12 AR-15s and are planning to kidnap the governor of your upper Midwestern state, even if you're not of that crew, you know them and you don't think badly about them. All the incentives are there. And it's so similar to the panic over Muslim terrorism of about ten or 15 years ago. There were Muslim terrorists. Within the ideology of radical Islam, there was the idea that you should do violence against Americans and violence was done against Americans. But all the incentives were to exaggerate how impending the next strike was, how much danger we were in. I think a similar thing is going on with the Proud Boys and the Oathkeepers.
SPENCER: Yeah, it does seem like there's a very small amount of violence being conducted. But I do wonder whether, with things like this, because you can have memes spread, you can have social contagion, that should give us more caution when you have extreme groups like this. It's obviously really bad anytime they cause harm. But there's this scary idea that, what if these ideas start catching on? What if they start spreading quickly? Maybe that is an argument of why we should pay more attention to these groups than their size dictates.
MIKE: Well, who's the 'we'? I mean, obviously, the FBI is paying attention, because, well, for one reason, it's their job. But for another reason, the FBI is a big target of these groups. So unlike most of history, the incentives are exactly lined up with our most powerful law enforcement looking at this threat, which they deem a big threat. So then what's the benefit of we — you or me, concerned citizens — being extremely worried about a civil war? It's very hard because there are scary things. There are scary instances of plots to kidnap the governor, which first was a mistrial, then there was a conviction. There were a lot of governments and government informants involved in those plots. There were also plots to take down the New York City subways, which had a lot of government informants, had a couple mistrials, eventually they got convictions. It just seems really, really similar, and the Islamic terrorist threat, they had memes among themselves. They had networks, sometimes the very same networks that — it wasn't 4chan or 8chan — but it was their own encrypted servers or sometimes just out in the open on Tik Tok. So I do perform thought experiments on myself where I never want to underestimate the actual threat, but I do analogize it to past threats that were scary, but didn't disrupt society, and I just see so many parallels. Have you read Amanda Ripley's "High Conflict"?
SPENCER: I have not.
MIKE: It's a great book, maybe the best book I read in the last year. And the point is that high conflict doesn't happen because that one guy is an asshole. That's not the source of high conflict. High conflict is always among actors or between actors. And it's not to say that both sides are to blame unless the end goal is to avoid the conflict. Sometimes the only thing you could do to avoid high conflict is totally extricate yourself from a relationship, which I guess, in a way, at least law enforcement wants to do with the Proud Boys and elements of the Right don't care to do. But the part of it that was influential to me in terms of thinking about how we think about threats from the Right and the possibility of a civil war is we — the, let's say, MSNBC-watching public, the people who define their role as a citizen as, "We got to watch out for threats from within that's legitimate" — we allow ourselves to be scared, agitated and resentful. So I go online, and I go on Twitter, and I see anytime a guy goes to FBI headquarters in Cincinnati and has a nail gun, and then he flees, the FBI isolates him in a field and eventually shoots the guy to death. And what I don't hear, or what I'd normally hear from the same sort of people who have decried police violence is more of a decrying of the threat of this lunatic who wanted to attack the FBI with a nail gun. And that's us participating in the high conflict cycle. That's us having so much resentfulness, not even towards that guy, but towards a whole imagined America that countenances that guy. If we just recognize that we're part of this cycle, and making books about the civil war best-sellers is a part of this cycle, and programming our news networks to emphasize how unbelievably scary the Right-wing is, that's also part of this cycle. The answer isn't to be ignorant; the answer is to contextualize what the actual threat is. And how I do it is to compare it to past threats and realize it's very much the same. How you might do it, maybe you would contextualize it towards what we were talking about before, the threats of murder in certain zip codes in big cities. So the danger from that to American citizens, maybe not you or me, but American citizens living in or near those zip codes is so much higher than the threat of the Proud Boys. I think the media has a big role to play. It's quite clear that agitating us and making us fearful is a part of the business model of a lot of 24-hour news channels and sites and that's playing into the high conflict that we're seeing in America.
SPENCER: I largely agree with you. But it's also very easy to predict that the civil war is not going to occur, because almost anytime you make that prediction, you're going to be right, because the base rate of civil wars is really low. And so I think it's actually interesting also to consider what could actually cause a civil war, what is a path to that happening? For example, in the Capitol Hill event, if people had actually started killing Congress people — I don't think most people there wanted to do that — but there might have been a few crazy people there who actually would have done that, had they actually caught them. Could that have precipitated it? I just wonder, do you see any path to civil war right now, or you don't, you can't see a single pathway happening?
MIKE: Well, everything's always possible. But yeah, if these unarmed (albeit with zip tie) protesters had somehow overwhelmed the police who were armed, sure, I guess that would have been worse. Or maybe the effect would have been to snap the 147 or so Republicans who still voted to decertify the election, maybe to snap them out of it. I don't know, I don't think anything will snap them out of it. But there's always a chance. It parallels to me the idea that America is becoming less of a democracy or less of a free country. I talked to Brendan Nyhan of Dartmouth about this and he's one of those people that generally agrees with this. If you look at the rankings, America has slipped a little bit. But I finally pressed him from what to what because we're very deterministic in our conclusions, though the world is probabilistic; we don't do nuance well. From what to what has it slipped, and he said, "Oh, you're gonna get me in trouble with my colleagues." But eventually, he said, "It slipped from something like we were an A to an A plus, and now we're a B plus to an A minus." Okay, I'll buy that. Has the chance of a civil war increased from two to four? Yeah. And if you want a headline, we've doubled the chance of a civil war. I don't know, maybe two to four is too high. Maybe it's 0.5% to 1%. I don't know what the chances are. It just seems, of the things to worry about, the things I'm more worried about are large swaths of the country believing that we are in a civil war. Mostly I talk on The Gist to Left, center Left, somewhat centrist audience, so I know who I'm talking to. I would guess I have no Trump fans in the audience. It would be hard to think I do. But there are definitely conservatives who listen. And so I'm talking to people who are imbibing other media that are pushing the narrative. And I point out that one of the reasons that so many of these people are arming themselves is that they think the Left hates them. So, to help with the disarmament, don't hate them. Don't fear them. Yeah. So I think it's really unlikely. And normally, I'd agree with you like, "Oh, what's the usefulness in predicting that this unbelievably rare thing is going to happen, really won't happen?" Usually, there's not a lot of usefulness in that, unless everyone or so many people are saying it's going to happen. What's the point of shorting AMC or GameStop? Usually nothing because that stock is going nowhere, except during periods of fervor, at which point there is a point to actually taking those positions and saying, "Wow, you guys have gone way too far over this very unlikely event," i.e. GameStop becoming some major stock or company in the future.
SPENCER: You talk about the harms of journalists spreading ideas, like maybe we're gonna have a civil war. Obviously, this can stress people out, cause anxiety — which is bad in and of itself, if it's unwarranted — but what do you see as some of the other repercussions of these kinds of narratives being spread?
MIKE: Pushing the other side to armament, the high conflict, creating distrust, creating more of a plausible reason to want to arm yourself and no plausible reason to engage in violence, but more likely that you answer a pollster's question, "Do you think we're headed towards a civil war?" And the more we predict that we're headed towards a civil war — because questionably designed polls tell us, although the polls are picking up some sort of sentiment — the more we are headed towards, I don't know a civil war, but just discomity within the populace.
SPENCER: Right. So the idea is, if people start to believe that we could be headed towards a civil war, people start preparing as though we could have a civil war and start viewing the other side as maybe even more horrible than they do now and so on.
MIKE: Or not even civil war, just like an unworkable system that you don't want to be part of, where maybe you don't vote, or maybe you take up really unworkable political solutions, or the nihilism that I see rampant, especially among the faux sophisticated urban young, maybe that takes hold. My basic premise is that we live in a horrible time and things are really bad. And the only time it's ever been worse is every single time before now. So, yeah, things are pretty bad. But is it because objectively speaking, you look outside, and it's that things are bad, or is that because we have little devices in our pockets designed to work on our limbic systems and remind us about how bad things are. And so this is just another — this and the catastrophization of the news, and so many of the other phenomena we're talking about — has led so many people to believe that the world is such a huge unrepentant bummer. And it doesn't have to be.
SPENCER: It's interesting how people have such a difficulty holding in mind, both the idea that things are very suboptimal right now — they're much worse than we want them to be and should be — but also, that things have gotten tremendously better in the world on almost every metric. And it's not like a complete monotonic increase in improvement; it goes up and down. But on average, it's just shocking how much better things are. It's shocking how much people care about each other — groups that they've never met, groups that they've never encountered — how much more they care about them than they used to. It's shocking how much wealthier people are around the world than they used to be, and so on. It just seems like people have trouble reminding themselves of that.
MIKE: Yeah. And so in the abstract, it doesn't really matter to an American if almost a million Chinese people have been pulled out of poverty. Also, a few million Americans have maybe funded and subsidized that. So that is true. And I wouldn't, I can't really console anyone by assigning them the Steven Pinker book with all the graphs about how much better the world has got, especially if you're living in the world now and you don't perceive it to have gotten so much better. But it really has. And I always think there's some really interesting aspects to this, like the New York Times, with an outside group that documented this, has done pretty great reporting about how the child poverty rate has fallen by 59% since the 90s. And all the caveats: poverty or the poverty line, if you're above it, doesn't mean life is easy and you don't have to struggle. And how we define poverty is always changing. But just in general, we have these programs, these social programs, economic, political, what we want to happen is the child poverty rates fall. They weren't really measuring it well. Once you do it rigorously, you find amazing success. And what's interesting to me about that is — I'm gonna have Jason DeParle, who wrote up these findings, on the show — is, okay, but how has that just not been felt? It seems that if this was happening, there'd be a general acknowledgement that things are getting better. And the fault isn't the media. I think the fault is, to use the phrase, the lived experience of the people who aren't in poverty now and might have been if not for the changes. I just think it's very hard to recognize progress when it's happening slowly around you. There's a certain kind of person that writes in their gratitude journal, and knows to take a step back and think about all the good things they have in the world. But mostly they think about their families or their (they might say) blessings, and they don't attribute too much of it to policy, but a lot of it is because of policy. A lot of it is because we made choices to be less discriminatory and smarter and, in general, healthier. We have always gotten the food pyramid wrong, but we're trying to get it more and more right. This is the idea of the book, "The Progress Paradox," and it is a paradox. And I don't think the way out of it is necessarily to count your blessings. I used to always think that what the government should do is just deliver and make life better. And people won't really recognize it on a one-to-one basis. They certainly won't recognize it in real time. But gradually, they'll recognize it. They won't recognize it; they'll just know that their cortisol levels are down. If it didn't happen, they'd be more pissed and revolutionary. I always thought that that was the way to go, just make the progress and no one will give you credit for the progress. To take crime rates, the murder rate in New York during the good period of post-Giuliani posts right around the sweet spot of Bloomberg and de Blasio. When the murder rate was really down, people weren't giving a lot of credit to policies, people were definitely finding fault with the policies. But there were a few 100 less dead people in the world and that just had to have a good effect. But now I wonder if our perceptions of those little devices in our pockets have so overwhelmed even the power of a 59% drop in child poverty to be noticed. I wouldn't tell a politician, "Oh, who cares? It doesn't matter. Just win the meme war, then you're doing your job." I would definitely still advise the politician, "Try to enact better policies to make people's lives better. They might not give you the credit for it. But they'll feel better and good things will happen." I'd still advise them, but I'm about 55 to 45 in terms of percentage confidence that that's the way to go versus just making good arguments and trying to agitate your foes.
SPENCER: It's really interesting, you bringing up New York. I'm a lifelong New Yorker and, when I was a kid here in the 90s, it was just shockingly more dangerous than it is now. And so to me, modern New York feels like Disneyland. I'm not saying it's totally safe; it's certainly not. But the level of fear that people have is just so much lower, and it's just so palpable to me. When I was a kid, I was mugged three times.
MIKE: Did you do the thing where you kept the fake wallet and the real wallet?
SPENCER: I didn't but, due to a weird series of circumstances, I actually ended up getting away with my money every time. [laughs]
MIKE: People might not know what the fake and real wallet is, if they didn't live in New York then.
SPENCER: Well, I never did that. I never had a fake or real wallet, though I would sometimes keep my money separate from my wallet. One time I got mugged, I was walking to Central Park, a guy came up to me and my friend — I was in high school — pulled out a box cutter, held it up to us and said, "Give me your money or I'll cut you." And I had money in my pocket but not in my wallet. And I had one dollar in my wallet. I pull out my wallet, open it up, and show it to him. He sees the one dollar and he says, "It's okay, man," and he gives me pounds. [laughs] He let me keep my dollar and he steals my friend's money and runs away. I had like 40 bucks in my pocket that I had hidden. So yeah.
MIKE: See, that's smart. That's a version of, "You don't have to be faster than the bear. You just have to be faster than the one guy who gets caught by the bear." Just hang around with a friend without good money hiding techniques.
SPENCER: [laughs] Another thing this makes me think about is, I was talking to a guy I know who was visiting the US from Nigeria, and I was just curious. I was asking him, "What do people that you're friendly with in Nigeria think about the US?" and he was basically like, "Oh, yeah, most of the people I know want to move to the US. They think it's the place of opportunity." And it's so fascinating because we hear so much about how horrible the US is, and the US really does have so many problems, so many flaws. And yet, it's still, in many ways, a great place to be for a lot of people in the world. A lot of people in the world would love to come here. And I don't think they're wrong, necessarily. I mean, obviously it depends where they're coming from and what they're trying to achieve. But yeah, it's just fascinating how you can just hear one narrative all the time.
MIKE: Yeah, there were more than 2000 murders in New York in the peak year in the early 90s. and de Blasio during his administration — which I was a little shocked by; I thought it would be the lowest under Bloomberg, but there were, I think, gains that Bloomberg put in — it hit right at 300. Okay, so there was pretty much an 80% decrease in murder. And I remember during the de Blasio administration when this was happening, people were upset with him for a lot of things. But no one that I heard of said, "Oh, yeah, but thanks for the extra 2000 people walking around this year, last year and the year before that." And how do you take that into account? The city did feel safer. Now the city is feeling, and actually is, less safe. So I would advise all politicians, everyone who's in charge of policy: make the world appreciably better even If the people don't appreciate it. Somehow it will have a good effect. Murder is a very stark thing, you know. There are a lot of other improvements that can be debated if there are improvements. Schools get better, let's say, and then the public radio or serial program does Nice White Parents, a story on a school that got better. But the point is, according to the journalist, it didn't get better for everyone; although, if you look at the actual statistics, it did. It got better for White people and Black people had to suffer. We can get upset about that. It's not like murder. There are gray areas. I think that, more than anything, it's fine food for thought and something to think about. But it does exemplify my idea that we in the media play into this, we as citizens who have phones play into this. We just are so bummed out by neutral to maybe even good phenomena, and it's not healthy for us. As animals, we're not used to having this many threats in our environment and on the horizon and knowing about all these terrorists in the world. And so I think that's playing a large role in what we're seeing with backlashes and populist movements, and embrace of Right-wing politicians all throughout the world, not just America.
SPENCER: It's interesting, because these kinds of threats are ones that most people feel disempowered to do anything about, as opposed to, okay, you might have a threat of, there's an animal and you're scared of the animal, but at least you can run away. I'm not saying it's not terrifying, but at least you can run away. With a lot of the threats people are concerned with now, they're just totally powerless to deal with them. And so it's this anxiety, but with no compensating action they can take.
MIKE: Yeah, what do you do if you're a person of color who believes that we live in a White supremacist society? What you're saying is that the atmosphere, the barometric pressure is just oppressing you every day. I wouldn't deign to give good advice to a person. It just doesn't seem to be a way to live or orient yourself based on the idea that you live in a doom-based culture. How do you really achieve much of anything? I know what Ibram Kendi says, which is that he has within him the power of resistance; that's what he always knows. But (a.) How sustainable is that? And (b.) as a life philosophy, resistance (resistance to what?), what's the end goal of resistance? It seems really tough, and there are a lot of especially young people who are so convinced — and global warming/climate change stats are really dire — but they're so convinced that, as per the dog in the cartoon with the walls on fire, everything is fine. It's not doing them a service. I think that really explains a lot of the polling on revolution, a lot of the reaching for violence and embrace of politicians or leaders or anyone who's this Svengali with radical ideas about how other people are oppressing you.
SPENCER: Before we wrap up, Mike, I want to talk to you a little bit about what happened in your own career, because you went through quite an experience. I don't know how to describe it other than that you were fired from your job. And fortunately, you've built a new... Well, I guess, you continue working on the same show, and you were able to build it outside of your work. But I'd be really interested in digging into the story a little bit and learning what you think about what happened to you, how your perspective on it has changed and so on.
MIKE: Yeah, well, I worked for Slate, which got famous as sort of a contrarian collective of maybe center Left thinkers, although they also publish conservatives and Christopher Hitchens, and they seem to delight in the argument and the unexpected argument. There's a cliche about the sleep pitch, meaning the thing that you wouldn't have expected. So that was the place I started to work. And I had a show — still do — called The Gist, and it's the first daily news and analysis podcast. And I would do that, I would engage in news and analysis and I wouldn't necessarily be contrarian, but your listeners have heard how I think about the world. And I kind of poke and prod and question and I don't have, I really am suspicious of doctrine. Eventually, the world started to shift around me. The Left started to shift around me, Slate started to shift around me. And in a Slack discussion about a reporter from the New York Times who used a slur while on a trip, there was a debate about whether this guy should have gotten fired. I said no in the discussion and then dot dot dot, ellipse, we lead to my ousting at Slate. It was not a popular position to take among my colleagues, which I didn't think was the most important thing. My charge was to do an interesting show and act with civility, certainly, and never try to hurt anyone's feelings, but act with civility as I did my show. But there was the way of thinking that, to have the opinion that I had, to express the opinion that I had, was unacceptable, and created harm to have done the kind of journalism that I have done in the past years prior, where I, too, in keeping with the company's policy, or when I worked for NPR for years, never violating policy. But if there was a quote to convey which had a word in it that, although wasn't necessarily against utterance, would offend some people, you make an editorial decision, and maybe you'd say that word, or maybe you wouldn't, keeping in mind what the audience needs to hear in order to understand the story. So that's who I was. That's how I'd always operated. And that's how I did with Slate. But there came a time when at least some of the people in the company claimed that harm was being done by that philosophy and/or my presence, so we had to work out a way to get me out of there and to get them out of me.
SPENCER: Just to clarify, we're talking here about situations where someone might use a word like the N word, but they're quoting someone else. They're discussing someone else's usage of it. They're not endorsing the use of it. They're not using it as a slur. They're talking about someone else's use of it. Is that correct?
MIKE: Yeah. That was, I would say, policy that the word could be printed, say in a news story, or said on a podcast, though never on mine, and never on me in any podcast that anyone heard, that the word could be said, not wantonly, and not without consideration. But there were some instances where that word specifically, and I guess some other words — I'm not gonna say it was vague; it wasn't vague — was allowed where that word could be said, but then people working for the company decided among themselves that that was a bad policy. And though the company never had a different policy about that, how does one express their discontent with the acceptability of that? You criticize someone who has taken a different stance. So yeah, for instance, I was covering a trial, while with NPR. It wasn't "the," but it was "a" trial in Howard Beach. There was an infamous Howard Beach racial [case]. A Black guy was chased out of Howard Beach and he got hit by a car and died. This was the second one that happened in Howard Beach. And they got a Harvard professor, Randall Kennedy, who wrote a book whose title was that word, and so, on NPR working with my editors, do you say the word or don't you?
SPENCER: So you're referencing the book with that title.
MIKE: Yeah, or something that happened in the trial, or quoting, because that's entirely not just relevant to the trial; the entire crux of the trial was that word. That was the sort of thing that I did whenever that took place, 90s, 20-aughts. And I thought that it was definitely something to think about. Like I said, you don't want to be wanton about it. But there is sometimes a news imperative to inform the audience about that. And then I was covering a similar story about a security guard in Wisconsin, a Black guy who was fired for saying the word. CNN bleeped out the word. So in constructing my podcast, tracking but not putting it out into the air, over the air or into people's ears, do you say the word or don't you say the word? It was contemplated on the track, I said it in recording it, but then decided not to put it out with consultation with the editor. But just the very fact that that happened upset people and was used years later to try to implicate me in being on the wrong side of this issue or someone that people couldn't work with.
SPENCER: And so digging into the more specific case, the Slack channel discussion, what were you arguing in that Slack channel discussion?
MIKE: Okay, so this reporter from the New York Times was on a trip, and a girl asked him a question about the use of this word, and he, to clarify, said, "Do you mean," and then he used the abbreviation for the slur or "Do you mean," and then he used the actual slur. Notice I'm not using either the slur, certainly on this podcast, or the abbreviation. That's exactly what I did on the Slack channel. I stayed away from a description of the slur using even a letter — and I think that was advisable — and I certainly stayed away from using the slur. But this was in the news. This was up for discussion in a Slack channel. And everyone in that Slack channel — not saying everyone at Slate — but everyone was finding great fault with the New York Times reporter Donald MacNeil. This is a Slack channel dedicated to discussing the media. I was the one person who said I don't think he should be fired. I think there is something called the use-mention distinction. John McWhorter, who has a podcast from Slate, talks about the use-mention distinction that falls into that category. It was a highly unpopular opinion to voice, much more unpopular than I anticipated. Or I would say that, since I saw that everyone thought that Donald McNeil had done something wrong — not everyone at Slate, everyone participating in that discussion — I thought that the unpopularity thereof couldn't possibly have consequences, the consequences that it did.
SPENCER: So when Slate was asked about this incident, I just want to quote what they said here and I'm curious to hear your reaction. They said, "This was not a decision based around making an isolated abstract argument." I think they're claiming that they didn't fire you just because you made it a kind of abstract argument about the use-mention distinction. What do you think about that?
MIKE: No, it's not abstract. We were talking about something specific. This was the statement that their PR person put out to certainly raise a lot of... I think the effect would be to strongly imply that I was some horrible person who had committed various misdeeds against policy.
SPENCER: The impression that statement gives is, "There's hidden stuff you don't know about but, trust us, it's really bad."
MIKE: I would say, if that's your inference, I wouldn't be surprised that that was someone's inference. Yeah, it seems clear that that is the sort of inference one could draw.
SPENCER: But there was nothing they complained to you about other than this exact issue we're discussing? There was no other incident that they were bringing up as the reason for firing you?
MIKE: They didn't fire me. We worked out an agreement that I would leave. Everything I talked about were things that were well-known about me by management. What wouldn't fall into that category? Do you know what I mean? Someone who's worked at Slate for seven years, and then has a discussion that causes some huge brouhaha. You can always say, "Well, it wasn't just an abstract discussion." Well, almost nothing is just an abstract discussion.
SPENCER: Right. But you're saying that there was no new information that they didn't know for a long time other than this one discussion that had happened, and so clearly, this was the incident that caused them to change their mind.
MIKE: The "they" is a lot of different people. There are people who had just started working at Slate, who were maybe the most upset. There are people in management. Different people know different things. I didn't do anything other than make journalists have discussions and make journalistic choices that, let me emphasize, I have never used that word on a podcast, in print at Slate, that word never was aired — I think this is true — never even said by anyone else on my show. I think that's true. I always made those journalistic choices. This wasn't the case with — and it's fine that it wasn't the standard or the case of Slate — if you look up what their editorial standards were, you'll see hundreds and hundreds of uses of this word, but not by me.
SPENCER: Right, okay, so now, looking back, what do you feel like you've learned from this incident? And what do you think we should take away from this?
MIKE: I was probably of the opinion — well, this is true, when the idea of that phrase 'cancel culture' with a backlash, this other word 'woke,' that people get upset if you say — when that was bubbling up as a supposed phenomenon in (I don't know) 2012, 2013, 2014 when I started at Slate, I was of the opinion that this is a Right-wing magazine that's trying to highlight the exceptions on college campuses. This is not infecting or a phenomenon that accurately describes what's going on in mainstream discourse. And at this point, there were some people raising the alarm. I didn't think that they were wrong or off-base. They just didn't see it as a huge phenomenon or one that might affect us all. But then, as we go along, and then we see how the culture develops, I began to think more and more, okay, there is something to this, okay, college professors we would normally think should have a lot of leeway to pursue these kinds of questions, all sorts of questions, about saying the unpopular thing, are getting less and less leeway. Then there's clearly started to be a cultural cost for this. The Harper's letter came out and I said to myself, "This seems anodyne in its truths." If you look at a letter that's signed by Zephyr Teachout and Noam Chomsky and, yeah, sure, JK Rowling, Malcolm Gladwell, and we could list all the people who signed it, it seems like the sort of thing that, if there's any criticism, it's so obviously true, I don't know that it needs to be said. I never thought that it was a more pressing problem in the world than climate change or the Rohingya or the Uighurs.
SPENCER: For those who don't know about the Harper's letter, could you just give a gist of what it says?
MIKE: It was an open letter saying, essentially, that we've gotten to a place as a society where we're being overly censorious about unpopular opinions. And there was a backlash to that. There was backlash to the backlash, everything that goes on. But it was a pretty impactful letter. But I saw myself as, my charge was to interpret the world for my listeners to engage in robust discourse, to not hew to any doctrine. This is what they hired me for. This is what they paid me for. That doesn't mean some wild talker, irresponsible person could say, "Oh, so that gives me great leeway to lob offense and not care about the offense that I caused." I never thought that. I come from broadcast radio. I always knew that, whereas I swear on the show, that you can't swear on broadcast radio, and I never chafed at that. That's called a rule. That's called a stricture. No problem. But I always thought my job and why I was being paid was that I presented an interesting example of questioning things in the world, bringing to light phenomena that my audience would like, and sometimes that included ideas that, yeah, we are being overly censorious. Not often, but sometimes. I thought that my shop was on board with this being my project. Now this all went down during COVID and we weren't in the office, and we didn't have personal connections with each other. I didn't perceive where the general sentiment was at the place I was working. And I further didn't perceive — well, actually, I did perceive that Slate...but like I said, the Democratic Party, the culture had changed quite a bit — but I didn't perceive that this could possibly redound to the very status of my job being in jeopardy. I just told myself that, well, of course, reasonable people or reasonable opinions will out. But there's the question of what opinion is reasonable. Or I'm sure that the people who are most upset by me would call me unreasonable by, say, defending Donald McNeil of The New York Times. And I just thought that there'd be some sort of superstructure or the people making these decisions, these big decisions about hiring and firing, and what shows you have, would just come down on, "Okay, maybe he didn't say popular things at the moment, but it's certainly repairable. And it's not the sort of thing that we should blow up shows, careers, reputations, employment status of many people at this company over."
SPENCER: Obviously, the only details I know about the case are what you told me and whatever I read online. But the thing that I find fascinating about this case is, I absolutely understand why people could strongly disagree with you, and they could think that you made a mistake. But what I don't understand is why people view it as unacceptable for you to have that discussion.
MIKE: That is my definition of cancel culture. I don't think it's the best phrase in the world. But canceling or cancel culture is when you greet an opinion with a call for punishment. That's, I think, a workable, succinct definition that encompasses most of the phenomenon we're talking about. And that is among the things, certainly that was one of the things the Harper's letter was decrying, that I think has changed as the ethos of the society we live in, but also the institution of journalism. And so maybe that's the thing that I didn't realize had crept into my very workplace, that calls for punishment over opinions would be credited.
SPENCER: Right. I think we all think that there's some line that an opinion that's so extreme that...
MIKE: Right. I could have been a Richard Spencer stan. Or even if you want, I could have said, "You know what, I've found Christ and I'm anti-gay marriage." And a place like Slate, I think would have been right in their opinion to say, "Okay, there are people who are anti-gay marriage, and it is an opinion within the veil of acceptability in America, but he can't work here." Right, yeah, there are cases like that. But there are many other cases that aren't like that, that are a difference of opinion, even if it's post-George Floyd and we've experienced the shutdown, and tensions are high. Even with that going on, I would like to work in a place where that disagreement can happen. And so you know what? I do work in that place. It's my own place. I started my own production company. I do my own show, which I've always been doing, which isn't focused on ideas of canceling. Ten percent maybe, probably five percent, of the show ever touches on something like that. So that's what I've had to do. That's what I've been made to do. And I learned along the way that it's a better place to be where I am now.
SPENCER: Even though you're working on your own, now you have a team and you have your own production company, do you feel any pressure to take a little bit of the oomph out of your opinions, out of that residual fear that you're gonna get attacked?
MIKE: No, not really. But I know what I listen to in my private life, and I know what is the content of the show. And I'm really fascinated by these issues but I know not to put it on the show too much. It becomes a little bit like, well, not a broken record. There are people who are doing this really well and doing this really thoughtfully. So I came back. I said, "Okay, hi, guys. Hi, Gist listeners, you've been without me for almost a year. And so what I'm going to do, I know you have questions, I'm not going to turn The Gist into the forum for those questions. I'm going to do some outside interviews you could listen to. [I guess, Spencer, now this has become one.] But you could listen to me on the Fifth Column, or talking to the Blocked and Reported guys, and that'll all be there. But what The Gist is going to be is not a show about being woke or cancel culture, not at all. What it is is a show that it's always been, that looks suspiciously at some of these trends, and it doesn't become the content. That is not the text of the show, but that will inform how I do the show. So I am going to be the ideal show that I would love to listen to by a host who's fairly suspicious of some of the excesses of censoriousness, though I don't think it's the biggest problem of society. And you will hear a show where you know that is my orientation, but it's not going to be my subject matter, 90-something percent of the time." Okay, now, do I hold back? I do listen to the two shows, Fifth Column and Blocked and Reported, that I mentioned. And I listen to Megandom, and I listen to a lot of conservative podcasts. And I now have said, I don't have any real straight ahead social justice podcasts per se in my feed. There are some like the Press Box, or the Brian Lehrer show, or On the Media that might be of that ilk. And so I actually challenge myself to listen to more of that. But I do find that if it is, say, a social justice podcast, it's almost never of trying to convince someone who's suspicious, whereas the other kind maybe engages in that more, people who are raising the red flags about social justice. So I'm not self-censoring but I'm aware of it. I'm not pulling punches, but I also don't want to inundate my audience with this as a subject matter. I also really try to do perspective-taking about, okay, when is this issue just the latest thing that we've glommed on to, that maybe isn't the biggest epitome of the phenomenon? And when are there issues that really should trouble us a little bit or a lotta bit as society? I try to be extra discerning. And when I talk about it, it always needs to clear the threshold of, "This is important. And I could maybe add something that not everyone was saying."
SPENCER: Earlier in this discussion, we talked about the different influences that journalists have, and how there may be more journalists today who are trying to improve the world and they view that as their job, more so than trying to be objective, which maybe people think more negatively of now. But this is another force, which is that people see cases like yours and I imagine they must realize that there could be opinions they have that they think are reasonable — they think are at least reasonable to debate — but that others might find unacceptable. And I'm wondering how much of an effect do you think that has on journalism itself, where journalists see cases like yours, and might wonder, "Hmm, am I allowed to express opinions I have? I have to be careful about what I say when I'm writing."
MIKE: Yeah, I think it's clear that it goes on all the time. And there's some kind of tweet agreeing with a social justice cause that many people feel very free — many people who work at the Washington Post, the New York Times or CNN, or NPR, BBC — would feel very free about tweeting. And then there's the opposite side of that discussion. I'm not talking about pro-Ukraine or pro-Russia. I'm talking about areas where reasonable people can disagree. And maybe many of the journalists working for Washington Post, CNN, New York Times would say yes, reasonable people can disagree. Just I am absolutely not going to be stupid enough to be the (quote unquote) "reasonable person" who's disagreeing. The person agreeing there, that certainly seems fine and no punishment could possibly come. But if I poke my head up and say, "Actually, I think everyone's getting this wrong" — and not on tax policy, but more of the culture war issues — there's a huge disincentive to do that. There's a huge disincentive to cover those stories. People protect themselves by saying, "Look, I'm not an expert on this. What I want to do (probably most of them don't say) is cravenly get to retirement so I can afford to put my kids through college." What they say is, "I have a certain expertise. My expertise is in this area that isn't exactly in the realm of social justice. So I will be mum about things in the realm of social justice." Whereas on the other side, there's a certain freedom to tweet or opine about social justice. But I do think stories aren't pursued. I do think that a lot of journalists have self-protective no-go zones. I think that it's quite clear that if you engage in any sort of discussion that doesn't hew to doctrine or the party line [I said "hew" twice in this interview], any discussion that doesn't stick to doctrine or the party line are going to be costs. And so stories don't get done. Or you can't find the best reporter to do a story. Or you do find a great reporter to do a story. I think Emily Bazelon did a great report on an issue involving transgender rights, not really rights, but treating of transgender kids in adolescence. It came at enormous cost to her. She's still going to do it as a journalist, but it overtakes your life. It definitely doesn't become something you want to be known as. And so unlike maybe a lot of other issues, where there are really interesting things being said, and interesting things to say, far less interesting — and interesting isn't the only criteria — far less interesting, accurate, truthful, mind-expanding, useful things are being said, because there are enormous costs to a couple of these great hot button issues. And that has exactly been because those costs have been extracted. I should say there are enormous costs because those prices have been extracted among the people who weren't aware enough to be self-protective, or people who define their role as necessarily being not operating as self-preservation as a high ideal and misunderstood just how vulnerable they were.
SPENCER: One thing I think that was also really interesting about your case is that your podcast is really popular. I assume that it's actually significantly worse for Slate to not have your podcast and yet, they still went through with this. And I'm wondering, I imagine you may not be able to comment on the specific case, but when media orgs act in this way, where do you think the pressure is coming from? Is it really internal pressure? Do they tend to be worried about backlash from their readers or in the public or their reputation? What do you think tends to drive these kinds of decisions?
MIKE: Yes. What tends to drive these kinds of decisions is the perception that, if you have inspired a protest, that can only be bad for business, and controversy for 90-something percent of businesses isn't what you court, and that's usually true. And if you get tamped down, a protest or perceived action against you, it is prudent for the person who leads an organization — no matter what your organization is, media or a Carvel stand — it is prudent not to have the activist rise up against you. However, I do think that over the last (I don't know) half dozen years or so, the threat of activism is being perceived as perhaps overstated. Now, Netflix used to be some high-riding company, and they've been laid low by a number of financial reasons. But they did sort of play out the protests against Dave Chappelle in a way that maybe they wouldn't have a few years ago where they said, "Yeah, we do have people, even people in our midst, who are upset with this, and maybe if you don't like that" — they weren't dicks about it but they said — "Don't work for Netflix. We certainly strive to make Netflix the kind of place that everyone feels comfortable with. At the same time, we realize not everyone agrees with that. But this is who we're going to be." I think that they rightly saw that the threat of the activism wasn't as pernicious as the threat of abandoning a creator like Chappelle. That said, there's been a couple of comedians who have talked about how they have specials ready to go and there was intervention and they didn't want to be part of platforms. They weren't as big as Dave Chappelle. Or would Netflix or someone like them sign the next comedian who is doing a lot of edgy material on that particular topic? Probably not. But I do think in general, there are a lot of companies who are saying, "Yeah, you know what? We're going to withstand this for reasons of the bottom line." I also think businesses cave because managers want to think of themselves as preserving and overseeing a pleasant workplace. But sometimes short-term decisions in that area wind up being wrong in the long term, or what is perceived as, "Okay, what's the way to isolate the person creating discontent within the workplace?" turns out not to get to the root causes, turns out not to be the right answer. Or maybe in some cases, the other ancillary decisions like you mentioned, say the income streams otherwise should have (if you're being a good manager) argued against the decisions that you made, just to tamp things down and get through this as a peaceable kingdom.
SPENCER: Mike, thanks so much for coming on. Really found this an interesting conversation.
MIKE: Thank you.
JOSH: A listener asks, what is something that you take for granted about yourself that makes you more effective than the average person? Is it something you learned or always had? And if you learned it, how did you learn it?
SPENCER: A feeling I've had since I was very young is that I could learn to do anything that anyone else can do. It doesn't mean that I could learn to be the best chess player on earth, but I could learn to play chess competently. It doesn't mean I could learn to be the best mathematician on earth, but I could learn to do math and so on. And I've always just had this feeling about myself and just have taken it for granted. And I think it's been a very powerful assumption to make. And I'm not saying it's justified, you know, as a child, I don't think I had the evidence to prove that it's true at that point, but I think it served me well because it means that I never feel like, oh, that's above me, I couldn't learn that, or I couldn't figure out how that thing works.
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