Ben Smith of BuzzFeed on what sanctions, if any, NY Times columnist Charles Blow should receive for anti-Mormon bigotry
HH: We’ll start by trying to do so with Ben Smith. He’s editor-in-chief of www.buzzfeed.com. Hello, Ben, and a good Friday to you.
BS: Good Friday to you, Hugh. Thanks for having me on.
HH: Are you going off to see Act Of Valor this weekend?
BS: Well, you know, we don’t get your radio show here in New York City, so I haven’t heard much about it, yet. But it sounds like I should.
HH: Oh, Ben, you are so wrong. You do get my radio show on 970AM, so you’ve just got to start.
BS: 970 The Apple. Oh, my God.
HH: Yeah, you didn’t know that, did you? Only it starts at…
BS: You know, I listen to Sliwa on there, but I didn’t realize you were on there.
HH: Yeah, I come on after Sliwa at 7:00 at night. So in fact, you’re live right now in New York, and so you are not, you’re in terrible shape.
BS: Hello, New York.
HH: All right, well, Curtis is going to be happy that you listen to him. All right, now Ben, here’s my question to you. The headline writer at ESPN says chink in the armor about Jeremy Lin, and he gets fired. Roland Martin tweets homophobic comments during the Super Bowl, he gets suspended. Charles Blow makes anti-Mormon comments on his tweet feed during the debate, and nothing happens. Why the double standard?
BS: Yeah, I think it was sort of beyond a double standard, like the guy at ESPN really did nothing wrong and got outrageously mistreated, I though. I mean, he made sort of a dumb mistake, and they clearly should have deleted the headlines. But that was it.
BS: I mean, I don’t know. It seems like there should, like maybe the standard should just be that people should be more relaxed about people saying stupid things and apologizing. But yeah, I mean it’s pretty amazing to me that the Romney thing wasn’t a bigger deal for the New York Times. I mean, can you imagine if Joe Lieberman said something, and those Times staffer tweeted tweets that you know, he should shove that under his beanie or something? I mean, it’s not like…
BS: …and this is sort of a similar crack about the Romney’s Mormon underwear, which is sort of a, like, you know, just sort of a similarly, you know, kind of a traditional religious garb like many religions have.
HH: Do you agree with me that if in fact he had made a reference to Yarmulke or to a Muslim head covering, or a Sikh turban, he would have been disciplined, but he hasn’t been because it’s Mormon. Do you agree with me about that?
BS: I’m not sure, but I think so, yeah. I mean, you know, it’s hard to know, right? I mean…
HH: It can’t be known for sure.
BS: It’s hard to state counterfactuals, but I do think people feel like Mormon underwear, it’s sort of like a safe thing to joke about in a way that other articles of sort of people’s faith aren’t. And I’m not really sure why. I mean, there’s one thing, there is a lot of curiosity about it. One of my colleagues at BuzzFeed who is a Mormon wrote a very long sort of explainer piece on what Temple garb is, and it just got us a ton of traffic. Lots of people it turns out search for Mormon underwear on Google all the time.
HH: Now I’m curious about digging into this, because when I wrote the book about Romney five years ago, I asked him questions about this, and his answer was very much the same as he gave me yesterday, which is bias exists, I’m not going to worry about it. If people have questions about the Mormon faith, they can call the church. But I don’t think he expected it to come from, like Jacob Weisberg probably wrote the most bigoted piece in five years that I’ve seen. Charles Blow is the New York Times…there are some fundamentalist anti-Mormon rhetoric out there, which has got a pedigree that goes back a long, long way to the anti-cult language of many years ago. But on the left, it seems to be okay to go after Mormons. Why do you think that is other than this isn’t curiosity. It’s not Charles Blow saying I wonder if Romney keeps this particular commandment. But it’s naked hostility. Why is it there?
BS: It’s, you know, I think because this conversation hasn’t really been had, I think people feel like it’s an acceptable prejudice, sort of a fun thing to joke about, haven’t really thought it through. Like I’d doubt Charles Blow will do that again.
HH: Do you, if one of your reporters at BuzzFeed made a kind of comment like that vis-à-vis Romney or any other Mormon, what would you do?
BS: I’d yell at them and make them apologize. But I’m not big on firing people for doing stupid things, and you know, for the occasional error like that.
HH: And so by make them apologize, what do you mean? Like sort of a mea culpa on the same length and…
BS: I mean, I’d prefer, and this is something that I thought we used to be good at at Politico, too, is when you make a mistake, you really write something explaining it.
HH: I think that’s a good practice. I’ve done that. I’ve made broadcast mistakes many times, not of the bigoted variety, but I come out and I immediately set the record straight as soon as I can with equal length. But going back to Blow for a second, if this is a, if it’s a yarmulke comment, if it’s a Sikh turban comment, I don’t know exactly how you would apologize for that, because people wouldn’t believe you. I mean, if someone used the N word, Don Imus in his reprehensible comments, they threw him off the air. So what’s that line? You’re an editor now. You’ve got to, I mean, you’re the editor-in-chief. You’ve got to have a line in your mind so that there’s a rule.
BS: Well, I think with opinion columnists, there’s obviously a different line than for reporters on all sorts of stuff, which makes it a little more complicated. But I don’t know. I mean, I guess I’m of the opinion that the editorial reflex should usually sort of be against political correctness and against firing people for revealing that they’re imperfect in saying dumb stuff.
HH: Would you fire someone who random…
BS: I’d rather there was like sort of a conversation about it. Like I bet he’s thought about it more now, and like I hope he’ll write a column about it.
HH: Oh, did you see his tweet later today? James Taranto said he tweeted something about he had to go and get the right wing lice off of his…
BS: Oh, God, I did see that. Yes, that one actually bothered me at least as much.
HH: Yeah, because it’s just hate-filled. The guy’s a hater. I read his whole…I’ve never paid much attention to him, but I read his whole tweet feed, and there’s something wrong with that guy. And so does the Times let that one fly?
BS: You know, I don’t know, and I do think there’s some publications have this idea that there’s one standard for what you write on twitter, one standard for what you say on the radio, one standard for what you write in your stories, and that’s just it in this kind of media day and age. It’s just how readers understand it. It doesn’t make any sense.
HH: I’m curious as, I want to go back to another example. If one of your reporters was in the newsroom and used the N word, would you merely chastise them? Or would you fire them?
BS: You’d have to fire them, right?
HH: I would.
BS: I don’t know. You know, honestly this is not something I’ve thought through.
HH: But that’s why I think it’s interesting, because you’re an editor-in-chief. I’m not.
BS: But I think it depends. I mean, I’m an editor-in-chief, but obviously, my management experience is about a month long. But I do think that particularly in journalism is that the impulse should be to like explore and explain things rather than just to chop people’s heads off and move forward and pretend it didn’t happen. That’s generally my impulse.
HH: You know, I’m curious, you know, Bill Maher…
BS: That used to the impulse of the right, too. I feel, and I do think that there’s sort of a, that the right has kind of adopted this politically correct reflex from the left that in times, in a way that’s not helpful.
HH: Oh, I think bigotry is the one area, I don’t care what you write about, I don’t care if you mock Romney for being stiff and making stupid comments, or people mock Obama for being clueless and in over his head. That’s all fine. I think that’s great. But I think as a civil society, it is not up to the government, but it’s up to the private sector to police what is acceptable political rhetoric. And we know the N word isn’t. Bill Maher gets away with using the C word and all sorts of different words, which I would have long ago fired him for. But I think with regards to religion, this is my proposition that I’m working out, that we allow religious bigotry largely because our media elite is so secular, that they just don’t think it matters much, because they largely don’t believe in it. What do you think of that proposition?
BS: I think that’s, I mean, you know, I think there’s something to that, although I also know a lot of devoutly religious people in the media. And certainly at BuzzFeed, we’ve got our share. But…and it’s a small team, so I juggle Friday nights and Sundays when people aren’t working.
BS: But I mean, I think it’s very sensitive, and I think you know, there’s also a line like you want atheists and secularists to be able to make heated arguments without, and religious people ought to be able to not be offended by intense differences on that.
HH: Oh, my goodness. I’ve had Hitchens on when he was alive many times. I hosted three hour debates…
BS: Right, He was who I was thinking of, right? Like he’s said things that I would imagine would be intensely offensive to religious conservatives.
HH: Oh, yeah, he used to mock Mother Teresa. But he also did not do it casually from a position of ignorance. And I would challenge him on it…
BS: Right, it’s kind of the snark that bothered me in the Blow thing. Like he didn’t really, like it was just sort of tossed off.
HH: He thought that it was okay. He thought it was okay to mock Mormons. And I think that there’s going to be a lot more, because Romney’s going to be the nominee in all likelihood. Do you agree with that, Ben?
BS: I mean, yes, absolutely. I think so.
HH: Okay, so this issue is going to come round and round and round and round. And in your comment, by the way, on your comment section at BuzzFeed, do you have any policy with regards to anti-Mormon comments?
BS: You know, we don’t, and we have a lot of Mormon content, because McKay Coppins likes to write about it, and is Mormon, and knows a lot about it.
HH: Would you censor…
BS: I think my instinct is generally to let our community of commenters push that themselves on stuff that feels bigoted.
HH: Would you let someone use the N word on your comments?
BS: Say again?
HH: Would you let someone use the N word in your comments and not censor it?
BS: I think we’d delete it, but honestly, if the other commenters were sort of chastising them in way that felt organic and appropriate, I might leave it at that.
HH: Well, you have a lot of thinking to do this weekend, Ben, because it’s going to be, you’re living now on the…I don’t have comments for that reason. I just got tired of moderating the morons. And I’m just not going to do it anymore. I don’t have time for the haters out there. But Ben Smith, you’ve got to live with it, because that’s what BuzzFeed feeds on. Ben Smith, editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed, thank you.
End of interview.