Buzzfeed’s Ben Smith joined me today to discuss his media platform’s editorial position on SSM and how it will impact how it covers the issue:
HH: In between, @BuzzFeedBen, Ben Smith is the editor of BuzzFeed. I tracked him down in Latvia this weekend, and then he fled to Paris to avoid me. But now, he’s back in the States. He’s been extradited to appear on the Hugh Hewitt Show. Hello, Ben.
BS: Thanks for having me on, Hugh.
HH: You can’t escape.
BS: You got me confused.
HH: Yeah, you can’t escape the Hugh Hewitt Show. Ben, I got my Twitter feed after the marriage decision came down.
BS: You really did nail me, though. I said I’m in Latvia, and you were like, well, they have phones there. And I couldn’t argue with that.
HH: But what was the, I couldn’t figure it out first. I’ve subsequently done some research, and I see the quote that set it off. But what would you explain the controversy about BuzzFeed to people who don’t know what it was about last week?
BS: I don’t really think there, I mean, I guess I don’t really think there was much of a controversy, or at least I didn’t see. There were like, I’ve been tweeting with three people today – Tim Carney and a guy named, just, I mean, but I’m not sure like three or four people make a controversy. But I think we have, we drafted and published a Standards Guide and an Ethics Guide several months ago, and I think we’ve been wrestling with something I’m sure you think about a lot, which is, although I think I probably come down somewhere a bit differently from you, which is you know, is it possible to, look, what is the tradition that used to be called kind of objective journalism, mainstream media journalism, the tradition the New York Times and the Washington Post come out of, which is the tradition I come out of? You know, how do you do that in a way that, you know, that’s honest with your readers? And I think you know, there’s always been, for a long time, been this debate both on the right and on the left saying come on, you guys, stop lying, don’t conceal your opinions. We know you have real opinions. And at the same time, of course, everyone has a set of implicit opinions about, you know, you don’t have to say, Hugh, that like you oppose racism and that you favor free speech. Those are obviously baked into your coverage, just as much as they’re baked into the New York Times’ coverage.
BS: …just as much as they’re baked into our coverage. And marriage is just this really singular issue, I think, right now. It’s a thing that’s moved incredibly fast, a thing that my staff and a lot of, most of our readers, I think, are very, feel very clearly and strongly about, and where we felt like it was, you know, and we do news, but we also do lots of entertainment and lifestyle content, and we felt like this was really a core value for us to support LGBT equality. It doesn’t mean like we have a view on what, of the appropriate interpretation of the U.S. Constitution, but it certainly means that when our gay and lesbian friends and coworkers are able to get married, that’s something we’re going to celebrate.
HH: Now I understand that, but there’s a quote attributed to you that Tim used today, that says we firmly believe that for a number of issues, including civil rights, women’s rights, anti-racism and LGBT equality, there are not two sides. Now I think I know that you don’t mean silencing of the other side or shaming of the other side, as racists should be silenced and shamed, do you?
BS: No, absolutely not. And in fact, like if you look at our coverage of, particularly, and I mean, I think the marriage issue is really singular, like it’s, I mean, I think…
HH: But I disagree with you on the marriage issue, right? You know what.
BS: Yes, and no, absolutely, and I think if you read, if you look at our coverage, we’ve had very like rich, engaging profiles of people like Brian Brown, the head of the National Organization for Marriage. And you know, I think we’ve been really scrupulous in our coverage. But I think it’s also valuable to readers in cases where your organization does really have these clear internal values around an issue, and where I do, and you know, a lot of reporters, myself included, don’t have strong, do not have a strong set of views on a lot of very hotly-contested issues, you know, whether it’s taxation or you know, you have a different day a week, I might give you a different answer. I’m very open to being wrong. And you know, the reason I got into this business is because I kind of want to like figure it out and report the facts. And but there’s a small set of issues where that’s not the case, and I thought it was important to be transparent with our readers about that, while at the same time covering it as fairly and respectfully and scrupulously as we can.
HH: It’s actually…and I think you’ve done the latter. But it’s that phrase, and there are not two sides. And that’s what I want to explore with you a little bit, because obviously…
BS: See, this is a quote from our style, just to be clear about it, and not to disavow it, but this is the quote from the style guide that was published in January. It’s not something I said yesterday.
HH: Okay, I did not know that, because it’s quoted…
BS: Yeah, the attribution is a little confusing. But that’s fine.
HH: Okay, well, let’s talk about what that means, because as a Roman Catholic, and a Mass-attending Roman Catholic, I believe that human sexuality outside of a married man and woman is sinful and puts your soul in peril. That’s a position held by billions of people if you include also that position within Protestant denominations, etc. So there clearly are two sides. Are you saying…
BS: Yeah, I think in the terms of our coverage, we have not been aggressive in covering the debate about what is going to happen to your soul.
HH: I know, but there clearly are two sides. And so I’m curious, though, do you think that the people who hold the opposite opinion, who agree with the Chief Justice, either Constitutionally or with orthodox Christianity, that they’re racist and bigots?
BS: No, of course not. Well maybe not of course. I mean, maybe of course not is too glib. No, I do not think that, not all of them. I mean, you know, among them, are some of them…
HH: Oh, yes, agreed. Agreed.
BS: I mean, no, I think, and I think this, I mean, this is just such a, it’s again, I mean, the speed with which this issue has moved means that I think most of us know lots of people we’re really close to, and family members who we love who are on both sides of this issue.
HH: Hold that. I’ll be right back with @BuzzFeedBen of BuzzFeed.com.
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HH: We’re talking about a non-controversy, actually. I think I understood it instantly that BuzzFeed wants to be known as being in favor of Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion and in favor of marriage between two people of the same sex.
BS: I would say that we’re in favor, honestly, I actually think that we’re not, you know, we, that statement predated any Supreme Court ruling, and we’re not in the business, and we certainly aren’t, don’t have a view on what the appropriate reading of Constitutional law is.
HH: Okay, so here, help me with this.
BS: We just think that our gay friends and coworkers ought to be able to marry.
HH: Okay, and I get that. Now…
BS: But that’s actually in important distinction.
HH: Can your Christian friends and coworkers maintain tax-exempt colleges and universities even if they disagree with and refuse to employ same sex married people?
BS: That, like almost every other matter of hotly-debated policy is something that we cover aggressively, but don’t have any kind of institutional view on.
HH: You see, that, to me, is all that, that’s why there’s no controversy. See, right now, the biggest issue among people of Christian faith is whether or not the IRS is going to attempt to do to Christian institutions what was done to racist or segregationist institutions, which is to take away their tax deductibility, the Bob Jones case of 1983. Are you familiar with that, Ben?
BS: In passing, yeah.
BS: And no, I think that’s something we would obviously cover the hell out of, case by case, right? I mean, but I think that’s, that’s what we do. And I think the reason, I think this question of every news organization has implicit in it, it has its implicit views, that some are so obvious, you don’t need to state them, that you favor free speech, or that you oppose racism. When does something cross from being something you cover into one of these sort of implicit views that’s baked into your organization? Like that’s not a scientific question, but it’s something like we felt like we wanted, that we could sort of feel that that’s where we were, specifically on LGBT equality, and wanted to be transparent about it, because it’s a hotly-contested issue that we cover.
HH: But do you think LGBT equality equates to destroying the tax-exempt status of people that oppose same sex marriage?
BS: That, I think that is above my pay grade.
HH: All right, because that’s what happened in Bob Jones.
BS: …as a reporter.
HH: All right, I think you’re going to have to get smart on it pretty soon, because I’m sure some in the lesbian, in the LGBT community are going to say absolutely, yes. In Bob Jones, in 1983, and Bob Jones at that time, they’ve subsequently changed quite a lot, banned interracial dating. And their tax exemption was taken away. And the Supreme Court did so by an 8-1 ruling upholding that.
BS: Do you think it should have been?
HH: What’s that?
BS: Do you think it should have been?
HH: Oh, yes, absolutely. I believe that racism is inherently and always evil, all right? I do not believe that sexual morality that says sexual intimacy ought to be limited to a man and a woman is immoral. In fact, I think it’s God’s law. And so I know that some races think they have God law, but I actually…
BS: But I mean, and this is, I mean, these are difficult, like this is not, this isn’t a precise science. And people like you and me, we’re having this conversation on the radio, 75 years ago about Jim Crow, and probably both, and people in our positions may like someone, you know, that thought it was very nuanced.
HH: You know, but Lincoln didn’t, and natural law doesn’t. And that’s, I think, the natural law tradition is actually very, very clear on all of these things. But in the 1983, and this is where I come back…
BS: I envy the clarity with which you see things.
HH: Well, I just read a lot. I read my natural law, I read my Aquinas, and I read my Lincoln. But here’s what Burger said, and not in the same category, but still the Chief Justice when he was talking about racial discrimination, “There can no longer be any doubt that racial discrimination in education violates deeply and widely-accepted views of elementary justice.” And therefore, Bob Jones was going to lose their tax-exempt status unless they changed their policy. They changed their policy. I don’t think anyone should ever lose their tax exempt status because of their religious beliefs about sexual morality, because those beliefs are inherently up for grabs as opposed to the belief that a human being isn’t a human being, right? Otherwise, you’re going to have to say polygamy is acceptable, right, Ben?
BS: Like lots, like many, many other things we cover, these are arguments that we cover and that we don’t take positions on.
HH: Do you guys take positions, this leads me to the harder stuff for you now. Do you guys take positions on Castro being evil?
BS: You know, we, no, and this isn’t, we’re not in the position to take, like that this is often, I emailed you this before, and this is why I was initially reluctant to go on and was hiding out in Latvia, which is that when people who, when, I am sort of a connoisseur of really cringe-inducing interviews where the editor of the New York Times talks to an ideological, somebody who really cares a lot about ideology and comes across sounding really squirrely, because people who spend their time thinking about news are often kind of inarticulate on matters of ideology. It’s not the thing they’ve spent a lot of time on. They’re not that interesting in it. And instrumentally, as a journalist, it gets in the way. And so you know, and this is what I always tell our reporters. Like don’t, try not to use the word outrageous in a headline, because if something’s outrageous, the reader ought to read this thing and come away and say hey, this is outrageous, and shouldn’t need to be told. You know, we should, we cover horrific things happening in the world. We do not add paragraphs saying by the way, a mass rape by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia was evil. That’s just not our job. We report on it.
HH: I know, but when you report, for example, on Saudi Arabia, you’re reporting on a state that refuses Christians to practice their faith. You’re reporting on a state that beheads people. You’re reporting on a state that embraces Shariah. Do you have an editorial judgment that that is an evil state? Or is that not within, is that again above your pay grade?
BS: Hugh, that’s not the business. I mean, the value that we add is the reporting, as I see it, and so that’s what we try to do.
HH: So can you articulate for me, and I get it, I think I get it, but can you articulate for me what is the different between the need to announce on LGBT equality and the need not to announce on Shariah-governed states?
BS: That’s a really good question. The LGBT equality is an issue that our reporters, is the central, was the central American political story of 2013 as a central, central story in 2014, and the first half of 2015, as you know, as a front line issue that lots of our reporters are covering all the time. And also, and also, living, and is also an issue that affects in not in a, that affects a huge, you know, lots and lots of people that I work with every day. You know, we’re celebrating a fact that they could marry a person they loved. And so it was an issue, and so I think on both of those fronts, I mean, it is a matter of degree, not of kind.
HH: So that’s an issue, I think…
BS: It’s very, on both of those fronts, it’s extremely close to home, and something we wanted to, but I don’t think you’re going to find, I mean, I can’t give you a spreadsheet that weighs, that you know, this is not a science.
HH: I know, but it’s a good question, because the issue of Islamist terrorism and its fountainhead is in front of us every day.
BS: I mean, I think, for instance, yes, do, yes, do I think that like beheading people is evil? Yes. Is it like valuable for me to add a paragraph to a story about beheading people, that by the way, I think is evil? Like what’s, I don’t understand the added value there.
HH: I’ll come right back after the break and explain it to you. Don’t go anywhere. @BuzzFeedBen, one more segment.
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HH: Ben Smith, I appreciate you being on. I have to ask you the question that BuzzFeed is posing at this hour, Ben.
BS: You know, Ted Cruz came to see us first. I have to say, it was, he was here this morning.
HH: Okay, you scooped me, but I suspect I got more news out of my interview than you did out of yours. Wait and see.
BS: Well, I think we got something great.
HH: You didn’t get as good as I did.
BS: Not major, but a real insight into the man.
HH: You take a look at my interview, which will be posted shortly…
BS: But he does love to talk about the Constitution. You ask that guy a question, and he will read you the entire Constitution if you’re not careful.
HH: I’m just, just the objective Ben Smith will say why can’t we ask questions like Hugh Hewitt did after you read this. Here’s the question, though, at the front of BuzzFeed right now. What would your 50 Shades Of Gray name be, Ben Smith?
BS: You know, I haven’t taken that quiz, yet. I will take it.
HH: You have time right now.
BS: I will take it and tweet it at you. Have you figured out yours?
HH: I have no idea what it means, so I’m afraid to say. But luckily, I didn’t agree to be interviewed. I’m asking the questions. So will you take it while we’re waiting, because here’s my question. Do you believe, I mean, religion matters…
BS: Now I have done radio interviews in the past where I was trying to multitask and do things on my phone while I did them, and that came out poorly. So no, I think I’m not going to do that.
HH: How quickly will you tweet out your answer to what would your 50 Shades of Gray name be?
BS: I can guarantee I’ll give it to you right after this.
HH: All right, perfect. That’s all I need to know. Now the last, people…
BS: Have you seen the movie, by the way?
HH: You don’t believe, no, you don’t believe in God. No, I don’t take your crazy quizzes. You don’t believe in God, right? You told me that in an earlier interview.
BS: I did tell you that, and then I thought you know, that’s really not any of his business.
HH: Too late. You already told me that.
HH: So now you don’t believe in God. Can you possibly cover well anyone like me who believes deeply in God, and that the revealed word of His understanding? I mean, this is a journalism question. Can you ever get me? And do you have serious Evangelicals on the staff of BuzzFeed with whom to engage in the conversation about going forward what these institutions are going to have happen to them as a result of the marriage decision? I’m not talking about LGBT.
BS: I think there’s three questions in there. One is that can journalists cover people who are different from them, and I think yes, and it requires a certain level of humility and empathy, and that good reporters are often covering people with different views than them.
HH: Good answer. Number two?
BS: We do have, yes, but I also think, second, that newsroom diversity is like you know, it’s really important in having people of faith and particularly religious Christians in newsroom is important, yes, and we do. And I think that’s an important perspective.
HH: And has anyone…
BS: And you know, but also, but also, I mean I saw Ted Cruz complaining about the lack of Evangelicals on the Supreme Court.
HH Actually, it was Scalia. Scalia complained in a 6-3…
BS: Scalia. He was really sort of…right….
HH: There are only, there are six Catholics and three Jews, and he said we do not have on this Court one Evangelical Protestant. I put that aside.
BS: Are you for affirmative action from Scalia?
HH: It’s an argument to be aware of elitism from Ivy League colleges. He also pointed out that he had nine Ivy League, are you an Ivy League guy, Ben?
BS: I am.
HH: See, there, you’d never get it. So the question is can you ever understand the other side? 30 seconds, of course.
BS: That’s a question, can you ever understand the other side?
HH: On people between religious belief and those who don’t, could you ever understand my worldview?
BS: I mean, you know, I think good reporters are very good at least trying to understand the people they cover, and I think we have people who have all sorts of different beliefs here, so…but that’s important.
HH: All right, Ben, I’m looking for your tweet out on your 50 Shades thing. Ben Smith, always a pleasure, thank you.
End of interview.