So I taped an interview with Buzzfeed’s editor-in-chief Ben Smith this morning, one that led Ben to delete a front page headline splash for this story, and which triggered a bunch of follow-on stories among media reporters like The Daily Caller’s Al Weaver. Ben’s a good guest and willing to take hard questions, but I wouldn’t have just disappeared the header that we were discussing without a note to the readers. There’s also an interesting discussion of why I think Buzzfeed will “go left” in 2015 whether it wants to or not. Anyway, here’s the audio and transcript:
HH: I’m joined by @BuzzFeedBen. At least that’s how you follow him on Twitter. Ben Smith is the editor of BuzzFeed. Ben, Happy New Year.
BS: Happy New Year to you, Hugh. Is it already New Year in California?
HH: Oh, no, it’s in Australia, though, so it’s okay. It’s kosher to do that. I do want to begin by thanking you for being available throughout the year. I hope you’ll be back often in 2015. Thank you, though. The audience appreciates your coming.
BS: Nothing I like better.
HH: All right. Now let me ask you the key question. Is BuzzFeed ruining the news?
BS: If by ruining you mean doing lots of reporting lots of this, no, of course not. We’re hiring lots of reporters and doing lots of good journalism.
HH: But you know the slam, the end of the year slam, which is BuzzFeed is using click bait and doing quick stories and quick hits and drive-by’s, and…
BS: You know, Hugh, this is like, this is, that was like the New Year 2013 slam. And I do think journalism is actually a very conservative profession, with a small c conservative, and like people, I do think they’re always freaked out by whatever the new thing is, whether it’s color on the front page of the New York Times, or you know, whatever it is. But actually, I think that’s sort of faded. I mean, I think that next year is really the year when like the lines start crossing, and people start realizing that a lot of these new institutions, ours certainly among them, you know, are investing more heavily in journalism than a lot of the sort of fading, older institutions.
HH: What are those new institutions? One of them is the Free Beacon, for example. I think they are disrupting Washington, D.C. in a very profound way. What are the other ones you’re talking about?
BS: They’re causing lots of trouble, which is certainly, you know, an honorable thing to do. I mean, I think Vice does some spectacular stuff, for instance. Like I thought their Inside The Islamic State documentary was one of the best pieces of journalism this year. I think the Verge does really interesting stuff and does a lot of reporting on the tech industry.
HH: And what about places like Mediaite? Are they filling a need? Or are they just wasting people’s time by doing click bait?
BS: You know, I guess, I mean, I think that if, you know, if there’s a video on cable news that I would like to see and Mediaite grabs it and puts it up, I’m quite, I feel like they’ve done me a service. I mean, I’m not sure they’re operating on quite the same scale as some of the other places we’re talking about just in terms of hiring journalists and having them go out and report stuff, which is, you know, expensive.
HH: All right, let’s go from the general to the specific. The lead story at BuzzFeed on the last day of the year – Dead Cops Chant A Myth. That’s the headline. When you click on that, in fact, the headline is misleading, because your reporter says it’s not a myth, it’s just overstated. What they’ve latched onto in Tasneem Nasrullah’s piece is, “What they’ve latched onto is one viral video and a few small online anarchist groups.” And then as you read later, that’s the sub-head, I don’t know if she wrote that, either, when you read later, she actually comes up with a half dozen instances of occasions where people have called for violence against police. So what do you call that, that escalator of attention-grabbers?
BS: Well, wait a second. The…the…the specific…(pause)
HH: The headline is Dead Cops Chant A Myth.
BS: (pause) Actually, I haven’t read the story. So I don’t feel I want to debate it with you.
BS: …as I read it on the screen…
HH: I’m ahead of the editor?
HH: That’s okay.
BS: …enough these days.
HH: Now look, here’s the deal. The story’s a good story. It’s very, it makes a key point, which is the amplification of trolls is a problem in the news business, right? That’s what happens, is the lowest common denominator of any story gets the most attention. It happens on the immigration story, happens on the cop killer chant story. Nevertheless, the headline…
BS: Wait, but you said this story, this story is protestors advocating for dead cops seems like a pretty straightforward…
HH: Look at Dead Cops Chant A Myth, Ben. It’s not a myth. She confirms it in the first graph. It happened.
BS: (pause) Oh, I see. You’re talking about the splash headline here.
HH: Yeah, I’m talking about what people click on. So are you, is that tabloid? Are you guys borrowing…
BS: I think myth is a little strong. But (pause while typing), but I guess, but what are you, I’m not, but I’m also not sure what you’re asking.
HH: What I’m saying is do you feel regret that they used that? Or is that just fair game, tabloid journalism comes to the internet? You’re just trying to get people to click on that to read it…
BS: Well you know, I’m going to have, I’m happy to take a look at the story that you just, that you’re reading aloud to me at the moment. I mean, I think that obviously, reporting should be accurate. Headlines should be accurate. I mean, so yeah, but I think that’s a fairly obvious point that we both agree on.
HH: All right, all right. So where do you go, then, in 2015? What’s BuzzFeed going to do that’s different from 2014? More and more of the same? Or a different kind of journalism?
BS: I mean, I think that what we have been doing is really aggressive journalism that’s native to the, really deeply native to the web in its speed and depth, and in not doing the kind of stuff about mid-level, mediocre newspaper journalism that’s been most of what newspapers and wires have done for years and years, although they’ve also done really spectacular stuff.
HH: Are you going left?
BS: But I think we’ll be, we’ve got a half dozen foreign correspondents, and we’ll be doubling that. Are we going left?
HH: Yeah, your senior political editor is not a leftist, but I read this Tasneem piece, and it’s pretty left-leaning.
BS: That’s conspiracy, but that conspiracy’s got to be in there somewhere.
HH: I know. There’s got to be some, that’s just, you know, it’s a cover. It’s (laughing).
BS: You know how this is. You know how this is. Someone like you says, you know, what, says a hundred thousand words on the radio every year, and if I wanted, I could easily pull out a few and paint you as a communist, or as anything I wanted. And you could certainly go to any website, including mine, and paint me as a right winger, as a left winger, as people often do.
HH: But it wasn’t an accusation. It was a question.
BS: So, I mean, you know what a cheap shot that is. And you should…
HH: No, no, it wasn’t an accusation. It was a question. Are you going to go left in 2015?
BS: Of course, not. I mean, no, of course not.
HH: Because all of the candidates are on the right, which means, I’ll bet, this is sort of geometry, if you have to cover people who are making news, you’ll be covering a dozen to twenty Republicans. On the left, there will be Hillary and nothing else, and she’s dull, and she’s hidden. Doesn’t that set you guys up to appear to be left-wing in 2015?
BS: I actually think, we were talking about this, is a real question for all media…
BS: …including the conservative media, which is just that, and I’m not really, I mean, I think the whole, like, whether people like you are going to say that we appear to be on the left, and thus try to us that as a club to beat us with is something I’m so calloused, like my callouses are so thick on that, I don’t really care. But whether, but just the reality that all of the action, and all the interest and all the fun to cover is going to be in the Republican primary, it certainly does, you know, that’s certainly something Katherine and I, our political editor, talked about, is you know, just to make sure that we are covering Hillary Clinton aggressively.
HH: Yeah, how do you break into Clintonland? It’s got walls that are as high as the eagle’s nest.
BS: I think there are two or maybe fewer than a half dozen reporters in the country who are very well-sourced, and have really been able to break news on Hillary. I think our reporter, Ruby Cramer, is certainly one. Maggie Haberman of Politico is another.
BS: I just can’t think of a lot of them.
HH: Jon Allen and Amy Parnes, yeah.
BS: yeah, you hire good reporters who have the kind of patience and you know, interest to cover the people who are incredibly experienced at, and really difficult to deal with.
HH: Last question. Who is your common core reporter?
BS: You know, we have a reporter actually covering what I think is a very interesting side of that. Like I find the debate itself, like the policy debate at this point, like you can call the same people and get the same quotes. I think a lot of the really interesting stuff is happening around common core, and broadly in education, is really in the business of education.
HH: It is, and it’s at the local level. I mean, it’s a huge story, Ben.
HH: It’s a huge story, but no one, but you don’t have a name, huh, with…if I say…
BS: Well, Molly Hensley-Clancy, although, but a lot of what she covers is really where the money is, because I think that’s the huge and underreported story on education.
HH: Well, I’ll ask you to take a look at what’s happening in classrooms. It’s truly a nightmare. I’m spending all day tomorrow on it. But Ben Smith, Happy New Year. It’s always a pleasure to talk to you. Always try to throw a curveball at Ben Smith. It’s fun.
End of interview.