Therefore Let Us Not Be Silly
Troll news and yellow journalism run amok. In 2024, we can change.
Readers of the London Evening Standard picked up their paper on a grim day in October, 1914 to find a welcome headline:
DOOM OF THE KAISER
London had declared war on Germany just weeks earlier. And here was the good news that Berlin’s defeat was, in fact, preordained: The son of a French doctor had stumbled across a manuscript buried in his late father’s affairs, written by 17th century monk Brother Johannes.
Humanity, the text foretold, is “in such peril.” A massive war in the 20th century was to cover the world in blood. “For the first time the lamb will be entirely red,” it continues — a helpful glossary from the newspaper explains that “the lamb” means “truth, justice, mercy, and peace.” Readers, facing the prospect of the first truly global conflict, perked up at these prophetic visions.
The coded text describes a veritable melee at the petting zoo: The black eagle (Germany) would attack the cock (France) until the leopard (United Kingdom) and white eagle (Russia) fight back. The war dead would stack so high as to “change the course of rivers.” But, eventually, the black eagle would be defeated.
Oh, and by the way, Kaiser Wilhelm II is the antichrist.
“The Antichrist will lose his crown, and will die demented and alone,” the text, printed in full1, concludes. “Then an era of peace and prosperity will commence for all the universe, and there will be no more war.”
At a time of intense anxiety, the text — itself a translation of a series of columns published in Le Figaro — caught on like wildfire. The Evening Standard ran the prophecy in pieces, then as an insert: It quickly sold out, and was run again in the morning edition. They were printed, reprinted, and translated in hundreds of papers around the world.
Some took issue with the soothsaying sensation. Marie Corelli, the British novelist, wrote to the paper to express her frustration. “Don’t let us study the grits and magic crystals, and mumble over the phrases of ‘Brother Johannes,’” she begged. The Kaiser, she wrote, was probably reading the Evening Standard and having a laugh at his witless opponents: “THEREFORE LET US NOT BE SILLY!”
One clever reader was similarly unconvinced, piecing together Brother Johannes’ likely identity and noting he died 200 years before the “zoological conundrum with which you have amused your readers” was supposedly written.
The critics were right, of course. The prophecies, which had a pretty lousy batting average in the end, were almost certainly a modern forgery. It was sourced from the late Adrien Peladon, a French homeopath, occultist, and all-around fabulist. (Or his equally kooky brother, who was still alive.)
The papers would, unfortunately, continue to be silly for quite some time. Hundreds of papers in North America and Europe continued to run items on Brother Johannes throughout the war. At the beginning of the Second World War, the prophecies were recycled — this time, the papers insisted, they got the right antichrist. (Kaiser Wilhelm II spent those years living in exile, loudly proclaiming that it was England who hosted the antichrist. How ironic.2)
I initially stumbled across Brother Johannes’ fortunes while looking to write a fun 2024 lookahead, a successor to last year’s dispatch (Dispatch #33) about Bulgarian mystic Baba Vanga, whose completely fictitious predictions, probably concocted by the KGB, still appear in major publications.
But leafing through old editions of the Evening Standard prompted a depressing thought: We’re worse off, today, than readers of the paper were in 1914.
The Standard’s tea leaf reading, after all, was buried within the paper: Brother Johannes was normally relegated to page five, well behind lengthy dispatches from the paper’s team of international war correspondents. Keen prophecy-hunters may have been able to find Peladon’s other written works, but it appears none were translated to English. Selling pamphlets of the prophecy was probably a boon for the paper, which had nearly avoided bankruptcy just a few years earlier.
These days we can opt to be as silly as we wish, as often as we’d like: And our newspapers are suffering as a result.
This week, on a very special Bug-eyed and Shameless, we consider the state of the news media. We have reached a new level of silliness that, I prophesize, could spell the end of the world.
I forsee that the green swan (you) will subscribe to the purple alligator (Bug-eyed and Shameless.) Also, the antichrist drives a Pinto.
There’s a fantastic piece of film, preserved in the Library of Congress’ digital archives. It shows the scene as a New York World delivery van greeds a crowd of eager newsboys.
The World was a champion of yellow journalism, the sensational form of news pushed by Joseph Pulitzer in the World and William Randolf Hearst in the New York Journal at the end of the 19th century. The papers were defined by fantastical headlines, driving crusades, and, quite frequently, completely invented nonsense. They pulled in readers with outlandish photographs and entertaining comic strips. (Including The Yellow Kid, which earned the papers’ their nickname and explains the cover art for this dispatch.)
There’s been plenty of smart stuff written about the arc from yellow journalism to fake news. But I’m more interested in the business model that made this nonsense king.
While it’s easy to imagine that these muckraking newspapers became popular because they were warmongering gossip rags, there’s a more obvious reason: They were cheap and everywhere. When the newspaper wars kicked off, Hearst reduced the wholesale price of his new paper to a fraction of a penny, letting the hordes of newspaper boys hawk the pages for just a cent. Pulitzer dropped prices to compete. The World bragged, probably rightly, that its circulation equaled about a fifth of the population of New York City. The Journal, not to be outdone, claimed it sold nearly as many papers as there were people. The tycoons’ other papers employed similar tactics across the United States, while other papers tried to copy their success.
It helped that the Spanish-American War was creating both a supply and demand for news. When it ended, and sales slowed, the two newspapers jacked up their wholesale prices. The newsies went on strike. After a short effort to hire the city’s homeless, the papers eventually relented and gave the newsies what they wanted.
The polarizing nature of the papers also became a liability. The Journal’s hatred for President William McKinley prompted editorials calling for his death, contending that “assassination can be a good thing.” Three months after that particular column, McKinley was shot and killed. Whether words caused the deed is debatable, but it nevertheless soured the public on the reckless demagoguery of the paper. Hearst himself disavowed yellow journalism and oriented his papers back towards good reporting. Pulitzer cemented his legacy by leaving millions of dollars to the training of young journalists and to reward good journalism.
Some of the yellow tactics remained, like running a full insert into the evening paper proclaiming the prophecies of a 17th century French monk. But the 20th century was, by and large, a golden era of journalism specifically because it borrowed many of the things that made yellow journalism effective while still employing actual ethics and standards. Comics and flashy photos stayed, but papers ditched the appeals to assassinate the president. An aggressive delivery model and competitive prices made the golden age possible and profitable.
Things, as I’m sure you’re aware, have gotten quite grim since then.
We are all, no doubt, familiar with the usual charge: The bottoming-out of advertising revenue wrecked the news media, and quality has declined despite some valiant efforts. That left open a gap for reactionaries and demagogues, who exploited the decline for their own benefit: They, in turn, hammered the institutional press, prompting a terrible spiral. Predatory investors swooped in with a poisoned chalice, precipitating a whole other boom-and-bust cycle in miniature.
There’s certainly a lot of truth to that narrative. But it is, I think, only half the story. Like the yellow papers beset by a newsie strike, we have a significant distribution challenge. And we have a very severe silliness problem.
Christopher Rufo understands distribution.
Originally a filmmaker, around 2018 he began writing essays for a conservative thinktank. Initially, his obsession was over homelessness, a problem he saw in deeply moral terms. He plugged away for a few years, his dispatches finding a few fans in a splintered information environment.
Then the pandemic hit.
Normally that sentence is followed by a detailed explanation of how the subject in question lost their mind. But that’s not really the case with Rufo. In a particularly prescient piece, from April 2020, Rufo foresaw a “Rorschach epidemic,” a crisis onto which people would affix their priors and their anxieties, creating whole new dogmas.
“The virus reminds us that in a time of panic, people retreat to their familiar corners — and that the most extreme views find an audience,” he wrote.
Rufo became an extreme voice speaking to a familiar corner. He began to obsess over three words that meant very little to most people: Critical Race Theory.
With great discipline and using old-school journalism tactics, Rufo went to work exposing how the woke mind virus had infiltrated schools across the United States. Education on slavery was not rectifying a myopia, he argued, but rewriting history. Focus on the effects of systemic racism was inventing a problem where none existed. Celebrating diversity was really attacking the majority.
Cultural conservatives were thrilled: Rufo had come up with both a lexicon for how to rebrand their long-stalled crusade against “political correctness” (see: Equity, progress) and volumes of research exposing the extent of the supposed problem.
Rufo went from obscure blogger to icon of Tucker Carlson Tonight to darling of the Trump White House in short order.
In so doing, Rufo stumbled upon a pretty clever trick. Many of his conservative compatriots had eschewed the mainstream press and big tech, in favor of start-up right-wing news outlets and alternative social media platforms. Better to write for The Daily Wire and fume on Gab than to give the Washington Post a click and engage with the mouth-foaming social justice warriors on Twitter, the thinking went. For many, even Fox News proved itself too co-opted by the mainstream to be trusted.
What Rufo seemed to appreciate, however, is what journalists have been saying for a long time: The mainstream press isn’t really that liberal. If a fervor emerges, it covers it. The tone, which will likely skew slightly liberal, doesn’t matter. This is an instance where any press is good press.
Using documents obtained via FOIA or sent in by like-minded parents, Rufo churned out his sloppy reporting — only occasionally hitting on some minor bit of out-to-lunch academia or looney HR training seminar. Hysteria erupted from the right, going effortlessly viral in conservative circles, while remaining mainstream enough to be put right on Fox News primetime. Rather than shun the mainstream press for ignoring his work, Rufo gleefully engaged: Writing op-eds, giving interviews, turning himself into a one-man CRT-bashing band. Fox News howled over wokeism gone mad, while the New York Times sniffed at this new battle in “the culture wars.”
He didn’t do it alone, but Rufo certainly spearheaded a media-driven moral panic which is now entering its fourth year, having since expanded to kvetch about Diversity Equity and Inclusion practices in the workplace and Queer people in general.
In early 2023, Rufo joined Substack to expand and monetize his outrage-to-New York Times pipeline. And it’s worked smashingly: He’s got nearly 80,000 subscribers. (More than me!)
He sharpened this tactic recently, after a disastrous committee appearance put Harvard President Claudine Gay in the crosshairs. Rufo, who doesn’t seem to care much at all about education except as it intersects with his politics, put his machine into action. Rufo, teaming up with a likeminded Canadian writer, penned a Substack dispatch alleging that Gay was a serial plagiarist.
The accusation was limp. Plagiarism Today, which is apparently a real publication, concluded that there was enough smoke to warrant an investigation but “the evidence available doesn’t sustain the allegations being thrown around by her detractors” and that cribbed language in a few paragraphs, even if it is plagiarism, “doesn’t represent a clear history of overt plagiarism or academic dishonesty.”
Plagiarism Today wrote just a few articles about Gay’s alleged misdeeds. The Times wrote dozens. Other news outlets rushed to compete. Harvard stood by principle and defended her until the temperature became untenable and she resigned.
Nobody involved in pushing this story, except Plagiarism Today, cares about plagiarism, of course. The journalists who covered it, including the veritable army of reporters at the Times assigned to it, did so for complementary purposes — to give their liberal readers a peek into this dreaded culture war; to try and convince their conservative non-readers that they (to borrow a phrase) follow stories where they lead without fear or favor; because this story was cheap, easy, and drove clicks; and, lastly, because the Times covers the machinations of elite higher education, albeit selectively.
It’s an incredible parable because it exposes how disciplined and organized bad actors like Rufo are, and how utterly spineless, self-defeating, and completely hapless the traditional press has become.
The issue is not Rufo’s deranged crusade. Nor is it that the Times got played. The issue is that our media ecosystem is horrifically broken.
We prioritize the silly at the expense of the serious.
There have been some big attempts to revolutionize the press recently.
There’s been The Messenger: your source for trusted and unbiased news; Semafor: An intelligent, transparent global news platform; Puck: A new media company covering power, money, & ego; and many others. All well-financed, much-ballyhooed, and staffed with professionals. And yet the game remains unchanged.
The Messenger raised some $50 million to create a news outlet that could break through the partisan babble and create a new kind of 21st century answer to the Times. They managed to spend nearly all that money in a year, while posting an annual revenue of $3 million.
The institutional outlets have tried to retake the momentum. The Washington Post had both name recognition, an existing subscriber base, and a billionaire’s chequebook. It sent buyout offers to 700 employees late last year after projecting a $100 million loss for 2023.
The only monetary success story, really, frustratingly, is the New York Times. Buoyed by a breakneck news cycle during the Trump years, the New York Times worked to become the big box store of news, offering a massive array of content while also offering all manner of baubles and trinkets to keep peoples’ credit cards on file.
The common problem with all of these outlets, big and small, is that they are being read less and less and less.
U.S. newspaper circulation is now lower than it was in 1940. Social media referrals to major news outlets has declined to just a fraction of the traffic from just a few years ago. News outlets in every major Western country are hurting: Not just because they lack advertising dollars, but because the delivery of news to the consumer is indirect, inconvenient, and a-la-carte. The only path to salvation has been to, like the Times, cover the controversy instead of the news.
This is the internet’s fault, sure, but we ought to shoulder much of the blame for failing to see it coming. We panicked so aggressively over plummeting ad revenue that we did very little contingency planning for a day when readers would no longer visit news homepages or click items shared on Facebook.
Some scrambled to rectify that problem, but they didn’t help — maybe they made it worse. Daily news delivered via Youtube, Instagram, Tiktok, or podcast has merits, but it also pushed news consumers onto other platforms. A 30 second news brief is now buried underneath 40 videos of plate-smashing and puppy-wrestling. Michael Barbaro delivers you one story a day, where news radio used to deliver a hundred. Meanwhile, traffic keeps declining. Investments in the newsroom drop in turn.
If you did visit the Times homepage earlier this week, news of Gay’s exit screamed across the top half of the page, driven by the work of nearly a dozen journalists contributing to a running liveblog. It was abundantly clear that another item further down on the page — news that Israel had assassinated a senior Hamas leader in Lebanon, risking broader regional war — was considerably less important.
Twitter’s reverse chronological feed was a vague approximation of a classical newspaper, a running stream of unsorted news, but Elon Musk knew that such a service was too valuable to be free: So now you can pay $7 to game the flow of information. Meta has come to a similar conclusion, opting to deprioritize news — in Canada, they’ve banned it entirely.
There are some small bright spots.
Take Apple News, which understands that news curation can be an incredibly valuable thing, if you can serve people the right mix of what readers want and what they need. But those aggregators are trying to survey a zombified news industry that has once again gone yellow: Outlets like Newsweek and the Daily Mail are operating a high-velocity garbage catapult — Donald Trump will be shiv’d in prison! Valery Gerasimov was killed in Crimea! — designed to game anyone foolish enough to consider them real news outlets. Still, trying to turn mobile devices into the modern version of the newspaper, prompting users to leaf through various local, national, and international happenings as they sit on the bus is the holy grail of news delivery.
Substack, for its part, has built an ecosystem that actually helps build good publications, big and small, from the ground up, with both revenue and distribution models baked in. It is designed to deliver via computer, email, and mobile; and it explicitly tries to keep users in the ecosystem, instead of fobbing them off to other platforms. Substack’s problem is that, because it has so many publications each asking for money, it doesn’t seem to scale anything up. More often, it has become a useful publishing platform for independent journalists, or authors running a side hustle.
Creating a more fractal news environment seems like exactly the wrong solution. While a bigger, flatter, more competitive environment is good: It’s undeniable that we will still need big publications that people trust, with the power to set the agenda. They can, and probably should, be less powerful and more responsive than they used to be — but replacing CNN with Rumble is a nightmare scenario.
We will not reconstitute these institutional news outlets by solving their revenue problem. We will do so by building new delivery models and earning trust.
We have yet to discover the internet version of printing words onto dead trees and throwing them at peoples’ homes. We have not thought through how to make people sit through the dour and unpleasant truth of the world before getting to the weather.
The political right, as I’ve said, is exploiting this broken system to great effect. And they’re doing it by obsessing over distribution models: One group recently launched a series of astroturf local papers to spread propaganda.
The liberal papers bear enormous blame by torturing themselves to comply with the social media distribution model. A pathological obsession with process stories — new fronts in the culture war, minute-by-minute updates on the horserace — have managed to alienate existing readers without attracting new ones, all to try and beg for clicks on Facebook like it’s 2007. If it’s bad in the United States, it’s even more brutal in her satellite markets: Looking at you, Canada.
The progressive side deserves some blame, too. It has become so freaked out by the proliferation of bad faith actors and illiberal politicians that we have started playing wrongthink whack-a-mole.
After a report underscored Substack’s “Nazi problem” — 16-or-so publications that openly use Nazi symbology, plus others affiliated with the far-right — a campaign began to push Substack to demonetize and deplatform those newsletters. Substackers Against Nazis, quoting Casey Newton, argued: “The correct number of newsletters using Nazi symbols that you host and profit from on your platform is zero.”
And, since we’ve hit on an issue that directly affects this newsletter, I should say: I agree! I would like Substack to have a policy forbidding its publications from using Nazi symbolism. The Substack leadership disagrees, and that’s on them.
In response, a bevy of progressive Substackers have threatened to quit: Some already have. They have decamped to decentralized platforms that either do no moderation of their users, or promise to forbid any illiberal voices.
I won’t be joining them. I’m also leery of a growing demand for informational purity. Indeed, the calls to de-Nazify Substack have already broken free from their original confines and have suggested that the bannings should hit all far-right figures on the platform — people like Christopher Rufo.
Informed, no doubt, by our collective habit of picking-and-chosing our news from a dizzying array of sources — contently skimming columns we agree with, intently reading news that conforms to our worldviews, angrily sharing pieces that offend our expectations — we seem to think that street battles for control of the internet, pushing Nazis and bad folks from one platform to another, will achieve some kind of objective good. Or, maybe more optimistically, that such an ideological crusade would improve the journalism industry.
To make the case, many point to that viral Twitter thread about a bartender kicking out a patron with Nazi patches on his vest. “You have to nip it in the bud immediately,” the bartender says, or else you’ll find yourself thinking “oh shit, this is a Nazi bar now.”
But the internet isn’t a bar. It’s a big space with no bartender. Asking someone else to kick out all the Nazis — and the white nationalists, and the homophobes, and so on — feels like an impossible order to fill. The solution is absolutely not to retreat, or to hold out for someone else to invent a space protected by a Nazi forcefield.
I’m not just heaping blame on other people. I’m guilty, too. I write, often, about bad people using the internet to spread bad ideas, particularly ones so extreme and fantastical that make people do bad things. Calibrating how much of that coverage is important and useful, as opposed to sensational and finger-pointing, is a job I constantly struggle with. It’s explicitly why I devote time to the niche-y topics of this newsletter while also trying to look at the big picture for the mainstream press.
We, the press, need to get serious about fixing our industry. That will mean trying to forge a new compact with readers: Not just producing good journalism, but getting it into the readers’ hands. Obvious as that idea sounds, I think every day at the New York Times is evidence that we have learned all the wrong lessons.
Therefore, let us not be silly.
Happy new year, everyone.
This dispatch has been a bit therapeutic, as I despair at the state of my industry. I had originally started writing a second edition of The Buggies, the fake award show I did last year as an easy year-in-review: But, frankly, it kept bumming me out, and got me thinking about a different kind of navel-gazing.
Looking into 2024, I’m eager to crib some of Paul Wells’ new year’s resolutions: Namely, more reporting, less opining. The lengthy historical deep dives (like this one!) might be a better exception, as opposed to a rule.
To that end, I’m hoping to make a few interesting reporting trips this year, as I pursue some bigger stories and finish (I hope) my next book. The first, I hope, will be Ukraine later this winter. More on that, I hope, soon.
I want to thank everyone who’s become a paying subscriber to the newsletter over the past year — and particularly those who have been with me since 2022. I’m not big on doing those state-of-the-newsletter updates, because I don’t think people really care, but I will say that the revenue for this publication has been growing steadily, and it is certainly well on the way towards covering the amount of time I put into Bug-eyed and Shameless.
As always, if you have ideas on future dispatches, have questions about anything in here, or just want to chat: Comment below!
Until next week.
Conflict, Catastrophe and Continuity: Essays on modern German history, Frank Biess, Mark Roseman, Hanna Schissler