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Updated May 31, 2024, 4:39am EDT
media

Mixed Signals: Media circus of the century, BuzzFeed buzz, and sleeping with your phone

Welcome to the first episode of a brand-new podcast from Semafor Media.

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It's episode one!

In our first episode, Ben and Nayeema catch New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman outside the courthouse where a jury just convicted former President Donald Trump. But will the media circus change anyone’s mind? Then they sit down with Vivek Ramaswamy to talk about his plans for BuzzFeed, following his purchase of 8.4% of the company. Finally, Semafor Media Editor Max Tani joins the show to discuss media blindspots and defend phones at bedtime.

Drop us a line if you’ve got a tip: mixedsignals@semafor.com
Find us on X: @semaforben, @nayeema @maxwelltani or on Instagram @nayeemaraza
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Mixed Signals from Semafor Media is presented by Think with Google

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Full episode transcript

Nayeema Raza: All right. First pancake, Ben. How do you feel?

Ben Smith: First pancake? I don’t know what that means.

Nayeema: It’s like when you make pancakes, your first pancake is always the not good one.

Ben: No, but this is going to be really good. This is going to be really good.

Nayeema: Okay. Set our expectations low.

[MUSIC]

Ben: I’m Ben Smith.

Nayeema: I’m Nayeema Raza.

Ben: And this is Mixed Signals from Semafor Media.

Nayeema: Today we’re going to visit the media circus surrounding the week’s biggest story, the hush money case against former President Donald Trump. And really the question here is: is there anything new to learn? Which is something we pose to Trump biographer and senior political correspondent for the New York Times, Maggie Haberman.

We’re also going to be discussing the latest battle in the work wars: Vivek Ramaswamy will actually be joining us today to talk about his activist bid to remake the Iconic and fading millennial brand BuzzFeed, which is actually your former employer.

Ben: Yeah, and I, I mean, I think I was sort of trying to approach it as a job interview, but

Nayeema: Oh!

Ben: I’m, I’m not sure how that’s gonna work out...

Nayeema: already on your way out on our first episode, Ben. That’s how we like it.

Ben: It’s been, it’s been a rough morning.

Nayeema: Um, and finally we’ll have Max Tani here joining us to talk about blind spots. These are the stories you’re not seeing inside your media bubbles.

[MUSIC]

Nayeema: But first Ben, we should probably explain what Mixed Signals is because, you know, the artwork, it looks like a dating podcast, it sounds like a dating podcast, it is not a dating podcast because otherwise I would be hosting with like Trevor Noah, I think.

Ben: Among so many other reasons, but yes, that’s right, Nayeema. No, I mean, Mixed Signals is our attempt to navigate this very strange media environment we all live in right now in which we have an enormous amount of information and claims coming in. But, but it’s very hard to tell, even for those of us who, who inhabit this world, very hard to tell who to trust.

And, and I think this kind of pervasive sense that you’re often being manipulated and you don’t understand how decisions are getting made.

Nayeema: And this isn’t. necessarily a new phenomenon, but it feels bigger because of the fragmentation of media, the hyper-partisan nature of media, the kind of social engineering of media as it exists today.

Ben: I think it’s worse than it’s ever been. It’s more confusing. As somebody who writes about media and has done it for a while, it is more confusing than it’s ever been.

Nayeema: Yeah. And our job here isn’t going to be, we’re not providing media criticism. We’re not here to tell you about the trades, about who’s getting fired, who’s getting hired.

We’re really here to talk about media as a window into politics, culture, technology, because media intersects with. with all of that. And it kind of gets lost. I mean, many of the biggest political stories of our times are media stories, including one that we’ll be discussing today, if not two, actually, that we’ll be discussing today.

Ben: I think Vivek’s story is interesting. He’s a guy who, through exposure to politics, got obsessed with the media business because in some sense, contemporary politics, like a lot of businesses, are themselves the media business.

Nayeema: Yeah. I think what we’re going to hopefully do in the process here is really shed some light into why you’re seeing the things you’re seeing reported the way they are.

Because people have this. What you describe as a conspiracy theory when we first started talking about it.

Ben: Yeah, I think, you know, I mean, you and I met working at the New York Times, which people think about, write about, speculate about constantly. And there is, I think, a broad sense that media is some kind of conspiracy, that there are decisions being made that you don’t quite understand that have consequences for our real lives.

And, you know, and the reality is, you know, in some ways, media is a conspiracy. It’s, you know, mostly, unfortunately, a conspiracy to make money.

Nayeema: In that case, it’s really failing that I have to say that’s probably the least successful conspiracy...

Ben: Not the world’s most successful conspiracy, but you really can, you know,, as... if you know your way around this world, you can go and ask the right questions and figure out what is actually happening, not what the speculation is.

Nayeema: I mean, your latest Semafor Media newsletter was actually a really good example of this, because there had been a lot of speculation in the story of the flags outside Justice Alito’s house.

There was some speculation that, oh, you know, The Washington Post had this story years ago and didn’t run it.

Ben: Yeah, there were rumors flying everywhere about why hadn’t the Washington Post run it. Specific rumors that, um, that the Justice Alito had called somebody very senior at the Post and pressured them.

And the answer, which in some ways was unsatisfying but so telling, was that actually Marty Baron, the editor in chief never heard about the story. The reporter who got it, who was kind of an old school cover of the Supreme Court in an old fashioned kind of institutionalist way, not getting into the neighborhood disputes of the justices, didn’t really like the story, didn’t really see it as a story, wasn’t sure what was going on.

So the result was that this story was just obviously a story. It’s a flag flying upside down outside your house. There’s no more public statement that you can make than the flag you fly at your home.

Nayeema: So sometimes it’s not a conspiracy, it’s just an error, or silos, or operational inefficiencies, which is less sexy than the conspiracy...

Ben: Yeah, yeah, or a kind of ideology and way of looking at the world.

Nayeema: We’re kind of like in the world like Mulder and Scully, if you ever watched The X Files. We’re here...

Ben: Obsessively.

Nayeema: The truth is out there. We’re here to find it. So here we are, our first big story from Mixed Signals, and just two blocks from where we’re sitting at Semafor’s New York offices, the former president of the United States has just been convicted of, uh, on a set of charges that really at their heart are about media conspiracy.

This is specifically Trump’s efforts to promote his own election by deploying the National Enquirer to catch and kill stories and then make payments that were concealed.

Ben: And this trial has been a genuine old fashioned media circus. We were, we went out there a couple of times this week. There were, I think we counted 16 live trucks, dozens and dozens and dozens of cameras, foreign press, domestic press, some kid who claimed he was reporting for Wikipedia and asked us some odd questions. I mean, yeah, please email us. I’m sure he was actually writing for Wikipedia.

Nayeema: Don’t forget the protesters. There were protesters who were largely silent and waiting until a camera kind of approached them and then they would point at you and say, fake news.

Ben: I mean, it was a real media scene. There’s no parking for my Kia Niro. I mean, it was, you know, there was, there was just a lot of

Nayeema: Log all your grievances here, Ben.

Ben: And. And yet there was this question hovering over the journalists outside and doing the standups inside, tweeting and blogging and writing, which was, you know, this is the trial of the century.

And yet there was this, it felt, I think, to all of us that everything being kind of beamed out of that courthouse wasn’t really connecting. And I think that is now with this explosion of interest in the guilty verdict. There’s just going to be this question of, you know, Did we learn anything? What did, what did it mean?

Nayeema: But in many ways, that’s so unsurprising, right, Ben? Because this has been the mood of this entire election and this whole rerun of election in TV terms, right? The trial was not televised. Voters are disengaged. We’re seeing polls that two thirds of Americans feel that democracy is at risk in this election and only one third of Americans are tuning in very closely to the political news.

Ben: That’s incredible contrast.

Nayeema: Yeah, and there will be so many polls trying to unpack what this verdict means, right? There’ll be this huge media circus, just like there was outside the courts, around the verdict itself. There’ll be reporting around the jurors, etc. The polls that we’ve already seen about the verdict are mixed, they’re ambiguous, and we thought maybe the leading indicator of what there is to learn from this trial is the person who knows the most already.

Our former colleague, Maggie Haberman, this is a New York Times senior political correspondent. She is the Trump biographer, and we went out to speak to her on Thursday, just hours before the verdict landed. Here’s the tape.

[MUSIC]

Ben: I think it’s a very unusual situation from going and writing a 600 page book about Donald Trump to heading into a courtroom to cover him. Moment to moment. I think the thing that’s like driving everybody crazy is it’s so hard to move the needle like everybody thinks they just know everything about him that this is the trial of the century and yet isn’t rating that well.

People aren’t really clicking on it. And I think it’s because we all feel like: “you know what, I get it. I get who he is.” And you, I think, probably more than anybody get who he is. And I’m curious if you’re learning anything? Do you come into that courtroom and think “I’m learning something,” or are you just like...

Maggie Haberman: No, I’m reliving something. I mean, this is like, no, in all seriousness, because this is essentially reliving 2016 and actually like the, the sort of worst part of 2016, which was the Access Hollywood tape and the, the aftermath from it. And, and I covered Michael Cohen’s FBI search of his house and his hotel room and his office pretty aggressively.

There is almost nothing, there are a couple of details that I’ve learned where I’ve said, I don’t even know where they are, cause, They’re not that striking, but there have been a couple where I remember being like, Oh, that’s interesting, but nothing. There’s no new narrative arc here.

Ben: So how do we persuade people to pay attention if, in this, when everybody feels like they know everything and maybe they do, they read your book, they watched 10,000 hours of cable news.

Does that make it at all, like. I feel futile and frustrating to wake up at six in the morning and go stand online?

Maggie: No, I’m pretty sure people are reading my coverage. I feel okay.

Nayeema: David Pecker has now testified that, in fact, the National Enquirer was involved in this catch and kill campaign with a presidential candidate.

It strikes me that for Trump’s followers, there’s such a distrust of media in general. So, the conspiracy at the center of the case. those facts having been established now in a courtroom. Has that made a dent at all with his crowd?

Maggie: Well, I think it would require someone like Ted Cruz, who actually really was impacted by what the National Enquirer was doing and the lies that was spreading in 2016.

Remember, one of the things that Pecker testified about is the fact that he was running stories with like a mashed up photo. Manufacturing the idea that Ted Cruz’s dad had somehow been tied to the Kennedy assassination, which for those of us who covered that primary was deeply painful for Ted Cruz, who’s very close to his father.

Ted Cruz has made clear he’s still pretty upset about that because he did an interview on CNN recently, but he’s also controlled in his anger and he’s not really waving it at Donald Trump. And so I think it just would require more people pushing publicly. And one of the things that Trump’s lawyer, Todd Blanche, has tried to do is sort of imply but not really say that.

Everyone’s the same, the National Enquirer standard operating procedure, you know, people talk for stories, people deal with the media, Michael Cohen dealt with the media, yeah, no, this was not the same, and maybe in Todd Blanche’s understanding that’s the same, but it’s not how any normal press function works.

Nayeema: Yeah, he also said every campaign is a conspiracy to win an election.

Maggie: Well, it’s certainly true that every campaign tries to win an election, but boy, this is the first time in twenty-six twent-eight years of watching and covering this stuff that I’ve heard an election described as a conspiracy.

Nayeema: First time I’ve heard an election described as a conspiracy in the United States, too.

[MUSIC]

Ben: You know, I do not envy her that beat. I mean, I think, you know, she came up covering courts and has a lot of patience, but I mean, the sort of frustration of sitting in there, as she said, reliving stuff that we all knew and saw, and then trying to explain to people why they need to pay attention to something, why they’re going to learn something from this.

I do think she’s right that actually, The process story, the story of the trial, the things the lawyers say does sometimes shed light on how folks think about themselves and honestly, how they think about us, the media. It is in the end. In the end, it is, you know, it’s about us.

Nayeema: I don’t know if it’s about us, but the media is on trial too, in some ways in this case, by both sides, right? And so. In some way.

Ben: I just, I just want to say not guilty.

Nayeema: Good. I plead the fifth.

Ben: Yeah. The other thing that did strike me is when I said, uh, you know, is it futile? There is something that you and I probably remember from the New York Times that even the stories that are hardest to get anybody to pay attention to, if they’re in the New York Times, you know, they will be injected directly into the veins of, of a, of a whole set of Americans.

Um, no, that’s not really true. Your worst stories don’t go anywhere, but people always read Maggie.

Nayeema: Some optimism for journalism that stories are making a dent and more optimism for journalism after this break because we’re going to be talking to Vivek Ramaswamy, the former Republican presidential candidate, who’s here to talk to us about why he bought more than 8 percent of BuzzFeed.

That’s after the break.

[MUSIC]

Nayeema: Okay, our next story. Vivek Ramaswamy has acquired an 8. 37 percent stake in BuzzFeed. Vivek is kind of an interesting character. He came up as an entrepreneur, has built several companies, ran for office in, uh, for the 2024 presidential elections, obviously did not make out well there, dropped out of the race and is now coming back as a activist media investor.

And you’re a character in this story, actually, so we should discuss you too, Ben. You were the founding editor in chief of BuzzFeed News, which has been shuttered. Right.

Ben: Yeah. And, you know, I think Vivek, like a lot of political candidates, he was, you know, a failed politician, but actually a very successful media figure and was great at figuring out how to take, you know, his kind of standing as a basically anonymous rich guy and turn himself into a real national figure with a pretty decent shot of being in the Trump cabinet.

But along the way, I think he really got the bug and acquired kind of interest in media, how it works. Um, and now has acquired a share of my old company, which

Nayeema: I wonder, yeah. I think he actually acquired the bug before the campaign because I happen to know that he was courted, uh, by Elon Musk, Peter Thiel and others to, to kind of take on some media internet entrepreneur.

Is that a scoop? We should test it with him in the interview. But he did take that meeting and that would have been end of 2020 and we should ask him about that in the interview.

Ben: I think there’s a question of, you know, is this basically kind of an anti-woke publicity stunt from the author of Woke, Inc.?

Is it a serious business proposal? You know, is it a stunt that’s going to wind up with him owning BuzzFeed by accident? There are a lot of possible outcomes here.

Nayeema: And BuzzFeed now is a very different organization than when you were there, right? BuzzFeed. IPO’d in was it 2021, at a valuation of something like 1.5 billion dollars. That stock is down 90 percent now. They still have some interesting assets. They have, they don’t have BuzzFeed News, which has been shuttered, but there is Huffington Post, HuffPo. There is Hot Ones, which was acquired in a deal to do Complex, the spicy interview show. And so there are some real assets here.

And Vivek has outlined this plan. He has shared the seven-page letter that went first to Fox Business. And... the plan is really three prong. It says one, you got to right size this company, got to downsize get it back to kind of startup numbers in terms of employees, etc. Two, you got to pivot to audio and video. And three, he’s called for a diversity of thought, embracing creators from Candace Owen to Destiny, Tucker Carlson to Bill Maher. Aaron Rodgers to Charles Barkley and also diversifying

Ben: Far-right to center-left, according to that list. Although we can ask him about,

Nayeema: yeah, we should ask him about that diversity, but also diversify their newsroom.

Right. And, and, and he’s, he’s called for, you know, BuzzFeed to apologize for what Ramaswamy characterizes past reporting errors that I think you might take a little personal.

Ben: Yeah, this, this part of the letter kind of bugged me. He just picked some things, some articles that have been criticized kind of amusingly more from the left than from the right.

I don’t think he was reading very closely just to take shots at, to make the case that, you know, you got to do journalism that nobody criticizes, I guess. I don’t really, I don’t really follow that.

Nayeema: Well, I think it was like the whole idea is kind of take this Trojan horse of the, of BuzzFeed brand, which is, has a huge brand name, but no one knows...

Ben: Without a very sharp identity.

Nayeema: Yeah, without a sharp identity or even a sharp offering right now, by the way. What is a BuzzFeed offering? What’s the last BuzzFeed thing I saw? I couldn’t tell you. And use it to morph into what some would, you know, worry is going to be a very unique media organization, shaped in some part by somebody who has very particular political views, Vivek Ramaswamy.

Ben: Yeah, and I think we should try to pin him down on what he’s talking about.

Nayeema: Let’s do that.

[MUSIC]

Nayeema: Explain what you’re trying to do with BuzzFeed. Is this a play to, to kind of achieve what Elon did with Twitter, but with lower stakes and a lower price tag?

Vivek Ramaswamy: Well, look, I laid it out pretty clearly in the letter I sent to the board. I enjoy creating value. That is something that I’ve done in my career as an entrepreneur.

I’ve always had an instinct as a value investor as well. And I see a lot of value destroyed by the way this business has been run. I’m not in the phase of casting blame or pointing fingers at one individual versus another. But the fact is, this was a potentially very valuable business at the time it went public.

Certainly a lot of people with a lot of money backed it on that premise. And it has cratered on the back of a lot of business failures that I believe are still correctable.

Ben: Well, as somebody who cares a lot about BuzzFeed, all that abstract stuff sounds great. But a lot of people do think that this, this venture is a bit like your campaign and that it’s a lot of money, a lot of attention, but ultimately there’s no way for you to get the votes. It’s Jonah Peretti votes 64 percent of the stock. How’s that going to work?

Vivek: You know, I think that this is, there’s, there’s so many, um, you could say circular references that I’ve had, even in the 48 hours since my stake was initially reported and since my letter went into the board, the media’s reporting of it, that actually almost proved my thesis for how broken and in some cases idiotic, like downright low IQ the media really is in situations like this.

Ben: Wow, thank you.

Vivek: Well, I, I, you know, you can get it out in the paper.

Ben: I think that was a pretty straightforward question, Vivek. This is a, this is a company with two classes of stock.

Vivek: I’ll give you a straightforward answer, right? And, and I think that this is, what I, what I mean by this is, I was a preamble to an obvious point that I’m just disappointed that people in the media can’t take notice of because there’s a gap in a business understanding.

So ordinarily, if you have super voting shares, yes, absolutely. You’re the person who decides the governance of the company. There’s a curious fact about this company that the entire reporting of that line of thinking completely missed, which is, I would add to a list of journalistic failures that grows every day.

This is a company that has more debt than cash. That debt comes due this December. So anybody who thinks that Jonah Peretti is the person in control of this business because some piece of paper says he has voting rights over the shares is delusional. To borrow a word from the subtitle of your own book describing the same industry, Ben, is delusion.

I laid out my current views in the letter, and hopefully you can share that with your audiences because I do think, you know it’s, you know, it’s like six pages or so, but it’s not exactly the way that CNN characterized the letter. It’s, that’s a funny point we can come back to.

Nayeema: I think it’s seven pages, but, and we did read the letter.

Vivek: Seven pages, good. Good. I like the fact check. That’s great.

Nayeema: We did read the letter, and you kind of outline a three-pronged strategy. So you want to cut costs, you want to pivot to audio and video, and you want to bring a diversity of thought into the, uh, the BuzzFeed equation. You mentioned publishers, content creators like Tucker Carlson, Candace Owen, you know... perhaps Aaron Rodgers. But I want to ask you Vivek because there’s this wave of conservative media...

Vivek: Can I just pause right there? Because that was what you just described was exactly consistent with the rest of the media’s reporting on this, which the headline said to bring Candace Owens and Tucker Carlson. And you said you quoted my letter. I’m going to ask you to quote it correctly. I did not say Candace Owens, Tucker Carlson, Aaron Rodgers.

I said, what you need is to have the courage to engage with the full cultural and political spectrum, from Candace Owens to Destiny, from Tucker Carlson to Bill Maher, from Aaron Rodgers to Charles Barkley. And so it’s interesting that you just did the exact same thing that nearly every other reporter did in characterizing Trump.

Ben: Can I, can I actually, let me actually try to engage that, because I think that’s an interesting point. But I think the reason, the reason that that’s the headline is because if I said “I want Fox News to engage with Vivek,” that’s not news and that’s extremely boring because it’s obvious. And if I say “I want Fox News to engage with, um, and to give Hunter Biden a show,” that’s news cause that’s pretty surprising. And news is often about things that are surprising rather than things that are obvious.

Vivek: I think the thing that’s actually really interesting is the idea of forget whether you’re platforming one individual or another, the whole thesis of that section of the letter, and what I... remain in my view as a good opportunity for BuzzFeed to pursue, is to be bold by saying that “we will engage with ideas across the cultural and political and lifestyle spectrum in a way that no major media business is doing today.”

Nayeema: You said that you got interested in media about a year and a half ago, but as I understand it, you’ve kind of been here before. I don’t, I don’t think this has been previously reported, but you had a call, I think, in late 2020 with, uh, Peter Thiel, Elon Musk, and others about rolling up a big internet company that would have included Parler and been an alternative to AWS, I believe. And you would have been CEO.

Vivek: Yeah, I think I’ve played around with a lot of concepts. One of those led to the birth of Strive, which is the financial services ecosystem. But you’re right, I briefly was intrigued by media. I decided to go the direction of financial services as my next stop. And so, my own view is when you think about driving change through the private sector, there’s two sets of rails that really matter: communications and financial services. And I, I worry, also for our culture, that those are two of the rails that often lend themselves, forget who the government is in charge, but lend themselves to problematic government capture. Which is why you need robust, competitive, well run, private alternatives that prevent single viewpoint domination in either of those sets of rails.

So I went in the direction of financial services, started a business called Strive to compete against BlackRock, and then ran for president. After the presidential campaign, though, I interfaced so much with the media that it kind of pulled me really back in to say, Hey, You know what? If I was solely focused on, you know, personally maximizing the size of my bank account, I’d probably pick other industries.

But within media, is there an opportunity to really drive change and still maximize value relative to the price at which a business like BuzzFeed is trading and show that something can be run successfully with an alternative vision? Yes, that’s kind of what pulled me back in.

Nayeema: Vivek, you keep coming back to this idea of diversity and you’re mentioning Bill Maher and Destiny, which were very much in your letter, but would you be open to more liberal, more progressive voices coming on the platform as well as you’re talking about diversifying it?

Vivek: Of course.

Nayeema: So you’re, but you didn’t mention any of those people in the, in your letter that are kind of, let’s say, extreme left.

Vivek: I consider destiny maybe in that, in that category.

Ben: Should we get Mehdi Hassan on there?

Nayeema: Yeah, would you have Mehdi on there?

Vivek: Sure!

Nayeema: Zeteo?

Vivek: He’s a smart guy. Yeah, right. I think he’s a smart guy.

Nayeema: Yeah,

Vivek: Absolutely. You know, I, I think that we, we, we, we would, we had bo we would pick at certain bones where we disagree with each other, but the, the, the screen would be quality. ‘cause I think quality matters, right? You have bad quality on the right and you got bad quality on left screen for actual quality. But above that filter for quality, own the brand of saying that. We’re actually fostering as much diverse ideational exchange as we possibly can have.

Nayeema: But there’s also the basis of fact, right? You were on a presidential stage. You were saying that January 6th, quote, now does look like it was an inside job, something that has, you know, No basis in fact, how would you

Vivek: We can we can we can go on the substance of that if you’re interested I don’t think...

Nayeema: But it is a job of journalists to fact check things like that. So where do you as someone who’s been in the political machine? Somebody who has a now well articulated public point of view out there. How is that point of view going to come into the operations of this business? You either need to be the person saying the false things, the things the public wants to hear, or you need to be the person checking those things, catching those things, right?

Vivek: Let me just say, like, there’s something that this is just personally getting to know me, right? So this idiosyncratic and not, but it’s fun anyway to say, like, whenever somebody, um, And this happened a lot in my life. It’s probably happened to a lot of people, every person is watching this, too, right? And this is outside of politics, but maybe in the realm of, like, career advice, unsolicited as it is, is anytime somebody tells you shut up, sit down, stay in your lane, I naturally recoil at that.

I think some of the greatest things that have happened in American history and some of the greatest

Ben: But this is such an abstract way to respond to a question about having said...

Vivek: Come from people who are crossing different boundaries. And so, no, no, no, it’s not an abstract way. She’s saying, you know, you’re, you picked a lane. For a year I was a presidential candidate and I ran openly as an entrepreneur. I said, you know, you, you describe it as part of the political machine for anybody in the Republican Party who understands the way I ran, the idea of calling me in any way...

Ben: You visibly felt the temptation that is unavoidable at every level of politics to tell people what they want to hear when they want to hear it.

Vivek: That’s I disagree with you, Ben. I think, I think that. If you want to adjudicate my campaign, we can have the, um, we can have that debate, but I don’t think that’s that I’m happy to go that way. I don’t think...

Ben: You know, we’ll have it when you when you’re my boss at new anti-woke BuzzFeed.

Nayeema: I am curious...

Ben: I hope this job interview went well.

Nayeema: I’m curious. Would you bring Ben Ben back to run? Are you going to re-launch...

Vivek: Here’s what I would say. I’m not, I’m not planning or volunteering to be a CEO of anything, but let’s just play this out. Let’s say this was that kind of conversation. This is the kind of conversation I want to be having within a media company.

Nayeema: But these conversations happen. I think that’s the thing, Vivek, these kinds of conversations happen at media companies.

Vivek: I don’t, I don’t think that that’s possible, Nayeema, in a context in which 99.5 percent of your employees’ political contributions are going in a direction that 50 percent of your country disagrees with.

And I think it is no accident that the first paper, the first publication to break the Steele dossier, that would have not happened if it was 99.5 percent or 70 percent or even 50 percent in the other direction. I think there would be inherent checks and balances in creating a culture of debate.

Ben: I mean, I do think you’ll have hopefully interesting conversations with Jonah Peretti about this because it’s, I think the ideology of journalists is often, you know, demented in various ways, but rarely on a left right spectrum. My own, in fact, is like in my own self criticism here is a sort of like radicalism about publishing the thing sometimes, you know, in any direction. But I do think that, well, I mean, I think I look forward to your digging in a little on this more because I think people who come out of politics often kind of project political motives the way journalists often project political motives onto entrepreneurs. I look forward to the, uh, the education of Vivek Ramaswamy on the inside of media businesses.

[MUSIC]

Nayeema: What you just heard was just a snippet of the conversation that Ben and I had with Vivek Ramaswamy because we actually ended up going very long, uh, 30-plus minutes.

Ben: He is a media critic, but also very generous with his time with the working press. And we’ll have a, we’ll have a full transcript with the Semafor Media newsletter on Sunday.

Nayeema: We will. Uh, in the meantime, what did you make of what he said? Because generous with his time, What do you think on the specifics?

Ben: You know, it’s funny. I, everything he said that was totally abstract, made total sense and could, some of the more concrete points I...

Nayeema: I mean, look, this is what we, we know now. He said that he’d invite in greater diversity than originally articulated in that letter. Yeah. So he’s open to Mehdi Hassan. We, you know, Zeteo News is going to be on BuzzFeed, perhaps in a Vivek Ramaswamy world.

Ben: He has a sort of idea about a kind of wide left-right spectrum. I think his strongest and strongest, most strongly-held views are really about ideology politics And I think doesn’t realize that to some degree like this particular model of trying to get a spectrum of creators on your platform, and... something, something, something profits is another model that is on fire all across the industry right now, hemorrhaging money in the way the BuzzFeed was at its worst.

Nayeema: If I were Vivek Ramaswamy, I would kind of double down on my podcast and try to be the biggest creator I could be. Like why create a publisher, not a platform, but a publisher for the Tucker Carlson’s of the world versus becoming a Tucker Carlson?

Ben: And that is. that’s the problem with the businesses in that situation, it’s Vivek is Vivek who makes all the money, not Vivek as the owner of the podcast, begging Vivek to come on his his platform and do so.

Nayeema: Mm-Hmm.

Ben: So, yeah, I, yeah. And I guess the other thing about that conversation, which I often find talking to really smart people about media is that. Some things that seem really obvious, like some employees of BuzzFeed, not journalists, by the way, because I don’t know the journalists give contributions, but apparently he’s counted up donations, which went to Democrats, and he draws a line, which is not unreasonable to, well, that’s why BuzzFeed specifically was the first to publish, with lots of caveats, the unverified Steele dossier. I mean, as the person who made that decision, that doesn’t happen...

Nayeema: Was it because of your political donations?

Ben: No, I mean, I have my own, like, and I wrote about this a lot, like thoughts about which I’ve revised a bit about, like, when should you publish the thing that everyone is talking about that the government is talking about, but also contains unverified allegations?

Like, that’s a complicated question on which I, at the time, had pretty radical views, but not on the left-right spectrum. It was, and I think it’s easy to come from politics and project that kind of political decision making into media, when often our good decisions and our terrible mistakes just are motivated differently.

Nayeema: Yeah, are organizational decisions and not vast conspiracies, as it were.

Ben: Yeah.

Nayeema: Except the conspiracy to make money.

Ben: Again, going terribly.

Nayeema: Going terribly. But maybe Vivek Ramaswamy can figure that out, given his business background.

Ben: That is a kind of conspiracy. Money and attention are things he’s been good at harvesting.

Nayeema: But speaking of business, Ben, we got to get some business here, which is that this podcast does not pay for itself. This is the other secret of media, which is that it is paid for by advertisers, subscribers or advertisers. And we often don’t like to discuss the advertising of it all. And in this show, though, we are going to discuss it.

And are you going to... are you going to now, like, tell us about Saatva mattresses or the green juice you really love?

Ben: You know, one of the real triumphs of this show, from my perspective, is that I do not have to pretend to like green juice. It turns out that it is possible to make podcasts without pretending to like green juice. I know this is

Nayeema: I actually like green juice.

Ben: You can do that on your wellness show, but this is a podcast about media. And you can’t talk about media without talking about what funds a lot of it, which is advertising. So it’s really fitting that our sponsor for this show is itself all about advertising.

Think with Google is this platform that’s a very useful resource for great marketers. Some of the smartest people in the industry are regular contributors. Included among them is Josh Spanier, a guy I’ve known for a long time. He’s a go-to for me on, you know, marketing-related questions of all sorts. And he, Josh has a huge job, he runs Google’s marketing campaigns globally, just launched his own podcast, Modern Marketers, which you can check out after this episode. And starting this week and every week, I’ll catch up with Josh, about something curious I’ve noticed in the field of marketing, get his expert take on what’s really going on.

Nayeema: What did you and Josh talk about this week?

Ben: This week, Josh breaks down how brands can square Gen Z’s obsession with authentic marketing and with authenticity with the rise of AI.

Nayeema: OK, let’s hear you and Josh in conversation and when we’re back, we’ll have Max Tani join us for blind spots, stories you’re missing in your media diet.

[MUSIC]

Ben: You said recently on Think with Google that authenticity is the core of modern marketing, and that Gen Z consumers are obsessed with authenticity and how to, how do brands square that, in particular, with the rise of AI?

Josh Spanier: So authenticity clearly incredibly important. It means different things in different contexts. The most important thing is that you show up as a brand as a marketer and true to yourself.

That means you kind of need to know who you are and what you’re trying to do and what your strategy is and what your selling proposition is. And then probably not overdress for it, right? The old joke used to be about you don’t want to be the, you know, the cool uncle who turns up with a leather jacket to the to Christmas or whatever. The authenticity is if you actually represent your products in a relevant, resonant, and truthful way, people will pick up on that.

Most people don’t, don’t really want to engage with brands per se, right? I mean, there are some magnetic brands out there. I’ll put Google as one of them. Nike or, or Under Armour in the sports category. People really want to lean into, into that because of the, the cachet those brands have. But for most marketers, they’re not looking for that level of sort of sheen and, and, and, and shine.

They just want people to review their products, like them, and use them. That means we should be authentic about how we talk about them and, and pitch them. Not over claim, over promise, and, and be true to what the audience is actually really looking for.

Ben: Does AI play one way or the other into these questions about authenticity?

Josh: I’m not sure that it does, if I’m honest with you, Ben. AI is a means to an end. And we’re in this period of time where just doing something with AI, everyone wants to talk about it. But if you imagine two or three or four years from now, AI is going to be so built into the system that you’re not going to necessarily notice it.

If you’re using AI to make something that’s fake and not telling people, I think that could be a problem because then you’re not actually being, um, authentic. So I think as an industry, we’re still working through how we show up, certainly using generative AI and what that all means, but AI is incredibly important.

And yet in some ways, almost a distraction in that you’ve got to be focused on what you’re building, what you’re producing, what you’re making. And AI is the tool to do that in part, as much as many other elements of the marketing process.

[MUSIC]

Nayeema: All right. Now that you’re speaking about Gen Z, we’re back. We have our own resident Gen Z, Max Tani, who’s actually not actually Gen Z.

Ben: That is the first real fake news of the show.

Max Tani: I’m not, just to be clear, I’m not Gen Z, but I am, uh, our, our ambassador to Gen Z. I do have a theory: I live in New York, which I think ages you back five years, which I think technically puts me at the, uh, would put me on the cusp of Gen Z. I would be solidly Gen Z.

Ben: You were born too soon.

Nayeema: If I leave and come back, can I become Gen Z too?

Max: Yeah, maybe. I don’t know. I definitely am not, though, because we, here in our office, we’re right above a, like, a co-working space for Gen Z people, and you can tell which one people in the office are.

Nayeema: Oh, yeah. Alli was, our producer Alli was telling us that she heard them partying on her way out last night.

Ben: Yeah, and just to be clear, Max is our media editor and one of the great media journalists of his generation, which is not Gen Z. Yes, this is true, Max. We won’t say what it is.

Nayeema: That is true.

Ben: It’s a little embarrassing.

Nayeema: What that he’s a millennial?

Ben: Yeah.

Nayeema: Oh, gosh.

Max: Solidly millennial.

Nayeema: It’s not embarrassing at all. Okay.

Max: How’s it been going so far? How’s the pod?

Nayeema: What do you think? Uh, well, Ben applied for a job at BuzzFeed with Vivek. With Vivek. So that kind of gave him a cold shoulder. So it’s going great. It’s going great. So there might be a spot for you here. Your promotions just keep on coming, Max.

Max: Maybe. Yeah. Exactly. By law of attrition, maybe I’ll run Semafor. There’ll be a lot of big changes around here. Oh. Haha.

Nayeema: Starting with more Gen Z parties with the mixers with the downstairs crowd. Um, but tell us Blind Spots.

Max: Yeah. So on the show, we’re, we’re going to do this every week, which is a segment where we talk about, you know, in the era of fragmentation where, um, you know, everybody has their own individualized kind of media ecosystem.

We want to do some fun stories that basically, um, pierce the, uh, the ideological, uh, bubbles and kind of get outside.

Nayeema: And what are our Blind Spots this week, Max?

Max: This week for, for Blind Spots. On the left, the scolds in the liberal media for years have been saying that we shouldn’t look at our screens hours before bedtime because it disrupts sleep.

I’m sure you’ve heard this maybe from a spouse, from a partner. Uh, “put your phone down,” you know, “read a book,” do something like that. But, a new study reported on in the Wall Street Journal says that actually, screen time may not be bad for sleep after all, and the link between use of technology and sleep is actually much more nuanced than we thought.

So, you know, you guys, I’ve deduced, both spend a little bit of time looking at screens sometimes, on occasion. Are you looking at your phone right before you go to sleep?

Nayeema: I try to sleep with my phone outside of my bedroom.

Ben: This is for your wellness podcast I have my phone right by my bed and I sleep like a baby, so this totally confirms my prejudices.

Max: Okay, but so, so is it a, is it a, you put the phone down and then you go immediately to sleep or how, how often or Nayeema, how often?

Nayeema: I have another phone. I have a bedroom phone.

Ben: Oh no.

Nayeema: Which is, this is like sad. I do. I have a phone that’s just for alarm clock. It has like nothing, it doesn’t have a sim in it. It’s just for the eighteen alarm clocks I need to like get up.

Ben: But it still has to be a phone...

Nayeema: Yeah, because it’s like a...

Max: It can’t be an actual...

Nayeema: how, I don’t, I actually ha, I have bought one of those clunky little alarm clocks from Amazon, but I do not use it, you know, like the $10 bright blue.

Ben: But this is actually a total media story because people love that, a certain genre of often very thinly-sourced study that confirms their prejudice. I mean, there is this whole moral panic right now about social media and phones.

Nayeema: Mm-hmm.

Ben: That is based on kind of thin correlations. But one of the best-selling books in America right now, Jonathan Gates’ The Anxious Generation.

And there’s a lot in there that I agree with. There’s a lot that I intuitively agree with. And whenever you intuitively agree with something, it’s usually wrong.

Nayeema: But is this a liberal media sensation that this idea or are conservatives worldwide sleeping with their phones?

Max: Yeah, this is total nanny state liberal “oh, put your phone down, read a book. Have a conversation....” You don’t hear about this on Fox News. They’re not talking about put your phone away and have some holistic, uh, sleep, uh, you know, approach methods. For me, it also, but, but I agree with Ben. The reason why I selected this is it is confirmational for me. I am someone who famously, uh, looks at my phone until exactly before I need to go to sleep and I, I actually think

Nayeema: Is this the kind of editor you are where you’re going to be bringing stories that validate your anecdote?

Ben: Yeah, Max breaks, Max breaks a lot of news late at night.

Max: I do like I am. I am. I am a night owl. Uh, this, uh, you know, the, the, uh, the early morning call time today was, uh, was a little difficult for me. The really, truly sad thing for me is it’s not my phone that’s keeping me up. It’s really like, once I put away my phone, it’s my thoughts, uh, really keeping me up at night.

Ben: Yeah, the phone is a great way to solve that.

Max: The phone is great. Yeah, exactly. If I’m thinking about something on my phone, it’s fine.

Nayeema: Exactly. It’s a great numbing tool. So that’s what the left isn’t seeing. The left side of the media isn’t seeing these days. What is the right not seeing?

Max: Well, certainly, uh, conservative media is not talking about, uh, the new consumer confidence, uh, index, uh, from April.

And this is according to CNN, um, that, uh, Americans attitudes towards the economy actually improved this month for the first time since January, primarily thanks to better perceptions about the job market. Um, and it kind of got me thinking, uh, is this maybe the best news for, you know, Biden and, and Democrats in, in months?

I certainly, uh, looked on Fox News, did not see anything regarding the, uh, strong consumer confidence. I don’t know, what do you guys think? Do you think that this is, this is good news?

Nayeema: We hear from the Biden administration, and in fact, a lot of data suggests that the economy is better than people’s perception of the economy is, and yet, I don’t I think that the perception does matter here in a big way.

And certainly one of the pieces that I was most struck by this week was this piece in The Cut around “the millennial midlife crisis,” right?

Max: You snuck it in!

Nayeema: I snuck it in. I snuck it in. I’ve been desperate to talk about “the millennial midlife crisis.” But I, but I, but I do think...

Ben: This is the most millennial...

Max: This was one of those pieces that we rejected.

Nayeema: I will say it is, it is fascinating. And I think a theme that we should explore on a future episode of this show is the media’s role in the kind of framing of the perception of the economy, how actually the coverage impacts what you think the economy is like, I’m curious to see this index increase, which I did not know about until Max, you, um, you’ve told us about it. If it makes me feel better about the economy going forward.

Ben: Right. This is actually a survey of consumer perceptions.

Nayeema: Yes.

Ben: Themselves driven in part by partisanship, in part by us in the media.

Nayeema: Mm-hmm.

Ben: I mean it’s a, there’s this strange circularity to it and you wanna believe and hope that ultimately elections can be decided on more on people’s experiences of their own lives than what they see.

Then that you know...

Nayeema: When they perceive that they should see...

Ben: When they think, and there, you know, and there always is that gap. But yeah. I wonder as sort of millennials start to take over the media, if it’s just gonna be complaining 100% of the time about everything.

Nayeema: I don’t know if it’s gonna be complaining all the time. It’s definitely gonna be about us all the time.

Max: That is certainly true. I have many complaints that I could bring to the show in future episodes. One of the things that’s most interesting that this got me really thinking about is, you know, you hear a lot from both the Biden campaign and Democrats.

Actually, the economy is doing really well right now. And it’s like, that’s like, that is literally, factually true. It’s not an amazing message to put out there that, oh, no, no, no, that thing that you’re feeling, the fact that groceries are prices are higher and housing costs, which are the two things that are actually, um, you know, consumers are still not, not feeling great about, uh, you know, those are, those things actually don’t matter because, you know, most people have jobs,

Ben: Your wages went up, your mortgage has been deflated a bit. It’s yeah... unemployment... unemployment is, It’s incredibly low. But of course, that’s only something that affects you if you’re looking for a job, which is not most people most of the time. And it is, yeah, it’s a very, it’s a very sort of strange paradoxical situation. It is also always a dilemma in the White House.

I remember talking to Austan Goolsbee, Obama’s advisor back in 2010, in some White House elevator and he wanted to come out and say, “Well, there’s a recovery, things are going great!” And other voices were in the White House were sort of saying, “No, people are going to feel that you lack empathy if you say that.”

So it is an eternal debate. I mean, you know, George H. W. Bush lost an election with Bill Clinton telling everybody how terrible the economy was in 1992, when in retrospect at the beginning of one of the great recoveries in American history. So it’s a, it’s a, it’s a perpetual problem.

Nayeema: That was a Gen X history lesson for us millennials.

Max: I certainly didn’t know it. I was born in the 1990s.

Nayeema: I uh, feel like there were many blind spots.

Ben: My memory goes back to the 1990s.

Nayeema: Oh wow. That’s amazing.

Ben: We’re going to be revisiting that decade over and over here on Mixed Signals.

Nayeema: Mixed Signals, here to crush your millennial dreams. All right. Thank you so much, Max, for Blind Spots. Is there anything else that we’re missing?

Max: I don’t know. I think that actually between the three of us, do we miss that much? I feel like there’s a

Ben: No, that’s why we stay up on our phones all night is so we miss nothing.

Nayeema: Not me. I don’t stay up on my phone. I stay up on my other phone.

Max: That is truly shocking.

Nayeema: I know.

Max: It’s true.

Nayeema: Thanks for listening to Mixed Signals from Semafor Media. Our show is produced by Max Tani, Allison Rogers, Alan Haburchak, and Andrea López-Cruzado. With special thanks to Britta Galanis, Chad Lewis, Rachel Oppenheim, Anna Pizzino, Garett Wiley, and Jules Zirn. Our engineer is Rick Kwan, our theme music is by Billy Libby, and our public editor is the Millennials in Midlife Crisis. All of them. They are public editing this podcast right now.

Ben: I’m afraid.

Nayeema: Yeah, don’t worry. Vivek Ramaswamy is going to buy an 8.3 percent stake in them. Actually, he might be a millennial in the midlife crisis. If you like Mixed Signals, please follow us wherever you get your podcasts. And if you really like us, feel free to give us a starry review.

Ben: And if you’re watching us on YouTube, please give us a like and subscribe to Semafor’s YouTube channel.

Max: And don’t forget to subscribe also to Semafor’s Media newsletter.

Nayeema: What was that voice?

Max: It’s just, I’m just doing different. We’re just, I dropped into it a little bit.

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