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Updated Jun 14, 2024, 3:37am EDT
media

Mixed Signals: Hunter Biden conspiracies, coverage of Gaza and Sudan & got raw milk?

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Episode three!

In the wake of Hunter Biden’s conviction, Ben and Nayeema revisit the media’s history of covering the President’s son and the “October surprise” of his infamous laptop. Then they turn to the challenge of covering foreign wars, including Gaza, and talk with Linda Thomas-Greenfield, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, about her critique that the media is ignoring the crisis in Sudan.

Max joins to share a couple blindspots: The politicized rise of drinking raw milk, and the state of Trump’s private jet.

Mixed Signals from Semafor Media is presented by Think with Google

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Full episode transcript

Nayeema Raza: Wouldn’t you rather a journalist be taking plates from the president’s plane as opposed to being in the pocket of the president?

Ben Smith: It’s interesting about to think whether stealing or taking a bribe, is preferable. It’s for another episode.

Nayeema: I would say the ethics are slightly better for stealing, but don’t do that. Don’t do either.

Ben: We do not do that. I’m Ben Smith.

Nayeema: I’m Nayeema Raza.

Ben: This is Mixed Signals, from Semafor Media.

Nayeema: Today, we’re going to talk about what’s going on with Hunter Biden and his now infamous laptop. We’ll peel back the tangled web of conspiracy theory, and actual crimes that surround the president’s son, and ask how the media screwed this one up. We’re also going to talk about media coverage of Gaza, something that could merit its own episode, or its own podcast series.

But here, we’re going to focus on a conversation with a member of Joe Biden’s cabinet, who has a bone to pick with foreign coverage writ large, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield. And finally, we’ll end on Blind Spots, the stories you’re not seeing in your media bubble, with Max Tani.

[MUSIC]

Nayeema: Hi, Ben.

Ben: Hi, Nayeema.

Nayeema: It’s so strange not to do this in a room with you today.

Ben: Yeah, I’m down here in Washington, hiring people.

Nayeema: Oh.

Ben: And you’re in New York?

Nayeema: I’m in New York. It’s Tribeca, and New York is on fire right now, by the way.

Ben: In a good way?

Nayeema: Yeah, it feels-

Ben: Have you gotten us interviews with any of your fancy Hollywood friends lately?

Nayeema: No, I’ve never had any fancy friends, but I have been just enjoying New York right now. It’s a perfect Spring, and next time we do this, we’re going to be together in Cannes.

Ben: Very exciting.

Nayeema: The South of France, very exciting.

Ben: Working hard. It’s not movie Cannes, it’s money Cannes-

Nayeema:I know-

Ben: ... it is the Festival.

Nayeema: ... this is a sad Cannes. That’s why I’m getting my Tribeca fix in now.

Ben: You’re such a snob. The advertising industry pays the bills, very important, I know we disagree on this.

Nayeema: We don’t disagree that it pays the bills. We just disagree on what’s the better Cannes to go to.

Ben: You’re actually not allowed to complain about going to the South of France.

Nayeema: That’s true. Well, yes. I mean you’re just excited-

Ben: You are complaining, but let me just…

Nayeema: I am complaining about it, you’re just excited because you don’t have to take Amtrak there. That’s what you’re excited about. Actually say that this whole episode, I mean Hunter Biden was once, wasn’t he on the board of Amtrak at some point? Is that why we picked this story, Ben?

Ben: That is why we’re targeting him. My hidden hand is everywhere on this one.

Nayeema: Well, with no further ado, let’s get into our first story. This is a bizarre presidential election. Just weeks ago we were talking about Donald Trump’s conviction in a Manhattan courthouse, and now we’re talking about President Joe Biden’s son, Hunter Biden’s conviction. On felony federal gun charges. And these actual crimes have prompted the latest conspiracy theory about Hunter Biden. Here’s how Fox’s favorite funny man, Greg Gutfeld, put it on the show, The Five.

Greg Gutfeld: My sense is that Hunter’s going to jail, so Joe doesn’t have to. And when he comes out, he’ll be rewarded for his loyalty like a made man in a Biden crime family.

Nayeema: Made man in a Biden crime family? This is the latest in a series of conspiracy theories that starts to take hold in July of 2019. It was, you’ll recall the subject of Trump’s perfect phone call with Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelensky. Where Trump seemed to be linking resumption of aid, to an investigation into Biden family activities, at the time. Hunter Biden had in the mid-two 2010s, been a consultant and pretty well-paid, $50,000 a month consultant to Burisma-

Ben: That’s a good deal.

Nayeema: ... Ukrainian natural gas company. But it really came to a head, these conspiracies, in the weeks ahead of the 2020 election, in October of 2020, when the New York Post ran a story about Hunter Biden’s laptop. And there’s a number of theories and conspiracy theories-

Ben: Real conspiracies.

Nayeema: ... all swirled around. In what was an October surprise. And Ben, explain what an October surprise is?

Ben: Well, we have elections here in the U.S. in November. And October is the time, particularly when you’re losing, to drop some crazy bombshell of a story, which may or may not be true and you can figure that out in December. Or which may be true, but not as big a deal as you claim. But it’s essentially an attempt to use the media to change the trajectory of the campaign.

Nayeema: Yeah, there’s bombshells, and sometimes it’s really relevant, and sometimes it’s an attempt to play the media.

Ben: And sometimes it’s a true conspiracy, and sometimes it’s a fake conspiracy, and sometimes it often, there’s some of both.

Nayeema: Yes. And in this case it seems like there are some of both. And so actually let’s run through the conspiracy theories as they exist around Hunter Biden. Because it gets very convoluted very fast, but here are a few of them. First a baseless theory that then Vice President Joe Biden’s Ukraine policy, which was a kind of anti-corruption policy, was just a front for his son to profiteer. This is something that is not true, does not seem to be true despite much congressional investigation.

There’s then a theory that Hunter Biden was trading on his access, which does seem to be true. Because it’s questionable, otherwise why he would be on the board of a Ukrainian natural gas company, I would say. And then there’s a theory put forward by dozens of former U.S. officials around the time of that October surprise. Saying that the laptop had all the signs of being a Russian disinformation campaign, a plant. And this has not been borne out, this is false.

Ben: Yeah.

Nayeema: And then there’s some media specific theories that we’re going to talk about. There’s three of them actually. There’s a theory that social media companies like Twitter and Facebook, were running interference for Joe Biden. There’s a theory that mainstream media was trying to cover for Joe Biden. And there’s a theory that Murdoch Media was in cahoots with then President Donald Trump, and his affiliates. And tried to tank Joe Biden just ahead of the 2020 elections.

Ben: And guess what? Actually, it’s more complicated, don’t worry. And ultimately this is going to be a story where nobody looks good, I think. This isn’t something, as you said at the top, the media screwed this up. But also as is often true, a lot of the theories about why and how, aren’t true either. And to understand what happened in October of 2020, you have to go back to two other conspiracy theories from the previous election. One a real conspiracy, and one a fake conspiracy.

And the real one is, that the Russian government seems to have hacked the DNC, and then leaked via WikiLeaks, a drip-drip of embarrassing, but real, emails. Sent by Democrats, around Hillary Clinton, to the media, to interfere with the 2016 election. As a result of that real intelligence operation, the media and social platforms were really, really on guard for the possibility that the Russian intelligence would do this again. Start dropping information real, fake into the media ecosystem. But everybody’s thinking about that, everybody’s on guard, when this laptop appears in the weirdest way possible.

Then the other overhang people sometimes call Russiagate, which was a basically false set of claims about Donald Trump, being an explicit agent of the Russian government. Some of which were contained in the Steele dossier, a whole other story here. But which Republicans not wrongly, are infuriated about, and see as a conspiracy against Donald Trump.

But this story begins, this story, as all good stories do... In a humble Wilmington Delaware tech repair shop, where Hunter Biden needs to get his silver Apple MacBook Pro fixed. And so he walks into this random place, and leaves it with a legally blind repairman with four first names, John Paul Mac Isaac. And then never bothers picking it up.

Nayeema: And then somehow it makes its way to Rudy Giuliani. Rudy Giuliani then hands over certain information from the laptop to the New York Post. Reporters at the New York Post, evaluate the contents, and then they run the headline in October, of 2020. Smoking gun email reveals how Hunter Biden introduced Ukrainian businessman to VP dad.

Ben: And that was one of the many emails, there were other New York Post stories about the drug use. There were Post stories, there’s actually a very kind of moving Post story about his father’s pain, and his addiction.

Nayeema: There was sex tape, I think, at some point?

Ben: There were sex tapes, but the story that you highlight, that’s the big question that comes out of the whole story. Which is, is this something we’re used to in Washington, just some presidential family members getting rich on the side? Or is this corruption in the White House? And which of those two things it is, is pretty important.

Nayeema: So actually, I want to take a minute here. Because this story was supposed to run, it seemed, in the Journal. And this was a subject of your reporting, Ben, in October of 2020?

Ben: Yeah, there were competing efforts to get this into public and basically Steve Bannon is running a very careful effort to get some version of this into a trusted establishment source, the Wall Street Journal. From which it will become an explosive, undeniable October surprise.

Rudy Giuliani, who just kind of plays by his own rules, infuriates Bannon. And this real, I don’t know if it’s a conspiracy, but real organized effort to get the story into the Journal. By just barging into the conversation, giving it to the Post, which then overwrites it a bit, basically.

Makes a mixture of claims that are true, that are not true. A lot of the rest of the media doesn’t want to touch it, feels like it’s kind of contaminated by the process. Even though it’s these revelatory emails about the president’s son and then-

Nayeema: Well, and the letter from intelligence officials doesn’t help that, right? The specter of this being a Russian hack, doesn’t help that at the time?

Ben: Absolutely. And the social platforms in particular, Twitter and Facebook? Have been warned by the FBI among other things, that there might be some crazy Russian disinformation coming, and this story is so crazy. That I think in good faith, I think, and Mark Zuckerberg has talked about this and just said, “We screwed this up, but we’d been warned a million times by the FBI, to look out for weird stuff like this.” And so they refuse to link to it. The only effect by the way, of them refusing to link to it, is that even more people are talking about it.

Nayeema: And there have been congressional investigations into, and hearings about this, as recently as I think early 2023, when it was claimed that there was this widespread conspiracy between executives. That say Twitter and the government, or Joe Biden campaign, to suppress this information. When in fact, Twitter quickly apologized within 24 hours of suppressing the New York Post links, and made those decisions independently. There’s no evidence that they were in cahoots, that there is evidence that they overreached in their own policy.

Ben: And I think it’s reasonable for conservatives to ask why everybody was being so careful about Joe Biden, in a moment when the wildest allegations against Donald Trump were getting a hearing.

Nayeema: The Wall Street Journal loses its scoop, but also seems to get frustrated by Donald Trump’s suggestion that the Journal is going to run this story. And feeling that they’re being played by the then president, so they put together a much more vanilla story about this laptop.

Which probably infuriates Steve Bannon, and it also harks back to this 2018 quote, that Steve Bannon gave to Michael Lewis. The Democrats don’t matter, and then quote, “The real opposition is the media, and the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with shit.” So was this an attempt to flood the zone with shit?

Ben: And it’s a story that’s just occurring to me now, even just thinking about it, in which everyone is so concerned about the way they’re being used. And the possibility that we could be being used, and the social platforms are afraid the Russians are using them. And then Donald Trump goes out and says, “You got a big story coming,” and the Journal says, “Wait a second, we’re not here to work for you, and carry your water.”

And so they don’t like being used, and it’s that way in which you can, as a journalist, and people are constantly trying to use you. And it’s almost like you just have to block that all out and say, “Okay, wait, but what’s the story?” Forget what people’s motives are, and I do think this was a moment. It often happened in politics, information is the core medium, and we all were so tangled up in that. I don’t think anybody comes out looking particularly good, honestly. Certainly not Hunter Biden.

Nayeema: Here’s my big question in all of this, which is... Why at no point in 2013, when Hunter Biden took the role on a Chinese investment forums board, or in 2014 when he started working with Burisma and his father was vice president... Why at no point between 2013 and 2016, did this story get run? Because one, I want to say, yes, as you mentioned, we are used to seeing people in Washington and people proximate to people in Washington, trading on access.

I started my career as a foreign consultant, so I remember being out in places like Libya and Vietnam, and Indonesia. And running into former military officials, UK officials, former campaign managers, in these countries, that were working for all kinds of interests. And yet this was the sitting vice president’s son? I mean, you ran a newsroom at the time, you were running BuzzFeed News, did this ever cross your desk between 2013 and 2016?

Ben: Yeah, and there were little stories here and there, but I do think you’re right. You’re just deeply right about this, that there was a... A lot of the specific conspiracy theories, and a lot of the way in which Trump described what he called, the swamp. He made all sorts of allegations in specific, about Hunter that were false. But they reflected this huge blind spot among... I do think the Washington Media, with some exceptions, I think Ken Vogel at the New York Times did some good coverage of this.

But basically that there was taken for granted, that these politicians get really rich when they leave, that they make money working for all sorts of interests, and that their kids are off doing weird stuff. And that Bill Clinton, and Hillary Clinton, and the Clinton Foundation are trading on their relationships. And that’s just sort of how the world works, and there’s no way voters are going to get really upset about this.

And I think that while a lot of the details, and just what we are calling here, conspiracy theories, aren’t true... That is a big structural conspiracy of a certain kind. And the acceptance of it, the fact that it was not a crazy front page story all the time. That the president’s son was cashing in on this unbelievably geopolitically sensitive spot. In retrospect, just a huge mistake.

Nayeema: Yeah. And by the way, just because Donald Trump was calling it out, doesn’t mean that he distanced himself from that practice. I mean-

Ben: I know.

Nayeema: ... look at the positions of his daughter, his son-in-Law, his current daughter-in-Law, who’s running the RNC? That’s a genius of his media strategy, which is like, “This is how the system is rigged, so I’m just using the system, but I didn’t rig the system, those other guys rigged the system.”

Ben: You’re right. And Jared Kushner’s relationship with the Saudis is-

Nayeema: Right.

Ben: ... just orders of magnitude, more than anything anyone has ever done, in terms of presidential families getting rich.

Nayeema: And was covered?

Ben: It is core to Trump’s appeal. He says, “Of course I know how the system is rigged, I helped rigged it, I profited from it, and that’s how I’m going to help you.” And the refusal of the Washington culture, and I think the established media to realize maybe there’s something that we shouldn’t be doing here. Or maybe this really is a scandal, is itself part of the story.

Nayeema: Let’s spin this forward, just to close it out, which is... Now knowing what we know, how should media organizations be covering this? Or be acknowledging the failure to cover it in a timely way? That would’ve probably covered the facts much more, and not allowed the same kind of specter of conspiracy to grow, as it has.

Ben: I mean, I guess I have a piece of advice and a choice. And the advice is that you have to just stop worrying about your source’s motives.

Nayeema: Really?

Ben: And stop thinking so much about who’s using you for what, and focus on, “Is this a story? Is this true?” Because I think you saw people get just so tangled up over that, that they were reporting that black was white, and white was black. And then the other thing is a choice really, for these big social platforms, and it is a hard one, which is... Are you going to try to control the flow of information, try to call balls and strikes, say what’s true and what’s false? And acknowledge that you’re going to get stuff wrong, and you’re going to get stuff wrong in ways that reflect your bias. There is no other alternative. Or, are you just going to let it all through, because you can’t handle that perception? Those are both very unsatisfying outcomes.

Nayeema: Do you have advice for them on that?

Ben: No advice for them. Good luck, Mark Zuckerberg.

Nayeema: Good luck. Well, we’ll keep on watching what happens with these Hunter Biden cases. There’s another one that’s going to be pursued on criminal tax charges, and also the looming charges against Donald Trump. This is going to be an election season that’s mired in court coverage.

I would say one thing by the way? That while Trump’s media strategy around these court cases seems to be, to want to burn down the courts, and talk about the use and manipulation of the justice system against him? As a victim? President Biden’s approach has been to say that he’ll accept whatever outcome there is, when it comes to his son?

Ben: Yeah, and I think, I mean, one thing just to maybe close on, even a lot of conservatives, with the exception of Greg Gutfeld who were paying attention to the Hunter trial, came away saying, “Gosh, this is a really sad story about a guy with massive addiction problems.” And I think you saw less sort of dancing on his grave, than actually anybody, that I would’ve expected.

Nayeema: Right. That doesn’t mean the conspiracies are over, Ben?

Ben: Never.

Nayeema: Let’s take a quick break, and we’ll be back in a minute.

[MUSIC]

Nayeema: Our next story is about media coverage of foreign wars, in particular Gaza. And this is a story we could, as I said before, dedicate an entire season if not an entire episode to. And one I’m sure we’re going to come back to, as there are all kinds of critiques, and conspiracies surrounding the media, as it relates to the coverage of this war. But today we’re going to talk about a very specific argument that’s been leveled.

Ben: That’s the argument that there’s something suspect about why the American media is paying so much attention to Gaza? Maybe something anti-Semitic? Why this is the one people are protesting? Whether American media is too obsessed with Israel, or by the way, on the other hand, too defensive of Israel?

The other conflict people point to in this context sometimes, is Sudan, where a civil war has led to just immense human suffering. There around 10 million displaced people since the most recent civil war began in April of 2023, and reports of over 14,000 dead. Many, many more on the brink of famine.

Nayeema: There are two competing military factions in what is a military kleptocracy, that is just funneling money away from the Sudanese. And that thousands of people are dying, millions of people are hungry, and millions of people are displaced in the crossfires of this war.

And let me just say, I think it is truly important for there to be more coverage of what’s happening in Sudan, what had happened in Ethiopia, what is happening in Congo. I lived in the continent in Africa, for several years of my life, including in Sudan, where I live from ages zero to five, when my dad was at the World Bank there.

Ben: But you were already reporting?

Nayeema: I was already reporting-

Ben: Producing?

Nayeema:... from the front lines.

Ben: Getting sound?

Nayeema: I think it’s extremely important to cover it. But I also think that there’s a kind of what about-ism that’s very common in our media culture, and our commentary culture. Which invites a kind of, two fallacies here. One is that there’s a zero-sum, that you can’t be covering all of these things at the same time. You couldn’t possibly be talking about Gaza, and Sudan, and Congo, et cetera, which we could do. Or that there’s a false equivalency that’s being leveled here?

Sudan is a lot more like what we saw happen in Ethiopia. It’s a civil war. Meanwhile, Israel-Gaza of course, is an international conflict, with a particularly protracted history with key American constituencies on both sides. And perhaps most critically, the U.S. being the longtime peace broker in this region, Israel’s key ally, providing integral military aid to Israel in this war... All of which has I think, drawn a higher level of coverage and accountability, to this war.

Ben: Yeah, I think at some level it’s a little obvious why the U.S. is more focused on Israel. And one person who feels particularly strongly that we should be paying more attention to Sudan, is Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield. She’s the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, a member of President Biden’s cabinet. She’s been at the center of negotiations around the war on Gaza. She’s the person vetoing abstaining from, and most recently voting for, a UN resolution for the return of hostages, and for a ceasefire.

Nayeema: But today she joins us more as a media critic. And this is something we learned when we were at her residence, just a couple of days ago, in honor of World Press Freedom Day. And Ben and I learned that she was not happy with the coverage of Sudan.

Ben: Yeah.

Nayeema: So we’re going to get into it with her about that. I think it’s also interesting what we should also try to ask her about the challenge of authoritative sources in this war? The challenge of information and media coverage in a fog of war, where we are in a situation, where even the White House has had to walk back comments it’s made.

Ben: In the politics, the public opinion, the mass politics are all moving based on unverified tweets. And I always wonder, “What do you do, when you’re a policymaker in that situation?” It’s very hard just to say, “Hey, everybody, wait, we got to figure out who dropped this bomb? Could be a few days, could be a few weeks. Could you just all wait??” That’s not how contemporary politics works.

Nayeema: And it’s a bit, in some ways, like the Hunter Biden thing where people are going to believe what they’re inclined to believe. But also there is a primacy for getting your information out there first. It seeds a certain conversation, and it’s always more compelling to have a bombshell story, than to have a detailed retraction or walk back, right? People are much more likely to pay attention to that bombshell headline in the first place, which is a challenge we’ve seen.

Ben: For sure, and you have a lot of voices both on the Palestinian and the Israeli side, whose strategy is to make a big claim, and then just never apologize, never look back, just move on.

Nayeema: And you think in this war too, you should follow your advice of not paying attention to what people are using you for?

Ben: It’s a war. You should probably assume everybody is lying a lot of the time, and you just have to stay focused on what is true, not on trying to deduce truth or falsity, from who’s saying it.

Nayeema: Well, I mean these are questions we grapple with as journalists, and I’m sure that the ambassador also grapples with, as a key person in articulating, and following through on U.S. policy. So let’s talk to Ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield.

[MUSIC]

Nayeema: Ambassador, thank you so much for being with us, it’s great to see you again.

Amb. Linda Thomas-Greenfield: It’s great to see you as well. And thank you so much for attending the event, really was fantastic.

Nayeema: It was. So when we saw you just a couple of days ago, you launched into a kind of media criticism, which we appreciate, and wanted to hear more of? Which is why we invited you here today. But you were talking about the media’s failure to cover Sudan? Something you’ve written about in the New York Times op-ed, and something that you’ve been vociferous about, since even September of last year, or well before that, as the civil war began in April of 2023. So explain your criticism here?

Amb. Thomas-Greenfield: Well, look, before I criticize the media, I praised you guys, and I even said that I love the media, because you have such an important role to play. So my criticism was based on the fact that sometimes, you are less focused on issues that I think deserve your attention, and deserve your focus. And Sudan is one of those places. When you look at the numbers in Sudan, 25 million people in need of international humanitarian assistance? And that’s more than the population of the United States, 10 largest cities.

I mean, this is a huge, huge crisis, and it’s affecting millions of people. There’s a war raging now in which there are predictions and reports, that genocide is happening. And yet this does not get the front-page attention of the international press? So that’s where my criticism is.

Ben: And yeah, it’s to typical journalists, that we only hear the criticism, not the praise. But I think a cynical editor, not that I am one, but would push back and say, “Hey, look, don’t blame us, blame our audience, they’re not reading these stories. We’re looking at clicks, and we’re just trying to tell people what they’re interested in. They’re interested in Gaza, they’re not interested in Sudan. Sorry.” What do you say to that?

Amb. Thomas-Greenfield: What I say is, that the press has influence on what the audience reads. Of course, if you’re reporting front-page every single day, a single issue, that’s what people are going to be looking for. But you can report on these other issues, and get there to... You can help them determine what they should be reading.

And I think that’s something that the press has the power to do. And I think what is reflected is your own priorities. You think this is what people want to hear, they want to hear Gaza, it has more political interest. And I’m not saying Gaza is not important. It is very important.

Ben: One argument that you hear people make, and I just want to sort of be very careful here... Is, that the reason that people pay attention to Gaza over Sudan, is connected to a kind of anti-Semitism essentially? Is that what you see? I mean, do you think that, that’s why Gaza is being elevated?

Amb. Thomas-Greenfield: No, I don’t think that. I don’t think it’s related to the issue of anti-Semitism, which is an issue. And it is something that is definitely important for you to cover. But I think what is happening in Gaza is, it’s about a conflict that is taking place in the Middle East, and there tends to be a lot of attention paid to that.

Nayeema: And I think also because it is an international conflict that has of course U.S. military aid being provided to Israel. Which of course, invites a greater coverage concern, accountability that’s being sought. But you’re not constructing a zero-sum argument here, I don’t think-

Amb. Thomas-Greenfield: No, I am not.

Nayeema: ... you’re saying there just needs to be more-

Amb. Thomas-Greenfield: But it is not a zero-sum game. This is about saving lives wherever they are being lost. It’s about valuing life, wherever people are suffering. And the people of Sudan are suffering right now, and they are not getting the attention from the press, or from the world about what is happening there.

Two generals with political ambitions, fighting over political spoils, and not caring about the welfare of their own people. That’s what we see happening in Sudan. And it is for that reason that we have to care about what is happening there, focus attention on what’s happening there, and report on what’s happening there.

Nayeema: Yeah.

Amb. Thomas-Greenfield: I’m sorry, I’m going to try to turn off my computer from blinking other stuff-

Nayeema: Okay.

Amb. Thomas-Greenfield: ... on my computer.

Ben: Is it secret? Do you want to read it to us?

Amb. Thomas-Greenfield: Nope. This is just news popping on, but I am going to see if I can turn it off.

Ben: Even senior diplomats are just barraged with news alerts. I always wonder, and I do wonder in this news environment that you are currently living in, with this pop thing... And you’re having the same things pop up as us. And I wonder, you, particularly as a policymaker, how do you deal with the fact that... I’m seeing that you’re seeing that, people in the streets protesting are seeing it, people in capitals around the region are seeing it. A lot of them are reacting to it. And it may not be verified, it may be something Hamas said out loud. It may be something the Israeli government claimed. And the world is moving around it, as it pops on your screen. But you may not know if it’s true. How do you navigate that information environment?

Amb. Thomas-Greenfield: Well, I can always find out if it’s true, but what I worry about is, that the people on the street don’t always have access to the resources that I have at my disposal. And again, this is where I think a credible news agency can do that. And I find that the press tends to now follow whatever the soundbite is of the day, and then move that into news.

Nayeema: But I do think Ambassador, that this idea that you know, and you have access to perfect information, this is really hard in a fog of war environment-

Amb. Thomas-Greenfield: It’s not perfect information, it may be different information.

Nayeema: Yeah. Part of what’s happening is not just the splintering of audiences, but the speed at which this information is moving in this fog of war. We’ve seen all kinds of things. We’ve seen the New York Times had to walk back headlines about the hospital bombing. We’ve seen President Biden had to walk back statements about beheading babies. We’ve seen particularly relevant to the UN, Israel making accusations about widespread Hamas infiltration of UNRWA.

Something that was later discredited, by a subsequent independent investigation by a former French minister. But the world acted so quickly on the early unsubstantiated allegations made, and the coverage of those allegations. Including the pausing of aid in the United States, the UK, Germany, other countries. And it was far slower to react to the clearing of UNRWA. The story got lost, we were covering college protests at the time. Is the PR a narrative war, driving bad policy here?

Amb. Thomas-Greenfield: No. I mean, I think our aid is already flowing in, into Gaza. It’s not flowing directly through UNRWA anymore, for the reasons you just shared. But we never stop providing aid. We have people on the ground, unlike any other country. A special envoy working on ensuring that aid is being worked on 24/7. But again this is where I think we need the help of media, to do investigations very quickly, and get out different information.

Ben: These questions of speed are so hard. I mean, I think just back to Sudan, and this is certainly true of Gaza too. There are these questions of the credibility, particularly actually of the UN, and of UN institutions, where you sit. And I think in every conflict you see the Israelis doing this, you see some of, I think the Sudanese participants, doing this... They’re trying to discredit UN claims, and I wonder, do you, as someone who is at, but not of the UN... Do you feel the UN has retained its credibility in these conflicts? When they were putting up numbers in both of those conflicts?

Amb. Thomas-Greenfield: I think they have, I think the UN as a system, as an organization, they make every attempt to be reliable. They make every attempt to be credible, to be fair, and to get out information that will help people who, they have been charged to help on the ground. So I do think the UN gets a bad rap. Does that give the UN 100%? They’re not A+, it’s made up of individuals. Individuals who have their own preferences, their own priorities.

But all in all, I have tremendous respect for the individuals who work in the United Nations. The fact that over 200 have been killed in the line of duty. They deserve our support, they deserve our credit, and they deserve our appreciation. And they have been caught up in a political narrative that I think really does not give them the full recognition that they deserve.

Ben: Do you think the U.S. is winning the media war? And I guess specifically, winning the media war right now, with Netanyahu? In an attempt to circle him in, and define this conflict?

Amb. Thomas-Greenfield: Look, I don’t think we’re in a media war with Netanyahu, with the Israelis. What we’re trying to do, is find a path that will ultimately lead to an end to this conflict. And we’re working with the Egyptians, the Qataris, the Israelis, Algerians who are on the Security Council. And others to try to find the right narrative and the right path, that will get us to what we all want to achieve.

Nayeema: Yeah, I think that one of the things I’ve been thinking a lot about Ambassador is, is your role in this? Your personal role in this? Because you’ve become the very public face of the ceasefire proposal, and also the lack of a ceasefire, frankly, over the past months, right? So you’re having to defend U.S. policy on a stage in the United Nations, where there’s increasing global outrage about Israel’s conduct in this war.

It’s a very different stage than a domestic media audience. And to some extent on social media, where there have been doctored memes circulating of you raising your hand, in a veto, and then that doctored to have blood on it? Or you’ve had one, not one I think, but two commencement addresses canceled, in this last graduation cycle. And I’m just curious how you personally grapple with the media spectacle of this war, and your role in it? Because there isn’t usually this kind of camera attention on the United Nations, and on this role, as there has been?

Amb. Thomas-Greenfield: I am doing in the best way possible, everything I can to find a solution to work with my colleagues in the Security Council, to work with my colleagues in the U.S. government, to find a path forward. I didn’t choose to be the face of this, and if I had a choice, I would choose not to be the face. I think there’s a tendency with social media, to vilify people without knowing who they are. And I think the people who vilify me, don’t know me.

They don’t know who I am, they don’t know what I stand for. And so that’s sometimes a little annoying to have. They have the memes, and I read them. My staff tells me not to read them, but I read and some of them are kind. And so I take the kind ones, and I take them for what they’re worth. You’re going to have people on both sides of this. I have friends who have direct access to me, and I think if I didn’t avoid them, they would slap me.

Nayeema: Has anyone slapped you, Ambassador?

Amb. Thomas-Greenfield: Not yet.

Nayeema: Okay.

Amb. Thomas-Greenfield: I have a security detail. But I also have other friends who are willing to fight those friends, to defend what we are doing, and to express an understanding of how difficult this is.

Ben: To bring it back to where we started. Do you think people die in Sudan, because the media doesn’t cover it? I mean, are there real stakes here, or is it just whether people are informed?

Amb. Thomas-Greenfield: I think people are forgotten, and when they are forgotten, more people die, because we’re not paying attention to what is happening to them. And when they’re forgotten, they lose hope. And so if the people of Sudan know, at least the world is aware of what is happening to them, it gives them a better sense of hope. And it forces all of us to pay attention to what is happening. So maybe fewer people do die.

Nayeema: Right. Oh, people can also die when there is continuing coverage as well, as we’ve obviously seen. And I do want to point out, the New York Times had a great A1 story-

Amb. Thomas-Greenfield: They did.

Nayeema: ... by Declan Walsh and Ivor Prickett, just days ago.

Amb. Thomas-Greenfield: I take some credit for that.

Nayeema: Oh, do you?

Amb. Thomas-Greenfield: I do. And it’s because I have been pushing this issue. I will have a press interview on Sudan, and the first question I get, is on Gaza? And I said, “But this is about Sudan.” And the op-ed that I did in the New York Times, I think, made a difference.

Nayeema: Ambassador, we know you have a vote to get to, so we don’t want to keep you much longer, but thank you for being with us today to talk about Sudan, and to talk about Gaza.

Amb. Thomas-Greenfield: Well, thank you for paying attention to Sudan. And again, anywhere there’s suffering in the world, we have to pay attention. There’s no competition for crisis reporting, but there is sometimes a neglect of crisis in places in the world. And that particularly happens on the continent of Africa. And I’ll leave you with... Take a look at what is happening in DRC as well.

Ben: Well, thank you, Ambassador.

Nayeema: Good. Thank you, Ambassador.

Amb. Thomas-Greenfield: Thank you.

[MUSIC]

Nayeema: What did you make of that media criticism?

Ben: I mean, I think she was totally unsurprised that our second, third, fourth, and fifth questions were about Gaza, and she was glad to be able to-

Nayeema: But not our first?

Ben: ... talk a little... Well, that’s just it. She was glad to be able to talk a little about Sudan while she could. I mean, that’s probably from her perspective, you see her sort of sigh, and be like, “All right, I can deliver the very, very careful answers to these questions,” which are very hard, complicated questions. I mean, in a sense, I think for her, the Sudan question is easy, like, “Pay attention, this is a crisis, we have a solution. We need your support.” And the Gaza stuff is very, very hard.

Nayeema: It was interesting hearing her talk about her own personal role, right? “I didn’t choose to be the face of this policy.”

Ben: I mean, she’s a pro, and you see that too. She’s been at very high levels of U.S. policymaking for a very long time, and there’s both a level of experience, and a level of insulation, that comes with that. And I do think there’s this interesting thing she said, that you guys actually do control what people read about, and what they care about.

And I think that the sort of era of traffic and clicks, really cut deeply into our own confidence about our ability to drive the conversation, to choose the priorities? Because we could see that actually everybody’s reading about Kim Kardashian, whatever we put on the front page. But I think that is shifting again, and I actually think maybe five years ago, I would’ve said what she said was incredibly naive. Now I think what she said, is actually where we’re headed, where you do have-

Nayeema: You’re right.

Ben: ... media outlets with more confidence, again, to try to set priorities, rather than just follow the audience.

Nayeema: The question is, where are people getting their information from? They’re getting it from mainstream media, and is that shaping the social media discourse on this war? Are they getting it-

Ben: Right.

Nayeema: ... elsewhere? So the New York Times could run an A1 story every day about Sudan if they chose, and there would be a lot of, “What about-ism, what about Congo? What about Ukraine? What about Gaza?” They would face that fire, but even if they continue to do so, I don’t know that the conversation about this-

Ben: But it may be social media matters a little less, than it did five years ago too?

Nayeema: It comes back to your new optimism around mainstream media, and establishment media, Ben. I think it also ties back to that Bannon story of, “Hey, it matters what the Wall Street Journal says.” In fact, it matters more what the Wall Street Journal says than what the New York Post says, or what Breitbart News says, or what social media says. And that therein lies the promise, or potential for establishment media. I think you’ve become an optimist?

Ben: Well, is that optimistic? I don’t know, I used to be on the other side, but I do think that-

Nayeema: Well, less cynical for sure, Ben.

Ben: I do think that there’s a kind of authoritative journalism, that’s getting some of its confidence back.

Nayeema: All right. Let’s take a quick break and when we’re back, we’ll be with Max Tani to talk about the stories we’re not seeing. Which is not going to be Sudan now, because we have talked about it.

Ben: Sorry, Max. Scrap the Sudan one.

[MUSIC]

Ben: And now a quick word from our sponsor, Think with Google. In this branded segment, I speak with Josh Spanier, vice president of marketing at Google, about what has to be the real hardship in the year of an advertiser, which is the Festival in Cannes.

So I think we’re probably both heading off to Cannes fairly shortly, and it is obviously forbidden to complain about being forced to spend a week in the South of France. But I suspect you’ll not be spending a lot of time on the beach, what’s the point of going there for you?

Josh Spanier: The Cannes Advertising Festival is maybe the hardest working week of the year, for marketers. Genuinely, everyone who matters is there meeting with everyone else who matters. And you can just be incredibly efficient and productive. I’m in meetings from 9:00 till 7:00 with two client dinners, and then maybe something after that as well. So it is non-stop work, work, work. A few years ago, one of the years of the Pixel phone, we managed to get working with Condé Nast, the publishing house.

The cover of GQ starring Ryan Gosling, the image taken using a Pixel phone, right? To show the power of the quality of the Pixel camera. We actually did it for seven Condé Nast publications, Architectural, Digest, Glamour, and that’s a big deal. That idea was generated at Cannes. We met with the Condé Nast people, it was brainstormed together, and we got sign-off within four days. One of the sort of most dramatic ways to prove the quality of the Pixel Camera. So Cannes can be incredibly productive, and you drink some rose as well.

Ben: How do you think Cannes in 2024 is going to be different from years past?

Josh: I think the way they’ve remodeled the actual awards at the Center of Cannes, has actually been good for the overall business. And it’s actually focused on the creativity, and the inspiration that you get from the work. So I expect there actually to be a little more attention on the awards this year, as the categories have got sharper, and more interesting and engaging.

It’s been a really, really busy year and things are moving faster. I think missing out on Cannes is harder now, than you might’ve done. So I expect there to be more publishers, I expect there to be more big brands, and I expect there to be more stakeholders beyond just the marketing suite, who are there to do sort of joint business meetings.

[MUSIC]

Nayeema: Hi, Max. Welcome.

Max: Hey, how’s it going? Are you guys excited for Cannes, Lion? Not the nice Cannes?

Nayeema: We’re so excited.

Ben: I’m excited. Nayeema likes to complain about being forced to travel to the South of France, because-

Max: I’m actually... Honestly, I’m with Nayeema, here.

Nayeema: Yeah.

Ben: You and Rachel bullied me into going-

Max: Yeah, I know, and the reason-

Ben: ... and now you’re backing out.

Max: The reason why we bullied you into going, was because I didn’t want to have to go alone.

Nayeema: Yes, misery loves company. But I’m doing Cannes, right? I have the best party invites.

Ben: Of course you do-

Nayeema: I have to say.

Ben: ... on brand. If you can’t trade on your journalist credentials for access to parties in the South of France, why are you even a journalist?

Nayeema: But Max, tell us about Blind Spots. What are the stories we’re not seeing this week?

Max: Well, I was kind of particularly interested this week when the left-wing watchdog group, Media Matters, published a piece on its website. Reporting that young conservative organization, Turning Points USA, is promoting drinking raw unpasteurized milk, during a bird flu outbreak among dairy cows. And the group is selling TPUSA crop tops that say, “Got raw Milk.” It’s obviously the Got Milk thing, but with the raw-

Nayeema: Crop tops.

Max: ... in there. And some of the organization’s personalities have been posting content promoting raw milk, saying that it’s good for pregnancy among other things. This is something that’s been going on, for I guess, a few years. Obviously raw milk is pretty risky. The FDA has advised people not to drink it, because it can make you pretty sick. It was the root of an E. coli outbreak in 2023. But interestingly, the LA Times reported that in the last several weeks, Iowa, Louisiana, and Delaware, have either passed legislation, or in the process of moving bills that would legalize the commercial sale of raw milk, for human consumption.

So what I think is most fascinating about this story is, what we’re seeing with raw milk is... Like vaccination, it’s one of these things that’s flipped from being this granola, lefty, hippie thing, to this conservative middle finger to health officials, and professionals. And it kind of represents a general distrust of the FDA and watchdogs. And so I thought that was totally fascinating. Have you guys-

Ben: It’s kind of Joe Rogan politics-

Max: Yeah.

Ben: ... for sure. I love that Media Matters, wedged in some gotcha about the bird flu.

Nayeema: Well, is raw milk linked to bird flu in particular? Is it from cows?

Ben: I think Media Matters is just very concerned about the health of young conservatives?

Max: No. Ben, I think you’re being flip about this. I actually do think this is-

Ben: It’s a great story.

Max: ... it’s something... Apparently makes the cows more susceptible to getting it, and it’s passed along.

Ben: Oh, no.

Nayeema: There must be some reason that they’re leveling this?

Ben: No, but it is this cultural shift that’s happening. So fascinating.

Nayeema: Yes. And what has been called the crunchy to conservative access, that we saw come out in COVID, and seems to be coming out around-

Max: Wait, wait, wait a sec. Have you had raw milk?

Ben: Yes.

Nayeema: First of all, I’m trying to think, I never-

Ben: It tastes-

Nayeema: ... think about milk as-

Ben: ... more flavorful.

Nayeema: ... not raw? Is it pasteurized?

Ben: Unless you just milk a cow, and have some milk, then it’s very basic.

Nayeema: Yeah, I’ve been on a farm before, I’ve had that.

Ben: Is this the part where we get to talk about seed oils?

Nayeema: What about the lobby for almond milk versus oat milk? Which is a big controversy I see playing out over social media as well?

Max: Personally, I really like both. I think they’re great, and since I started drinking almond milk, or oat milk with various other beverages, I’m just like, “Why would I drink milk from a cow?” It makes me feel better.

Nayeema: I feel like milk is always in the news. There was also like how long should you breastfeed conversation, that involved the actor from Gossip Girl, the actress?

Ben: And there’s always a political overlay in a way, isn’t there? Milk is really the answer-

Nayeema: Milk.

Ben: ... core political substance?

Max: The reason why I wanted to talk about this is, because it reminded me of the trad wife concept. And it got me thinking about why this issue had become this thing for conservative influencers, and TPUSA people? It feels a bit like the total return to OG American kind of life.

Nayeema: I milk my own cows…

Max: Milkman is delivering your milk, but it’s unpasteurized.

Ben: It’s nostalgia, and it’s nostalgic politics.

Nayeema: It’s nostalgia and it’s distrust, right? I don’t trust anyone. So I will be getting myself my milk from my own cow. Thank you very much, and I will source that cow myself.

Ben: Or I will trust a conservative influencer to source the cow, and sell me milk at a markdown.

Nayeema: I think what’s important is that you’d be wearing the crop top, while milking the cow. Moving on from milk-

Max: Moving on from milk.

Nayeema: What’s the Blind Spot on the right?

Max: So the Blind Spot to conservatives while they’re drinking their raw milk, unpasteurized, doing God knows what to the body, is... New York Mag, this week published a story headlined, “For a billionaire, Trump flies a crappy plane.” It’s a vintage Boeing 757, which according to New York Magazine, flies slower and lower than many other planes, and can’t fly nearly as far.

While he was in office, Trump also chose to leave the plane at a Northeastern airport, I believe in the Hudson Valley. Exposing it to elements such as snow, rain, and moisture, which can lead to metal corrosion of the airframe and engines. This is from New York Magazine, “Trump Force One, you might say, is a poor man’s idea of a rich man’s plane. A big shiny bobble, that behind the scenes is a plane that has passed its prime, with decaying mechanics, and exorbitant storage fees.”

Nayeema: I have to say, New York Magazine, my former employer. Genius, David Haskell, love this story, love it. This reminds me of the chapter in the Michael Wolff book, Fire and Fury, about Donald Trump not being able to figure out the light switches.

And then the whole chapter becomes about Donald Trump leaving behind all kinds of important White House business, to combat the media’s suggestion that he doesn’t know how to deal with the light fixtures in the kitchen. This will hit him hard, that his plane is not the best plane, the perfect plane.

Ben: Although, there’s this liberal obsession with proving, once and for all, that Donald Trump is not really a rich businessman. He’s a fraud, and he was president for... I mean, it’s too late. But it is, but it is hilarious.

Nayeema: I think it’s just going to get under his skin.

Ben: And ultimately it is sort of, he’s a showman-

Nayeema: You know what I’m happy about?

Ben: ... as long as the paint coat is clean, that’s the point.

Nayeema: I’m happy it’s not a story that it’s like, “Donald Trump has a private plane. Isn’t that bad for the environment?” Because that could also be a story?

Ben: This Summer, the ad from the Biden people actually will be. He’s a rich guy with a private plane, talking to these other rich guys. He’s going to sell you out, which is super boring by New York liberal standards, but actually will be the political attack.

Nayeema: Much better to be like, “Here’s this dinky plane,” and, “oh, my God. It’s getting dinkier under the rain.”

Max: I actually take the opposite view. I felt the reason why this story was interesting was, I was curious what had happened to Donald Trump’s plane, during the time that he was in office. Where it was mostly, I think out of use, but I think probably used by some members of his family.

And it is an interesting question of why, if you could park your plane anywhere, you spend most of your time in Florida anyway... Why would you leave your plane in the Northeast, where it’s exposed to some of these things instead of in a warmer climate, where you’re not having these poor effects on the plane? There must be a reason for it?

Nayeema: Maybe you’re just trying to get the plane to be replaced, or replenished?

Ben: Yeah. The reason is always depreciation, or something like that.

Nayeema: Depreciation, yeah. It’s some tax, I don’t know. I don’t know, we-

Ben: That’s a good note for when we have planes.

Nayeema: Yeah, we need to figure that out. Maybe after Cannes, we’ll get planes.

Ben: That’s not really how this business works.

Max: Who has made money from news media, and made enough to buy a plane? Is there anybody you can think of? Anybody?

Ben: I would say Shane Smith, but I don’t know if he has a plan.

Nayeema: Yeah.

Max: That’s true.

Ben: The Murdochs have a plane.

Nayeema: The Murdochs? Oh, yeah. Each of the Murdochs have a plane.

Ben: And the only way that Lachlan Murdoch can even pretend to run News Corp from Australia, it’s why he is always on the plane, they have great Wi-Fi on the plane, and it’s fine. It’s like a suburb of LA when you have a private jet, which is not at all true.

Max: Have either of you guys ever been on Trump’s plane? Ben, did you-

Nayeema: Not on Trump’s plane, no.

Max: A lot of reporters have been on Trump’s plane. No complaints about how shitty it is.

Nayeema: Was there the story about the journalist who was flying on Air Force One recently, with President Biden? There was a journalist who had collected over the course of their Air Force One travels, an entire dining set for a dinner party, of Air Force One plates?

Max: Yes, yes. The White House Correspondents Association had to send out a note saying to stop taking stuff off the plane. But I think that that’s totally fair, and also everybody takes things off of Air Force One. That is a classic thing. Everybody’s always showing you the stuff that they’ve gotten, the M&M’s or whatever. If you’re a journalist, people are always showing off swag that they’ve gotten from there.

Ben: We had a very high-minded episode today,

Nayeema: Yeah.

Ben: I’m saddened that people are going to leave this segment believing that journalists are a bunch of grifters.

Max: Well, those are just [inaudible 00:49:55]

Nayeema:But wouldn’t you rather a journalist be taking plates from the president’s plane, as opposed to being in the pocket of the president?

Ben: Did you say it’s better if you steal them, than if you’re giving them?

Max: I think it’s fine. That’s our taxpayer dollars at work, but I really think, I mean-

Ben: Like January 6th-

Max: ... personally, also-

Ben: ... this is your plan?

Max: Yeah, absolutely. No, it is. It is-

Nayeema: All right.

Max: ...but also the other thing too is, news organizations are paying a lot of money to fly, for a seat on that plane, and actually they have paid for it.

Ben: It is interesting to think whether stealing, or taking a bribe is preferable. It’s for another episode.

Nayeema: I would say the ethics are slightly better for stealing, but don’t do that. Don’t do either.

Ben: We do not do that.

Max: You guys wanted us to take positions on this show, and we’re taking positions. That’s what we have to do.

Nayeema: Hard positions. Thanks for listening to Mixed Signals from Semafor Media. This episode was produced by Max Tani, Allison Rodgers, Alan Haburchak, Joseph Strauss, and Christina Stella. 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 staff of Air Force One, in particular the purser who is making sure that we do not steal plates off of that plane. Keep our journalistic ethics high. If you like Mixed Signals, please follow us wherever you get your podcasts, and if you really like us, give us a review.

Ben: If you’re watching on YouTube, give us a Like, subscribe to Semafor’s channel.

Max: And remember to read Semafor’s Media Newsletter, which publishes every Sunday night.

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