• D.C.
  • BXL
  • Lagos
  • Dubai
  • Beijing
  • SG
  • D.C.
  • BXL
  • Lagos
Semafor Logo
  • Dubai
  • Beijing
  • SG

Updated Jun 21, 2024, 8:02am EDT
media

Mixed Signals: The US TikTok ban and Will Lewis’s future at the Washington Post

PostEmailWhatsapp
Title icon

From Cannes Lions direct to you!

Despite Washington moves to ban TikTok, the company and influencers in the South of France seem to be in denial. Ben, Nayeema, and Max explore conspiracies around TikTok and the company’s future, particularly if its most recent Tokfluencer, Donald Trump, wins in November.

Then they turn to the saga of Will Lewis, CEO of The Washington Post, unpacking why everyone (in media) is talking about it and what it means for the future of the Post and the bigger picture of journalistic ethics. Max brings blind spots from the worlds of short-short fashion and political video editing, and Nayeema and Ben talk about how we get to the bottom of the age question in the presidential campaign.

Also: on-the-ground updates from the Cannes Lions Festival, where you can find the real conspiracy behind media: The ad business.

Mixed Signals from Semafor Media is presented by Think with Google.

Title icon

Subscribe to Mixed Signals

Listen and follow Mixed Signals on your favorite podcast platform:

Apple Podcasts | Spotify | YouTube | Other Platforms

Title icon

Full episode transcript

Ben Smith: I’m Ben Smith.

Nayeema Raza: I’m Nayeema Raza.

Max Tani: And I’m Max Tani.

Nayeema: Max, you’re here early.

Max: Yes, and I’m going to steal Ben’s line. This is Mixed Signals from Semafor Media.

Ben: Good job.

Nayeema: Said it better than he does.

Ben: This is the whole problem.

Nayeema: Today we’re doing something a little bit different. No guest here because we have Max Tani from beginning to end. It’s like when the besties hang out in All-In podcast, except we have a lot fewer billions.

Max: Which one am I? Am I the heel? Are they all heels?

Nayeema: I feel I’m racial profiling on Chamath. But we are in a squillionaire spot. We are taping this live from the south of France for the Cannes Lion Festival. We’re going to be talking about a couple of things that are missing at Cannes this year. One of them is any fear of the TikTok ban. Senior executives of the social media platform are here, as are an array of influencers, Tyla, Tefi, et cetera. But no one but Max Tani seems to be discussing the TikTok ban. So we will be talking about it and the other thing that seems to be missing is Will Lewis, who at the time of this taping is the CEO of the Washington Post.

Ben: But that might not be the case by the time that people hear this. We don’t really know.

Nayeema: We’ll take bets on that.

Ben: I think it’s going to be okay for two more days, but I might look really stupid.

[MUSIC]

Nayeema: All right, before we dive in, let’s give some color about what Cannes Lion is because it is actually the money that powers the media machine.

Ben: It’s one of the real media hardship assignments and I’m sorry to have dragged you guys out here.

Nayeema: Kicking and screaming.

Ben: It’s essentially an advertising business conference in a beautiful riviera tent. But what I kind of actually like about it and find interesting is that there are three sets of companies that you’re really familiar with here. There’s the huge tech giants, TikTok, Meta, Google, Pinterest, Snap. There are big journalism companies. The New York Times had a huge presence here, as does every other brand you’ve heard of except the Washington Post. Sorry. And the entertainment companies are here. There’s a lot of, I would say, maybe not absolute A-list celebrities, but like hustle and low A-list celebrities here. And the reason they’re all here is because this is where the advertising dollars are.

Nayeema: Lots of celebrities, and I would not necessarily call them not A-list. You have celebrities like Jessica Alba, you have Ali Love from Peloton, Kenan from Saturday Night Live, he’s definitely A-list. He might be the next Lorne Michaels for all we know. The most brand safe celebrity, John Legend is in the house and performed beautifully.

Max: He’s at multiple different events. He literally attends panels as a guest as we reported in our newsletter, just like random panels that he’s attending to learn more about marketing.

Ben: This is a place where companies that spend the rest of their year in public focused on talking about technology, focused on talking about journalism, focused on talking about entertainment. Where they show what the business they’re in, which, to varying degrees is advertising. And they are all here to worship the feet of chief marketing officers. The gods of Cannes are CMOs, as they’re known in the business and the place revolves around them, and that’s who the celebrities are here for. That’s who the fancy journalists are having dinners for. And it’s this one week of the year when the shape of the business kind of reveals itself.

Nayeema: They’re all kind of here for each other. They’re buying and selling. But yes, those are the money bags.

Ben: This is your first time out here Nayeemaeema. I’m curious kind of how you found it because a strange situation.

Nayeema: I never really understood why the French hated Americans until this week, I would say, which is that if you’ve ever had the pleasure of being in south of France at any point. It’s generally beautiful, kind of unadulterated visions of beautiful sea line, the highway down. It’s stunning. And now it’s just LED screens, billboards, drunken executives at some point and everybody’s walking around talking in English.

Ben: So you’re saying it’s because they hate capitalism?

Nayeema: Well, no, but I think Max hates capitalism right now because the other day he told me this place is turning him into a socialist. Max, explain yourself.

Max: I’m not a particularly radical person. I like nice things. I spend too much money at restaurants. I spend too much money on clothes. I like going on vacation, all this stuff. But I really do feel that Cannes Lion brings out a side of me in which I feel that all of this advertising is in service of mostly meaningless stuff. All of these panels and everything you go to is about how to optimize your business for getting people to buy things that they don’t want, and that’s kind of a failure of our whole system. That’s how I feel for at least one week out of the year.

Nayeema: There are a lot of these kind of circuses around the world where you see this. At the correspondence center, it’s like you see celebrities, you see executives. The thing that’s very conspicuously missing here is anybody from government. I haven’t met a single person, a single regulator in town. No one from the White House, no one from Congress shows up at the Cannes Lion Festival where all this money is being exchanged, which is probably somewhat related to our first story. Which is that here we are, TikTok has a big presence at Cannes and the fight over TikTok is heating up in the United States. In the last several weeks, there have been two lawsuits that have been filed against the law that would end up banning TikTok from app stores if ByteDance, its Chinese parent company doesn’t sell TikTok to a US owner before January 19th, the so-called TikTok Ban. The FTC also issued a statement saying that an investigation uncovered reason to believe that TikTok and ByteDance were in violation of COPA.

This is the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, which is one of the few online and digital privacy legislations that actually exists in the United States. And yet nobody at Cannes Lion is talking about the potential death of this big business. Max, you seem to be one of the few people who’s up in arms about it here.

Max: It’s so strange that a major piece of legislation passes that would ultimately fundamentally alter and certainly threaten the future of this company, and yet it is acting like there’s been no change whatsoever. They have a big tent set up in the exact same places last year and they didn’t mention it at all at their press conference. They alluded very vaguely to it, but they talked mostly about innovations that they have in the AI space and, “Didn’t you see this funny TikTok?” And, “Look at how brands could work with the platform?” And it was a bit surprising to me. So I asked their president of global business solutions, Blake Chandlee. Basically what he thought about this, and it was a very kind of simple question. Just noting that the US government, the president, had just signed a bill putting ByteDance on the clock to sell TikTok. And he basically said he’s not hearing about anything like that from advertisers and nobody’s really mentioned it, though it is of course the obvious question.

Nayeema: He said it was the obvious question when you asked it, even though it hadn’t been asked in any of the other questions that preceded yours.

Max: So it’s kind of a strange situation where everybody seems to be ignoring it and acting as if it’s business as usual.

Nayeema: Meanwhile, in the United States, people are freaking out. I mean, listen to this TikTok video from one of the eight creators who’s filed a lawsuit against the government. The costs are being covered by TikTok, but you’ll get a sense of their main arguments.

tophertownmusic: This is infringement upon our First Amendment right. As Americans, we should be free to choose whatever app that we want to use. The government does not have the right to tell us what we can’t use. Especially when they have improved or provided evidentiary evidence to show the danger of said app, that is unique to TikTok and not common on the other social media platforms. So I’m fighting against it because that’s what you do as a patriot. If there’s nothing else that we do, we stand for the rights that we were given by God.

Nayeema: The rights that we were given by God.

Ben: Good legal briefing here. I mean, should we talk a little about the swirl of conspiracy theory?

Nayeema: Yes.

Ben: I think the thing with TikTok is that it’s the subject of real conspiracy theories and a lot of it is unknown, maybe real conspiracies. There’s a belief at the top levels of the US government that it is a Chinese conspiracy to influence American citizens in various political ways.

Nayeema: This is something that the CEO of TikTok Shou Chew has addressed in congressional testimony.

Shou Zi Chew: ByteDance is not owned or controlled by the Chinese government. It’s a private company.

Nayeema: But of course he would say that, right? Meanwhile, legislators are offering us conflicting accounts. Some are coming out of these briefings that we are not privy to saying that they’re alarmed. Others like Congresswoman Sara Jacobs are coming out saying that they haven’t seen anything that suggests this level of concern that is different to any other social media company. Because what we know is that the DNI, the Director of National Intelligence in the United States says that TikTok accounts run by a PRC propaganda arm were reportedly targeting candidates. But this is something we see on every social media platform. On Facebook, on Twitter.

Ben: This sounds just like what that other TikTok guy said.

Nayeema: Well, I mean I do think that we have yet to see the evidence-

Ben: That’s true.

Nayeema: But it’s also very plausible and we know that ByteDance and China has accessed information about US journalists who were spied on by TikTok and ByteDance. So there is definitely cause for concern, but the jury’s out on this one.

Max: I wish that TikTok was bold enough to actually use this as its pitch to marketers like, “Look, we are so good at getting people to do things that the US government is terrified of us and it’s terrified of our influence, and that’s how influential we can be for your brand.”

Ben: Facebook succeeded with that pitch for a while. We were all out there flacking for Facebook when we were saying how powerful it was.

Nayeema: And that’s the second conspiracy. The concern is that not only is TikTok potentially being used for espionage, but it’s being used for propaganda. Seeding preferences and perspectives on everything from the Israel-Gaza war to what music you should like. And it’s why musicians can’t get in the top 10 anymore. It’s kind of this idea that they control everything. They are the puppeteers of the next generation, as it were.

Ben: Mostly true. That’s why people here at Cannes are still really obsessed with TikTok, and I think to some degree wishcasting that all this US government stuff is just theater. That it’s never going to happen and that they’re going to be able to keep marketing. It’s really... It is striking here.

Nayeema: Well, the US government stuff really turned on at the midst of the Israel-Gaza war and the college protests in the United States, which breathed fresh life to this divest or ban effort that had been in play for a long time. But was resuscitated early this year because of everything happening in Israel-Gaza.

Ben: Also definitely true. You look at the studies and you look at all the information that gets put out surveys, and it says that while some people are obviously using TikTok to get their news, the vast, vast, vast majority are not. So this idea that the Chinese government is using it to subtly push in one way or the other, it just cuts against what Americans are saying in terms of where they’re getting their information from. There’s an argument for privacy and the information that they’re collecting on people. But as far as the tool of influence, do we actually think that people are getting their perspectives from TikTok in a way that’s moving the needle in any sort of way?

Nayeema: Well, I think that where you saw that happen was in response to this ban where actually TikTok was pushing, lobbying its users to call up members of Congress and demonstrate how they felt on this. Which is something that you could see a lot of companies kind of pushing and lobbying efforts pushing. But TikTok was able to get a bunch of young kids calling, screaming, some threatening violence or suicide in rare cases to their congressional representatives. Some of whom were not old enough to vote. So you do see, I think the influence, but for the most part, I do think that TikTok is a reflection of the culture. It’s that algorithm. It’s getting you deeply in yourself and your interests and your machinations and not puppeteering Gen Z to act a certain way.

Ben: Yeah, the move that you’re describing, which was TikTok told everybody to call their congressman, was the worst act of political malpractice in the history of that kind of Washington lobbying.

They’re basically saying, “Hey, look, we’re not playing politics. We’re just an engine for youth culture.” And then they’ve got a bunch of tweens calling members of Congress, pushing a policy, and it turned the government just massively against them. It was just this kind of unbelievable unforced error by them, and it was already a very difficult situation. And I think that is why you really do have a consensus now in Washington. It’s so alien to the conversation here, and it’s so striking.

Nayeema: Yeah, it’s been thought that this ban won’t happen because Donald Trump, who of course initiated talk of the TikTok ban under his presidency actually did a flip-flop on this. Because of his proximity to Jeff Yass, who’s a major TikTok investor.

Ben: That is actually a conspiracy theory. The idea that some donor is going to change the direction of his administration’s policy. Because the thing to realize here is, our colleague Morgan Chalfant has a great story about this, this week, and I was just talking to her about it. It’s not that Trump is going to get into office and decide, “Should I ban TikTok?” He’s going to get into office and decide, “Should I proactively come and intervene to save TikTok, withdraw the lawsuits, and unroll this stuff?” And he’s surrounded by people whose idea it was to ban TikTok, who are focused on banning TikTok, who promise they’re going to follow through on banning TikTok. He’s promising confrontation with China, just see no reason to think he’s not going to go through with it. The courts might stop it, but I was actually surprised that TikTok’s rivals aren’t just licking their chops about this.

Max: And the other thing you excluded from that is he’s also surrounded by a bunch of people who want to buy TikTok too, who would love to take it off of his hand. Steve Mnuchin, his former Treasury secretary, was one of the first people who came out publicly and said he wanted to buy it. If you believe that conspiracy that he could be influenced by this one donor, there’s a lot of other noise to suggest that that may be more complicated.

Nayeema: Yes, Donald Trump has proven to be an unreliable partner for many, and the idea that he’s going to come rushing in to save TikTok is hard to say. But I think, look, there are a couple of winners, no matter how this thing plays out. It’s estimated that Meta would draw up to 60% of the ad revenue that TikTok has if there was a ban, while YouTube could take another 25%. And on the day of the announcement of this ban, Meta’s stock actually went up.

Ben: That’s true.

Nayeema: Another winner of this I think could actually be counter-intuitively the Chinese government, because the way this is being reported in China right now. This is in China Daily, so take it as you will. But throughout the kind of Chinese state-run media machine, you see this kind of description. This is by a gentleman named Tom Fowdy, who is an Oxford-educated British journalist who’s published in all kinds of state-run media as kind of... I think he’s been banned from China Global Television Network. But otherwise you do read his byline a fair bit. He wrote, “The idea that the US believes it has a right to extort a company into selling a hugely successful operation is an act of extreme arrogance, entitlement, and unbridled callousness. Not only does it illustrate the absurd levels of irrational paranoia and McCarthyism that have gripped Washington D.C., but also the total lack of respect it has for China, and its people. Using the auspices of the Communist Party of China as a justifying premise for anything in the country they do not like.”

And the way this is being set up, not just in China, but in an increasing part of the world that is under, I would say, the Chinese sphere of influence is that the US has long presented itself as this kind of holder of free expression and capitalism. And now is the greatest hypocrite in this world. And they’re undermining what has been a big part of the global order in the last 20, 30 years, which is America’s soft power. America and the kind of Washington Consensus and the Western liberal values as a kind of vanguard for where the world should head to. And that I think is a really interesting part of this TikTok ban.

Ben: So I’m glad you have a favorite Chinese state media columnist. No, but I think your friend obviously has a point that-

Nayeema: Not my friend, Tom Fowdy is not my friend.

Ben: And the most real and most obvious conspiracy here is just we’re shifting from this big open internet to an internet where there’re national champions, where countries are favoring their champions. We talk about the winners being Meta and Google here, these are huge national American companies that by the way, are much more experienced and much more compliant. Partly through having been burned a lot of times with US government regulation than TikTok is-

Nayeema: I guess the question is, is a greater threat to national security for the United States to have TikTok continue to compete in the United States, become over time a kind of irrelevant or passe social media platform? Or for the United States to kind of be this idea of hypocrisy in the rest of the world? Oh, this is a country that has interfered in foreign elections. It has a long history of interfering in Latin American governments, et cetera. This is a country that sold us exactly what it wanted to through Hollywood, and now they’re stripping away the rights of this foreign thing. So we’ll watch how these lawsuits play out. We will be watching, the people in Cannes, it seems will not be watching.

Ben: All right, comrade, let’s take a quick break and we’ll be right back.

[MUSIC]

Nayeema: So noticeably absent from Cannes is not just the TikTok conversation, but also a gentleman Will Lewis, who we talked about a couple of weeks ago on this podcast. Who at the time of this recording is the CEO of the Washington Post, but someone who’s become really embattled in recent weeks.

Ben: Will Lewis arrived in Washington with a story but pretty complicated reputation as a cleanup guy for Rupert Murdoch after the phone hacking scandal among other things, before he was a successful CEO of Dow Jones. And on arriving at the Post, he was welcomed, the newsroom loved him, and then he violated a very important American journalistic tradition, which is that the Washington Post wrote a couple of stories about Will Lewis. That mentioned Will Lewis, that mentioned he had been Rupert Murdoch’s cleanup guy after the phone hacking scandal, that he was implicated in a lawsuit by Harry and Meghan and many other victims of phone hacking. And Lewis didn’t kill those stories, but as Max Tani first reported, people at the Washington Post started getting edgy about distributing the stories. Sally Buzbee, the former editor has told people that Lewis expressed displeasure over the stories. And that just violated this really sacred weird American tradition that you show your purity by reporting independently on yourself, which is not the British tradition and he apparently did not like.

Nayeema: Right. And that of course, as every good story does, let open the crack where the light came in. David Folkenflik came in and said, “Oh, he tried to exchange a story with me when I was going to write up about him.” He was always the cleanup guy, but there had been this allegation that he ordered the deletion of millions of emails. And it’s unclear if that was in the process of following up on the company’s email security policy or if it was in a way as it’s been alleged to kind of cover up the News of the World hack.

Ben: And as the words email security suggest, this is a fifteen-year-old, exciting but old story that had been laid to rest in the UK and Will just kicked over the rock. And it is now being re-investigated, particularly by the New York Times, which I believe has a fifty-person team in London embarked on an eleven-part series. And you know what? This principle of journalistic independence is important and important to American journalists and particularly important to the way the Washington Post thinks about itself. And he really did violate it and it’s really a huge problem for him.

Nayeema: But the machinations of the story, why it’s fascinating is like why is this a story? Because the lead of the story is the Washington Post was losing subscribers. People were no longer interested in the Washington Post, and now it’s the media story of the moment. Because there was all this stuff kind of living in the light of day and then somebody with an axe to grind somebody who had caused to make this into a story. And the media’s utter desire and love of reporting on itself and also upholding and fighting for these ethics, that are guidelines. They’re not... Like in England, these are regulated in large part by the law, which is very specific around journalism. So it can be, as you’ve said then a trade. But in the United States, these are a code of principles. A kind of... Unwritten rules are codified by various institutions on their webpages that American consumers, media consumers think journalists have ethics in the United States. They would think that they don’t.

Ben: One of the questions here is to what degree American journalists really do hold ourselves to the standards that we aspire to. And really historically looking back how real that has always been. Lewis is accused of being part of a culture that hired private investigators to obtain people’s phone records. And particularly private investigators who misrepresented themselves, who lied about their own identities on phone calls to get information which they call charmingly blagging.

Nayeema: And also paying for sources.

Ben: And the British press has a practice of paying for stories, particularly when they think they’re in the public interest and sometimes just because they’re great stories. And I guess that there’s a question here of how really outrageous this is even by American standards.

Max: Well, I mean I think that obviously these have developed over the years, and particularly in recent years in the time since Watergate, which of course was broken by the Washington Post. And if you take a close look back at Watergate and at the reporting you’ll see that Woodward and Bernstein actually did very, very similar things to what Will Lewis has been accused of. The thing that’s kind of interesting to me is, I mean, I just really ultimately think that this is a pretty major comms screw up by Will Lewis. I don’t know if it necessarily is entirely to do with the journalistic ethics. Because of course one of the ironies here is that Woodward and Bernstein who are responsible for some of the greatest acts of American journalism. And of course the acts that still define the Washington Post today, actually did some things that by today’s standards would be pretty unethical, which also included illicitly obtaining phone and banking records and impersonating other people, obfuscating, getting way too close to sources. I mean, these are things today that wouldn’t fly and I think that would get them both fired from the Post.

Nayeema: But in the time of Watergate got them awards and lauded.

Max: Right, exactly. So I think that the problem here is it’s twofold. One, it’s that the Washington Post has had a really, really difficult run over the last few years post-Trump. It’s lost a lot of subscribers and a lot of viewership and traffic, and I think people are pretty on edge and they’re scared about the changes that Will Lewis is going to have to put in place to kind of keep this place afloat. And of course, Will Lewis himself underestimated the amount in which people are nervous and suspicious. And if you are tense and rude, even in the name of tough talk, which is kind of how he put it, that people weren’t going to respond particularly well to that. So I think that that’s ultimately the kind of confluence of things that’s really shaping this.

Nayeema: Whole thing started because Will Lewis offered Sally Buzbee the job of moving from executive editor of the newsroom to the editor of a third newsroom. A third newsroom room that would be separate from news and opinion, but actually be kind of a social media desk, like be social first news content across social media platforms. And this is, I think, amazing because Sally Buzbee saw it as a demotion. But I have to say, and this might be a generational thing, I see it as a promotion. I think every newsroom should actually be looking at doing-

Ben: You’ve been spending too much time in Cannes.

Nayeema: Really?

Ben: Yeah, this is a PR stunt to put the social media people under a fancy editor so you can go out and sell advertisers that you’ve got some new innovative third newsroom with some video.

Nayeema: But actually... But this is where people are... What is it? 20 to 30% of Americans are getting their news on Meta and on social media. And how many people are reading the 14,000 word Evan Osno’s profile of Joe Biden and the New Yorker versus seeing a tweet or seeing an Instagram post or TikTok.

Ben: Will Lewis isn’t here, but maybe you can go on his sales calls because there’s so many marketers here eager to hear about the Washington Post-

Nayeema: Maybe he’s going to offer me the job that Sally turned down.

Ben: You can run the fourth newsroom, which is the most interesting stuff in the Washington Post, which of course is its coverage of itself.

Nayeema: For a long time these things have been seen as service desks to the print journalism, but it might be that print journalism becomes the service desk to putting out the great Instagram content of the Washington Post or the TikTok guy.

Ben: I think you and Will Lewis will have a good time selling that on the beach next year.

Nayeema: I won’t be back, Ben. I will not be back. But we will take a quick break.

[MUSIC]

Ben: In this week’s segment sponsored by Think with Google. I visited their studio on Google Beach at Cannes to chat with Google’s VP of marketing, Josh Spanier. About the impact AI will have on creatives in advertising.

I’m Ben Smith from Semafor. I’m here at Cannes with the VP of marketing at Google, Josh Spanier. Josh, thanks for taking the time.

Josh Spanier: Bonjour, Ben.

Ben: So on stage here at Cannes there’s an enormous amount of optimism about the use of AI, particularly the use of AI in the creative space. And the company is up and down the Beach here, seeing a very optimistic and profitable future for AI and marketing. Privately enormous amount of anxiety among creatives in particular that AI could replace them. I’m curious how you see that tension, how you see the future of AI in advertising.

Josh Spanier: Cannes this week is feeling a lot like the famous Oprah moment. You get AI, you get AI, everyone gets AI, and I’m actually really, really excited. I see AI as a tool, a tool that’s going to unlock all sorts of opportunities for us to do things in more interesting ways. I think AI is going to unleash creativity across the board, enable us to do all sorts of things that we never can conceive of. I understand there’s sort of fear out there right now, but this year already it feels like we’ve moved from last year, which was all about the wow of AI to more of the how of AI. So we’re seeing on stage from my own company Google, all sorts of new features and products which are enabling marketers to really reinvent and rethink how they do their creativity. How they uncover insights and how they measure their campaigns and deliver the media top to bottom.

Ben: Anything specific you’re doing with Google?

Josh Spanier: So just this year we worked on our Pixel phone campaign. We used a Google tool called Demand Gen to generate 4,500 different creative assets, which flowed across all of Google’s advertising services from YouTube and beyond. To actually drive brand preference and actually sales of Pixel phone. That sort of scale, that sort of creativity isn’t possible in a manual always on world. And the irony of it all, given all the doom and gloom headlines is we’ve needed more people to actually execute that work at our agencies. More creative minds to actually imagine and help the machines scale our ingenuity and possibilities of what we can do. It’s been really exciting.

[MUSIC]

Nayeema: All right, now time for blind spots. Max, you’ve been here from the beginning, so we feel like we know everything, but what is not known? What’s hobbling up on the left and right? We do not see.

Max: Oh, there’s plenty that we all don’t know. I mean, we’ve been swimming in the world of advertising and marketing and because we’re six hours ahead, we have a weird connection to the news cycle. But the big story in celebrity/fashion media this week is Paul Mescal’s shorts. This week Mescal pulled up to the Gucci menswear show during Milan Fashion Week wearing a pair of Gucci striped cotton shorts, which he described as a quote, “Cute pair of shorts.” But essentially they were high fashion boxers and he told Sam Hine from GQ that he’s a fan of the short inseam saying that quote, “From my eye it’s to do with proportion, a shorter short with maybe a longer top.”

And these went totally viral because they’re incredibly short shorts and he looks great, but it’s obviously kind of a statement. Now, I’m kind of curious, Nayeema, where do you come down as our resident person who is explaining women’s perspectives on men. And things that men should think about-

Nayeema: As your resident woman and consider, yes-

Max: No, as our resident woman who has informed opinions about men, I’m curious if you’ve seen the Paul Mescal short shorts, what you think about them. Do you think that that’s going to break into conservative media at all or is this just all... Are liberal dudes in New York going to be wearing these short shorts because Paul Mescal is going viral wearing them?

Nayeema: I think it might be a trend amongst a certain generation, but I don’t think it’s going to last. I don’t know that the shorts looked great, Paul. But I’m actually very curious, looking at Ben’s face, if Ben has any idea who Paul Mescal is.

Ben: It’s a blind spot for me.

Nayeema: Paul Mescal is an Irish actor and he was in Aftersun. I think he’s Academy Award nominated.

Max: He’s incredible.

Nayeema: He is incredible. He must be in his twenties, sorry, Ben.

Max: He’s in his late twenties-

Ben: I know, I got a hand in my media reporter card.

Nayeema: The actual blind spot was who Paul Mescal is. Do I think that the shorts are going to make a... Look, I think the weird thing is that this summer is women’s shorts are getting longer, like bermuda shorts we’re seeing this, and the men’s shorts are getting shorter. And I can only imagine that Ron DeSantis is getting some legislation ready in the state of Florida to stop this from happening and he will save America, or at least Florida from short shorts.

Max: I kind of thought that... I considered this to be a conservative blind spot because this is only the things that coastal elites talk about, but what it really was, sorry, Ben was an age blind spot.

Ben: Ouch.

Nayeema: Well, why don’t you take us beyond the coastal blind spot, what’s happening? What’s bubbling up on the right this week that the coasts aren’t seeing because they’re being so blinded by Paul’s shorts and what might be under the-

Max: Or by his legs. So the big story on the right this week, at least if you were paying attention to the conservative internet, was Joe Biden, our current president, was at an event commemorating the history of D-Day in France where we are currently. And the RNC posted a video of him seeming slightly lost, somewhere kind of in between standing up and sitting down for about 10 seconds. And of course, some prominent online conservatives said that he had pooped his pants. The Daily Beast noted that Dave Rubin, who’s a conservative commentator, tweeted that he was quote, “Pooping or sitting in an invisible chair.” While the podcaster, Tim Pool blared, he quote, “Pooped,” and quote, “Holy shit” in all caps, claiming that the president quickly needed to leave the ceremony to clean himself up. Of course it should go without saying that this is not true and that the president was just kind of trying to look for his seat.

But it was really interesting to me because the RNC has gotten really good at posting these quick kind of out-of-context clips where he’s lost or seems lost. And these have done really, really, really well for them and they’ve made their way across social media. And it’s basically a full-time job for Democrats on social media to push back against these clips and to provide context for them. But of course, we know that that’s not how things work on the internet. I’m curious if you guys have seen, and if your feeds have been full of these Republican National Committee clips of Biden seeming lost or losing his train of thought.

Ben: Yeah, I have seen these and I’ve seen them posted also by Democrats. I mean, I think the Twitter in particular, X is just a machine for confirmation bias. And if you think that President Joe Biden is too old, that clip will find its way for you, confirm everything you already thought and you will reshare it. It’s interesting because of course for all the fears of artificial intelligence and distortion, the real thing melting all our brains right now is very selective old-fashioned video editing.

Nayeema: And even Andrew Ross Sorkin had some comments that had come out of like 80 CEOs met Trump, and a couple of them had mentioned to Andrew Ross Sorkin that Donald Trump was meandering in his points. And that was also lifted a little bit out of context on the left where people were kind of saying, “Oh, he was meandering in the ways that kind of... Look, you say this about Biden, but it’s happening to Trump too,” when in fact it was a very different claim. So I think this is just happening everywhere. And I almost wonder, does any of it matter? Is there any signal in this noise? Because Americans look at this and there’s no new information, there’s no reporting. And they’re seeing something they recognize as elderly behavior or gaffes by each presidential candidate and they’re going to call it, and instead the media is trying to disintermediate and tell you what you should see.

Ben: Yeah, I think if anything, the reporting isn’t going hard enough at trying to sort of block out that noise, which as you say is self-fulfilling nonsense and get a real sense of how’s Joe Biden doing. What is it like to spend a day with him? My proposal is the White House, just let Max come spend a day with Joe Biden, then he can tell us how he’s doing because these clips are just unbelievably misleading garbage. And also the president is being kept pretty protected by his staff from us really knowing the answer to that question.

Max: Well, first of all, I will say, I just want to publicly say that I would absolutely be willing to spend a day with President Joe Biden. I just want to put that out there for our podcast listeners. Many of them in the White House, a hundred percent of course. But I think one of the other issues here is when the White House has given access, it’s not necessarily to these kind of people who are ubiquitous or the people who can kind of reach the largest audience. We say that he did a short interview on SmartLess, but there were a bunch of other former presidents there.

Nayeema: …Howard Stern.

Max: Yeah, Howard Stern. He’s given the most access to Evan Osnos, who you mentioned earlier in the episode, Nayeema, which is for these long, windy, New Yorker profiles, which are totally fascinating and which talk about how coherent he is. But how many Americans are actually reading something like that or paying attention to it. And is that enough to kind of counter out these things? I have my suspicions and my doubts about that.

Nayeema: See well, when I’m editor of the third newsroom, you’ll have content that you can read delivered by Max Tani, who I will poach from you, Ben.

Max: I’m happy to go on TikTok and make TikToks with Joe Biden for as long as TikTok exists for our third Washington Post newsroom.

Nayeema: All right. Before we run, quick prediction: Will Will Lewis still have the job by the time people are hearing this episode? Or will we just sound completely out of touch?

Ben: I predict that he will, but that the guy he’s brought in to nominally run the post in Britain, Rob Winnett will not.

Max: I think that’s become a bit of the conventional wisdom over the last few days is that Rob will not be getting the job and that Will will stay on. But Bezos put out a note supporting Will Lewis, and I’m going to go the opposite direction. I’m going to say they’ve all bought into the newsroom has gone too far, and Bezos is going to stand strong behind his guys.

Nayeema: Behind both of them.

Max: I think he’s going to stand behind both of them. Nayeema, what are you thinking here? What’s your prediction?

Nayeema: I thought it’s funny because Bezos, it’s like a bit of a Rorschach test. I don’t feel like Bezos’ letter was so standing behind Will Lewis either. It was kind of saying nothing. It was like the art of word salad in an email. The ethics will be upheld, but also we can’t do what we’ve been doing. But it won’t change the ethics. So I think it’s a note for everyone to stand down and Jeff is going to do what Jeff wants to do. So it will be Will Lewis, Rob Winnett, and then myself in the third newsroom. I think that’s the future of the Washington Post.

Ben: You will lend prestige to that newsroom, which will be your job.

Max: But it seems like maybe you guys have also become a little bit socialist here at Cannes in the sense that you believe in the power of the workers to overturn the will of management.

Nayeema: Oh, I think that that’s what they’re most excited about. I’m sure Jeff Bezos is like, “I’m excited for the people I do not need to buy out because they will leave in protest of this. So goodbye to you all. You squeaky union... Woke union havers. That’s the door, see yourselves out.”

Ben: I’m just impressed by how fast Max got from socialism to Gucci and back.

Max: I contain multitudes.

Nayeema: All right, that’s it for today. From socialist Max, comrade Nayeema, and Ben, ever the capitalist. Thanks for listening to Mixed Signals from Semafor Media. Our show is produced by Max Tani, Alison Rodgers, Alan Haburchak, Joe Strauss, Shina Ozaki, and Andrea López-Cruzado. With special thanks to Britta Galanis, Chad Lewis, Rachel Oppenheim, Anna Pezzino, Garrett Wiley, and Jules Zirn. Our engineer is Fernando Arruda. Our theme music is by Billy Libby and our public editor is Gucci who says the shorts can be as short as they would like to be, but this podcast remains a bit too long. 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 and subscribe to Semafor’s channel.

Max: And of course, don’t forget to subscribe to Semafor’s Media Newsletter.

Semafor Logo