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In this week’s media newsletter, chaos in Washington and London.͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌ 
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January 9, 2023


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Ben Smith
Ben Smith

If you enjoyed following the fracas in the House of Representatives last week, but found it too dignified, too respectful of a hallowed institution — well then, the Sussex vs. Windsor chronicles are for you.

The writer Michael Wolff (who I text with below) has described the British Royal Family as one of history’s great media companies. So it makes sense that the Prince Over the Water has gone into the media business: “Harry & Meghan” launched on Netflix last month, he’s on 60 Minutes tonight, Good Morning America tomorrow, and his book drops Tuesday.

Now the question is whether they’ll find Reed Hastings easier to deal with than Buckingham Palace.

On the Republican (and republican) front, Max has the big media story of McCarthy’s rise — good for Punchbowl News, too good for them if you listen to the Capitol Hill grumbling.

ALSO: I talked to a researcher about the Twitter Files, and we read Cindy Adams so you don’t have to.

In a news cycle spanning São Paulo and London, Semafor Flagship distills what you need to know in the world’s news every morning.

Situational Awareness

Insurrection in Brazil

REUTERS / Ueslei Marcelino

The images out of Brasilia this afternoon were a green and yellow repeat of January 6 in the U.S. Capitol. They’re also a reminder to American journalists that you can’t cover the big forces at work in the world without looking across borders.

The media there is now wrestling with questions familiar to Washington. In the hours after the attack, cable news in Brazil shied away from tough language, “without clearly identifying who the terrorists were”  and “softened the gravity” of the event, complained the Jay Rosen of Rio, UOL TV critic Mauricio Stycer.

Max Tani

Can Punchbowl News Punch Up?

REUTERS / Jon Cherry

The crazy fracas on Capitol Hill Friday night had a few winners: C-SPAN, of course; the right-wing House Freedom Caucus; lobbyists who used to work for Speaker Kevin McCarthy; and, of course, the new Speaker’s favorite news organization, Punchbowl News.

The two-year-old Punchbowl and its co-founder, Jake Sherman are perhaps the best-sourced journalists covering the incoming Speaker. A top McCarthy aide served as an informal Washington D.C. tour guide for guests at Sherman’s wedding. And people close to Sherman have cautioned him against appearing to cheer for McCarthy’s bid.

Throughout the past week, as McCarthy struggled to hold onto power, Punchbowl’s newsletters and Sherman’s Twitter feed often drove the narrative around the contested Speaker’s race.

Punchbowl was first with much of the news and McCarthy’s view, including news about crucial leadership meetings strategizing how to pick up votes, McCarthy’s private requests from HFC members, and an exclusive call with Trump calling on Republicans to back McCarthy.


In the era of hyper-niche digital media outlets, Punchbowl News has already succeeded in nabbing one of the greatest prizes in American trade journalism: the U.S. Congress.

Punchbowl News launched fortuitously on January 3, 2021, and Sherman and his three colleagues’ used their deep knowledge of congress to break news on the chaos in the aftermath of the insurrection at the Capitol several days later. Now, it has for the moment displaced his old employer, Politico, as Capitol Hill’s most important source of big news and process-y microscoops alike, with three daily newsletters aimed at a small but influential audience of members of Congress, Hill staff and journalists, D.C. lobbyists, and others who read the Washington tea leaves.

The formula is working: The outlet announced last year that it had over 100,000 free subscribers in its first six months, and was on track to bring in $10 million in revenue from a combination of paid subscribers and advertising aimed at influencing Congress. Punchbowl News is making so much money that its owners bought a Capitol Hill townhouse in 2021 that was listed at more than $3 million.

The center of covering a legislature is its leadership, and Sherman and co-founder Anna Palmer, who departed Politico with him, cover the institution from the top down. They have maintained close relationships with the most powerful leaders in Congress, while occasionally alienating or ignoring the fringe members who often hope to influence the lawmaking body by garnering sensational media coverage. (Before leaving Politico in 2020, the then-Playbook author at one point discussed the idea of launching a newsletter just focused on congressional leadership).

“Jake has been a thorn in the side of leadership on both sides of the aisle,” said Drew Hammill, the former communications aide and deputy chief of staff to Nancy Pelosi. “At the end of the day though, he is a fair, well-sourced reporter who is only interested in the truth.”

But it’s the Punchbowl News relationship with McCarthy that is the subject of constant Capitol Hill chatter. The new speaker has said that Punchbowl News is his first read of the day. (The news was, of course, shared by Sherman.)

Sherman is also close with Dan Conston, who runs the Congressional Leadership Fund, the super PAC that is closely aligned with McCarthy. The duo have been friends since their days as students at George Washington University: Conston played a role in Sherman’s wedding, which was written up at the time in Politico Playbook, where Sherman was a frequent contributor.

Like many reporting relationships, the one between Sherman and McCarthy is transactional.  But beyond serving as a means to shape the narrative, Sherman has also been a valuable source of information to McCarthy’s camp. One person close to the new speaker noted that last week, the congressional reporter seemed to know things before they did, including information about how some Republican holdouts may vote.

McCarthy’s office and allies aren’t always pleased with Sherman’s reporting. On a private call this week with members, the California representative seemed to mock the outlet’s coverage of the speaker’s race. And on January 4, Punchbowl described his hopes as “teetering.”

McCarthy’s enemies complained Punchbowl was too sympathetic to the Republican leader. Throughout last week, while other outlets dubbed McCarthy “weak” and said his failure to immediately secure the speakership was an embarrassment, Punchbowl News carefully avoided passing judgment on his tenuous position. And as it appeared that McCarthy was gaining momentum, Sherman was often the first to break the news of members who flipped.

“You could practically feel how giddy Jake Sherman was on Friday to see his horse finally making a move,” one congressional reporter grumbled to Semafor.

Backbenchers also chafe at Punchbowl’s coverage. “Is there clearer example of “access journalism” in Washington than Jake Sherman / Kevin McCarthy?” Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz asked on Twitter last year.

“I am once again asking the Punchbowl dudes to stop running false overhyped scoops that serve as Kevin McCarthy press releases,” Jeremy Slevin, Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar’s communications aide tweeted Friday. “To all the reporters who messaged me privately thanking me because they agree but can’t say so publicly, you’re welcome.”

Slevin’s tweet acknowledged a fact that I found in my reporting all week. Either out of a sense of professional propriety or competitive jealousy (in some cases both), over a dozen staff and fellow Hill reporters pushed me to write a piece about Punchbowl News that would expose their ties to McCarthy.

Perhaps the greatest testament to Punchbowl’s growing power, though, came when I asked if any would go on the record with their criticism. No one was interested.


When I wrote about Punchbowl in the New York Times two years ago, their timing raised an obvious question.

“A Beltway school of journalism wants to get back to just-the-facts-ma’am reporting. But how do you cover this Republican Party?” we asked.

Sherman, Palmer and their team have proved skeptics wrong: They’re a must-read for a vital audience. But McCarthy’s fragile speakership is going to keep them, and the rest of us who cover the Hill, balancing between covering the normalcy of process and the constant possibility of its collapse.

— Ben Smith


One Good Text with ... Michael Wolff


Did content moderation save lives?

REUTERS / Athit Perawongmetha

The debate over internal documents released by Twitter revealed how intensely both Twitter’s former “Trust and Safety” executives and the people they threw off the platform over COVID-19 claims believed in the power of Twitter itself.

But did content moderation on social media actually ensure that Americans got vaccines?

Twitter and Facebook worked hard to keep the anti-vax fringe silenced. Yet the U.S., their home markets, trailed only Russia as having the most opposition to vaccination in among major countries in a survey last month.

I asked Steven Rathje, a social scientist whose work found a correlation between social media use and vaccine hesitancy, about whether aggressive content moderation actually had the desired impact.

It is — surprise! — extremely hard to demonstrate causation. And in this case, he said there’s just no clear answer in the data.

“There were some content backfire effects and some positive effects” of suppressing false claims about vaccines, he said. “It’s tricky to see if the pros outweigh the cons.”

— Ben Smith

Staff Picks: What Democracy Looks Like
  • C-SPAN was so good last week because it was freed of the usual restrictions a functioning Congress places on it. Watch Semafor’s video to appreciate the difference.

  • Cindy Adams and Barbara Walters met as teenagers. “Her father Lou Walters’ Latin Quarter nightclub did showgirls with major boobs, minor costumes and bigtime comedians.”

    Adams’ obituary is low on verbs and self-awareness, a warmly appalling glimpse of a lost age of 20th Century media in its crazy, cozy luxury: “1971 the Shah’s guests in Persepolis, Iran, 1960 was Israel. She gave me a mink jacket, gold Bulgari watch, 18-karat bracelets from Dubai.” And access: Castro drove me through mountains to his hideaway where he was a guerilla. I found him sexy. He picked me up in his jeep driving back streets with a gun in his lap.”

    They don’t teach this in journalism school, kids.

  • The Guardian is still untangling a mysterious cyber attack. Many of the initial issues have been sorted out, including delayed soccer results in the print edition, payroll hiccups, and UK pension payments. But several tipsters told us that there are lingering production issues, including problems publishing obituaries and the headshots for columnists in the publication’s print editions.

    After our story published this week, the Guardian sent out a memo to staff pleading for patience, and explaining why the paper has kept staff in the dark. “We are doing our best to give everyone as much information as we can, but the investigation is technically very complex and we do not want to inadvertently give out incorrect or incomplete information,” chief executive Anna Bateson wrote.

  • Finally, Max and I really are getting lonely here on Sunday nights. Charlotte Klein attributes the New York Times’s delay in picking someone to replace me as the media columnist to “the number of cooks in the kitchen.”
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— Ben