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In this edition: Our full conversation with Vivek Ramaswamy.͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌ 
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June 3, 2024


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Ben Smith
Ben Smith

Welcome to Semafor Media, where we’re clinging to this Sunday evening slot despite a very full newsletter.

Vivek Ramaswamy and BuzzFeed is one of those combinations that makes your head hurt. Nayeema Raza and I talked to the media-obsessed Republican on our new podcast, “Mixed Signals,” last week, and I got some feedback from my old boss, BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti, about the value of news to a media company: It’s “an expensive way to gain relevance.”

Ramaswamy put the same point differently. When it comes to making change, “there’s two sets of rails that really matter: communications and financial services.” And money can buy you media power. Forbes’ list of the world’s richest men these days is also a list of rich men buying speech and news. The top three are Jeff Bezos, who tonight fired his Washington Post editor; Bernard Arnault, who has been buying up French media; and Elon Musk — who, despite losing billions (on paper) on Twitter, still seems happy with his purchase.

Also this week: There’s a new Washington Post editor. Plus, CNN is cashing in on its debate, more turmoil at the Intercept, Substack is adding political voices, The Daily Signal is going independent, Steven Brill defines “pink slime,” and a Mississippi outlet faces a frontal assault from a governor it exposed. (Scoop count: 7)

And if you haven’t yet, please do check out — and download, review, enjoy, let us know what you think — “Mixed Signals,” which takes this newsletter’s broad view of the media beat. The next episode will be out Thursday!

Ben Smith

Why politicians want to buy the news

Wikimedia Commons


In December 2020, in the relative lull between Donald Trump’s defeat and Jan. 6, 2021, a right-leaning biotech entrepreneur named Vivek Ramaswamy joined a call with two billionaire titans of the right’s battles over speech and technology: Peter Thiel and Elon Musk.

The subject was a plan to roll up a new tech giant that would be wide open to the speech, from extreme partisanship to vaccine skepticism, that had been pushed off platforms like Facebook and Twitter. The company would build a new cloud services alternative to Amazon Web Services, and swallow smaller startups like Parler, a Twitter alternative associated with American conservatives. Ramaswamy, his would-be partners suggested, could be CEO.

Ramaswamy discussed the previously unreported call with my co-host Nayeema Raza and me on our show, “Mixed Signals,” last week. “I briefly was intrigued by media,” he said — but, understandably, “I decided to go the direction of financial services as my next stop.”

But Ramaswamy’s presence on that 2020 call suggests his activist purchase of more than 8% of BuzzFeed last month didn’t come entirely out of the blue.

In our interview — you can listen to the podcast or see the full transcript here — Ramaswamy also dismissed critics who said he had no path to wrest control of BuzzFeed, whose dual-class stock gives its founder, Jonah Peretti, a majority of the voting power.

“This is a company that has more debt than cash. That debt comes due this December. So anybody who thinks that Jonah Peretti is the person in control of this business because some piece of paper says he has voting rights over the shares is delusional,” he said, suggesting that he could negotiate with BuzzFeed’s creditors to buy its debt and threaten to — or actually— force the company into bankruptcy and take control of it.

Ramaswamy also said he’d consider trying to take the company private. “Somebody who has basic intuitions of how those situations play out would maybe rethink the idea that Jonah actually has full control of this company.”


Peretti, for whom I worked from 2012 to 2019 — when he brought me in to build a news division that the company couldn’t ultimately afford — declined to discuss Ramaswamy’s bid. His public response has been limited to a cordial but skeptical letter and an offer to meet.

But he and I have been talking about the economics of media for more than a decade, and he agreed to let me quote from a text exchange we had last week on the broader subject.

Ramaswamy and Raza seemed to “think BuzzFeed disappeared with BuzzFeed News,” he wrote, after listening to our discussion.

“For elite audiences especially, adding news sharpens a brand and increases relevance,” he wrote. “Unfortunately News is an expensive way to gain relevance and probably not the best way to build value.”

Read Ben's take.  →

One Good Text

I got a few responses to my relief, expressed on ”Mixed Signals,” that I didn’t need to read a direct-response advertisement. Here’s a note from Jesse Brown, the publisher of Canadaland, whose strange and darkly hilarious new podcast is “Pretendians.”


Steven Brill is the co-founder of NewsGuard. His new book, ”The Death of Truth,” comes out June 4 from Penguin Random House.

Pink-slime sites are those that present themselves as legitimate news publishers but have a different, undisclosed mission. They are secretly financed by partisan funders and created to boost their favorite political candidates and tear down their opponents while piously masquerading as independent, nonprofit start-ups launched by civic-minded donors to fill the gap created by the decline of local newspapers. They try to look like long-established independent local newspapers, such as The Copper Courier of Arizona, whose name sounds as if it dates from the copper rush of the 19th century, not its actual founding in 2019 by a left-wing political operation.

For those who believe that the independent press — the Fourth Estate — is fundamental to democracy, this hijacking of the credibility of once-trusted local news sources should be beyond the pale. The hijackers, Democrats and Republicans alike, have acted as if the idea that self-government depends on people being able to count on independent providers of information is a quaint relic and that the new media channels present new opportunities that creative political operatives must seize. In other words, even this core instrument of the democratic process, independent journalism, can and must now be cast aside.

Read the full excerpt from "The Death of Truth." →


⁛ News

New regime: Washington Post editor-in-chief Sally Buzbee has resigned, to be replaced in part by former WSJ editor Matt Murray — as an editorially-minded publisher, Will Lewis, takes charge.

Not Today: A Mississippi judge is ordering the nonprofit news organization Mississippi Today to turn over reporting notes and documents related to its Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation of a state welfare scandal.

In 2022, Mississippi Today revealed how former Gov. Phil Bryant steered millions of federal welfare dollars to benefit his family and friends, most notably NFL quarterback Brett Favre. Last year, Bryant sued the publication for defamation over its description of its reporting — not the reporting itself. While his lawsuit didn’t appear to challenge the facts in Mississippi Today’s series, Bryant’s team said that the organization’s CEO and other employees made defamatory statements about him when discussing the story in public.

“Governor Bryant believes he has been libeled by Mississippi Today,” a Bryant spokesperson told The Associated Press last year. “He is confident in the suit he has brought and, through his attorneys, will convince 12 residents of Madison County of just that.”

In a ruling last month, Madison County Circuit Judge Bradley Mills ordered the publication to turn over all of its reporting documents by June 6.

The ruling has alarmed staff at Mississippi Today, which appealed the decision to the state supreme court. In a statement to Semafor, editor-in-chief Adam Ganucheau said that the judge’s order was unconstitutional, and if the paper turns over its notes, future whistleblowers could be reluctant to expose wrongdoing.

“There has been no evidence presented to demonstrate our reporting was false, because it wasn’t. There has been no evidence presented that our reporting was defamatory, because it wasn’t. There has been no evidence presented that we relied on an unreliable source, because we didn’t. For those reasons, we should not be compelled to turn over privileged information,” Ganucheau said.

He continued: “Using a meritless lawsuit as a vehicle to obtain unfettered access to a news organization’s notes and communications with sources totally disregards the U.S. Constitution and would severely damage the public’s ability to learn about how their leaders behave. We stand by every word of our reporting, and we are confident we will prevail in our defense. Toward that end, we are obligated to appeal this order not only to protect ourselves and a free press, but also to uphold the rights guaranteed to all Mississippians by the Constitution.”

China on offense: “No other delegation has briefed as many reporters as frequently as the Chinese,” the Straits Times reports from a conference in Singapore.

✦ Marketing

REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/File Photo

Big bucks: The debate between Joe Biden and Donald Trump looks like it could be one of the most lucrative nights of the year for news networks. Semafor reported on Friday that CNN was offering two ad tiers to potential advertisers (though not PACs or campaigns; the network has limited political ad spending to before and after the debate, but will not allow either to buy airtime during the contest).

The top tier is a $1.5 million minimum advertising buy with all of the network’s premium features, including a branded countdown clock, advertiser on-air billboards, co-branded tune-in promotions, ads on Max and a takeover of the CNN Politics section on its digital site, plus three 30-second televised ad slots (pre-debate, during, and after). For a mere $1 million, several more advertisers can buy into the next-best tier, which includes the three ads but fewer digital offerings.

⁋ Publishing

Interception: Staff at the Intercept are imploring the nonprofit’s board to fire its CEO and chief strategy officer amid a dispute that involves allegations of gender bias, the likely departure of two top staffers, and the failure to secure a major donor who expressed interest in funding the news site.

In April, Semafor published a story noting that the proudly progressive news organization was on track to run out of money by sometime early next year, and that two of its top journalists, co-founder Jeremy Scahill and Washington bureau chief Ryan Grim, had unsuccessfully petitioned the Intercept’s board to take over the organization themselves.

Since the story was published, internal tensions have stretched the organization to the breaking point, particularly over issues related to fundraising and spending.

Following Semafor’s report, the Intercept was approached by what multiple sources described as a high-level donor who expressed interest in making a significant contribution to help keep the publication afloat.

More on the Intercept from Max. →

Unmixed Signals: The Daily Signal is spinning out from the conservative Heritage Foundation to build an independent news organization focused on investigative journalism, Capitol Hill and the states, and “smart political commentary from policy experts and influential leaders who understand what time it is in America,” Rob Bluey, the publication’s executive editor and founding editor-in-chief, and the new organization’s president, told Semafor. They’ll launch with about 17 journalists.

The publication was founded back in the blogging days to bolster a right-wing media ecosystem that was, then as now, short on original reporting. Heritage president Kevin Roberts, a combative pro-Trump voice, said “the American people deserve a news outlet that covers the news fairly and accurately” that “investigates stories and asks tough questions no other legacy media outlet will ask.”

The new organization, whose structure mirrors that of the Daily Caller and National Review, includes a nonprofit Daily Signal Institute whose work can be published elsewhere, as well as a for-profit media group.

Substack, for politics: There’s a “politics explosion on Substack,” co-founder Hamish McKenzie told us. New additions include former Trump aide Sean Spicer, who’s doing a video podcast on the platform; the podcaster Sharon McMahon, who recently interviewed Vice President Kamala Harris; and the podcaster and social media refugee Sam Harris.

“Politics is the biggest revenue category on Substack, and these latest moves reflect our dedication to providing the best space for political discourse, which other platforms are either abandoning or coarsening,” McKenzie said in an email.

⁜ Tech

Password reset: A hacker broke into CNN’s TikTok account last week, forcing the news organization to take the account down for several days. A network spokesperson told Semafor in the wake of the hack that CNN was “working with TikTok on the backend on additional cybersecurity measures” to ensure that the account will be safe during the presidential debate and other events.

Several CNN staffers said the organization had grown lax with some of its digital safety practices. According to one CNN staffer, before this weekend, dozens of CNN employees had access to the TikTok. But another network source clarified that the breach did not appear to be the result of someone gaining access from CNN’s end. 

Sounds familiar? In a new podcast, Reflector revisits the 1980s debate over the link between teen suicide and explicit music lyrics. The whole thing sounds incredibly familiar, up to and including Tipper Gore!

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