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A large-scale new study of political advertising will challenge some popular Democratic Party theori͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌ 
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September 24, 2023


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Ben Smith
Ben Smith

Welcome to Semafor Media, where illicit compensation always takes the form of gold bars.

The story that culminated in those eye-popping accusations against a sitting U.S. senator Friday began in May 2019 with an article in an outlet you may not have heard of: Mada Masr.

The independent Egyptian publication had reported on the curious, abrupt decision by the Egyptian government to hand a $21 million annual monopoly on certifying imported halal meat to an unknown New Jersey firm. The article named central players in the bribery scandal now alleged to involve Sen. Bob Menendez.

Mada Masr is one of a set of ambitious digital outlets, including the Russian-language Meduza, Rappler in the Philippines and Malaysiakini in Malaysia, that once seemed to be the vanguard of expanding freedom. Now, they’re all under attack by their respective governments. Mada Masr’s editor, Lina Attalah, has been arrested twice and was hit last year with absurd fake news charges for criticizing the government.

That seamless global web of news is part of how we see the world at Semafor, in which a big Washington scandal only makes sense when you connect Hudson County and Cairo. More to the point, these outlets survive in the narrow remaining space for a free press where U.S. and European scrutiny, support and occasional protest can keep them running. They’re humbling to watch.

Also in this newsletter: What we don’t know about Fox News, a fascinating breakthrough in political polling, departures at CNN and Morning Brew, Spectator drama and hostage families protesting the Washington Post. (Scoop count: 6)

If you haven’t yet, sign up with one click to our daily Principals newsletter, where you can find the reporting of Kadia Goba, who last year broke the news of the Menendez investigation. Sign up here.

Assignment Desk
Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports/via REUTERS/File Photo

Rupert Murdoch, 92, announced he was stepping down Thursday, while promising to stick around. His son Lachlan, who lives in Sydney and was already sort of in charge, is now officially sort of in charge. I found myself texting with a crew of Fox obsessives Friday night, realizing none felt we could quite explain the announcement and its timing. But here are some data points:

A person close to the huge Smartmatic lawsuit says this has no legal impact.

A former News Corp. executive suggests it provided cover for a purge of independent-minded board members.

Michael Wolff’s book says it’s part of Fox’s (and cable’s, and all mortals’) inevitable decline.

The New York Post, doing its best Pravda imitation, cites Lachlan’s “shrewd decision-making” and his “scoring pivotal, lucrative deals.”

Puck’s Matt Belloni thinks it’s a signal to the Murdoch daughters.

The eminent Scottish journalist Andrew Neil writes that Murdoch realized he was “curiously diminished, managing assets that were at best treading water. … The go-go, glory days were over. Time, indeed, to take a back seat.”

A relatively trustworthy person close to the family texts that “it’s honestly just a case of Lachlan has earned his spurs.”

If you know what actually happened, and why last week, please let us know!

Ben Smith

New study shoots down popular Democratic theories

Swayable co-founders James Slezak and Valerie Coffman.


A large-scale new study of political advertising will challenge some popular Democratic Party theories about how to win elections, and argue that advertising for everything from presidential candidates to English muffins should be based more in experimentation than in theory.

The peer-reviewed study, set to be released soon in the American Political Science Review, examined 146 experiments on 617 advertisements Democratic campaigns produced in 2018 and 2020. The ads were tested with 500,000 survey respondents on a research platform called Swayable. The study’s authors then asked independent political scientists to tag the advertisements by elements of their style and substance in what appears to be the largest randomly-controlled test of American political ads ever conducted.

The puzzling finding: Some ads were markedly more successful than others, but there was “no persistent pattern to what worked best,” according to a presentation on the data by Swayable co-founder and CEO James Slezak, who is one of the study’s authors.

In particular, the study offers challenges to the various corners of a Democratic Party stuck in a long-running argument between populists and popularists, identity politicians and class warriors – all of them seeking to direct the vast torrents of money that flow through various committees.

A couple of the surprising non-findings:

—“Popularism” – the obvious-seeming notion that campaigns should focus on positions that poll well and avoid ones that poll badly – didn’t clearly win out in the data. “Issue choice was not a reliable predictor of what ads persuade voters,” the study found according to Slezak’s presentation, which said spots focused on racism didn’t turn off viewers as some had predicted.

— Catering to identity politics didn’t consistently work, either. The “identity of narrators didn’t generally impact persuasion much.” The study also found that “voters of all backgrounds were comparably persuadable” and responded similarly to the same messages.

The paper’s findings are unlikely to settle the question of how much politicians should shape their campaigns around the results of public opinion surveys. But at the very least, it suggests that keeping an eye on polling isn’t always a reliable shortcut to producing a compelling ad.

“This is a much more rigorous spotlight on the questions that get debated” in campaign advertising, said Michael Podhorzer, a central figure in Democratic politics who has seen the paper’s results. “I’ve spent a gazillion dollars on politics and made this kind of decision,” said Podhorzer, who recently retired as political director of the AFL-CEO, a longtime major political advertiser. “The truth is that nothing gets a big reaction in any predictable way.”

Read on for more takeaways from the Swayable study and the reaction from a skeptical Matt Yglesias. →

One Good Text

Nada Arafat, a reporter at the Egyptian outlet Mada Masr, was the first to report on the suspicious dealings in Egypt’s halal meat industry that were central to the indictment of U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez.

Live Journalism

In a little over a week’s time, Semafor Business will convene industry leaders at Genesis House. Hosted by Semafor Business Editor Liz Hoffman, this gathering presents an opportunity to rethink the status quo, listen to competing visions for the future, and engage in conversations with those shaping the future of business and finance.

We will be joined on Oct. 3 by Eric Adams, Mayor of New York City; Gary Cohn, former director of the National Economic Council; Mark Wiedman, senior managing director of BlackRock; Lynn Martin, president of NYSE; Scott Rechler, CEO of RXR; and Emma Tucker, editor-in-chief of The Wall Street Journal.

For coverage of the evening, you can sign up for Semafor Business: Sign up here.

REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

⛫ Hollywood

ChatWGA: Hollywood was holding its breath Sunday for the final, fine-print agreement that could end the writers strike. And while the biggest issues are straightforwardly economic, some of the most interesting questions and finest print center on artificial intelligence. The writers, as Variety reported, want the freedom to use AI themselves, while keeping the studios from replacing them with it.

China panic: Disney scrambled to shut down a small division of the company and fire more than 300 Chinese staff members so CEO Bob Iger could tell Wisconsin Republican Rep. Mike Gallagher that American data was being kept out of China, The Wall Street Journal scooped.

Faces revealed last: With big-budget prestige drama winding down, Max is adding six seasons of the notorious British reality show Naked Attraction, in which, per THR, one contestant “critiques and eliminates six potential dates standing on a stage by scrutinizing their fully nude bodies, which are gradually revealed one part at a time (faces are revealed last).”

➿ Audio

Soundcheck: As we first reported this week, Sony Music’s podcast division did another round of layoffs, even as the rest of the audio industry seems to be stabilizing. The company has significantly scaled back its podcast ambitions over the last year, canceling a host of shows including a chat podcast with Emily Ratajkowski.

“Musk”: Kara Swisher’s conversation with Walter Isaacson offers a wonderful glimpse at the stars of two journalistic generations: Isaacson the last avatar of Time Inc.’s neutral posture, Swisher a pioneer of the acerbic and personal new style. “I don’t write a burn book, I tell a narrative,” Isaacson says of his new biography, in a surprisingly genial conversation that reflects pretty well on both.

⁌ TV

Cleaning house: CNN continues to slowly erase the last remnants of former CEO Chris Licht’s mark on the network. First the network moved the morning show back to its old set and returned to its old graphics. Now Semafor has learned that in recent months, it moved Licht’s handpicked executive producer, Chris Russell, off the network’s morning news show.

Big in Irkutsk: “Of course I’m not hosting a show on Russian television,” Tucker Carlson tells Max Seddon, after a Russian state TV suggestion that he is.

Retirement present: Rupert Murdoch’s friends should buy him The Spectator, the former News of the World editor who went to jail for phone hacking suggests … in The Spectator. We would email Murdoch to ask what he thinks, but his News Corp. email is bouncing!

⁛ News

Spectator wars: Speaking of … American Spectator editor-in-chief Bob Tyrrell spends a couple of pages in his new memoir on attempts by the better-known London publication to take his title over. Spec Chairman Andrew Neil, he writes, approached him forgetting that “some years before he had monopolized my booth in a London nightclub with his insufferable gasconade. Then he tried to take off into the night with my blonde of the moment. His chances with the blonde were about on a par with his chances with the American Spectator.” (This was all published in 2023.) Neil responds: “At least he managed to write a few sentences without mentioning Whitewater.”

Post protest: Families of Americans wrongfully detained abroad are demanding a meeting with the Washington Post editorial board after the paper published an op-ed this week calling for the U.S. to stop negotiating with foreign governments wrongly detaining Americans abroad. They argued that the Post’s suggestion would strand some Americans that the U.S. government has said are wrongfully detained abroad. Secretary of State Antony Blinken also privately expressed his concern about the op-ed to a Washington Post journalist this week during the UN summit in New York, we’re told.

Cold Brew: In an internal memo last Sunday evening, Morning Brew said chief revenue officer Ken Shapiro and chief operations officer Matthew Resnick were both leaving the company.

Local news: Earlier this week, Semafor broke the news that the New York nonprofit newsroom The City had reached an agreement with staff to reduce employee hours by 20%. In a statement to Semafor, the organization blamed the staff reduction on a drop-off in funding — which other sources said included the Ford Foundation and Craig Newmark. But after the story was published, several people with knowledge of the situation told Semafor that the problem was somewhat self-inflicted. Staff were frustrated to be told that in recent months, the organization’s leadership and an outside accounting firm made a mistake in measuring The City’s finances, presented a flawed budget to the organization’s board and hired more people than they could afford. (Correction: An earlier version of this item misattributed to The City the names of donors it lost. In fact, other sources provided those names).

“It is understandable that people are frustrated about how we ended up in this position, but the reason for the painful steps we’ve had to take is a very significant drop in 2023 revenue compared to 2021 and 2022. Had revenues remained at the same level, we would have trimmed our growth plans, but not embarked on a major program of cost cutting,” The City’s executive director, Nic Dawes, said. “We’re grateful to all our funders for making The City’s success possible — and especially touched to see the hundreds of donations that came in from our readers over the past few days.” — Max Tani

Paris match: French billionaire Xavier Niel bought out a Czech investor’s stake in the French paper of record’s complicated ownership structure, with plans to put the majority into a foundation to guarantee its independence, the FT reports from a city suddenly full of media deals.

Global get-together: More than 2,000 investigative journalists from around the world crowded into the convention center in Gothenburg, Sweden, for the biennial Global Investigative Journalism Conference — many from countries where the industry and they, personally, are under threat. Russians, Ukrainians, Afghans, El Salvadorans, Hong Kongers and Ethiopians mingled, shared notes and tips, conceived joint reporting projects and kvetched over the all-vegan, low-carbon footprint gala dinner menu. Particularly poignant: A lone Afghan journalist, Zahra Nader, looking for support for her site, Zan Times, devoted to women telling their stories of life under the Taliban. — Gina Chua

Hot on Semafor
  • Six months after Elon Musk, Steve Wozniak and other tech luminaries joined a call for a pause on certain AI developments, the author of the letter is reflecting on its impact.
  • The White House could force cloud computing firms to report some information about their customers. The rules are intended to create a system that would allow the U.S. government to identify potential AI threats,
  • Israeli officials are working to persuade U.S. leaders that a peace deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia could strengthen the U.S. well beyond the Middle East. One top Netanyahu aide said it could be a “reverse 9/11.”
  • An NSFW chatbot app has surged in popularity, but its sexual content spurred OpenAI to crack down. Now, it’s pitching investors on building its own large language model.