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Media Newsletter for 1106͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌ 
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November 6, 2022


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Ben Smith
Ben Smith

Welcome to Semafor Media, where we break the news behind the news.

This week is about squinting past the moment. I wonder: what comes after Twitter? And Max reports out how a Republican return to power could reshape American media.

Also: who in Harvey Weinstein’s circle slipped out of the excellent new journalism movie “She Said,” who complained to the studio. And an ad industry figure makes a dire prediction for Twitter’s revenue.

And: please do check out Semafor’s other newsletters!


The crisis at Twitter begs the question: What’s next? Nothing lasts forever in social media. And while TikTok has already swallowed much of the internet, text-based information isn’t going away.

➚ Buy: Discord and Slack: These are similar channel-based messaging platforms, one customized for gamers, the other for office-workers. They are built for community conversations, not centralized ones. And there are communities growing up around news on both platforms. Telegram, dominant in Russia, among parts of the American right, and among tennis players in Brooklyn, also has potential to play a similar role, though it’s used more for one-way broadcasting.

➘ Sell: Mastodon The decentralized software to host your own social network is very cool tech, and has emerged as the early favorite for left-leaning Twitter refugees and those who write about them. But Twitter users’ migration there seems premised on the idea that what comes after Twitter will be a sweeter, harder-to-run version of Twitter. It may be a great home for some communities and conversations, but I’d bet on a changing world.

Screenshot of a Mastodon feed

⇌ Hold: Twitter. Musk has personally tanked its ad business and has no plausible alternative to make up the revenue, but he also has deep enough pockets to run the private company for a long time. He could take an example from the only social network to truly endure, Reddit, which went through a period of turmoil and wild ambition. Then it settled into being the best version of itself. Twitter won’t be a great business anytime soon, but it could remain a key hub for news, for commentary from athletes and politicians, and for jokes and memes.

I loved the early days of social media and its endless competing platforms, from Plurk to Path. There’s a new opportunity now, and contenders range from the brand-centric, SMS-based Community to the mellow Twitter alternative cohost. There’s also an opportunity for someone to burn millions trying to pull Twitter’s top athletes and journalists somewhere new. Do you see any getting traction? Send tips to ben.smith@semafor.com.

Max Tani

As Democrats panic, MSNBC is trying to keep it “nice”

Screenshot of Tiffany Cross on MSNBC site


MSNBC’s decision to part ways with its top-rated weekend anchor came after an escalating internal conflict.

Network President Rashida Jones had objected to some of Tiffany Cross’s headline-grabbing comments, particularly recent ones about conservative political figures. Other official arms of the news network had similar concerns: NBC’s standards department objected when she dubbed Justice Clarence Thomas “Justice Pubic Hair on My Coke Can.”

The standards department also raised issues with her jab that former Trump aide Alyssa Farah “guzzled down that Kool-Aid like it was the bleach your boss once said cured the ’rona.’”

The former host declined to answer Semafor’s questions in a brief telephone call on Friday. But she spent the afternoon boosting dozens of tweets that criticized MSNBC’s decision, and wrote in an Instagram post that she was “disheartened to learn of MSNBC’s decision to cancel The Cross Connection at such a crucial time — four days before the midterm elections.”


Cross’s involuntary departure from the liberal network reflects a deep tension that has become more pronounced without President Donald Trump to serve as a unifying programming force.

MSNBC’s ratings depend on its delivering a progressive point of view to its liberal audience, which has for years boosted primetime hosts like Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O’Donnell.

But the network also has another less explicit expectation for its hosts: Be nice.

The rule at the network since Trump’s departure from office has been to avoid snark and bombast — much less the combination of the two that conservatives respond to from Tucker Carlson.

Comcast executives have never been completely comfortable with some of the network’s more pugnacious hosts. A prominent executive at Comcast, which owns MSNBC’s parent company NBCUniversal, said privately recently that they saw MSNBC’s goal as cultivating an “opinionated but not edgy” stable of on-air personalities.

That wasn’t Cross. Just hours before she was fired by MSNBC, the host called Florida the “dick of the country” and said it should be “castrated.” That comment did not sit well with Jones, according to one person familiar with her thinking. But Cross isn’t the only host in recent years to make executives nervous. Network higher-ups expressed discomfort with hosts Mehdi Hassan and Ayman Mohyeldin for their coverage of  an outbreak of violence between Israel and Palestine in May of 2021.

The network, however, drew a distinction for Cross, whom it felt made inappropriate comments about a number of figures across the political spectrum, including CNN host Van Jones and HBO’s Bill Maher.

Recent moves illustrate the voice MSNBC is looking for. The network moved the former Bloomberg TV host Stephanie Rhule from a daytime show to the 11 P.M. timeslot vacated by Brian Williams (himself an affable, cool-headed television personality). Nicole Wallace, the most successful of the network’s stable of Never-Trump personalities, now occupies two hours of the late afternoon and co-anchors during major political events. Alex Wagner replaced Maddow in the network’s coveted 9 P.M. slot.

The network is trying to reach former CNN viewers it sees as available in an otherwise inhospitable post-Trump-presidency media environment, as CNN tries to shift away from strident anti-Trump politics.

Tuesday’s midterms will test this theory. MSNBC is planning heavy overnight coverage the night of the midterm elections and the night after, and has plans to stay on the air through the weekend if results are slow coming in or there are electoral disputes.

Maybe it’ll work. But in the process, the network could end up dismissing some of the nonwhite voices who represent the more progressive or overtly partisan part of the network, who have helped win African-American viewers. Cross’s audience was 35% African-American, according to a memo obtained by Mediaite. Critics of the network’s recent moves point out that two of the shows that Jones has taken off the air have been hosted by black women: Cross and Zerlina Maxwell, who quit the network after her streaming show was canceled.

“How do you allow your hosts to be attacked in a vicious way like Tucker Carlson did and you offer no response?” asked Roland Martin, the former CNN commentator who last year launched the Black Star Network. “I believe what’s vulgar if you allow your on-air talent to be attacked and you let them fend for themselves.”

The cancellations also raise the question of what the MSNBC audience wants, regardless of Comcast executive tastes. Following Rachel Maddow’s departure, the most watched figure on the network on a nightly basis is O’Donnell, a 70-year-old white man who rarely goes viral. Reid, the most prominent nonwhite host on the network, has more modest viewership.

But attempts to reach to the center by elevating or sidelining progressive television personalities could all be moot in several days. If Republicans retake Congress, and Trump immediately declares he’s running again, the fear and conflict that drove cable news’s success for four years will return regardless of who’s delivering the news.


The audience has pulled cable news to target the most engaged partisans. But ratings aren’t the only consideration. The countervailing pressure comes from big advertisers, who have largely abandoned Fox News and are shy of controversy of all sorts. MSNBC and CNN, meanwhile, are part of larger media companies whose executives are similarly loath to be in the center of national controversy. At CNN, the push to the center comes from the top, from a key shareholder in its parent company, John Malone.


  • I reported last week on the cancellation of Shep Smith’s CNBC show, noting that “the slickly-produced, straightforward evening news program had failed to attract the large audience that Smith had in his afternoon slot at Fox News, or produce breakout viral moments that made him a resistance star during the Trump years.”
  • Behind essentially every media story right now — including the cuts at MSNBC — is the intense pressure to reduce costs. Alex Sherman looks at how that’s playing out at CNN.
Direct Message

One Good DM... with Lou Paskalis

Lou Paskalis was among the advertising execs who talked to Elon Musk on Thursday. On Friday, Musk tweeted that advertisers leaving the platform were trying to “destroy free speech.” Paskalis responded that they care about “BRAND SAFETY/SUITABLITY” and Musk promptly blocked him.

Paskalis told Semafor that while Musk seems to be backing Twitter’s global head of safety and integrity, Yoel Roth, other Twitter employees who worked to keep advertisers comfortable on the contentious platform are now gone.

“We all trust Yoel, but are unsure of that capacity and ecosystem around him to help guide that thinking,” Paskalis wrote. “That introduces a great deal of risk and will drive many, if not most, Fortune 500 advertisers to pause their investments on the platform for at least the next 90 days in my opinion.”


The villains of “She Said”

Harvey Weinstein appears in court
Etienne Laurent/Pool via REUTERS

The movie “She Said,” based on Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey’s book about bringing down Harvey Weinstein, opens November 18. It follows two dogged, tough, earnest women at work and in their full lives, and dwells on the grinding commitment of the New York Times to nailing down facts.

The movie — like all movies — also compresses characters and narratives to fit the needs of a good procedural. That’s of particular interest to the cast of powerful American figures who enabled Weinstein’s years of abuse of women.

Because while journalism and books can shape someone’s reputation, on-screen depictions can drive the broader public’s perceptions.

Most of the enablers, including the lawyers Lisa Bloom and Linda Fairstein come off badly, as they did in reality.

One, strikingly, escapes depiction: the lawyer David Boies is not portrayed in the film, though he was a key Weinstein defender. His firm, in fact, hired the private spies unmasked by The New Yorker’s Ronan Farrow, and the Times — whom he’d represented — called the spying “reprehensible.” Boies told me he’d had no contact with filmmakers, and an NBCUniversal spokesman declined to comment on his omission. He told Kantor and Twohey in their book that he didn’t “have any regret” over his representation of Weinstein.

Another central player in the drama is objecting to his depiction in the movie, two sources familiar with his complaint told me. Lance Maerov, the top North American dealmaker at the ad giant WPP, was Weinstein’s main antagonist on The Weinstein Company board. Ken Auletta’s “Hollywood Ending” praises him for having “displayed the courage to challenge Harvey.” Auletta reports that he played a central role in bringing Weinstein down.

Maerov is portrayed as a more ambiguous figure in the book “She Said,” doing the right thing more for corporate than ethical reasons. And in the film, he’s a minor character, a kind of proxy for the negligent board. He appears for one short scene, dressed in black and reluctantly going on the record during a meeting in Bryant Park.

Maerov notified NBCUniversal that he thinks his depiction was inaccurate, I’m told. Neither he nor the studio would comment on their exchange.

And then there’s Lanny Davis. The Washington lawyer and fixer comes through in the film as he does in the book, a weird, elusive character (played to type by Peter Friedman, the oily Frank from Succession). In a crucial scene, he either accidentally or on purpose confirms to Twohey a central fact against his client’s interest. If you are a journalist who enjoys strange interactions with sources, watch “She Said” for that one alone.

“The Times’ reporters, Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, catalyzed a vital cultural recognition and shift, focusing our attention and spurring other journalist action. I hope the movie gets the attention this issue deserves,” Davis said in an email. “While I haven’t seen the movie and no one associated with it ever contacted me, I can say the facts in the reporters’ book were accurate.  After their Times article was published, I ceased representing Mr. Weinstein, as is publicly known.”

Ben Smith

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Coming Attractions

Join me in Washington DC or online Nov. 18 for our third event on the future of news.

I’ll be speaking with the New York Times’s Maggie Haberman, author of “Confidence Man,” the definitive new portrait of former President Trump. Semafor Editor -at-Large Steve Clemons will be sitting down with White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre.

RSVP here to join us virtually — or to join us in person for the event and the happy hour that follows.


Staff Picks
New York City Mayor Eric Adams
John Jones-USA TODAY Sports
  • Speaking of Havey Weinstein: The City’s Greg B. Smith revealed that remnants of the producer’s power linger in New York Mayor Eric Adams’ City Hall. Weinstein’s lawyer complained during the trial about the conduct of New York State Supreme Court Justice James Burke treated. The lawyer is a fervent Adams supporter, close to the mayor’s top political adviser. And the judge has lost his job, “a professional hit” according to one of Smith’s sources.
  • Journalism in Belfast is still dangerous work. Lyra Mckee “got to speak to a lot of people because they found her unassuming — a young girl with a bag knocking on the door. She found stories in the past that no one else was really looking at,” says the director of a new film on the murdered Irish journalist.
  • The Chinese science journalist Jane Qiu has found herself at the center of the coverage of the origins of COVID-19, and the heated debate over the possibility that it leaked from a Chinese lab. She writes about how hard it is to cover the polarized story with true neutrality. She saves most of her criticism for Americans who have argued that a lab leak is likely, but adds: “It would be impossible for those of us from either China or the U.S. to be free of our personal sentiment when reporting a story with a strong element of China-U.S. tension.”
  • And a federal court in Texas is again considering the Laredo Police Department’s charges against a journalist who was literally doing her job, on the grounds that she got paid for it. “If [this] is not an obvious violation of the Constitution, it’s hard to imagine what would be,” an appellate judge wrote when he ruled for Priscilla Villareal last year.
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— Ben