Ben Smith is that rare creature: a first-rate journalist and a serial entrepreneur. As editor in chief of BuzzFeed News, he labored so hard he himself became known as BuzzFeed Ben. As a columnist for The New York Times, he wrote week after week easily the best stuff about the media world, breaking a few careers along the way. And now as co-founder of Semafor, he is back at a start-up whose ambition is nothing less than to be your indispensable digital guide to what is happening globally every day. (Try Semafor Flagship, its morning rundown, and you might well be hooked.) And now comes his book about the early days of digital news, aptly called Traffic, a smart and highly entertaining chronicle of an era that burned fizzy and bright until the hangovers began. It is pure coincidence that BuzzFeed News was shut down on the eve of Traffic’s publication. Unless, of course, God is Smith’s book publicist …
JIM KELLY: In 1926, H. L. Mencken wrote that “no one in this world … has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people.” That quote kept coming back to me as I read your compelling book, starting with the fake site that promoted something called Forget-Me-Not Panties, a G.P.S.-enabled product that supposedly allowed husbands and fathers to track a woman’s location and body temperature. Plenty of outraged people did not get the joke, showing just how gullible folks can be. Is it fair to draw a line between Forget-Me-Not panties and QAnon, which promotes the belief that the government is run by Satan-worshiping pedophiles, with the difference, of course, being in this case that the gullible gleefully embraced that absurdity?
BEN SMITH: You’re absolutely right that there’s nothing new in human nature, and that idiotic things have always been popular—crazy rumors have always spread. But Mencken was writing at the dawn of an incredible centralization of the authoritative U.S. media, around a few broadcast networks and a somewhat larger number of newspapers. They controlled the distribution of information—and occasionally, by the way, told their own lies. What the early Internet media innovators I wrote about realized was that distribution was changing, and that the same people who believed those crazy theories—and again, I don’t really agree with Mencken, in that it can also be hard to underestimate the intelligence of elites, and the Iraq war looms over this period—could also effectively become their publishers, and spread them at incredible speed and scale.
J.K.: You do such a good job tracing the parallel careers of Jonah Peretti, who co-founded the Huffington Post, and Nick Denton, the founder of Gawker. Both were enamored of viral pranks, which in Denton’s case morphed into the sensational and scandalous. You worked for Peretti at BuzzFeed, and both men cooperated with your book. If you had to describe each man in Spy-magazine style (“Short-fingered vulgarian Donald Trump!” “Churlish dwarf billionaire Laurence Tisch!” “Antique Republican pen-holder Bob Dole!”), which words would you choose? And which one would you rather sit next to on the Acela from New York to Washington? Oh, and by the way, the Quiet Car is sold out for this trip.
“What early Internet media innovators realized was that distribution was changing, and that the same people who believed those crazy theories could also effectively become their publishers, and spread them at incredible speed and scale.”
B.S.: Oh, my God, what a fun challenge, but I’m afraid this kind of epithet isn’t my strength. I think that one thing they share is a kind of remoteness—they were both very, very interested in media itself, and sometimes a little detached from the world it described and the effects their projects had on it.
And I will answer “Nick” to your question because I spent years working with Jonah, and then many hours talking to him about this book, but Nick cooperated widely but narrowly: He responded to a long series of text-message questions, and then another pile of questions in a Google document, but never talked to me on the phone or in person. I only saw him once while I was working on the book, when I ran into him sitting outside with two friends at a downtown restaurant.
J.K.: There is a bit of Greek tragedy about Nick Denton, if the fall of a gay Oxford grad who once threw lavish parties at his Manhattan penthouse but got undone by his obsession with sex tapes could be called tragic. He put up a tape of Hulk Hogan having sex with his best friend’s wife. And talk about traffic! Hogan sued Gawker, his successful lawsuit financed by Peter Thiel, the Silicon Valley billionaire who was furious with Denton not for outing him as gay but for calling him “strange” and “paranoid.” Many folks blasted Thiel for forcing Denton to shutter Gawker, but was the criticism justified? It is not as if Thiel bankrupted The New York Times.
B.S.: The notion that billionaires can secretly use the court system to harass their enemies ought to be terrifying to journalists and pretty much everyone else. Their power to do it overtly already does a pretty good job of keeping some of their misdeeds private. If Thiel had been proud of his assault on Gawker and thought it was totally justified, he might not have kept it secret.
But Thiel’s secret role aside, I also think it’s pretty hard to defend what Gawker did to Hogan. It was, obviously, a very different moment, when I think most of us hadn’t thought through what digital reproduction would do to privacy and before sending nudes had basically become fairly mainstream. But Gawker lost the case in part because a jury really did sympathize with Hogan and thought it was incredibly invasive to post an image of someone having sex, and Gawker had fallen behind the cultural reckoning on that question. They’d also linked to or posted intimate images or videos of a sportscaster and a college kid, things that a broad social consensus would now tell you is totally wrong.
“There is a bit of Greek tragedy about Nick Denton, if the fall of a gay Oxford grad who once threw lavish parties at his Manhattan penthouse but got undone by his obsession with sex tapes could be called tragic.”
J.K.: If Tom Wolfe had attended any of the gatherings you describe at Arianna Huffington’s house as she launched her site and had spoken with folks like John Cusack, David Geffen, and Meg Ryan, he could have written a piece as hilarious as his 1970 classic, “These Radical Chic Evenings,” about a party Leonard Bernstein threw in his Park Avenue apartment for the Black Panther Party. The couple of times I have met Arianna, she seemed both quite charming and utterly ridiculous. Your impression?
B.S.: I suppose it was center-left chic? There weren’t any Black Panthers in the room. And the obsession wasn’t with revolutionizing society—it was with stopping George W. Bush. The outcome was much more practical and effective. Huffington Post helped Barack Obama beat Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination. I used to find Arianna sort of preposterous, but she wears you down—it’s impossible not to be impressed by the extent to which she has been able to see a bit around corners, capture the moment, and succeed on her own terms. There aren’t a lot of people like that. She’s a great American story.
J.K.: You deftly point out that clicks do not easily translate into money from either subscribers or advertisers, and your history is littered with the names of sites that made big splashes but failed. You obviously have learned that lesson in helping to start Semafor, a serious news site with a global reach. I find your site indispensable, especially the morning newsletter Semafor Flagship. What would you say to prospective readers who wonder why Semafor is worth their time if they get the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Bloomberg morning newsletters?
B.S.: We’re trying to solve two problems: that people are totally overwhelmed, and they don’t know what to trust. Flagship is focused on the first of those. You should read Flagship instead of all those e-mails because each of those e-mails will send you 17 stories from the Times, or the Journal, or Bloomberg, and pretend all the others don’t exist. We’ll read everything else so you don’t have to, including those outlets and the key stories from Nikkei or Le Monde, and give those varying perspectives to you all in one place.
J.K.: You made such a splash as a media columnist at The New York Times, not only bringing smart insight into journalistic matters of the day but breaking big stories. Is there anything you miss about the job?
B.S.: I was trying to hire a Times reporter once, and he told me he could never leave because “when you work for The New York Times, you never have to explain yourself.” The best part of working for the Times was that there was a certain kind of figure—C.E.O.’s, say—who just felt they had to call you back and answer your questions. They have fabulous editors. And then the platform is just so powerful. You’re always playing with live ammunition. But that access can make you lazy, and the power of the brand means that you’re always being read as a representative of the institution.
J.K.: In one of your New York Times columns, you revealed Tucker Carlson as an excellent off-the-record source for many mainstream reporters, including him offering trenchant opinions about Donald Trump and Fox News in general. So, what really happened that led to Fox firing their most popular host? Apparently he wrote some pretty unflattering e-mails about Fox executives that have yet to be revealed, but I can’t help but think there is more to the story.
B.S.: I haven’t seen a convincing explanation, and am amazed at the confidence with which people are suggesting that he was abruptly fired for things he’s been doing for years, as though they just caught him being Tucker Carlson.
J.K.: Finally, as editor of BuzzFeed, you got a lot of flak for publishing the Steele dossier, a report about Donald Trump’s alleged ties with Russia that has been largely discredited. But what traffic! Imagine you are given such a document today at Semafor—how would you handle it?
B.S.: At Semafor—or, as I write in the book, if I had it to do again at BuzzFeed—I’d publish it in a way that wrapped the context around the document rather than freeing the PDF to travel on its own, without our careful disclaimers that it was unverified and in fact contained some errors. The notion of keeping the document secret—once CNN had reported on the existence of a secret dossier that had been briefed to two presidents, and seen by the entire D.C. insider class—doesn’t make a lot of sense. And I don’t think stapling the context to it more firmly would have prevented people from taking it as gospel. But I still think publishing it was the right thing to do.
Traffic: Genius, Rivalry, and Delusion in the Billion-Dollar Race to Go Viral, by Ben Smith, will be published on May 2 by Penguin Press
Jim Kelly is the Books Editor for AIR MAIL