Culture & Society

The Fall and Rise of the Mediators

In the wake of traditional media’s collapse, new institutions are sprouting everywhere. We just don’t know which ones will endure

An earlier extinction event. Image Credit: Roger Harris, Science Photo Library/Getty Images

Extinction events in nature rivet our attention. Most children know that the dinosaurs, masters of our planet for hundreds of millions of years, disappeared with astounding rapidity, probably from the consequences of a meteor colliding with the Earth. There’s drama, even tragedy, in such colossal destruction of animal life.

But every extinction event is also a speciation event. A vast territory is suddenly emptied and therefore opened to new organic forms. This process is much less dramatic because it’s competitive: We can’t predict in advance which species will inherit the world. A visitor from another galaxy arriving on our planet at the end of the Cretaceous Period would scarcely have guessed that the timid rat-sized creatures scurrying underfoot would supplant the mighty dinosaurs. Yet, in time, those small proto-mammals would give rise to the saber-tooth tiger, the woolly mammoth and William Shakespeare.

The same evolutionary principle applies to institutions. Declines and falls are studied for deep lessons and inspire reams of commentary. The decadence of Rome is something of a Hollywood industry, for example, and historians remain fascinated with the morbidities of Germany’s Weimar Republic, that political arrangement born in a state of collapse.

But the beginning of any human structure is an uncertain affair. The present is always a tangle of contradictory visions and conflicting interests. What appears to be of all-consuming importance today is forgotten tomorrow—and even the supposed clarity of hindsight is mostly an illusion.  We know exactly when and how Rome fell, but why such a backwater of a city became one of history’s greatest empires remains a mystery.

I take it for granted that we are enduring, at present, a mass extinction event for our institutions, triggered by the collision of 20th-century structures with a meteor of digital information. From politics to science, the old framework and the old elites seem to be going the way of the dodo. A fertile space has been opened; since human nature abhors a vacuum, fragile new institutional forms are sprouting there.

An obvious example is the increased use of cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and Ethereum, means of exchange that seem to float in midair without a national bank to uphold them. Cryptocurrency is now accepted by cities like Miami and countries like El Salvador; it seems only a matter of time before digital merchandisers like Amazon join the game. The market cap for cryptocurrency is a remarkable $2 trillion—a number that is certain to bound upwards as the new currencies are turned into a hedge against inflation.

Other institutional developments are less well known but even more pregnant with future possibilities—“blockchain democracy,” “sortition representation,” the “pseudonymous economy.” These, however, are topics for another time. Today I want to talk about the budding brokers of digital news.

The End of Journalism and the Death of News

Predictably, the flood of digital content has proved most destructive to those institutions that profited from selling information: what we call, for interesting reasons, the media. The word means “in the middle.” Journalists claimed to stand between the public and the facts about the world. While that was never really true, in the last century the news media did sprinkle tidbits of information sometimes useful to ordinary people. It was a time of scarcity. The daily news was a small but refreshing oasis in a trackless desert of information.

Today, of course, we are drowning in the stuff. The “news feed” is nothing more than a button in social media—and the newspaper, cradle of journalism, has lost its business model. In the United States, as many as 2,000 newspapers have vanished since 2004. According to Andrey Mir, the entire art form is doomed to extinction.  The “long tale of residual newspaper shutdowns,” Mir predicts, “will continue until the mid-2030s.” After that, silence.

Mir insists that the disappearance of the newspaper must mean the end of journalism. I agree. A model formed to exploit scarcity can’t be expected to function in an era of overabundance. The facts of the world, it turns out, are virtually infinite in number and incoherent in pattern. The digital age resembles the Tower of Babel—an uproar of mutually unintelligible voices. The New York Times and CNN merely contribute to the din. In such an environment, conspiracy theories can become plausible explanations for the behavior of scientists. The more information we absorb, the less we understand.

The public, in other words, craves comprehension, not breaking news. A few prestigious old media brands have begun to adapt to this demand. In a phenomenon Mir has labeled “post-journalism,” The New York Times, for example, has given up the pretense of objective reporting and is now the interpretive organ for the cult of identity and the progressive left. Fox News has long made a good living playing the same part for the unreconciled right.

But new actors have also emerged directly out of the digital environment and gained a substantial audience by mediating between a baffled public and the surrounding noise. They mix politics with comedy and are keenly interested in technology, gaming, religion and culture. The level of ideological commitment can be ferocious but the brand—the voice—is always personal. That, as we will see, appears to be something of an obstacle to the possibility of institution-building.

The Resurrection of the Mediator in the Digital Age

Because digital mediators ride different (and often multiple) platforms—YouTube, TikTok, reddit, Twitch, not to mention links to Facebook and Twitter—it’s difficult to get a fix on the size and demographics of their audience. My gut sense is that among digital natives they are far more popular than the prestige media. Zoomers and younger millennials, in my experience, have little interest in the pronouncements of people with trained voices and unfashionable hair.

The new mediators offer themselves as storytellers and interpreters—our local guides through the jungle of contemporary life. They make no claim of objectivity and their ideologies encompass the political spectrum. On the left, for example, the “Young Turks” program on YouTube headlined by Cent Uygur has become the mouthpiece of the socialist-oriented Justice Democrats. It boasts more than 5 million subscribers on YouTube alone—far more than CNN’s average cable audience.

Andrew Callaghan’s politics can only be inferred from his weird short-form videos; he is (probably) center-left. At the venerable age of 24, Callaghan has already enjoyed two careers as a star of digital news. His initial YouTube series, “All Gas, No Brakes,” currently stands at 77 million views. He was released from that show after wandering around Minneapolis during the 2020 disorders there and interviewing random disorderly people. Callaghan’s current YouTube effort, “Channel 5,” has over a million subscribers and has received nearly 17 million views.

Ben Shapiro, once an editor and writer for Breitbart News, is an unambiguous advocate of conservative political and cultural causes. Shapiro, 37, appears to be a master at spreading his message across platforms and formats—video, radio, podcast and various social media. His Facebook page has more followers than The Washington Post’s. The video version of his eponymous podcast has 3.7 million subscribers on YouTube; the podcast itself has been ranked as high as second most popular on iTunes.

This would be a good moment to pause and consider the reach and influence of podcasting, which I think has been an underappreciated development of the digital age. The U.S. today has 120 million regular podcast listeners. This audience is divided among 2 million podcasters, with “true crime” shows famously leading the popularity parade. We shouldn’t be surprised, therefore, that the format has given rise to the biggest celebrity among the new mediators: the enigmatic Joe Rogan.

“The Joe Rogan Experience” on Spotify attracts an estimated 11 million listeners per episode. For a fractured society, those are astonishing numbers: Rogan is as close as we can get today to a dominant broadcaster like Walter Cronkite. The topics of his show range eccentrically from politics to COVID-19 to Bigfoot, with interviews of tech billionaires, comedians, journalists, professors and cranks.

CNN characterized Rogan as “libertarian-leaning” but his politics are best described as unpredictable. In 2020, he seemed to endorse Tulsi Gabard, Bernie Sanders (who enraged his supporters by boasting about the endorsement) and Donald Trump in succession. That each of these politicians went down in defeat demonstrates the limits in the persuasive power of even the most popular media figure.

The undisputed champion. Joe Rogan’s podcast garners 11 million listeners per week. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Nevertheless, Rogan remains the undisputed champion of digital news. For my money, he will soon be challenged for that title by a brilliant newcomer, Bari Weiss. Having worked at The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, Weiss comes from old media, but she understands the changed landscape and has the right mix of talent and ambition to become a leading player. Her podcasts (in which I was a guest) are extraordinary productions, more audio documentaries than interviews. Her Substack newsletter, “Common Sense,” was launched in January of this year and already has 100,000 subscribers—including enough paying customers to enable her to hire a staff. The objective is to evolve a new ecosystem for digital media: that is to say, to achieve institutional success.

Though fairly centrist in her politics, Weiss is a fierce advocate of free speech and an unrelenting opponent of the cult of identity. She strikes me as a dragon-slayer, and I believe political circumstances over the next three years are certain to deliver any number of large, attention-grabbing dragons for her to slay.

The Leap to Institution-Building

Mediation is all about trust, and trust is a function of reputation. We go to a purveyor of information as we go to a doctor, because we believe both to combine special knowledge with high integrity. At a time of institutional breakdown this can only be, necessarily, a personal assessment.

A common denominator of the new mediators, in consequence, is that they are endowed with large and interesting personalities. They exploit the digital style, which is discursive and informal, to present themselves as themselves, that is, as authentic individuals. The relationship with the audience is companionable rather than scripted. If Cronkite was a serious performer on center stage whose opinions we never knew, Uygur, Rogan and Weiss sit with us backstage, hair down, beer in hand, engaged in an entertaining bull session.

The question is whether this approach contains the seeds that will grow into more permanent models. On the one hand, a great many institutions have their origins in some outsize character: Edison was a culture hero before he became an electric company, and Mark Zuckerberg had movies made about him even as he dissolved into Facebook. But the emphasis on personality can quickly degenerate into mere celebrity-mongering. We don’t have to travel far down that path before we encounter those strange avatars of pseudo-mediation, the “influencers,” who commodify fame by pretending to possess it.

Selling a name and a face is the opposite of institution-building. Evidently, influencers don’t qualify. Whether a Joe Rogan or a Bari Weiss, who are real powers in the media world, can convert personality into a more lasting structure remains to be seen. Attempts have been made to mediate the new landscape in the old impersonal style: the U.K.-based “Tortoise News,” to which I subscribe, does just that. None of these efforts, however, have been remotely as popular as the big names.

Institutions are depositories of reputation. They garner trust over long spans of time, often generations. The journey is strewn with the carcasses of experimental forms that succeeded briefly, then failed for good. With the institutional future of media, as with every evolutionary process, many are called but few will be chosen.

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