Culture & Society

The Fifth Wave: The Golden Age of Substack

Defectors From the News Media Have Resurrected Investigative Reporting

Image Credit: Patric Sandri

The ideology of the news business proclaims that it holds powerful interests accountable to the public. Courageously, at great risk to themselves, investigative reporters protect democracy by exposing the crimes and corruption of elected leaders. The iconic example of this brave truth telling is, of course, Watergate, in which Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of The Washington Post, assisted by a shadowy film noir character called Deep Throat, blew open the misdeeds of the Nixon administration. We all saw the movie. It has to be true.

Yet even in the heyday of the newspaper, the relationship of journalism to power was closer to the opposite of that cherished ideal. Reporters were minor players in the games elites played. The news business as a whole reflected a narrow range of elite interests and cultural signaling. Misdeeds at the top were exposed when it suited other elites, never otherwise. John F. Kennedy’s sexual predations were apparently astronomical in number, but we never heard about them—at least while he was alive. He was a protected man. Nixon, a dark and troubled soul, committed the political equivalent of suicide by cop. The media played a small part in his execution—Woodward and Bernstein, an insignificant one.

Protected man. President John F. Kennedy in 1963. Image Credit: Cecil Stoughton, White House

In any case, the fantasy of the relentless muckraker has been quietly discarded in the digital age. Journalists are now meek handmaidens to the elites and bland deniers of scandal. Democracy, in their view, demands the public’s permanent genuflection before the ruling class. Any other posture smacks of populism or even fascism. The hero is no longer the investigative reporter but the “fact-checker”—a dull but peevish beast whose task it is to count the lies of Donald Trump and dismiss reports of corruption in high places as “conspiracy theories” and “disinformation.” Such naked prostration before the establishment, it should be noted, has less to do with journalistic principles than with a desperate need to attract a paying audience.

Many working journalists have found such Soviet-style mannerisms distasteful. Some have retired to write scathing critiques of their old business. Others, as in the Cold War days, have simply defected to the free world—that is, to Substack, a platform that allows them to write virtually at will. And behold, these refugees from the news business are suddenly making news. As we’ll see, they have uncovered crimes and scandals and have embarrassed and angered powerful people. It’s way too early to make sweeping generalizations, but one can understand the enthusiasm that led one practitioner to announce that we have entered “the golden age of Substack.”

“One of the Best Jobs in Journalism”

Founded in 2017, Substack orchestrates the emailing of newsletters to a subscriber list. Access to content can vary on whether subscribers pay or not; full subscription costs seem to hover around $50 and rarely exceed $100 per year, with the company taking 10% of the cut. Now valued at $650 million, Substack receives over 30 million views per month, enough to make millionaires out of well-known authors like Glenn Greenwald and Seymour Hersh but not even close to the true scale of the internet. Facebook’s “active user” list, after all, is now approaching 3 billion, while Google processes as many searches per day as there are people in the planet.

The simplicity of Substack’s business model conceals a powerfully liberating feature. No allegiance is owed to a traditional hierarchy or to advertisers. The content-suppressing machinery now in place in the federal bureaucracy and social media, therefore, finds exercising control over the platform a difficult if not impossible task. Within very broad parameters, newsletter authors can write as they please, offend anyone they choose and engage in every kind of controversy. They just need to attract an audience if they wish to make money—a requirement that favors writers who already have a following.

“All I have to do is find a few thousand people who will pay me $10 a month or $100 a year and I’ll have one of the best jobs in journalism,” explains Casey Newton, a well-known technology reporter who defected from The Verge.

Of course, a dependence on subscribers carries its own perils. The urge to pander to the reader’s prejudices can lead to bizarre distortions in reporting: see, for example, The New York Times’ trajectory since Donald Trump’s election in 2016. The difference, I believe, is in Substack’s great diversity of voices and opinions. Establishment media, having converted to a monolithic creed, now preaches with grim persistence the insipid doctrines of identity and ecology. A much meatier menu is on offer at Substack, where authors can be former journalists, experts in esoteric subjects or opinionators of any stripe.

That the robotic mind of the elite media has perceived this to be an incitement to “conspiracy theories” and “misinformation” may be the strongest recommendation yet for the platform.

How Substack Gave Birth to Twitter Files

I don’t talk to Elon Musk but I suspect that, if I did, he would tell me that he picked Substack writers to report on the scandalous Twitter Files because no one in the old bastions of journalism—The New York Times, say, or CBS News—was interested. All these outlets had transitioned to the scandal-suppression, elite-protection business.

So Musk turned to three widely read Substackers known for their critiques of media conformity. Bari Weiss, once an editor at The New York Times, describes her newsletter, The Free Press, as “a new media company built on the principles that were once the bedrock of American journalism.” Matt Taibbi, a defector from Rolling Stone, calls himself “an admirer of investigative reporters” like Seymour Hersh and of “narrative reporters” like Hunter Thompson. Michael Shellenberger, who along with Leighton Woodhouse publishes the Public newsletter, aims “to produce investigative and explanatory journalism in the public interest.”

Old school. Matt Taibbi. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

It is remarkable, and in a way touching, that these three exiles from the traditional news business still cling to the illusory ideology of journalism. They seem to view themselves as reformers returning to the grand ideals of the past, rather than what they actually are: innovators crashing through obsolete structures on the way to an uncertain future.

The revelations in Twitter Files have been a significant breach in the wall of state-imposed silence around the digital platforms; I have written at length about it in this space. Here I want to touch on two of its consequences—one totally predictable, the other much less so.

Elite media reacted to Twitter Files by pretending that nothing had happened. An unprecedented and largely successful attempt by the Biden White House and the federal bureaucracy to control the public sphere for partisan gain was written off as a “snoozefest,” “old news,” journalistic “cosplay.” It was as if Woodward and Bernstein had told Deep Throat, “You’re just peddling a debunked conspiracy theory.” Given the media’s submissive stance today, this was to be expected.

But it turns out that we are not nearly as monolithic a nation as our institutional culture-keepers would like to believe. There’s another side to most stories—and that other side recently won a slim majority in the House of Representatives. In consequence, on March 9, Taibbi and Shellenberger were asked to testify before the terrifyingly named House Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government. That was a thoroughly unexpected outcome: a Washington scandal exposed and debated in a Washington setting.

The hearing, conducted in a toxic partisan atmosphere, seldom rose above the level of a schoolyard brawl. Democratic committee members showed themselves to be incorrigible advocates of government control of information. They attempted to smear Taibbi and Shellenberger, ineffectively, and without a hint of irony accused the two witnesses of being “a direct threat to the people who oppose them.”

It didn’t matter. Journalism used to claim that it held the mighty of the world accountable and shone a light on corruption so that democratic institutions could be cleansed. In the case of Twitter Files, Substack accomplished exactly that.

The Afterlife of Investigative Reporting

Like the Ghost of Journalism Past, something like traditional investigative reporting has begun to materialize on Substack. Weiss’ The Free Press recently published an article in which the author, Jamie Reed, bore an uncanny resemblance to a famous character in the history of news: the whistleblower. A social worker formerly employed in a St. Louis transgender clinic, Reed self-identified as “a 42-year-old St. Louis native, a queer woman, and politically to the left of Bernie Sanders.” Gender-tinkering clinics are a new industry: While there were none in the U.S. 15 years ago, more than 100 have sprouted since. Reed came to believe that treatment of patients at the St. Louis clinic where she had been employed was “morally and medically appalling.”

A number of shortcomings triggered her unease: for example, the “lack of formal protocols for treatment” and the apparent overdiagnosing of gender dysphoria. Reed named cases and offered evidence in the form of emails. She cited investigations in Britain, Sweden and Finland that uncovered the same troubling practices she encountered in St. Louis. Her demands were for a “thorough analysis” of the data surrounding transgender patients—not exactly a call for extreme or reactionary change. If even one of her complaints turns out to be true, our response, in a sane world, should be to praise her for coming forward.

That is not how the media chose to frame the story. A March 6 article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch led off by stating that “almost two dozen parents of children at the clinic say their experiences sharply contradict” Reed’s portrayal of the facility, which left them in a state of “shock, confusion, anger, fear.” “I’m baffled by it,” one parent is quoted as saying. Most of Reed’s allegations were not addressed by the Post-Dispatch piece, and some were actually confirmed, but she was nonetheless described as “an employee who did not have a medical or managerial role” and lacked sufficient knowledge of patients’ histories.

To this characterization, the Twitter herd bellowed its assent. Only yesterday, whistleblowers were glorified by journalists and the right-thinking crowd. Now they have become irresponsible nobodies who challenge establishment doctrines with uncorroborated claims. Once again, this is utterly predictable under present conditions.

However, Reed approached the Missouri attorney general and, based on her sworn testimony, a formal investigation into the clinic has begun. The facts of the matter will emerge—and, as with Twitter Files, a willfully concealed aspect of American society will have been illuminated by Substack.

In a similar vein, Shellenberger and Woodhouse broke the news that a 14-year-old orphan girl continued to be “sex trafficked” by the MS-13 gang in San Francisco despite a warrant for her rescue issued by Child Protective Services. Their old-style investigative report, though at first ignored, eventually shamed the police into action. After months of languishing in virtual bondage, the girl was taken from her captors and placed in the care of social workers.

Substack Versus the Dinosaurs

In the last century, elites used journalists to convey to the public those subjects and events they found important or interesting. With the decline of traditional journalism and the rise of post-journalism, the news media has become a crude enforcer of elite dogmas and opinions. From The New York Times to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, journalists are now the flying monkeys of politicians and bureaucrats: The pretense of telling truth to power has given way to the reality of bullying dissidents. Longstanding professional ideals have been discarded with impressive speed and completeness.

In consequence, the public’s confidence in news has collapsed. Newspapers are dying. Cable news channels like CNN are on life support. We talk about the news as if it was an eternal feature of the landscape, like the air we breathe, but a great transformation is in the works and there’s no guarantee that something called “the news” will be found at the far side of it.

The effect of the digital age has been like that of the meteor that struck Earth during the age of the dinosaurs. And this is the source of the panic of the elites and of the corruption of journalism. Ancient organisms, maladapted to the harsh new environment, are going extinct. A ferocious competition for supremacy among newly evolved forms has already begun. The outcome is unpredictable.

Substack has attracted the most independent-minded observers of the American political scene. The wounded news media is now condemned to parrot its master’s voice, but the public knows there’s another side of the story—and the likes of Weiss, Taibbi and Shellenberger are making a good living providing that perspective. That may change tomorrow. A golden age can be discerned only in the hindsight of history. But for the moment, it’s something.

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