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Isaac Saul: Doing Journalism That's Trusted by Both Sides [Podcast] - BCB # 56
"I think a lot of places that strive to be very neutral and centrist tend to fail because what they're doing is fundamentally uninteresting and also impossible."
BCB editor Jonathan Stray interviews Isaac Saul of Tangle News, a daily news roundup that is unusual for being highly trusted across its bipartisan readership. Saul talks about the beginnings of Tangle News, how he constructs a nonpartisan publication, and what he thinks about America’s future.
BCB: Maybe for folks who aren't familiar with Tangle could you describe a little bit about what the project is and how it came to be?
Isaac Saul: I'm a politics reporter by trade. And I spent several years working as a politics reporter. I basically created Tangle out of wanting a product that I didn't see existing anywhere. Every day I would read the news and the big political stories that were out there, and I would find myself going to the New York Times, and then going to the Wall Street Journal, and then going to Huffington Post, and then going to Fox News.
When I jumped around all these different publications and dipped my toes in places with different ideological tilts, I would finally at the end of that process feel like I had a really holistic look on a story and a really holistic understanding of what were the arguments of both sides.
And I just wished all of that existed in one place. So when I started Tangle, that was basically my idea. The concept was really simple. We were going to summarize what the big debate of the day was in the political world, and then we were going to give three arguments from the left and three arguments from the right. Then I would share a little bit of my take.
BCB: Why don’t we start with the media economics questions first. As you know, you’re not the first to try to do impartial news. The idea in American journalism is over a hundred years old with the invention of objectivity. But it seems recently like that has not been a good business model. You’ve seen the major news sources gradually diverge to be either more left-leaning or more right-leaning.
But in a sense, you’ve proven the conventional wisdom wrong, because you’ve created an economically viable — I don’t know what to call it exactly. It’s not really centrist, but certainly bipartisan news source. Why do you think you’ve succeeded at this, where so many others have failed?
Isaac Saul: I think a lot of places that strive to be very neutral and centrist tend to fail because what they’re doing is fundamentally uninteresting and also impossible. They’re trying to use really neutral, kind of bland language to describe how an event happened, and they are making editorial choices everywhere, in every sentence, about what language to use, about what stories they’re going to cover.
That sort of makes it impossible, I think, to claim neutrality or centrism. Obviously, some places are better at that than others, and I’m not saying it’s never done well, but it’s impossible to do perfectly. Our premise is a little bit different.
Like you said, I would not say we are a centrist news organization. I would say we’re a bipartisan or nonpartisan news organization. And the reason we say we are bipartisan or nonpartisan is because we give equal space to the big two political views that seem to dominate our culture here in America. And then within each of those two views, we also give space to the factions that exist in those political tribes.
If you read our newsletter, you are going to get a really far-left progressive look at an issue. You’re gonna get a very centrist, kind of moderate Democratic establishment look at an issue. And then when we cite right-wing conservative sources, we’re not just gonna cite the Wall Street Journal editorial board. You also might see Breitbart or the Daily Caller or the American Conservative, these places that are doing, maybe what I would describe as the more Trump right, or New Right or nationalistic right perspective on today’s politics, which obviously represents a huge chunk of the country. Maybe a third of the country right now are conservatives who I think would kind of fall into that umbrella. And I think a lot of news organizations are missing that representation right now.
And so by doing that, by citing these more opinion pieces sandwiched between a neutral introduction of a topic to the best of our ability, a more boring, centrist, neutral introduction, framing for the argument, and then giving the opinions, I think it keeps what we’re doing really interesting and keeps it engaging to see this battle of ideas. And then I also think my take — this section I give myself in every newsletter to share my own personal perspective as somebody whose politics are very incongruent and all over the place, and don’t fit neatly into any kind of political box, at least that I’ve found yet — I think that makes it more interesting and more personal for people.
I think alleging both sides-ism about giving equal space to something you personally disagree with is a really bad way to deconstruct or address that argument you disagree with.
BCB: There’s a current of mainstream journalistic thought that, for example, you don’t want MAGA-type Republicans appearing in the news. That what they call “both-sidesism” gives equal weight to perspectives that might be ridiculous, or even false.
For example, that Trump won the 2020 election. Of course, now we’ve got a presidential candidate who looks like he’s about to be indicted for trying to subvert democracy. And so the argument is that maybe we shouldn’t represent the views of a faction of his supporters who don’t want to support democracy. Maybe that’s an irresponsible thing to do.
What would your response to that be?
Isaac Saul: I think that’s actually the beauty of our format. It’s one of the things about our format that is really powerful, which is that we can put up an argument that the 2020 election was stolen from some pro-Trump conservative writer or whatever. And then share an argument from the left that addresses that argument or share an argument from the right that also addresses that argument because the right obviously doesn’t agree on that premise. There are a lot of conservatives and Republicans who don’t think the 2020 election was stolen.
And then I get space in my take to offer my own perspective and call balls and strikes the best that I can. We have to accept the fact that ignoring those views or pretending that there is zero validity to them, or that they are totally not worth engaging, is not a productive way to get closer to the quote-unquote “truth.”
The 2020 election’s a great example. I was actually on the forefront of debunking, for lack of a better term, a lot of the allegations that were out there about voter fraud, widespread voter fraud, and election fraud in the 2020 election. I had a really viral Twitter thread that blew up, got interviewed by a bunch of news publications about it, I wrote tons of pieces about it that have been published all over about some of the mainstream theories.
I would consider it something that’s very much in my wheelhouse or strike zone and for the better part of a year was one of the most prominent things I wrote about. And we covered it all in Tangle. And the way that I would address it is, here are the best arguments I can find that the election was corrupted somehow, and here are some arguments that counter that, and here’s my perspective on it. And I got a lot of emails and Twitter DM’s from pro-Trump, right-wing voters who trust me, who read my newsletter, who follow me on Twitter, and were like, “You changed my mind, thank you for writing this piece, it’s really hard for me to accept this but how you’re framing this makes a lot of sense, and it’s actually changed my perspective.”
Of course, some of them wrote in and think I’m a Democratic shill or whatever, but my promise to readers is I’m not going to obscure my views or my perspectives on these issues, and I’m going to tell you what I honestly think. And we can disagree, and maybe you don’t believe it, but the promise to you is that I’m going to do my best to tell you what I truly believe, what I really think, and I’m not going to hide my views, and that’s an act of transparency on my part. And generally speaking, people seem to really appreciate that.
I respect the fact that the people who call both sides-ism, the fundamental thing there is that they don’t want equal weight to be given to one argument based in facts and one not. My response in short would be, I think alleging both sides-ism about giving equal space to something you personally disagree with is a really bad way to deconstruct or address that argument you disagree with.
In fact, I would say it’s counterproductive and feeds the idea that people like that are trying to obscure the truth and trying to suppress the voices of people who think differently than them. And that’s one of the big reasons for distrust in our institutions and distrust in the media. There isn’t really a topic that we’re unwilling to kind of wade into in that regard.
I think a lot of the kind of political tensions we have in our country are rooted in the fact that our political tribes are increasingly our social tribes as well.
BCB: Yeah, so this is a very interesting example because one of the things that I saw about the 2020 election, and also around a bunch of the COVID misinformation, and vaccine hesitancy and that whole universe, was the press was producing endless fact checks, but very few of them were sympathetic to people who didn’t already agree.
One of the metaphors I use for this is, how would I talk to a friend who I thought was just completely off the rails on a topic. And I think maybe part of what makes your approach appealing is that you are not approaching people who believe this stuff as bad or misguided or something. You seem to be both sympathetic in that you will air these takes, but also honest about your own position and motivations.
Isaac Saul: I gave, I think, one of my origin stories for Tangle, which is what I was seeing in the media space and the product I wanted as a reporter. I think the second part of that, or the origin of that origin story is that I grew up in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, which is a bellwether county. When I was in high school, CNN used to come to Bucks County to interview people at the local diners and see what folks were saying, to get an understanding of which way the election was gonna go. It’s one of those kinds of bellwether counties. It’s a little Bluer now, but 15 years ago that wasn’t true.
And I have a lot of friends and family who have really divergent political views, people who I love and care for a great deal, who are on totally opposite sides of the political spectrum. And I watched how they existed together. I watched how they had conflict together. I know how they talk to each other, I can relate to a lot of their views and perspectives. And I think has been really informative for me. It’s been a really enlightening experience growing up. And then I went to school in Pittsburgh, I went to college at the University of Pittsburgh in Western Pennsylvania, another place with really divided politics.
I am very sympathetic to the quote-unquote “far left” and “far right,” and the people who are stuck in the middle who feel like, I don’t have a party that represents me anymore, because I know a lot of people who have those views. And I think familiarity is probably the most important element of political empathy, at least in my experience.
A pretty simple example of that is, I remember in the post 9/11 era when Islamophobia was a huge problem in the United States. I think thankfully it’s become less of a problem, but it certainly still exists in a lot of places. One of the best ways to predict whether somebody had Islamophobic views was to ask them whether or not they knew a practicing Muslim. And the people who knew practicing Muslims tended to not be Islamophobic and the people who didn’t tended to be. And I think that is 100% true in today’s political dynamics as well.
I think a lot of the kind of political tensions we have in our country are rooted in the fact that our political tribes are increasingly our social tribes as well, and we spend a lot less time in our daily lives at the bar, at work, at a social event, interacting with and enjoying time with people of different political persuasions.
We mostly interact with them online in forums where there’s tons of tension and we don’t like them and their ideas are bad. And so I’m very grateful and blessed in the fact that I didn’t really have that experience growing up. And so I think it has helped me have a more open mind today as an adult and as a reporter and political pundit, and all these things, for a really wide range of political views.
If people are not even getting to the arguments from the left and the right on any given topic, then it’s impossible for us to fulfill our goal, which is to expose people to a wide range of views.
BCB: I wanna now talk about, you had a recent note on editorial policy where you talked about language. You said that you were going to use lowercase B “black” from now on, and you were going to use “unauthorized migrant” and “unauthorized immigrant” and some other changes around transgender healthcare.
For many people, the language itself is a political contest, and you can’t really opt out of using language. Any choice is going to bring you difficulties. Did you get a lot of pushback from these choices? Does it cause problems for you? How do you navigate the fact that a large number of people are going to hate you no matter which way you speak?
Isaac Saul: The premise for this edition that you’re talking about was that every day I get notices whenever somebody unsubscribes from the newsletter, and we send out an automated email that asks them for feedback and all this stuff. At the end of the week, I’ll read through a bunch of the feedback.
Most of the time people are unsubscribing because we published something, an opinion that really upset them, they didn’t like it, or because they want to take a break from politics because they’re so stressed out.
And oftentimes what I was seeing was, people were unsubscribing because of a specific language choice we made in that kind of neutral section that introduces a topic. So before they even got to the arguments, they were reading something that pissed them off for one reason or another and they decided that they had spotted bias. There was like a cue somewhere that this outlet is biased and we weren’t fulfilling our promise. And so they were done, they didn’t want to support us anymore and they unsubscribed.
We’ve been collecting a lot of that feedback, talking about it as a team, thinking about ways to make our language as neutral as possible — not because we’re worried about upsetting people, which I think was misunderstood by some of our readers. One of the big pieces of feedback we got to this piece was people saying, “You can’t please everybody. Stop trying to make everybody happy. The country’s so sensitive, you’re never gonna win doing this.”
Which wasn’t really the goal for me. The goal was, if people are not even getting to the arguments from the left and the right on any given topic, then it’s impossible for us to fulfill our goal, which is to expose people to a wide range of views.
So we want to get to our goal. We want to get people out of those sections without having them feel their spidey senses are going off about some kind of political bias. How can we do that? We can change our language in ways that we think both sides will understand and view as acceptable.
So that was the project that we set out on doing. And to be totally honest with you, this is not me tooting my own horn, this was the most responded-to email that I’ve sent probably in the last year. And I would say upwards of 90% of the responses we got to it were overwhelmingly positive. It was people saying, “Wow, this was so fascinating to read. Thank you so much for explaining why you made the decisions you made. I hate how all these other news organizations never explain these choices. And maybe I don’t agree with everything you said.” Maybe packaged in this positive feedback they were like, “But on this one thing I don’t agree with you, here’s why, could you consider this,” whatever.
But the vast majority of the feedback was like, “This was so cool that you took the time to explain why you’re making these changes. And though I may not agree with everything, all of it is totally reasonable and rational and this is what makes your publication really special.” That really was the vast majority of the feedback.
I was not certain it was going to play out that way. I was really proud of the piece we put together and proud of the decisions we made. But I was expecting more blowback than we got and frankly, it was really, really, really overwhelmingly positive, which was a super rewarding experience and kind of reaffirmed in my eyes the power of what we’re trying to do — which is to be a big tent news organization that welcomes everybody, and also be really transparent with our readers and do our best to explain why we do the things we do, and how we operate the way we operate.
And part of what I realized was that the AP Stylebook is in itself quite divisive among normal Americans.
BCB: I think it’s a really interesting point, the idea of trying to be transparent and upfront with readers about what you’re doing. And it’s a lesson that journalism in general could stand to learn. And there’s certainly been a lot of talk in journalism circles about trying to get better at this.
But I wonder if some of the advantage that you have here is structural. You put out one newsletter. When the Associated Press decided to capitalize “Black” in the Stylebook, they did have a note. They explained their reasoning there. It’s just that nobody reads the notes from the Associated Press Stylebook team — that’s very inside baseball, right? You have to really go looking for it.
And I wonder if the New York Times or something, if those editor’s notes somewhere, it’s just that people don’t ever see them. Do you think that’s part of the difference, is that you put this stuff up front and center?
Isaac Saul: Absolutely. I’m always quick to say in our publication that I don’t exist without the quote-unquote “mainstream media” or the “corporate media” or “legacy media” or whatever you want to call it. They are producing not just original reporting, but they’re publishing voices from across the political spectrum, whether it’s Fox News and the Wall Street Journal editorial board, or it’s Huffington Post and the Washington Post editorial board. Whatever it is, we exist because we can repackage some of their content and every day we produce original content of our own.
But Tangle does not exist without those media organizations, A. B, you’re 100% right. The Associated Press does publish explanations of why they make some decisions. There’s a whole AP Stylebook, which is what at Tangle we were using for the first few years we were doing this.
And part of what I realized was that the AP Stylebook is in itself quite divisive among normal Americans. Like when you take, pool the whole pie of American news consumers, the AP Stylebook actually is really grating to maybe half of them.
The other thing is, other news organizations have done this. In that piece, in fact, I quoted NPR’s explanation for how they address abortion issues, which despite a lot of people thinking radio has gone really far left, and the NPR news organization has gone far left, I thought that their explanations for their language choices related to abortion were really, really rational and really down the middle and super fair. And we almost stole them exclusively and said as much in this piece that we did. And we were only able to pull that because NPR had kind of published their explanation.
There’s judgment calls people are making at all these news organizations. I mean, the AP Stylebook choice on capitalizing the word “Black” was something that came with a note in their Stylebook on their website. Anybody can Google it and find it. We link to it in our newsletter, in our article. For me and our team, we read their justification. We considered it alongside a lot of writers who have objected to that decision that the AP Stylebook made and considered the feedback of our readers that’s come in.
And I just think the AP’s argument is worse. I think it’s a bad argument and I think it makes more sense not to capitalize “Black,” and I’m happy to talk about why and what our rationale was. But without the AP going out onto that limb and making that decision we absolutely can’t publish this piece that we published. So in that regard, you are 100% right that we’re at an advantage by not just being second, but also being able to feature this really prominently in a newsletter that is our once-a-day product that all of our readers are gonna consume.
We regularly publish entire newsletters that are made up only of reader criticisms of the things that we’ve published.
BCB: That’s very interesting and of course controversial. Here at the Bulletin, we capitalize “Black” because we generally follow AP style, mostly because we don’t have the capacity to reinvent all of these choices all at once.
But I wonder, does taking a stand on this type of controversial issue or indeed any of the other controversial issues that you cover, does that put you at risk in some ways? Are you worried about, let’s say, being boycotted from the right, the Bud Light effect, or being canceled from the left — I know people disagree about that word too. Are you at risk for becoming a target in a way that could harm you either professionally or personally?
Isaac Saul: I think anytime you write about politics and do your best to publish what your honest perspective is on an issue, then yeah, you’re at risk. And we certainly are. The way that I’ve tried to insulate ourselves is first from a business perspective, which is we’re a subscriber-supported news publication.
We just in Q4 of last year stood up an advertising business, but it’s a small fraction, maybe like two percent of our revenue. The vast majority of our revenue comes from recurring subscriptions. We have five newsletters a week, four of them are free and the Friday editions are paywalled. And people who want to either support those daily editions during the week or just unlock the Friday editions tend to subscribe.
It would take a massive wave of people all unsubscribing at once for our business to be threatened in the “boycott Bud Light” type framing. So in that way, I think we’ve insulated ourselves from a business perspective.
I think our strength as a news publication is that we listen, and we don’t just listen, but we also elevate the responses and the critical feedback that we get from our readers. The New York Times might publish a Letter to the Editor section that’s on the back page of the newspaper or is five clicks away from the homepage. We regularly publish entire newsletters that are made up only of reader criticisms of the things that we’ve published.
When I have a correction, when we make a mistake in the newsletter, we don’t make it a footnote or discreetly go edit a news article. We put it prominently at the top of the newsletter or it’ll be the first thing you hear in the podcast. And then I tell you how the mistake happened, why the correction happened, and I’ll also tell you which number correction it is in our 200 week history or whatever it is. So we track our corrections very publicly so people can go back and find them anytime they want. That’s something readers really appreciate.
And oftentimes in the newsletter, I’ll just share 150, 200 words of feedback I got to that day’s newsletter at the top of the piece. If somebody writes in with a really critical perspective of something we did or wrote, we’ll just share it. And we don’t share it to like tee it up and knock it out of the park and respond in some way that’s dunking on it. We just share it and let it speak for itself and people can take it or leave it. I’m not like putting it there to respond to it.
Those kinds of things, while we again, have an advantage of being a smaller news outlet and these little structural advantages like the ones you talked about, I think they’re also choices that big legacy media outlets just don’t make, and they could make, but they choose not to.
And there’s all sorts of different reasons that they don’t make those choices, but ultimately it’s an advantage for us that they don’t because it makes it easier for us to distinguish ourselves and win over that trust from readers. And I think that’s really important.
So, to just put a bow on that, I think what’s more likely than somebody canceling or boycotting us is they write in really pissed off about something we do. And I respond and say, “Thanks for your feedback. Are you open to me publishing this in the newsletter tomorrow?” And when I do that, they feel heard, they feel like their voice was taken seriously, and they don’t have to go on some campaign on Twitter to try and get us canceled because they see that we are open and welcoming to that kind of criticism. And I think that that’s like a part of our brand that I’ve tried really hard to foster. It’s not always easy, but it’s definitely helped us in that regard.
Did [CNN’s Trump town hall] advance the dialog in a meaningful way, did it inform Americans in a meaningful way? I don’t really think so.
BCB: Let’s talk about these choices that news organizations make. In particular, I’m curious what you made of CNN’s town hall with Trump, which sort of had the hallmarks of — before Chris Licht’s departure — trying to find some sort of ideological balance. Do you think that went well? What do you make of that journalistic choice?
Isaac Saul: [laughs] Well for who I guess is the question. I thought it went really well for Trump. I think it went well for the corporate executives of CNN, they got over three million viewers. It was probably the best night of prime-time television they’ve had in years. Did it advance the dialog in a meaningful way, did it inform Americans in a meaningful way? I don’t really think so. I have a deep respect for Kaitlan Collins, I think she’s a great reporter and a really good moderator. Actually comes from a maybe more right-leaning background, I mean some of her first jobs were at more right-leaning publications. She’s somebody whose stuff I’ve read and followed a while.
But I’m ok with the decision to give Trump that platform. He’s the leading nominee for the Republican party, whether we like it or not. If CNN wants to bring him on and ask him a bunch of questions, I think that that’s great. I think that Kaitlan Collins did a pretty good job, in parts, holding him accountable for his typical kind of boasts and lies and whatever. But I also thought she got steamrolled in some other parts, which isn’t great when you’re somebody whose job is to make sure viewers are coming away with a clear understanding of what’s going on.
I think the big mistake that they made, from an optics perspective, is that they stacked the crowd with Trump supporters. Which, you know, is fine if you want to make Trump look as good as possible, but if you’re trying to represent probably about 30% or maybe 40% of people who want him to be the next president of the United States, stacking 95% of the room with his supporters is not a great thing to do because it changes the whole optics and the vibe of the event. Rather than some groans or jeers in parts where he’s being a little outlandish, you get cheers and all this stuff that really affects the programming. So I would say that would be my biggest criticism of it.
In terms of the fundamental question of whether they should have brought him on, I’m fine with them bringing him on. I actually am publishing a piece tomorrow — we’re recording this on June 15th — I’m publishing a piece tomorrow basically calling on both the Republican and the Democratic parties to ensure that Trump and Biden participate in debates. Because I think it’s absurd that Trump isn’t. I mean it’s breaking all precedent that he’s saying he’s not going to participate in Republican debates. Biden has precedent on his side in that no incumbent president has participated in debates since Gerald Ford.
The circumstances of where we are as a country and who Biden is as a person actually demand that he should get up on a debate stage with some of his challengers. Whether it’s RFK Jr. or Marianne Williamson or somebody else, I think voters really want it, and even Democratic Biden voters really want it, based on the polling that we have.
All of that comes from a sense in my perspective that it’s good for us to air views and to challenge them publicly. And I thought Kaitlan did a pretty good job of doing that in the Trump town hall, so I’m fine with it. The staging of it was a little irresponsible on CNN’s part.
If you can hire people with different ideological views in-house, then you don’t have that disparity across newsrooms, you get a better product in the end, in my opinion.
BCB: I’m so into talking to you about journalism stuff because it’s so central to how conflict plays out in this country, and you’re doing something so interesting in the media space.
One of the preoccupations is, “How do we regain the trust of audiences on the right?” As we both know, most mainstream news organizations are staffed predominantly with liberal-ish folks. It seems to me one of the obvious things to try is to hire more conservatives. Do you think that would work?
Isaac Saul: I think hiring people with different ideological views or having people in a newsroom that have different ideological views is critical to ensuring that your publication is kind of covering all of its blind spots.
I don’t know strategically what the best way to do that is. I mean, first, from a fundamental constitutional legal perspective, it’s really hard to bring somebody in for a job interview and be like, “Who’d you vote for? What’s your political ideology?” Obviously, if we’re talking about journalists, you can check their writing and their resume and their history and kind of target people that way, but there’s something a little bit icky about trying to hire somebody that has certain political ideologies to add some kind of diversity to your newsroom. I understand why that’s kind of a sticky proposition. I do think it’s a great way to make sure that your coverage and your story selection is a little bit better and a little bit more balanced.
And I’ll give you two quick examples. The first one is, just last year, for up until a few months ago, I had an intern who worked for me for a year, who did research for me, who was a Harvard student who grew up in a rural part of Tennessee. And she was very pro-life. I tend to have pretty pro-choice political views, especially from a government perspective. Even if you take the moral question of abortion out of it, I’m kind of a small government guy, I don’t think the government should be telling women whether or not they can have abortions or not, or making laws prohibiting that.
So, her and I have views that are very much in tension, and she worked for me, and I really encouraged her to speak up, and share her perspectives in the Google doc where we’re editing the newsletter. And our abortion coverage was so much better because she was there, and because she challenged certain language choices, things that I didn’t even think about that were sending signals to her that we were injecting bias. Even in my own take, she just made me a better writer and a better thinker and made our pieces more cohesive. And she actually helped me make my case in a more convincing and compelling way because she was there. And then in the sections of our newsletter that were supposed to be neutral, we were much better at opening that big tent up even to people who were pro-life. Our coverage was just better because of it.
The second thing is, pick any story you want. Literally, any story you want that’s coverage of an event. You can do something like Biden’s State of the Union address, and just go read the Wall Street Journal news team and then go read the New York Times news team. Not the opinion sections, their straight news reporters. Arguably the best reporters in the world, certainly the best paid, the most resources.
You go read those news pieces side by side. They will be fundamentally different. They will use different resources. They will cite different statistics. They will lead with different quotes, and we’re talking about a speech, a transcript we can all go read, it’s the exact same event, but the stories are totally different. So how can that be?
They’re both trying to be objective. They’re both trying to be fair, and the answer is their newsrooms, plural, are filled with people of different ideological perspectives who have different sources. So Biden says something about trade with China. One reporter at the New York Times is going to call an economist or a trade expert who has more left-leaning views. And the reporter at the Wall Street Journal is going to have somebody with more right-leaning views in their Rolodex, and that’s going to inform their coverage. And that’s gonna seep into the coverage with some bias, even in the really, really straight news reporting, which is why I used to have to go read all these different publications to get to the truth.
If there’s conflict and tension and you guys can’t agree on certain things, in terms of how we’re going to publish a story or culturally what we want our newsroom to be like, then that’s a good sign that we are working towards something that’s a more even-handed, holistic product.
BCB: I think about this particularly for fact-checking because I think one of the reasons that fact-checking is so distrusted on the right is the very obvious one, that the fact-checkers are, like most journalists, mostly liberal-ish.
And there’s really interesting research which shows that actually, although conservatives perceive fact-checkers as very biased, when you take a bipartisan panel of citizens and you have them evaluate the evidence for particular claims, those bipartisan groups come up with essentially the same conclusions as the professional fact-checkers. So it wouldn’t even change their output to bring conservatives onto a fact-checking team.
It might just change the level of trust, but I think it would start fights of a certain sort in the newsroom. Do you see any way to sort of crack that nut?
Isaac Saul: I see sort of what you’re scratching out a little bit more now. I don’t know. I really don’t.
You know, you look at some of the real world examples you’ve gotten, like somebody like Bari Weiss being basically forced out of the New York Times, or at least, in her telling, being kind of so rejected culturally by the newsroom that she had to leave when she’s like a moderate conservative gay woman who basically, in my view, is pretty much as far left as like a mainstream right-wing commentator can get. I don’t know what you can do when someone like that can’t exist in a newsroom like the New York Times confidently.
It’s a really, really hard thing. I do not envy the choices that those people at the top of those news organizations have to make. To me, as a journalist, the way I would frame it if I were managing a team like that and wanting to bring in these voices is, “This is gonna make our coverage better.”
And you, whoever you are, whether you’re on the left or the right, should not be afraid or frustrated by the idea of coexisting with somebody whose political views are different from you. Because if there’s conflict and tension there and you guys can’t agree on certain things, in terms of how we’re gonna publish a story or culturally what we want our newsroom to be like, then that’s a good sign that we are working towards something that’s a more even-handed, holistic product.
Framing it as like, this is a step towards improving our product, and if you’re invested in this product then we need you to buy into the fact that you’re going to be challenged, and it’s not a good thing if everybody around you has the same view and agrees on something, then I think maybe that wins over some people.
I really don’t have a great answer to that kind of culture clash question because I do think it is really difficult.
I would say there’s a little bit more bad information in the right-wing media ecosystem, but I think that is mostly a structural outcome of the fact that for many years, the mainstream and legacy press got more and more liberal.
BCB: I want to ask you one more thing, which is maybe the hardest question of all. A lot of conflict seems to revolve around this idea of who started it or who’s worse, who’s being unreasonable, who’s more of a threat, or who’s wrong-er.
There’s a series of questions that we’re sort of trying to figure out how to address internally at the Bulletin, and they sort of revolve around, is there actually more misinformation or lower quality information in the left versus right media ecosystems? Or even harder, how do we think about the parity or disparity of political violence?
You start talking about this, you bring up January 6th versus Black Lives Matter in 2020, and of course, immediately anger both sides by the comparison. Do you think there are real asymmetries here? And if so, how do you talk about them without just immediately alienating half of your audience?
Isaac Saul: I’ll work backwards there, I guess. On the political violence front, I actually don’t think there’s that much asymmetry. I mean, January 6th was obviously a really traumatic event for the country and the political tensions in the country. And I’ve written very critically about Trump’s role in that.
In my view, a really radical extremist group of supporters who made so many Trump supporters look so terrible by doing the things that they did on that day. But if you zoom out at the 30,000 foot view, the vast, vast majority of Americans, I think upwards of 96%, still view most or any political violence as wholly unacceptable.
It’s also true that there are things for both the left and the right that can provoke them to commit political violence. And whether our own biases make those things more or less acceptable, I think there’s like a pretty similar percentage of both sides that are willing to commit political violence when certain things are provoked.
In the case of January 6th it was, they thought they were stealing the election from Trump. And in the case of something like a riot related to Black Lives Matter or whatever, it’s “There’s this grave injustice being done to Black and brown members of my community and I’m gonna stand up for them. And if it means throwing a Molotov cocktail into a cop car, guess what? I’m ready to ride.”
I think those people exist on both sides and we could debate which is a more just reason to take that kind of action, but I don’t think there’s a ton of asymmetry there, and who’s willing to do those things.
As far as the misinformation goes, I would say there’s a little bit more bad information in the right-wing media ecosystem, but I think that is mostly a structural outcome of the fact that for many years, the mainstream and legacy press got more and more liberal. And so it became really profitable to stand up kind of low budget, semi-crappy conservative websites that were littered with ads and clickbait and could squeeze out the most views from making really benign stories into super big controversies.
A lot of people on the left, I know, think that Fox News is the son of Satan or whatever, but if you take the primetime lineup out of it, which obviously composes a lot of the mainstream or mass viewership for Fox News, their daytime stuff really isn’t that terrible. And foxnews.com is actually quite good. Their story selection is really different and way right-leaning, but their reporting is totally reasonable. I know a lot of reporters who work at Fox News and they’re good, honest people and they have conservative leanings, but they make equidistant language choices that I think a lot of websites like New York Magazine that are respected on the left make. They just make them in the opposite direction, equidistant from the center.
I think like right now as it exists, there’s probably more crap news on the right in terms of like, if we were to dig down into every sentence that was published in right-leaning websites and every sentence that was published in left-leaning websites, I think there’s probably a little bit less evidence to support every sentence that exists in right-leaning websites.
But I also think, again, that is a symptom of the problem that the legacy media has been battling for many years, which is that the right was becoming less and less represented in CBS, BBC, ABC, CNN, MSNBC. And so there’s a response to that. There’s a pushback.
All that being said, one of the things I frequently say is, today, 2023, as we sit here, I don’t think that the quote-unquote “media” has a left-wing bias or a right-wing bias. I think it’s actually like a really fair fight. I mean, it’s true that a lot of New York Times, Washington Post, whatever, maybe has a left-of-center bias. Certainly, the editorial boards are on the left, they get traffic that’s comparable to the Drudge Report, Breitbart, or whatever. These right-wing websites are doing really well.
You look at talk radio, podcasts, conservatives dominate. Fox News, obviously the most watched television program in the country right now. Primetime Fox News, Tucker Carlson, the most well-known pundit in the country, conservative. The right has a lot of things going for them in the media space now, and I think they’ve very much kind of leveled the playing field. It’s not a totally clean answer, but that’s just me personally, how I view that.
I genuinely believe that we are kind of bottoming out on the partisan tribalism.
BCB: Yeah it’s never a totally clean answer because it always ends up being one of these, sort of, it depends how you count type of thing.
Last question. What makes you optimistic or pessimistic about America’s future right now?
Isaac Saul: I think what makes me optimistic is the work that I am doing and seeing the response to it. I genuinely believe that we are kind of bottoming out on the partisan tribalism. I don’t think it can get much worse than it is right now. And I actually feel like there’s a bounce that’s happening, where it’s like we touched the floor and a lot of people are becoming more interested in understanding the other side.
There’s a lot more people doing the work that you and I are doing right now. I run into media organizations and nonprofits and whatever who are all striving much harder to do this kind of stuff. You look at the New York Times hiring a lot of conservative writers to their opinion pages.
The Wall Street Journal — their opinion pages are some of the most diverse ideologically of the legacy media right now. Same with the Washington Post. More and more diversity you’re seeing in places like that. CNN just had this whole push to be more centrist and obviously, it kind of blew up, but they tried, and I think there’s an interest in that direction.
I think there’s a hunger for it from Americans who are overwhelmingly independent right now, versus being self-identified as liberals or conservatives — which I know there’s all sorts of social science about why people fill out those forms or surveys the way they do — but all that kind of encourages me. I think we’re entering a phase where there’s so much news fatigue, there’s so much Trump fatigue, there’s so much Biden fatigue that people are really interested in a more moderate and/or more open-minded attitude about the country.
And I think that’s great. And, frankly, things in America are still pretty good. You look at the world events we’ve seen in Ukraine, China, Iran, Europe, and all these other places, this is still a really great place to live. And I feel really fortunate to live here. We still have a ton going for us.
I guess what makes me pessimistic is that we’re headed into a 2024 presidential race that could end up being a rematch between two historically unpopular people, one who might be in trial slash maybe in prison or under some kind of house arrest. And another who I think is aging to a point that much of the country doesn’t trust his judgment or mental faculties both on the left and the right. And I don’t think there is at all a strong appetite to see a rematch of 2020 in 2024. And yet we seem totally predestined for that and it seems almost inevitable.
And I think that sort of speaks to some of the brokenness of our institutions, not just in government, but also in media and the way we fundraise and how our major political parties work and all this stuff. And that sucks to me. I think it’s not what Americans want and I would love to see it be a little different.
That’s kind of what’s dominating my pessimistic mind right now. And I hope maybe it doesn’t happen, but it certainly seems like that’s what we’re barreling towards and I just kind of can’t believe that we’re gonna do this all again after everything that has transpired in the last few years. I am hopeful that something about that changes, but right now it doesn’t look great.
BCB: Well if it does change, it will be thanks to the work of many, many people including yourself. So thanks for the work that you do. I’m a reader. And thanks for appearing on the podcast with us.
Isaac Saul: Thank you, Jonathan.
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