Today's Politicos vs The Words and Deeds of The Founders
Random header image... Refresh for more!
Make a blogger happy, come back. Sign up for email post alerts!

A Conversation with Ashley Rindsberg

I recently had the opportunity to talk with Ashley Rindsberg, author of the excellent The Gray Lady Winked (reviewed here). Rindsberg has been making some waves on Twitter recently and taking dishonest journalists to task, and he has a lot to say about the state of media and culture in the United States, how we got here, and where we might be headed.

Our hour of conversation covered a wide range of topics, from the dishonesty of modern media, to Michael Jackson, to a political movement Rindsberg has dubbed the “New Right,” and I enjoyed having the opportunity to speak with him.

[Date of interview 11/29/21]

So, my first question has to be this: how many death threats have you gotten from the New York Times for writing The Gray Lady Winked?

None, thankfully. I spoke with a lot of people before writing to make sure I was covering my bases correctly, and, to their credit, the Times comes under a lot of criticism so this is not that big of a deal for them. But, on the flipside, it’s not in their interest to elevate it either. Interestingly, I did just have an interaction with Ben Smith, who’s their media columnist, on Twitter about their reporting on the lab leak. The Times was one of the first to call that a conspiracy theory and twisted Senator Tom Cotton’s words on the subject. Ben Smith said to me that Sen. Cotton was making claims about a Chinese bioweapons program and I told him, “I just wrote a 4,000 word piece about how he didn’t make that claim, and you’re still repeating it.” So I have had some engagement from the Times but in general I think they don’t want to make my book an issue.

I was curious about that. Obviously the book was written a little while ago now and I imagine was mostly done before the Covid madness began. I’m curious what your thoughts on that are and about the Times’ – and other media’s – reporting on it.

Yeah, the Times has been pushing a lot of different ideas – one of them is taking as gospel the notion that it came from an animal, that it was the result of zoonotic spillover, but they don’t actually have evidence of that. We don’t have the animal, we don’t have the location that transfer supposedly happened. They took that as hard fact – and part of the reason they did is because the person they were referencing more than any other source, apart from a government official like Fauci, is Peter Daszak who was the British head of an NGO, and he was actually funding the lab in Wuhan. And no one ever mentions this. The Times never mentions this as a possible conflict of interest. At no point did Daszak or the Times, who is referencing him in at least a dozen articles, ever divulge that. So even on the pandemic’s origins there is a lot of skewed narrative, and a lot of backpedaling.

And like I was saying with Ben Smith, he didn’t take responsibility for screwing up, he instead points to Tom Cotton talking about bioweapons on Twitter – in a completely unrelated context. It’s like this maneuver, this clever little twist to show how the Times has been fair-minded and balanced when they’re just repeating the narrative that was very … let’s say it wasn’t that far off from what the Chinese themselves were reporting.

Why is that? Why do they seem to act like the propaganda wing of the Biden administration or Xi Jinping’s press arm?

I think, if we look at a lot of the big brands in America today, and their relationship with the Chinese Communist Party, it’s a very strange one. You have organizations like the NBA, or Apple, or clothing companies, who go so far out of their way to accommodate Chinese demands, and in a lot of ways to parrot their narrative, like John Cena apologizing in Mandarin for referring to Taiwan as a country. That’s something he would’ve only been able to do with the permission of the studio – or more likely because they forced him to do it. The studio is in sync with the CCP.

The silence on the Uyghurs is another issue I’ve been pushed back on by reporters online. One reporter in particular – not from the Times – said the reason there is no reporting on those camps is because China has blocked them off completely, not because they have no interest in it. And I thought, “okay, that’s interesting, let me think about that.” And then I started thinking about how there wasn’t very much new information about Trump and Russia colluding to commandeer the 2016 election, but it was in the Times every single day. But you look at the Uyghurs and it’s the opposite. You don’t see the op-eds. You don’t see the editorials. You don’t see the analysis pieces. You don’t see the digital interactive photo displays or some other nifty thing they invent for that purpose. And that’s where the omission starts to become glaring. They have a vested interest, as a multi-billion dollar company, in having access to the Chinese market, so they have to be very, very careful about how they report on China. They believed – and they were probably right – that they enter that market by working with the CCP, not around it. They can make these cute little maneuvers like Ben Smith, and say “you have to bring me the reporting,” but … they are the reporters. It’s for them to do, not for me. It’s a kind of sleight of hand and it’s a bit unnerving.

It almost seems like a lot of the info about the pandemic, and the disease itself, is being suppressed on behalf of China. It’s almost impossible to find straight answers about symptoms, how long it lasts, or how to alleviate it, which we have for every single other disease. Why do you think that is?

It’s a weird thing. We can see what’s happening with search engines and, of course, Twitter and Wikipedia. There’s a sort of manufactured consensus about certain topics that just becomes cemented as reality through the media. People talk about the “metaverse” – we already have a metaverse, it’s on our phones, and it’s in the news.

If you pay attention you can sometimes see it happen in real time. The Times can maybe report one article about something, to say they did, but it doesn’t really matter when they otherwise churn out the same story 5 or 6 times a day.

It’s also the language that’s used, the subtleties, the shading, the placement of the sourcing within the piece itself. If you put the kicker in the last paragraph, it’s gonna have the last word and leave the reader with a particular sentiment. You see that if you look for it. Compare reporting on Trump vs. reporting on China, or the pandemic response by the US vs. the pandemic response by China. They printed the CCP’s numbers on mortality and took them at face value, which is just a joke. We know there have been more than 2 deaths from Covid in the last 9 months.

You can see it happening on a state-by-state basis, too, when you compare the coverage of Florida to that of California or New York.

And that’s the conversation we have to have about media today. What the hell is really going on? How can we trust them again? What are their incentives and motivations – the part of the iceberg that we can’t see? That’s what irks people. They know they’re not getting the whole picture.

If you do want the full picture, it seems like there isn’t anywhere you can find it. If you were to write this book today, do you think you would have enough stuff to fill it up from just the last year alone?

I think so. I initially wrote the book in 2007 or 2008 and no one wanted to touch it. The New York Times Bestsellers list is the most important marketing tool in publishing so I understand why they didn’t want to go near it. I left most of the book intact aside from adding the chapter on the 1619 Project, and that’s kind of where it ended up. But so much of what’s going on with China and the media is now bursting to the surface.

Speaking of the 1619 Project, the last chapter of Gray Lady was definitely my favorite, if only because of how vindicated I felt to see you calling out the absolute absurdity of what Nikole Hannah-Jones was trying to do.

It’s crazy, and it’s only getting crazier. That’s the New York Times in a nutshell. They double down, but they also make it bigger, and we can see this with the 1619 Project. They don’t say to themselves, “maybe we should evaluate and assess this to make sure we’re not creating more toxicity in the national conversation,” they go harder on it. They use it for their business agenda. Their marketing strategy for the next five years is this concept of “truth matters,” and the Times is meant to be synonymous with truth, so they’re using the 1619 Project to market that brand. Which is ironic, of course. But that’s what the brand is talking about right now, and what it stands for: activism, politics, ideology, and being unembarrassed that it’s about those things.

Is this the 21st century evolution of the Times? It seems like they’re trying to insinuate their ideology into the culture by getting it taught in schools and promulgated through social media.

It’s also happening because their business model changed. It used to be based on advertising, which has a democratizing effect because every set of eyeballs matters as much as the next. But now they’re moving to a subscription-based model, where only two or three percent of their readership is supporting the business, and that naturally polarizes the content and the coverage. They’re incentivized to preach to the choir. Their goal is to be the last newspaper remaining. There’s only space for one.

Your chapter on critical theory seemed almost to be prescient, considering the school board conversations and the governor race in Virginia. Is critical theory foundational for the Times, or is it something they’ve acquired in order to adapt?

They’ve always had a … let’s say leftist post-Marxian bent. It kind of came and went because, as an institution, they’re very conservative – a kind of dynasty. But when your core incentive is to continue the dynasty then you’re willing to flap in the breeze, ideologically. And right now the know that their subscriber base is turning to the radical left – it’s younger, it’s millennial, it’s woke – and these are the people that are going to pay them. They’re not looking to the 70-year-old classical liberals from the Upper East Side, they’re looking to that new group in Williamsburg. That motivates them to change their behavior. It’s a weird combo that was the same with Walter Duranty – it’s a combination of financial agenda and ideological sympathy. You have to keep in mind that, like any news organization, there’s two different parts: the newsroom and the management. They have different interests, but it’s a symbiosis where they’re both creating benefits and making sacrifices for each other to get what they want. And right now the newsroom wants woke ideology and management wants to build a lucrative business model.

So it’s not necessarily an ideological shift so much as it’s where the money is right now?

And they want to create a brand. It’s more than opportunistic – they’re committing to this – but it doesn’t mean they wouldn’t switch back. They’ve got shareholders. They’ve got a fiduciary responsibility to earn value for them. That’s the logic that justifies so many other transgressions in the American public sphere – it was for the shareholders. That’s where the division between financial institution and editorial newsroom is. I think, in the long run, the institution’s needs win out, but we’ll see.

In the book you talk about these major conflicts throughout the 20th century that they involved themselves in, and that they had an ideological reason to get the American people to feel a certain way. You have Herbert Matthews and the way the he’s writing about Castro, and it’s kind of hilarious the way they wrote about guys like Stalin and Hitler.

It’s insane.

Is there a throughline back from those times to what they’re doing now, or was there a shift?

I think when you look at the motivations for the stuff with Germany, they knew there was a huge problem there, but it got them great scoops. It made them profitable and helped them stay competitive, which was the same motivation for the WMD debacle. They knew they were neglecting to enforce standards. Same with Jayson Blair, the fabulist and plagiarist, and the same, I think, with many of the instances we see today. They’re willing to pay that price. Journalism is a very cutthroat industry, and you’ve got to be able to compete ruthlessly, and they have been. But they’ve paid the price of integrity, truthfulness, and willingness to confront issues head on and hold themselves accountable.

You’ve been all over the place. Are there any analogues to the New York Times in other parts of the world, or is it a uniquely American phenomenon?

In Israel, where I live, there was Haaretz, which has some interesting connections to the Times, but even then it’s a small country and there were two other major newspapers here that were also very influential. So it wasn’t quite as all-encompassing as the Times. In the UK, I don’t know, but maybe the BBC? I can say that the New York Times is a unique brand in the world – you don’t have someone in Spain who knows what some big newspaper is in France, but everywhere they know what the New York Times is. I don’t think any other news outlet in the world has that, besides maybe CNN and the BBC.

In the US, we see critical theory and wokeness pervading almost everything – the culture, the news, the schools – is that something you see anywhere else?

No. You see it in Israel a little but here and there, but the politics are just too different. In France there’s actually been criticism for what they see as an American export that, to them, doesn’t have anything to do with being French. It’s an American thing. They see it as cultural imperialism by the US trying to push off this weird ideology that they don’t relate to at all.

That’s sort of relieving, as the echo chamber here would have you believe it’s the wave of the future.

Yeah, no, that’s not the case. Most places won’t even know what you’re talking about, especially as you go to the more developing countries. You have more traditional values there, and people feeling alienated by whatever ‘woke’ is and whatever the dictates of the day are. I think more and more they’re confused by it than anything else, and they don’t relate to it or understand what it’s about. In some cases they outwardly reject it. It’s just not relevant.

You’d think people in America would have a little more respect for those traditional values and not be so quick to supplant them with nonsense entirely focused on immutable characteristics like race.

It’s definitely an interesting question – when did America have its break with its tradition and its legacy? One thing I always like to reference is this Michael Jackson music video from the ’90s where he smashes a car with a sledgehammer. That was considered so outrageous and controversial, they could only play it at 10 p.m.! Today, what we’re exposed to in the culture and the way violence is portrayed … those constraints are just completely gone. In real life people still have modesty, but in the culture it’s just become eradicated. It’s just toxic and difficult to stomach.

And with race, I can see the argument for someone wanting more representation of people like them – identifying them as this sort of American or that sort of American – which is great, as long as you are still able to identify yourself as an American, and to say you belong to this culture, that you entered into it, and you believe in it. But it’s become an us-versus-them, zero-sum game; it doesn’t feel like people coming together to try and make things better, it feels like people trying to win. And media has played a big role in that because they have become become very interested in certain political outcomes, and they push hard to make those outcomes happen.

They position themselves as oracles and interpreters of reality, when in reality they’re just people pursuing their own interests. They give us an altered version of reality, like a hallucinogen. It’s about the incentives. Look at the business model. They’re incentivized to get people to take action, and that’s the problem with involving money and politics with media. Maybe one or the other is okay, but when you have both, things go wrong, and that’s what the grave danger is with the Times.

You read the World Socialist Website and you think, “yes, this makes perfect sense, because you’re socialists and you took a socialist position. Understood!” But when you try to appeal to as many people as possible and say you’re just neutral, that you’re just telling the truth, it becomes a lie – that’s a big part of why the culture has ended up where it has.

People will tell you, “well, Fox News is just as bad as CNN and MSNBC,” but they neglect what you mention – Fox is open about being right-wing-oriented, but the left-wing media claims a complete lack of bias.

And it’s a question of sheer volume. Fox is a single exception. On Twitter, when I post something about the times, people will say to me, “now do Fox.” Fox has been done! It’s being done every day! Brian Stelter just wrote a whole book about Fox News!

It’s basically a lighthouse in the sea, especially when you consider not only the news media, but the entertainment industry and higher education, as well.

They have an army of Brian Stelters and Rachel Maddows, and they’re all doing Fox. Fox is very well-critiqued. But the same is not true of any non-conservative outlet. They just don’t do it. We all know that to be true, and I think they know it, too.

You mentioned the World Socialist Website – you mentioned in the book that they denounced the 1619 Project pretty openly. Was this a surprise to you? Does it indicate some slight movement, that it’s becoming slightly less polarizing to point out BS when we see it?

No. The WSWS’s views are an exception because they have their own motivation. They look at Marxist class politics as being the most important thing, and they see race as having supplanted that. They feel like identity politics have disrupted the importance of class politics. The left and right were once about labor and capital, and they want to keep on that axis. I think they’re an exception – when you look at any other mainstream left-wing news site like The New Republic or Mother Jones, they’re pretty much in lockstep with the Times on this stuff.

That makes sense. Everything is about race now.

Yeah, it’s taking up all the oxygen. There are people on Twitter who talk about this, too, who are sort of class-politics left and oppose this stuff. Even Rogan in a way is in that realm – if you rewind a few years, you’d think of him as a guy in the center left.

Yeah, he was a Bernie guy.

And those are his class politics, but when you impose all the race stuff it wrinkles everything. It’s not about anyone being more open, it’s just that a splinter has formed. It’s what I call the New Right, people like Glenn Greenwald, Andrew Sullivan, Bari Weiss, and Bret Weinstein. Totally across the spectrum, politically, but they’re in the same space that isn’t the left anymore because the left has been completely captured by a single ideology. You can even include Trumpism in there. We see people who were leftists but supported Donald Trump. It’s a very strange thing.

I’ve always referred to that as political homelessness. Guys like Joe Rogan who considered themselves as being on the left until the left moved too far away from them.

Exactly. The right has become a new home for them.

Another thing you would have tons of fodder for if you were to write this book today would be the Rittenhouse trial. Is this a more modern instance of media acting as the NYT did in those 20th century conflicts?

Absolutely. The media has come from this place in the culture that believes in shades of gray, and they generally don’t offer those shades when it doesn’t suit the narrative. Some of the reporting the Times did initially was actually very good, but how did they cover him in their opinion pages? How did they cover President Biden’s remarks about him? That’s where the choices happen, and they definitely put it in through the race lens despite it having to do with four white men.

Media polarization forces an either/or situation. No one can have a calm conversation because it’s not exciting. It doesn’t move readers to click or subscribe. The media wants and needs everyone calling each other a liar and a scoundrel. That’s better for page views.

Last question – what’s next? Any other books you’re working on?

Not at the moment. I’m thinking a little bit about blockchain in the media and what crypto might mean for the news, but I’m still doing the research.

A nine-hour time difference and busy schedules on both sides meant that our conversation wasn’t nearly as long as it could have been, as it’s clear that Rindsberg has a lot of thoughts to impart on the media and its impact on the culture. I hope to have the opportunity to speak with him again in the future, and look forward to reading whatever’s next.


There are no comments yet...

Kick things off by filling out the form below.

Leave a Comment