Substack: Last, Best Hope for Free Speech

The promise of the internet was that it would be a sort of Speaker’s Corner open to anybody and any ideas, an unlimited vista of imagination and innovation. In the 1990s it heralded a breathtaking advance for humanity, which had always been constrained by the distribution costs for ideas, which in turn created an oligarchy of information. If you didn’t own one of the handful of newspapers, magazines or television or radio stations in a given city, you had very little chance of reaching much of an audience. Pre-internet, the accepted cliche was, “Never argue with a man who buys his ink by the barrel.” Consider the title by which Joseph Pulitzer, William Randolph Hearst, and Rupert Murdoch were known: “press barons.” The rest of us were their vassals.

So the internet was a democratic revolution. For a while. Today, though, a huge proportion of ideas flows through just a few tightly controlled pipelines owned by the e-barons who rule Twitter, Facebook, Amazon, and Google. The tech lords simply shrug at anyone who protests when they ban books, movies, newspapers, business bloggers, medical discussions, and even a sitting president of the United States, which is what Donald Trump was when he was kicked off Facebook and Twitter. He continues to be banned from both platforms even as a private citizen, although the initial rationale was that he must be prevented from reaching an audience because he commanded the armed forces.

For those whose epistemology boils down to: Let everything be discussed, and may the best ideas win, it’s essential to build a safe haven for  free exchange of ideas. Just in the past few months, Substack has emerged as that platform. To call it a breath of fresh air would be an understatement; it’s more like a blast of pure oxygen after emerging from a coal mine. Legacy outlets such as New York magazine and the New York Times, and even sites built specifically to challenge existing narratives such as Vox and The Intercept, have driven out some of their most talented people, but those writers are all having the last laugh on Substack, where they are finding large and receptive audiences—and in some cases are startled to suddenly find themselves among the highest-paid columnists in the United States.

There are Substack newsletters about running, Hollywood, basketball, art, food, wine, money, sex and lots of other subjects, but the platform’s greatest value is in publishing thinkers who challenge the intellectual ruling class. Bari Weiss, the New York Times writer and editor who quit last year in spectacular fashion after being bullied by her colleagues—“Twitter is not on the masthead of the New York Times. But Twitter has become its ultimate editor,” she said in her resignation letter—has quickly established a Substack op-ed page, Common Sense with Bari Weiss, that doggedly and vigorously challenges conventional wisdom and has become essential reading. The left-wing writer Glenn Greenwald, who was hounded out of The Intercept even though he was its principal founder, continues to strike an anti-imperialist, anti-war, class-based approach to politics on his Substack. That approach makes him deplorable to mainstream progressives, who are far more interested in race than in anything else and tend to parrot the Democratic Party line on everything. Matt Yglesias, who co-founded Vox in 2014 but was increasingly marginalized by his own colleagues, started the wonkish newsletter Slow Boring to emphasize policy solutions over woke rants. Jesse Singal delves into social-science research and how it sometimes conflicts with progressive dogma in his newsletter. John McWhorter dares to wade into the turbulent waters of race and language. All of these newsletters offer some of their content for nothing but ask for a small fee, typically $5 a month, from subscribers who want to unlock everything they write.

One of the liveliest writers and thinkers on Substack is Matt Taibbi, who unlike most of the others continues to publish with his longtime employer, in his case Rolling Stone, where he is an investigative reporter, but who has carved out a separate identity as more of a lethally funny critic of the media on TK News.

Citing the Washington Post, New York Times, CNN and MSNBC, Taibbi says in an interview, “The worst indictment of these organizations is that you know what their take is going to be on everything which is exactly what liberals used to complain about Fox News. A lot of newsrooms are taking the moral clarity argument and that means making sure that the reader will come to the correct political conclusion.” Think different, and you’re not only a pariah but a bad person, and may soon find yourself smeared, hounded, even fired.

“It’s become difficult for a certain kind of reporter to work in a mainstream newsroom,” he adds, noting that his father was a journalist and he was raised among “old school heterodox reporters who maybe don’t identify as being terribly political” but simply follow a story wherever it goes, even if it makes people of their own political party look bad. Taibbi has gone after George W. Bush but also Barack Obama in his writing, putting the truth above partisan allegiance.

That stance has made Taibbi a harsh critic of, for instance, the Robert Mueller investigation of Donald Trump, which found no evidence of unlawful collusion with the Russians, was largely based on a spurious dossier whipped up by the Hillary Clinton political machine, and yet was clung to with furious determination by most of the mainstream media. “Rolling Stone never really pressured me to go one way or the other,” he says, “but I think when you’re representing a company there are always gonna be pressures and you’re always gonna feel what the rest of the newsroom is thinking. In the Trump years I had some disagreements that made things a little uncomfortable.”

Being skeptical about Russiagate made Taibbi persona non grata with several previous allies and he found himself (along with Greenwald) denounced as a Russian stooge in a sort of woke parody of McCarthyism. Formerly a regular guest on MSNBC, he said he stopped being invited back after speaking dismissively about Russiagate in 2017. “It’s a campaign, and it’s destined to discredit you and scare you into not saying certain things. We all get it, all of us who took the wrong side of the Russia story, from me to Glenn Greenwald to Aaron Maté to the late Stephen Cohen and Chris Hedges,” all of these being writers who spoke out about the failures of the Russia probe.

Substack offers liberation from the peer pressure and groupthink of today’s progressive newsroom, which New York Times editor Dean Baquet cited as the reason he had to part ways with veteran science writer Donald McNeil over a silly controversy stemming from a conversation with a privileged activist high school student on a trip to Peru. McNeil was a classic newsman type, obsessively focused on his beat instead of on making friends.

“When my father was in the business,” Taibbi says, “it was always considered a virtue for reporters to be kind of independent thinkers and iconoclasts and for there to be a diversity of opinions within a newsroom. That was considered totally normal. To be a bit prickly and difficult—that was typical.” Now reporters have to worry about being blackballed by their peers; newsrooms became mean-girl sororities, using Slack channels to chase non-conformists away.

Now Substack not only provides freedom, it pays extravagantly well to those who, like Taibbi, can attract a substantial audience. He won’t say how many paid subscribers he has but allows that the figure is above 10,000, which would mean his newsletter is grossing more than $50,000 a month. Yglesias accepted a $250,000 advance to write for Substack in lieu of charging readers directly, but he has so many subscribers that his site must be grossing in the neighborhood of $1 million a year. Greenwald, Weiss, McWhorter and many others are amassing similar numbers of subscribers and don’t have to worry about running afoul of some institution or other. “I thought it was gonna be successful, I just didn’t think it was gonna be like this,” Taibbi says, but he finds the rise of Substack to be evidence of “a major backlash against traditional media. There are a lot of people who are willing to pay a significant amount of money just to have some sense of what’s going on in the world that’s separate from partisan politics.”

He intends to carry on in the spirit of “old-school ACLU-style liberalism. Let’s encourage free inquiry as much as possible and let’s let the chips fall where they may. This idea—‘Let’s have as free flowing a debate as we can and that’s the way we have a good society’— that used to be pretty much the core press value too.” And on Substack, it is again.

Editor’s Note: A version of this article first appeared at Planned Man.  

About Kyle Smith

Kyle Smith is an American critic, columnist and novelist. Smith was a film critic for the New York Post and is currently critic-at-large at National Review as well as theater critic for The New Criterion.

Photo: Getty Images

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