What the Hell Is Going On at the Washington Post
Democracy dies in darkness (I’m sorry, it’s never getting old).
Over the past few weeks, as news surrounding Elon Musk’s Twitter coup evolved, overwhelming opposition from the institutional press itself became part of the story. But there were, and continue to be, a few outliers in terms of their total, delirious, and frankly confusing levels of rage. Perhaps most notably, even beyond the toxic waste dump op-eds, the Washington Post coordinated a month-long partisan assault on Elon’s ambition, tactics, and character.
At first, I found the behavior confusing. What did these editors have to gain in so obviously abandoning neutrality? Then, I remembered the Post was Twitter’s official “fact check” on the Hunter Biden laptop fiasco, a crucial bit of history lost to recent noise. With censorship of that story now a central focus of the broader conversation surrounding Twitter’s political bias in “content moderation,” criticism of Twitter’s platform integrity is likewise a criticism of the press outlets the company relies on for truth arbitration. In other words, Elon represents a powerful critique of the social media status quo, which by extension includes the Post. In this way, he’s not only challenging the concept of political censorship on social media, he’s challenging the privileges our largest social media companies afford the press; yes, editors are frustrated at the thought of people they don’t like talking, but they also correctly perceive a threat to the unearned, undeserved, top-down amplification of their own voices.
Let’s take a quick look at their least favorite story.
In October 2020, just weeks before our last presidential election, the New York Post reported on a laptop they claimed belonged to Hunter Biden. A number of emails saved on the laptop were framed by the Post as smoking gun evidence of then Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden’s corruption. Roughly, the dots connected like this: Hunter sat on the board of a Ukranian energy company called Burisma, where he made around $1 million a year until 2017, problematically spanning his father’s time in the White House. In emails obtained from the laptop, there was indication, but not confirmation, that Joe Biden, while serving as the vice president, met with a Burisma executive at the request of his son. Later, Joe Biden pressured the Ukranian government into firing a prosecutor who was targeting the company. Biden only did so because the prosecutor was declining to target corruption in the Ukranian government, his team argued, but we see the uncomfortable picture this begins to paint.
There were a torrent of “fact checks” when the story broke. But much of the analysis, including an important piece of analysis from the New York Times, remained somewhat neutral, correctly noting there was a lot about the laptop we didn’t know, while never directly calling into question the New York Post’s reporting on the emails, and only barely addressing the New York Post’s opinion on their relevance. In apparent response to Biden’s Kremlin defense, the Times even went so far as to include the note “No concrete evidence has emerged that the laptop contains Russian disinformation.”
The Washington Post’s fact check was more suspicious. Among several points of contention with the New York Post’s story, it cast doubt on the authenticity of the Hunter Biden emails, and further argued the emails didn’t paint a damaging picture — ‘these are almost certainly not real,’ Glenn Kessler seemed to say, ‘but if they are real they don’t matter.’ It was more a very lengthy difference of opinion than it was a debunking, as no essential facts of the story were proven incorrect. But the New York Post’s story was nonetheless censored across the internet. While Twitter cited now-defunct platform rules against publishing hacked material as their official reason for the censorship, they plastered the Washington Post’s “fact check” on trending topics as proof the story contained misinformation, and possibly disinformation given a connection to Russia (that never materialized). The Russia story was then pushed by multiple mainstream media outlets, and amplified across the internet.
All together now: Silicon Valley executives, many of our most powerful media outlets, and the Biden campaign all worked in tandem, if unofficially, to not only suppress a damaging story, but to produce and disseminate actual misinformation heading into a presidential election. One massive social media hellstorm, several Senate hearings, and a Joe Biden victory later, and Hunter Biden’s emails were reported as authentic by the New York Times. I leave the question of their relevance to the reader.
Among professionals in media, there’s a great deal of frustration over the laptop story — not that it was censored, but that we all keep bringing the censorship up. Yes, the argument goes, it happened, it was a mistake. Move on. The problem is the people who made the mistake — Twitter executives, editors at the Washington Post, “experts” in the intelligence community — are not satisfied with the role of mere opinion people online, for whom natural human error can only be expected. Rather, after having decisively proven themselves unworthy of the privilege, they continue to fight for the power to arbitrate truth across the internet.
Concerning this power, Elon gave it a quick think and said ‘thank you for your service, but this is probably not for me.’ For this, he had to be destroyed.
It has been four weeks since Musk’s intentions to take Twitter private became clear, and in that time the Post has published over 75 stories on the subject — a mix of analysis, opinion, and further opinion masquerading as hard reporting. That’s more than two stories a day. Many of them are op-eds, including such bangers as Ellen Pao, the failed former Reddit CEO, arguing on behalf of government platform control. But it was in hard reporting where the Post truly ceded credibility.
Out of the gate, the Post framed Elon’s bid for Twitter as a “showdown,” with coverage of allegedly widespread concern among Twitter employees that Elon’s intention was to “harm” users. Editors carried on like this for weeks, rarely breaking down the story’s actual timeline of events, focusing instead on “outcry” from a panicked staff of heroes, trying as they could to thwart the violence of words. Meanwhile, at the New York Times, the story was reported in a manner that was basically sober. It was Musk joining the board, his pivot, strategy at play, counter-strategy, and finally endgame.
“Experts are concerned,” reported the Washington Post.
‘Tucker Carlson likes this,’ the Post somberly continued. Social media is impossible without political censorship, we were reminded. There was no word on board strategy, or monetization in “analysis” from Will Oremus, but we did get a positively-undergraduate critique of the Great Man theory — these were the most important details of the day according to the team that once broke Watergate.
But no piece of Post reporting was so embarrassing as its defense of the Twitter executives in part responsible for, you guessed it, censorship of the Hunter Biden laptop story.
Last week, Saagar Enjeti, co-host of the podcast Breaking Points, tweeted about a pro-censorship Twitter executive by name, linking her to the New York Post catastrophe, and Elon replied he felt the decision — which everyone agrees was inappropriate — was inappropriate. The Washington Post likened this to Musk launching a harassment campaign targeting an essentially powerless “worker.” That “worker” is Vijaya Gadde, a public-facing executive with the power to silence presidents who by the way just took home a 17-million-dollar salary.
The argument that such people cannot be publicly criticized is reminiscent of what we’ve heard for years from Taylor Lorenz, the Post’s new star “tech” reporter. Recently, and infamously, she discussed this topic on MSNBC. Lorenz’s tearful account of what it’s like to disagree with Glenn Greenwald, a man with many more Twitter followers than her, directly preceded her doxing LibsOfTikTok, who was until this month an unknown Brooklyn-based real estate agent running a popular meme account. Post leadership defended the reporting, and lied about the dox.
While writers for the Post memed and fought and made their poor defenses for such obviously tribal standards online, I noticed reporters for the New York Times were quiet by comparison. Reporters for the New York Times have been quiet for a while, actually, due to the company’s now strictly-enforced social media policy, with pressure from leadership not to post. Their public position on the retreat from Twitter focusses on social media’s tendency to distort a journalist’s view of the world, and to expose journalists to “harassment.” But obviously the more important thing in play here is the parasitic relationship that exists between loud reporters on Twitter and the institutions where they work.
Social media is, well, social, and social dynamics reward personality. Likable personality is often vulnerable, because vulnerability is relatable. Legacy media brands are, by design, the opposite of relatable — they are serious, timeless things that evoke a sense of history, tradition, and power greater than the individual. Juxtaposition of the deeply human writer with the deeply serious institution produces a goofy kind of portrait of a clown, in a suit, demanding we respect him. Mockery has been endless.
Perhaps Times’ coverage of Elon’s bid for Twitter has been less unhinged than what we’ve seen from the Post because Twitter is less central to the goal of the Times, which seems to understand there can be no “victory” on Twitter for any would-be “paper of record” that isn’t Pyrrhic. Sure, The Times will also likely lose its position of privilege and power on the platform under Elon’s leadership, but their presence on the platform undermines their value proposition.
When it hired Lorenz, the Post made clear it has a very different goal than the Times — not to be an entity of respect so much as something that works well on social media. The Post’s coverage of Elon, which fundamentally comes from a place of attention insecurity, has further proven out the Post’s new orientation. But this is a dangerous game.
In the quest for popularity, rather than prestige, media brands lose distinction in a flatter world of meme accounts and journalists and congresswomen all reduced to one thing: dramatic people, who we love and hate, competing for favs and followers. With no more artificial boost from the platform, increasingly the meme accounts will win. Such a loss will not just look like second place to the New York Times, in which there is still some shred of dignity. It will look like the Washington Post knocked out in one corner of a cartoon battle royale, and SexyFish69 in another, laughing her ass off, before a crowd of millions.
The Post’s motto is “democracy dies in darkness,” but on the internet illumination burns in every direction, and the more we learn about a person the less we see them as the voice of God. For political despots and would-be truth arbiters alike, exposure to such humanity is an existential threat.
Enjoy the attention.