Ep. 136 - Ben Smith

Update: 2017-04-06


Ben Smith, the editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed, talks with David Axelrod about BuzzFeed's approach to journalism and how he responds to the organization's critics, why Donald Trump has reenergized the news media, why BuzzFeed decided to publish the Trump dossier without verifying its claims, and how the Clinton campaign in 2016 overcompensated for its mistakes in 2008.

Following script is auto-generated by Speech to Text Technology:

and the the and now from the University of Chicago Institute of Politics and CNN The X Files with your host David Axelrod The The Before I talk about my guest a little bit of news for you lil bit or acts files news we've been nominated for two webby Awards for Best Show and God bless them best host and if you want to vote on this you can go to webby Awards dot com and register your opinion and it's kind of important actually because they're going to determine the winners based on on the vote so if you if you like what we're doing here take a minute and go to webby Awards dot com and let him know so now my guest Ben Smith I met Dan in Iowa back in two thousand and seven when he was working for Politico and he wrote a plot their own politics was covering the campaign sometimes it had a little edge to it that pissed me off but oftentimes I was impressed by how insightful he was and he came to some conclusions before many others about what was going on in two thousand and seven that showed real wisdom and insight into our political process and then he went on to become the one of the major dough mos at Buzz Feed where he manages their news operation I got to talk to Ben the other day came by the university by the Institute of Politics to talk to him about the state of our politics the state of news in the era of Trump Buzz Feed and the environment then Smith welcome when I knew I first encountered each other a decade or so ago maybe longer you are just the reporter dogging me and asking provocative questions and now you're like a empire so congratulations on that thinks it come to think of it and never ever get the sense those who favor order that you know what it's not necessarily as old journalist I'm not sure that you should aspire to be anybody's favorite reporter anyway but but you are good you know that when I wrote when I wrote my book believer and I was re re re counting the campaign of two thousand and seven and eight I came across an old piece you wrote from Iowa in July of two thousand and seven it was kind of this it was a seminal in the campaign because it was when Obama started finding his voice and you kind of discern what we were doing else have you wrote about the fact that in a very partisan contest there in the caucuses that people actually for someone who could be a unifying figure in the country that that actually trumped hyper partisanship or at least that you eat you discern that that was our theory that that message might actually break through and you are the first guy who actually wrote that piece so I add years later have to tell you I really admired your reporting unified and mentioned to you until you know ten years later ha yes that seems like an exotic theory now yeah but yeah exactly although it certainly was true then do it absolutely was true and we are finally getting Reese are breaking through with that and it was news that was impressive you that you picked up on but I digress because we should talk about you and in getting ready to speak with you I learned stuff about you that I never knew before and I am going to ask about your parents and I want to ask about your grandparents well I I you know I love baseball and it turns out that your your grandfather was a writer a novelist turned guy who wrote about baseball yet he was he was a baseball historian a ghost writer for Mickey mantle and Tommy Johnson and many other ballplayers would have it that the was he like from birth the baseball fan yet hit plated His grace for niceness set so he played whatever kind of sand lot semi professional ball and a pitcher and had head of Boston and had gone to college for a little and dropped it to work in the woods and work in the your snow like to cut trees down oh I see a lot I was like that was with Susan that was a piano was a writer or you know I don't come of last stop was none of that is Irish Boston and yet I think and it's the sort of found his way into a sort of fancy new YORK novelist career that was not he totally loved and then wound up hanging out with ballplayers them as low as it was an immigrant and came to New York and learned baseball I think before you learn English and play with Hank Greenberg and ended up being like baseball at a college scholarship because he could play could pitch and stuff so that Eckert noted he impart his love of baseball you yeh yeh fish are the also you know as fun as I He was a very close to him and grew up following and recently gone through his papers in the way he reported was so amazing because he would erode the several histories of baseball and you know is this is why reading the fifties the sixties and so he would write letters to all the players on the team saying you know there was this great play his legendary time when so and so stole third base and then a over the catcher overthrew and the guy came and home and crashed into the catcher and ever is talking about it kicking you out you're playing second can you recount to me what you remember of that and you just email and all these letters to retired ballplayers Florida and has extensive detailed correspondence about like these can have forgotten plays but not to them I know totally vivid to them yet and it was non academic history of this but based on all these sell the letters piles and piles of letters told and with these books literary their field now they were very unpretentious and Hazel and intellectual to what you wrote a letter to Mickey mantle saying whoa you guys doing the Copacabana in that brawl broke out that cause the Yankees to trade Billy Martin he ghost wrote a book for Mickey mantle and this is I mean the glory days of just reading chess him continue to this day in which I have the galley that he sent mantle and metals comment was looks good I I bet that's true I wonder if we thumb through to see if it was a hoho probing a biography it was in retrospect probably not what he was looking for I think it probably was but is looking for did and didn't get the sense is a big reader that is so that's of your interest in writing reporting was that part of yet it also hinted he'd been working the man was and had them and actually had had run into the bin and then wind up working as a night clerk in a hotel there and befriended a new YORK newspaper publisher who was staying there and the guy I got to the liking to him that he's come down to New York and come work for the New York World and UN and Telegraph Tim and said I still have the Telegraph come down January first nineteen twenty whatever and come work for us and he came down and he wound up covering the crash of the stock market crash so that the reporters would watch is probably embellish telling this to as the sort of like finance guys lost their fortunes and jumped out windows in the crowd to cheer I know that he is also rated one of his novels he wound up he wrote about a guy who was a night clerk at a hotel who gets the Telegraph publisher coming to telling him to come down to New York and be a journalist in the novel the guy rips it up and stays in the woods he was always ambivalent about it did you but to impart to you an interest in that oh yeah I mean I want I want to be right or I grew up in actual we fantasize in particular that the city hall reporter for New York tablet that so on today yeah so you may this yeah got to visit often if Dylan is was pretty good I want to ask you about that but just a just a couple of things on your phone I know your grandmother was a Mark Twain scholars and yet you really did your homework out of nowhere you find there are people in are listening to us record this who do deciduous job of preparing me for these conversations nice job guys yeah I'm glad he she actually was a Mark Twain scholars that would've been awkward if that wasn't true but yeah so so that that is interesting and of itself did you ditch me regale you with stories of the Mark Twain she published a great collection called Mark Twain on the damned Human Race is a very there's a lot of really darkness and pessimism and yeah life is just one damn thing after another was a marked when he read he read a story where the devil comes to earth and I think is appalled by a terrible all the humans are yeah well look some of the great H L Mayne can instead just a miserable guy but one of the great talents certainly one of the great house in journalism of the twentieth twentieth century and your dad was a judge yet he was attacking point is a conservative Republican on the bench in New York in but your mom was not a conservative now I think I mean I think like maybe like a lot of journalists Iger uphill in a household where my parents disagreed on pretty much everything and makes it hard for you to to be real idea lover to death or to see the opposing side to see these two sides is irreconcilable enemies issues she's a Democrat he's also fairly Christian she's Jewish and a lot of babies it's a good way to a turnout of a wishy washy I never thought he was wishy washy but um it was your dad involved I mean he you have to run for judge right notes an appointment oh it is its toe to run for retention from Aceh his career and was active in politics it was a big supporter of George W Bush enough that after probably going back well in in the day to the kind of Rockefeller jab its hippie nor was he keeping a liberal and I think I kind of sympathize with this it's like hard to believe wrongly for us at a Manhattan like it seems like kind of gets boring yes I think eventually will lead to a certain kind of personality where you live in the aforesaid Manhattan you want a conservative liberal only Upper West Side of Manhattan is a conservative and liberal is a way to the ER to the right of the average person on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and you you you went to private schools there yet I only mention it to some of Public School graduate was forty juniors going for that's where that's the other New York I think my son is going to be on your alma mater actually Stuyvesant a yes to just get and he's really pleased yeah it's a great place it's a greater place now probably when I went there it was a dumpy like nineteenth century building on sixteenth Street and First Avenue since then they've built this incredible edifice in lower Manhattan that is like space age yes gorgeous spacious space age high school and were you in school you know not that much I didn't die again I guess I worked for the school newspaper was never there is a kind of like organizational ability and ambition that gets you to be editor your high school newspaper that I never totally had yes I wrote Beth didn't know my summer job was delivering shares and then you end up the you would you go to school until he ended up doing an internship at the fort for the first day that was really where I got the Jewish newspaper the education you could just as easily apparently been the Catholic daily but the Irish echo yeah yeah as thorough as it was I was one of the really large number of interns and the others got him set let's be really one of the great newspaper editors yeah i've ever encountered and just totally got the bug man covered Eric Schneiderman is race for state Senate on the upper west side of the attorney general big thorn in President Trump Sayed is a huge top of fast and there's a lot though in that state senator is being faxed to May this kind of film of the lips he tried to get me to drop Betty Ellen stay there with them instead yeah well you and I I had that same week my first newspaper was the villagers in New York and I got an internship was in college and then it took me awhile to get back to college because I like to work so much yet can't believe they pay for yeah well they barely did but that was all such I couldn't believe how little they pay me to do it but I would've done it for nothing honestly they knew that too and you ended up at the Indianapolis Star yes that was I I was a New York City kitten that seemed like a really interesting faraway place to go and it was a man I'd use the fellowship is in the pulley and fellowship still do really kind of a great program covered cops ever just like such an important thing to do this reporter has particularly as you because you move into national politics you can kind of say anything like there's nobody there is not in a machine for holding people accountable in a Wednesday say just kind of bullshit about national politics stuff that could be true or could be false in a sort of and verifiable when you cover crime like somebody is somebody got killed bettors and if you spell their name wrong that is like incredibly hurtful to them and this is the most is the worst day of their life and you're covering a situation where the stakes are for this person incredibly high and say you get right and you feel the importance of getting into did you do this at night I did get to some night cus of those mostly I was mostly i was like essential in turn the call that if Elisha and paid better than an internship in other ways it's not a very senior job this the strangest thing that happened was that summer there was a um if I remember this guy was a racist spree shooter who came through Chicago and then Bloomington Indiana his name was Benjamin Nathaniel Smith which was my name over there and is my middle name is the love but it was very strange and it was the fourth of July's of the interns were working and so I covered this in Acts are calling the FBI and say Amber Portman will star this is my name and immediately called the desk back and said Yes every quarter I guess let me let me ask you this how does one go from the Indianapolis Star to the Baltic Times in Latvia it was it was the late nineties everybody wanted to go to Prague and I actually studied check this piece and Chacon treadmill and Aaron so I applied for a job at the Prague Post but everybody wanted to work in Prague I couldn't get a job and pride I try to get a job in Warsaw new novel period yet owes the city ethics have all still in charge it was just like his great book called On Call Progress Arthur Phillips were here that all these young young American to stand Will who want to go to Prague it's like that was what people wanted to be an effective job in Moscow and the one job I could get was that the Baltic Times The A the best English language weekly in Riga and so you had the one experience in Indianapolis would talk about what that experience did for you I mean so I wrote for the potential little of that was also sort of the slaying freelancer Stringer of string for the Wall Street Journal and certainly I do think that there's something about being that far from the center that you as a reporter use or have to really think about what people are going to be interested in like there's no reason for anybody ever terrain in the US to sew I'd ever run a story about Latvia and like it wasn't then once I one thousand dollars from the Latvian government fell among the desk didn't notice I got that like terrified that they be Madame X I miss something but nope nobody noticed business is not like I was like the least valued the entire day just a five hundred bucks a month but the entire Dow Jones see now was an employee of the entire day edges of pie but it so you really like think about what people were interested what kinds of shows as your ice you know store a lot of us a lot of features the stories about the core stories were where NATO and European Union accession but but really kind of like stories about the withdrawl of the Soviet Union what was left behind that attempts to remake these market economy is there was a mean Russian influence of a joke then that Russia was constantly drawn red lines the West was constantly stepping over for them there were no consequences that was in Russia as its weakest and most humiliated about learning Russian and a more out there yeah really very different these are the times that caused Vladimir Putin's blood to boil to a hundred percent you would you looking back on that experience and watching some of these developments today and Putin in particular and some of the sort of retrenchment that's going on there and do what were your thoughts about that I mean I think that done that that these countries are incredibly vulnerable if you just physically been there Scott of this Russian military centers down the road from Reagan and the survey field of view the fielder had a geographical vulnerability and I think honestly the thing I learned most there no way was these countries were in when you come from the US you think about him the thing about your country's real actor in history and that sort of how American actions shaped the twentieth century these are countries that were you know that just history and a wash back and forth over the hundreds of thousands people murdered and deported they were really these were historical actors at all something to happen to them and it looks and in the fifty second world war but this is why centrists tree looks so different from the perspective of these countries actually I think this Sebastian Bach a story now I mean I think that's that's a story that I think about in that context in the White House yes Emma Gray family comes back to Hungary is associated with the nationalists there who have you know who are sort of two are tied to the Nazi side of people supported the Nazis during World War Two that's a very complicated story and I think it's very hard for me to it's difficult I think to judge the choices that people made about which side you're on one when you're choosing between Stalin and Hitler in these little countries with no sense their own destiny I do think it's perhaps a different thing to him that in the office join one of the scripts I do think that he's that that's a story that's kind of steeped in its history its like hard for us to even understand or take a short break we'll be right back with with Ben Smith so on the subject of Corbett said so how does that inform your thinking about how he he he is thinking as an aide to the president now he's pretty tied in with Ban in this kind of hyper nationalism and anti immigrant anti trade battleship America kind of you Yemen is in so he comes out of this is almost not so much twentieth century nationalism but it's butt in in the smaller eastern European countries there was this nostalgia for the as they saw it and in some cases actually kind of brave Patriots who had resisted the Soviets when the communists took over in some cases fighting in the forests and to patch up the Soviet soldiers to the fifties another in some cases very tightly aligned with the Nazis in other cases not but I think there's a revival of Of kind of nostalgia for those groups and for that it is a complicated thing and you know certainly associated with a real ethnic nationalism in Hungary and not really there when there were a lot of Jews at that point to get upset about that really I think there was really violent against gypsies and that's who those were the internal enemy these guys were done after the parties in the groups that work was associated with were certainly associated with that I mean it's it's really it's a sort of small and odd stream to be drinking from and this particular moment it says so odd too because you know you and we'll get to this and want to leap into it but oh you know you lay that aside sort of pro Russian influences that you see around Trump and you know how you reconcile all that but all over Europe you know use now you see this sort of oh right wing populist these right wing populist movements growing with ties to Russia minutes of direct assault on liberal democracies and you know how you reconcile all of those different strains yet I think it's kind of who does this mean the communists could never have supported these deeply anti communists crucified and has no idea is if ideologically flexible and so street yet as is is strangely enough aligned with the people who are on the other side of the Great patriotic War right right home getting back to firing peaceful Shas you then covered New York politics for awhile huh how'd you find your way back after an after nine eleven actually want them and it's on there was not interested by leaving overseas to give you a different feeling about America to do to refine your view of this country than not know where can really put a finger on ok then let's go back to how you get back to Jeff and I love and I really wanted to come home there was not a burning interest in Latvian news actually those another time the desperate and check in with me for like two months or maybe I mean I've told them its kind when I noticed there was Easter of Ivanovic story than is immediately totally fell off the map and I called Seth who had been my editor to the forward and asked him if he knew of any age he said I just raise money to start a conservative New York newspaper The New York Sun and I am in CA come work for me and so I didn't notice I went to work for them for six months actually before they started us I did things like I I reported out and rode and catches obituary he long outlived the New York Sun yes and sunset before he made it out call people and say I'm working for the New York Sun and before I could say a newspaper that is not yet exist they would say I love that paper hey I am to six months and then we launched and was therefor year year and half covered a sort of permanent New York Stories is a great expo is a this week on these lawyers in Queens who just make enormous amounts of money from the surrogate Court s in Queens at us like identify with that exact story but those same people in two thousand and two minutes and was in Bloomberg's City Hall early was he was the smoking ban was the big fight he saw time yelling at mag Hagerman about smoking shoot smoke on the steps of City Hall had the realist privilege of being in the sky basement City Hall press room with Glenn thrush and Maggie Harriman for us yeah they're they're gone on to bigger and better things to the DA read and I remember I was like this kid reporters My first job in and they were sitting in Sheehy she was like the fourth string reporter at The Post he was at the Bloomberg news day but like the real gas weaponry nine and we were down in room four AA the annex press room and I were in there they were just such terrifying Lee aggressive and strong reporters and and I remember thinking like my God if this is the B team like how good are like the real hacks of stairs but of course these really the best reporters ever and yeah do do doing incredible reporting on the administration to right now was said Trump was he part of your consciousness back then when you're covering City Hall you know he was cut on the margins of my consciousness because by that time he was kind of a joke one of the one thing I remember asking Maggie very like New York tabloid New York journalism career that there be than the gossip pages of the news in the posts of costly of this incredible story isn't remember which life it was a maybe it was Marla was either sleeping with Trevor wasn't sleeping with hammer in the same better not in the same bed the sexes grader wasn't great and as always to a source close to trumpet and I never ask who's this source you guys have like this is crazy is it like the housekeeper who know she's like No you idiot it's troubling that a code that was a eye opening moment for him and yet John closes this is after the John Miller Dan John but he also is an alias that the other thing was about time I get to the New York observer which would've been my next job and I know three of four by that time and we never add a veteran he was wasn't he was in we cover the New York City power elite and he was not part of it and in fact another reporter recently told me by the time I got there there was that there was a ban on quoting him he was such a dial a quote such an easy guess that if you are working on some feature it was Tuesday afternoon I only ate two quotes you need a third you just call trumpet where he was a pick up the phone its spout some not the weird thing is he still uneasy quota for it and you can either dial up your Twitter account or reporters call and said like to talk to the president if he's in the mood just apparently picks up the phone and doesn't get to be a nightmare for the people around them I think a lot of people who get to have gotten good press and press have always done their own press read as a reporter he sort of sense that category of character like you know me they have an effective AIDS around them that like our heard them in his Siena it's an unconventional I would say I would say Rome uses about Sharpton this category of New York figure who've always who are sort of self invented and say And you wonder sometimes cashews behind the curtain but of course it's just there behind the curve yeah I think Sharpton that had a thing of Trump in that category handful of others you mention the observer this is of course in the pre Jared cushion are days that you're when when did he come on your radar screen he bought the paper but will his family had been on our servers rash and his Tommy Garner Porter there did a lot of the reporting on his father's very complex and strange criminal case and which revolved in some ways wrenching McGreevey is kind of departure in disgrace use the Governor of New Jersey was all the most New Jersey stuff ever heard it on Sheehan's lot of sex An An and strange goings on and on and he and Jared I guess but they think in two thousand and six yeah I think I never really knew is gone but yet casually but never had any real meaningful direction of what your sense of him I mean you know I don't really have a strong sense of him he is and I don't think he left a series now that's what yeah Nassau that he left a real searing impression on the pee on the people who worked with and for him and he and tuning out the observer here I mean I saw you today reported that or we recently reported that he has also solving relations with American Muslim community has hit a private meeting with Muslim leaders he and I think also the Middle East and he's also reforming government it does seem as a liaison to China a China I mean it's just a rack if you weren't if you are not relative by marriage to the present you it said a weather set in the sky after a fall yeah but that's
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Ep. 136 - Ben Smith

The Axe Files with David Axelrod