Traditionally in America, when whistleblowers have a big story to break, their first choice is a prestigious news vehicle like The New York Times, The Washington Post or an award-winning show like 60 Minutes.
That’s not what new Twitter head Elon Musk did, however, when he wanted to expose the thousands of documents connected to Twitter’s suppression of the Hunter Biden laptop story prior to the 2020 elections.
Instead of legacy media, he chose Substack, a fast-growing online platform with a subscription model that supports free and independent journalism. Since its arrival a few years ago, it has attracted reputable writers such as Andrew Sullivan, Glenn Greenwald and Bari Weiss.
So, why did Musk choose this new upstart over, say, The New York Times?
The key reason is trust.
According to a recent Gallup poll, trust in traditional media is at an all-time low. Only seven percent of American adults have a “great deal” of trust and confidence in newspapers, TV and radio news. This is a stunning decline in credibility for media organizations that represent a fundamental pillar of our democracy.
Of course, the media has only itself to blame.
No one will dispute that the mainstream media today has a leftist political bias. In fact, these media companies played along with Twitter’s suppression of the Hunter Biden laptop story, which was thoroughly reported by The New York Post and which could have damaged Joe Biden’s presidential campaign.
It would have been unthinkable for these media outlets to have suppressed such an explosive story had the alleged culprit been on the Republican side. And, judging by their lost credibility, most readers have figured that out.
It’s no surprise, then, that Musk had to go with a more credible alternative to release his Twitter Files. The veteran journalist who is on the case is none other than Matt Taibbi, a longtime investigative reporter for Rolling Stone magazine who’s now doing his reporting on Substack. I’ve been reading Taibbi for years: he’s as credible and factual as they get.
This kind of journalistic integrity, which readers can now find on Substack, is especially threatening to a mainstream media that is in the throes of its own credibility crisis.
So, right on cue, the Taibbi bashing has begun.
“Mainstream news reporters—in lockstep with Democratic strategists—rushed to social media to smear journalist Matt Taibbi as a ‘sad’ ‘fraud’ as he released his bombshell report on political censorship at Twitter,” The New York Post reported on Dec. 3.
Among the many examples of personal attacks without substance or factual arguments:
“Matt Taibbi … what [a] sad, disgraceful downfall,” Daily Beast columnist and New York Times contributor Wajahat Alli posted. “Selling your soul for the richest white nationalist on Earth.”
Democratic pollster Matt McDermott tweeted a similar put-down:
“Matt Taibbi always was, and still remains, a fraud,” McDermott wrote. “Doing PR for the richest person in the world should come as no surprise.”
What is especially disheartening is how the mainstream media seems to be dismissing the bombshell story, as reported in this Daily Mail headline:
“Elon Musk slams NY Times for ignoring his exposé of how Twitter censored Hunter Biden laptop—as woke outlets including Washington Post, CBS News and ABC all avoid the story too.”
In a way, I can understand their dilemma. Covering this exposé now would mean exposing their own journalistic failure to report on a significant and newsworthy story in the first place.
Journalism cannot afford to be contaminated with such blatant bias, from any side.
It’s clear that the media business has changed. It was easier in the past to do objective journalism, because the business depended on mass advertisers, which meant the views of the “masses” had to be considered. As the advertiser model eroded with the digital revolution and was replaced by subscribers and paywalls, media companies could afford to cater to their preferred ideological base—and for much of the media, that meant the Democratic left.
For the mainstream media and their leftist readers, this kind of predictable ideological journalism may be a short-sighted “win-win.” But for society at large, where thoughtful, pluralistic journalism is a must, it’s a lose-lose.
Enter Substack, another example of America’s unique ability to correct itself. Substack promises to help restore trust in the media through the individual journalist rather than through the easily corruptible collective enterprise.
The irony is that this individuality also speaks to Substack’s limitation, as reflected in this critique from Columbia Journalism Review:
“Writing is often considered an individualistic enterprise, but journalism is a collective endeavor. And that is the paradox of Substack: it’s a way out of a newsroom…but it’s all the way out, on one’s own.”
The essay quotes a Substack writer who said she missed the infrastructure—legal and editorial—of a traditional outlet: “I just know how valuable it is to have a second ear to bounce ideas off of, someone to challenge you,” she said. “I’m very not big into writing in a vacuum, and I think that is the thing I miss the most.”
Author Rod Dreher, who recently joined Substack, doesn’t see it as a replacement for basic journalism. “How many subscriptions will people be willing to pay for?” he asks. “What’s more, it doesn’t solve the problem facing young heterodox writers who, unlike people at my career stage, can’t support themselves via Substack, and would get themselves fired or otherwise blackballed for expressing a heterodox opinion, even outside their workplace.”
Still, for all of its limitations, Dreher calls Substack a “place of freedom for writers… a place to do a different kind of writing… a place for writers who have been driven out of the mainstream journalism community for their heterodox opinions.”
If this “causes agita among the gatekeepers of mainstream journalism,” he writes, “well, good. They deserve it. Like Renaissance popes who were impervious to change, they have brought this Reformation upon themselves.”
The next few weeks will be telling. If the mainstream media continues to downplay the Hunter Biden laptop scandal and continues to bash both Taibbi and Musk, we will know that their politics will continue to come before their journalism.
And that will keep fueling the success of alternatives like Substack, for the simple reason that readers want to trust what they read. Digital revolution or not, that truth will never get old.
David Suissa is editor-in-chief and publisher of Tribe Media Corp and the “Jewish Journal.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article was originally published by the Jewish Journal.