On COVID coverage, leaving NYC, and Deadspin – Fourth Watch “BCC Interview” with Will Leitch

Deadspin founder Will Leitch writes for New York Magazine and MLB.com, among other places (see all his weekly work in his free newsletter). We knew each other when we both were living in NYC, in the media scene there – although now we’re both outside. Leitch currently lives in Georgia, and I’m in Texas.

This week we emailed about coronavirus coverage (which we generally disagreed about), Trump, the NYC media scene, Deadspin today and a lot more. And then, with all BCC Interviews, I published it in full, below. It was a great interview on a wide range of topics. Check out past BCC Interviews with Fox News’ Greg Gutfeld or Ben Smith of the New York Times, and subscribe to Fourth Watch here. See the full interview below…

From: Steve Krakauer

To: Will Leitch

Hey Will-

Hope you and the family are doing well in this crazy time – and thanks for doing this.

There’s a ton I want to talk to you about – Gawker’s death, leaving the NYC media scene – but let’s start with the most important story in the world, coronavirus. We first got re-connected a bit after you shared the Atlantic’s famous (infamous?) “Human Sacrifice” story from the end of April.

Although I will say, I think this from Dana Milbank on Georgia becoming “America’s #1 Death Destination” from 1 month ago is maybe more over the top.

This week Georgia saw its lowest number of coronavirus hospitalizations since April 8.

I know this time is tough for people, and people are scared. Here in Texas, as we begin easing restrictions, there is a lot of caution too. But I also see a ton of personal responsibility, which gives me hope. So…how are you feeling about everything right now? What do you think of the stories, in retrospect? What do you think is the media’s responsibility to toe the line between fear-mongering and encouraging the public to take this seriously?

Feel free to throw any questions my way.

Thanks, Steve

From: Will Leitch

To: Steve Krakauer

I’m as scared and disoriented as everyone else is right now. I frankly don’t trust anyone, from any “side” or angle, who has any self-assurance whatsoever. I believe the inherent spontaneity and curtness of social media, along with the dopamine hit of Twitter and Facebook’s numerical value system (which is something very different than actually getting any tangible value out of any of that system, but that’s another discussion for another time!) has incentivized acting as if one is absolutely certain of everything they say at every moment, as if their current view is settled fact. I think that’s one of the things that has brought us to this terrifying moment, in which no one believes anything other than what they themselves most fervently believe. Of all the problems with our society that COVID-19 has exposed, I think that’s one of the biggest ones. This is a brand new, unpredictable disease that even the people who have most closely studied it are only starting to have even the vaguest understanding of. There are complexities and subtleties and unknowables, and our comprehension of it, let alone how to deal with it, changes by the day, even by the hour.
But we do not have a system built to withstand uncertainty or complexity. Everyone has lined up in their own corners of certainty, and they will retrofit whatever narratives they can to make sure they can stay there. You say that hospitals say their lowest number of coronavirus hospitalizations since April 8. One group of people will react to that with “see, things are going great!” Another will say “the data says it’s too early.” Many members of that first group spent most of March telling us we were overreacting. Many members of that second group spent most of April saying every move Brian Kemp was making was trying to kill everyone. The one thing I haven’t seen from either group, and I do not expect to, is any sort of self-reflection down the line. The fact is: No one knows ANYTHING. I do not think Brian Kemp was working from any sort of detailed plan from the get-go; if he had been, maybe he wouldn’t have given everybody in the state, oh, 60 hours to prepare for everything suddenly opening up. But I also do not think that he is purposely trying to kill people.

I do think the criticism of that Atlantic piece is unfair. We can argue about the headline–and I find it, as someone who has written thousands of pieces for dozens of publications over the last 20 years, a little wild that professional writers and editors STILL criticize an author for a piece’s headline when they obviously know that’s not how the sausage is made–but the crux of that piece was, essentially, “many small business owners in the state of Georgia have no idea what to do in the wake of Kemp’s sudden order.” Some places opened! Some didn’t! But they were all put in the rather insane position of trying to figure out how to keep their businesses afloat without killing their patrons, and discovering that their leaders basically just told them, “figure it out.” I have close friends here in Georgia who own businesses and still don’t know what to do. And I understand! It’s super hard! That people are reacting to that piece the way they are speaks less to Amanda Mull’s work and more to how supposedly intelligent thoughtful people STILL don’t seem to read past the goddamned headline. As a writer who has been dinged by careless headline writers his whole life, that frustrates me more than any politics.

But as for your actual question, yes, I will try to finally get to it, 600 words in.

I do not think that most of the responsible reporting by reputable media outlets was “fear-mongering,” unless you consider all reporting of bad news and that bad news’ potential negative consequences “fear-mongering.” I am not sure what one would expect a reporter to write when an airborne, highly contagious virus makes it across the world, begins killing people and inspires the world’s top scientists to project that it will kill hundreds of thousands or millions more. Is the correct thing to say, “on one hand, the virus is here and this is what scientists are telling us what could happen, but on the other, here are people on Twitter who say they are overreacting?” Many of those early studies — remember the cubic model? — have been proven deadly wrong, and we are going to have 100,000 (official) deaths from this virus any day now. Yes, sure, a lot of the reactions to the “250,000 people will die if we don’t socially distance and shut down the economy” are easy to mock if it turns out 250,000 people don’t die. But we did socially distance. We did shut down the economy. Acting as if warnings about what would happen if we didn’t take action should be mocked because we ended up taking actions because of the warnings is … bizarre.

That said: I do think there was a lot of self-righteous self-assurance from people about how terrible things were going to be in some parts of the country when they did not actually know that information for sure. Part of me wants to give them a little bit of the benefit of the doubt, considering how many people who work in the media (myself included) saw among people they knew and cared about, early on, how devastating and how deadly this disease could be. But yes, do I think some of the reaction assumed an understanding of how the virus was spread that was not entirely in evidence? I do. I also think people are still doing that. We are still acting as if we know how all this plays out. And we don’t.

It strikes me as odd some of the pride people have here in Georgia, and elsewhere, as if they stared down the virus and somehow beat it through intensity and American can-do. The virus is still out there, no matter how much we may try to wish it away, no matter how well or not-well we’ve done mitigating its spread. Is it going to be worse than we initially thought? Better? I don’t know. Did Kemp do the right thing? The wrong thing? I don’t know that either. Those are important words! I don’t know. And I don’t. Neither do you. Neither does anybody reading this. Neither does anyone on Twitter. But I do think it’s not only too early for anyone to be doing any crowing about whether someone was right or someone was wrong, I think it’s unseemly. This is a global tragedy, in matters of both mortality — 324,000 people have died of this, almost a third of them Americans, and both those numbers will go up within seconds of me finishing this sentence — and in economic strife, for everyone. If it turns out that my worst fears about this virus end up being unfounded, I will be so relieved, and we surely all will be. But there’s still nothing for anyone to be happy or proud about, from any of this.

Also: I miss sports. I miss sports a lot.

You’re better at Twitter than I am. (I think everybody is.) Do you think I’ve diagnosed any issues correctly? Or am I just an old blogger out of touch with how the game’s played now?



From: Steve Krakauer

To: Will Leitch

Hey Will-

Oh I think I’m pretty terrible at Twitter too! But I 100% agree with your assessment about the lack of introspection and humility that has come out of this crisis. The issue, of course, is that certainty is something that existed in the media before, and has for decades. No one really wants to see a pundit go on TV and say “I can see both sides of the argument” or, the horror, “I don’t really know!” The media – particularly the TV media, and I’d also say the Twitter media (including the columns that seem written or headlined specifically for Twitter to share it) – thrives on certainty. And as you’ve pointed out, everyone who is certain about coronavirus has been proven wrong, to some degree.

But I would disagree on a key point here also – I think part of the issue is also certainty combined with a tacit geographic bias in the media. There’s a reason why Gov. Cuomo gets the benefit of the doubt, while my Gov. Abbott or your Gov. Kemp don’t, and never will. And it’s too simplistic to chalk it up to a Democrat vs. Republican thing. Gov. Hogan and Gov. Baker are very popular in Maryland and Massachusetts, both Republicans, and both getting pretty fawning media coverage. And yet – has their response been particularly strong here? I don’t see evidence of that, as each of those states see their numbers rise. I believe there’s an implicit, or in some cases explicit, bias that comes out of a media based in NYC and DC about the rest of the non-California country. Of course, I’d also point to another issue that’s at the core of everything the media does these days – and it’s the vacuum where everything must revolve around Donald Trump. That can lead to mistakes, but it also can lead to an instinct that often is astray from the facts. And speaking of certainty – we have a president that speaks with such (often absurd) certainty, and a media that counters him with equal doses of (often absurd) certainty. Isn’t that a problem too, here?

Speaking of the non-NYC-ness of you and I – you and I crossed paths many times in the NYC media scene back in the day, when I was at Mediaite and you were at Deadspin and later other NY outlets. What precipitated the move? What do you miss, and not miss, about the NYC media crowd? And do you think others will be following our paths due to this crisis, which seems, from afar, to have made NYC a far less desirable destination?

From: Will Leitch

To: Steve Krakauer

As someone who lived 13 years in New York City and has now lived seven in Georgia (and spent 21 in farmcountry Illinois, for that matter), I can say this for geographic “bias:” Everybody thinks everyone who isn’t from where they are from has a deep-seated bias against that place. It is true everywhere. New Yorkers get irritated that everyone else thinks they’re snotty and self-absorbed; people from the South get irritated that everyone else thinks they’re backwoods and stupid. Everything is always “Us vs. Them,” which is funny, because honestly, from my experience, no one from either place thinks about anyone from the other place at all. (At least Midwesterners’ primary irritation — that no one ever thinks about them at all — is actually true!) Nobody cares! Everyone is just doing their own thing. Sure, there are occasional people who are intolerant of anyone who isn’t exactly like them; I was once greeted by someone who, when they learned where I was from, remarked, “Well, I guess SOMEONE has to be from Illinois.” And someone down here once immediately assumed I went to some Ivy League school and survived off a trust fund because I lived in New York for so long. (My electrician dad and ER nurse mom wouldn’t know a trust fund from a trust fall.) But you know what people who think like that are? They’re assholes. They’re assholes in New York, they’re assholes in Georgia, they’re assholes on Mars. They are not “biased.” They’re just jerks.

The idea that people on the East Coast, whether they work in media or not, are somehow inherently different than people who work in the rest of the country, doing literally anything else, is insane to me. Sure, people in media probably think a Phillips head screwdriver has vodka in it, and the guys I play basketball with down here likely dangle all their participles. But we all have the same fears and dreams, and we all love our families, and we’re all worried about money all the time. As someone who has lived all over this great country of ours, I cannot emphasize this enough: We Are All The Same. We’re just a little different in the particulars. Everyone just wants to be happy, and safe. The idea that the other guys are out to get you, that somehow they want to WIN, it’s all pro wrestling crap, just a way to get cheap heat. I have friends here in Georgia who were absolutely FURIOUS about the headline to that Atlantic piece, though I know for a fact that they have the exact same concerns about the plight of small businesses that the piece details. And when my wife had a [NUMBER REDACTED] birthday party in Charleston, South Carolina, a couple of years ago, attended by both our friends down here and in New York, all my NYC friends were fully expecting our Southern friends to hate them. But that’s not what happened. Because people are essentially the same. I truly believe this. Maybe this is why I’m bad at Twitter.

But in my view, it’s not bias. It’s just base, stupid tribalism. THOSE people aren’t like US so they are WRONG. People in NYC do it, people in Georgia do it, people in Wyoming do it. There isn’t a place on the planet that doesn’t. Shit, people in my hometown of Mattoon, Illinois, think people in Charleston, Illinois are stuck-up tweedy elites (and they think we are chaw-spittin’ slackjaws), and the towns are literally a five minute drive away from each other and have the same chain restaurants, the same gas stations and share the same hospital. “Bias” is such a strange word. Am I biased toward the people I spend most of time with? Of course! Christ, who isn’t? Aren’t you? I certainly hope there are not people I’ve been around in my life who have thought, “Man, I totally prefer this person whom I’ve never met and know nothing about over Will.” 

So to get to your point (finally): I do not see any particular reason that “the media” — which is of course its own overly broad term, but that’s gonna take even longer to legislate out than whatever it is I’m yammering on about here — would side with the governors of Maryland, Massachusetts and New York just because they are nearby. (For cripes sake, people HATE Andrew Cuomo. Unless you have another theory for why 40 percent of Manhattanites would vote for Cynthia freaking Nixon as governor. Though she is legitimately great in both “A Quiet Passion” AND “James White.”) I think the reporting press tended to promote the governors who followed what the officially scientific sources told them to, because that’s what reporters do (sometimes to a fault): Trust official, expert sources. Mike DeWine has gotten the best press of his LIFE during this. (I do think Cuomo got perhaps undeserved extra credit points for giving good press conferences that were easily meme’d.) I think Kemp got it worse, more quickly than everyone else because there is widespread belief (agreed with by me, so you know) that he used shady tactics as Secretary of State to win the election, and because Stacey Abrams is everyone’s darling (more disclosure: I’m also a big fan of hers, though I don’t know if the veep lusting is doing her any favors, though I get why she’s doing it); he lost the benefit of the doubt with people for that, and for those ridiculous “I’m ridin’ around pickin’ up illegals!” campaign ads with an exaggerated accent he doesn’t have in a truck he doesn’t drive. And it would have helped if he had made it clear to the citizens of his state exactly what the plan was rather than just saying, “we’re opening up this weekend, get ready, let’s see how this works1” If Georgia ends up managing this better than everyone thought it would — and, again, we’re a long way from knowing that, but it is definitely possible — I think his supporters will be pretty justified in being annoyed if he doesn’t get any credit for it. But again: We’re a long way from that. It comes back to the certainty idea. Kemp acted like he was absolutely certain he was right. His detractors acted like they were absolutely certain he was wrong. And it has turned into a pissing contest rather than, you know, a public health crisis we are all trying to make it through.

Which brings us, inevitably, to Trump. I am not sure I agree with your framing here:

I do agree that often people who dislike Trump (a club of which I am a loud, avowed member; you should know that I would literally pick a name out of a phonebook and immediately inaugurate that person, sight unseen, if it meant the president would no longer be Donald Trump) reflexively reject what he says, almost out of instinct at this point. But, you know: Why wouldn’t they? If Trump says something with absurd certainty that is wrong, a lie or both (which happens constantly), it is LITERALLY THE JOB of the reporters paid to do this gig to counter him with the certainty of the actual truth and facts. We can argue about their tone, or their wording, or their framing, and I think there are good arguments to be made there, but there’s a weird false equivalence to your question there

Trump: The path of this storm is going to hit Alabama, you can see from this map.

Reporter: You obviously just added a little section with a black sharpie.

Steve: Look at the problem of these two people being so absurdly certain!

I understand what you are saying. It can be exhausting for a person to see reporters so CONSTANTLY adversarial to the president of the United States, particularly if it’s a president that person voted for. It can feel illegitimate, or somehow staged, and I’ll confess there are certain members of the press who have discovered they can raise their Klout scores with heavy dollops of performative outrage, and that’s incredibly annoying. But if we’re playing the “whose certainty is more absurd?” game, I’ll go with the guy who dictates his own doctors’ letters to say his health is “astonishingly excellent.” (For what it’s worth, if a doctor ever tells me he’s astonished by my excellent health, I’m finding another doctor.) I understand the idea that any politician who sides with Trump on everything — like Kemp, except for the Loeffler appointment, and boy is that not turning out well — is probably not given much benefit of the doubt when they go against the medical consensus, and, as I said, I do think it’ll be unfair if Georgia ends up being all right in this situation and no one goes back and says, “Way to go, Kemp.” (Though I also think that’s sort of in the job description for politicians.) But I also get why the first response wouldn’t be to think, “Well, he must have better scientists than everyone else.” And again: This thing still has a long way to go.

As for missing New York, I’ll confess, every time I’m hungry for sushi, a Broadway play or a dive bar around the corner that’s open until 4 am, I miss it. But I’m a parent of two charming little boys now and don’t have much time for any of those things anymore. As a blogger nerd back then, I didn’t really get a lot of time with cool NYC media people; I was too busy locked inside churning out 24 posts a day, like a chump. I did hear about all their parties, later, years later. They didn’t really seem like my bag. My wife and I moved to Athens because I’ve been working out of home since 2005 and decided that I and the people I’ve chosen to spend my life with would be happier if I did that in a house rather than a tiny apartment on the 22nd floor of an impersonal high rise in Metrotech Brooklyn. But I love that goddamned city. I get back to it often, or at least I did before theis. And it breaks my heart what’s happened to it and the people who live there. But New York always bounces back. Tragedy is in that city’s DNA. It always comes back stronger. Well, except for the Mets.

I am sorry I am so wordy. I am trying to avoid taking the trash out. I am appreciative of the excuse.

From: Steve Krakauer

To: Will Leitch

Will, I appreciate the thoughtful response! I know we are not going to come to a consensus here in our email chain on the notion of the media’s geographic media bias, or Trump coverage, but a few points I’d like to put out.

Early in April I read a piece about how the subways (and similar forms of closed public transportation) were the biggest spreaders of coronavirus. I raised this by asking why Cuomo hadn’t shut down the subways, as I remember, on Twitter, and was met with the response that they directed subways should only be used by essential workers. They weren’t policing it – no one was checking your “essential worker” badge at the turnstile. But the reason that was posited why this wasn’t getting more play in the media was, basically, a level of trust. “New Yorkers are smart, they will obey the rules,” was the response. This is, of course, ridiculous. Sure, some New Yorkers are going to break the rules, and breaking the rules in this case means spreading a disease further. Meanwhile, contrast that with the media reaction to strategic, slight easing of lockdown restrictions in states like Texas and Georgia. The media reacted as if this slight easing would lead to residents just going back to their normal lives, and spreading the disease. When, I don’t know about you, but I haven’t seen anything like that. People are being smart, and safe.

Another quick story – I went to a dinner party a couple years ago at our close friends’ friend’s house – a gay couple, with pretty much all other gay couples there. My wife and I were seated next to a gay married couple, that we got to talking to about life, inevitably politics, and found out they both voted for Trump. I asked why, and he pointed particularly to the 2nd Amendment, saying “I just got the right to get married, you think I’m going to give an inch on my right to bear arms?” I relay this story not because it’s this rare unique moment – it’s, essentially, the norm, I think. People are interesting and complicated, and that is not portrayed in a media largely based in NYC and DC. I have no doubt your NYC friends and your Georgia friends get along great though – because I agree, we are far more alike than we are different, and people are, generally, good (and not like Twitter makes it seem!).

Quick thought on Trump – as a fellow non-Trump voter or supporter, I don’t think calling out the absurdity for what it is is the issue. I think it’s the tone, and the severity. When everything is “a threat to the Republic as we know it,” nothing is. When everything is outrageous, nothing is. Trump’s not my cup of tea – although I enjoyed The Apprentice quite a bit – but I think he’s the symptom, not the problem, with our culture that has turned against elitism. And the media getting small things wrong quite a bit – as I document in my newsletter – undermines their high ground.

Let me end with Deadspin. You were the founder of the sports website under the Gawker umbrella, and I’d argue, saw it through it’s best times (although I wonder if you’d agree that it also hit its stride in the early 2010s, with the Manti Teo story). Now, of course, Deadspin is “alive” as Zombie Deadspin. What do you think of what’s become of the site? And I wonder what your thoughts are on what Deadspin became in the later 2010s – much more political, “woke”-ish… do you think that contributed to where it is now? Can it be traced back to the Hogan lawsuit, full stop? I remember a piece called “Conservative Gays Need To Shut The Fuck Up” and just thought…this is the end of Deadspin. But I do miss it! I’m not sure anyone has taken the place of Gawker at it’s best (no bullshit, unafraid to report the truth, wherever it leads) – do you?

From: Will Leitch

To: Steve Krakauer

I think that you are absolutely correct about the differences between how it was expected New Yorkers would behave and how Georgians would behave. (I also agree that people are being smart and safe, though let’s see how long people hang on this summer.) I think that’s partly explained by the differences of time between the outbreaks, and partly explained by the natural belief that any geographic area would trust THEIR ability to do the right thing and not OTHER areas to do the right thing … but not entirely, and probably not even mostly. I do not disagree with that point. (That still does not make the Atlantic piece wrong, or even all that controversial. I still think everyone is just arguing about the headline there.) I do think Cuomo’s bump on this is going to be short-lived, but again: I don’t think anyone really loved him in the first place. That so many subway workers died, particularly with all the MTA issues there have been in New York City over the years, is something that’s going to haunt that city and those in charge of it for decades to come.

(I also think gay Georgians who vote Trump as single-issue Second Amendment would be thought of as unusual–not wrong, or aberrant, or bad, or even unrepresentative–by anyone, NY media or Georgia born and bred. It is difficult for anyone to always put aside their priors. Also that party sounds like a blast, actually.)

As for Deadspin, I think every generation of Deadspin has done what Deadspin was meant to do: To call out bullshit. Every editor had his/her own style and focus, but that was the central idea and the one true throughline. Not every single thing that Deadspin did after I left was exactly the way that I would have done it, but that is of course what happens when you run a publication that runs dozens of stories a day from a wide variety of viewpoints. (And that they did some things differently than I would have is a sign that they were smart and knew what they were doing, not the opposite; if I would have stayed editor of Deadspin, I’m pretty sure it would have died by 2012.) I think at the end, Deadspin was as relevant and important as it has ever been, and I was proud to be associated with it. I still get undeserved social and professional credit for being the founder of Deadspin, and that’s because of their work, not mine.

The reason Gawker died (and later, indirectly, Deadspin) was Peter Thiel, full stop: That we still call it “the Hogan lawsuit” lets that guy off the hook for foundationally undemocratic principles and the sort of billionaire dictatorial shit that everyone from every political persuasion should be against. It should be the first question every journalist asks him the rest of his life. Poor Hogan was a patsy. (Though now a slightly richer one.)

As for Deadspin, alas, it died in November and will never be heard from again. It’s very sad.