Ben Smith, Editor of Buzzfeed

State of the Media: Joining the GOP Circus


A version of this story ran in the September 2015 issue.

Above: Buzzfeed Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith moderating a panel at the University of Southern California.

Senator Ted Cruz fried bacon on a machine gun. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal challenged “Obamacare” to a push-up battle. Neurosurgeon Ben Carson played the children’s game Operation. U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham destroyed his cell phone in a blender. And they all did it with the help of a couple of legitimate online news organizations — BuzzFeed and the Independent Journal Review — that in mid-2015 spontaneously began producing funny Internet videos directly for and with Republican presidential candidates. Then, the first GOP presidential debate, sponsored by Facebook and hosted by Fox News, kicked off in August with all the pomp of a pro wrestling match. Had Jerry Springer been anywhere near the stage, he’d have felt right at home as the candidates — with the blessing of the debate’s moderators — insulted and derided each other in a fashion unseemly even for the network that hosts Bill O’Reilly. An audience of thousands, packed into the Cleveland Cavaliers’ arena, cheered and jeered throughout.

We are more than a year away from electing the next leader of the free world, and I’m getting the overwhelming sense that some of our political media’s most influential gatekeepers are treating the race for America’s highest office as something less serious than, say, the Super Bowl.

The virally aspirational videos — for which BuzzFeed editor Ben Smith has said political candidates pay nothing — alternate between outright goofiness and real attempts to humanize lesser-known candidates or provide a rejoinder to their perceived weaknesses. Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina’s team-up with BuzzFeed (titled “What If Women Talked Like Men in the Workplace?”) is a quip-fest concerning interpersonal sexism at the office. It’s an extremely unsubtle statement about her competency as the only Republican woman in the race. It’s a very flattering video.

I might expect BuzzFeed’s writing staff, who are featured in the video, to supplement the clips with substantive follow-up questions. Something like: “While we’re on the subject of workplace sexism, Ms. Fiorina, do you support a mandated federal parental leave policy?” “Ms. Fiorina, how do you see the American workforce affected if your desire to overturn Roe v. Wade becomes a reality?”

As a voter, I’m interested to know. But BuzzFeed, which in the last couple of years has deliberately sought to reinvent itself — to morph from listicle-farm into serious news organization — provides nada.

Both the irony-free showmanship of that first GOP debate and the blithely goofy candidate videos are, tonally, of a piece. They are unabashedly flashy attempts to garner an audience — simultaneously for candidates and for publications — without turning off said audience with the difficult nuances of political discourse.

The stakes are too high, and the ethical line too blurry, for BuzzFeed or IJReview to be openly cutting up with political candidates.

Ted Cruz becomes an affable cowboy, nay a cowman! Never mind that government shutdown behind the curtain. Ben Carson becomes a warm, intellectual grandfather… who’s never held so much as a city council seat. And Bobby Jindal gets to play a bubbly, good-natured jock who just so happens to think that climate change is a “Trojan horse” used by a nefarious Obama administration to oppress free-living Louisianans with environmental regulations.

Look, I’m no killjoy. These videos are cute, even occasionally clever. They are well-shot and entertaining. Had they been produced internally by the campaigns, or even on a contract basis with a media group, I wouldn’t think twice about them. But produced by ostensibly nonpartisan news organizations during the run-up to a presidential election? I simply can’t excuse it. The stakes are too high, and the ethical line too blurry, for BuzzFeed, IJReview, or any other news organization to be openly cutting up with political candidates. Months ago, I might have said that there is nothing so distasteful as the politics-as-horse-race discourse that allows those of us with the most privilege to ignore the real impact of bad policy on the most marginalized Americans. But it’s even worse than that.

Between a presidential debate where Vince McMahon would have felt at home and major publications actively producing cloying little clips with the assistance and blessing of the presidential hopefuls, we’ve moved into full on politics-as-circus mode.

And we’ve still got a dozen more GOP candidates to go. I’ve no doubt the Democrats will want in on the action, too. Indeed, who wouldn’t want a free, funny, flattering profile tailored to the Facebook attention span, without all that messy background and context you might expect from, say, a mainstream news organization covering the most important election in American politics?