The Church’s Need To Moralize Politically

The first of the logical fallacies in human interactions is to accuse your opponent of doing exactly what you’re doing yourselves.

The extreme right, led by the tax evaders of the Council for National Policy (CNP), is a complex, integrated, and coördinated disinformation stream of propaganda that is slowly destroying our democracy. They’re very good at what they do and very effective, because its members are all supported from the same pot and by design incapable of independent thinking. Do not be deceived. This is a top-down group with the essential message that the business community — led by many of America’s wealthiest people — is the rightful governor of all and that the lower class exists to support them before anything else. And, it uses the church to do much of its heavy lifting.

Extremist Christians in this group have so bastardized the ministry of Jesus as to render themselves fools when confronted and powerless in the realm of the spirit. God no more supports their efforts than those of the devil himself. To maintain their delusion, they require regular reminders of their fallacious enemy, what they view as sin in the culture. Keep eyes focused on that, they think, and everything falls into place.

An excellent example of this can be found in the current aggregator of “news” pages known as Google News, an article originally published by the right-wing propaganda site Western Journal. Like all of these disinformation sites, it’s run by people with deep ties in this community of unbelievers who have a “form of Christ” but are not the real deal. These people use God to oppress the less fortunate.

This article was the subject of a softball “analysis” by The Washington Times (another untrustworthy media form) under the remarkable headline “America’s new religion: Fake Christianity: Stop calling yourself a Christian if you don’t believe in Christ.” Based entirely on this Western Journal opinion piece. Here are some of the most provocative Washington Times quotes:

Writing for the Journal, Rachel Bratton said this: “American Christianity has fallen. Thanks to cultural corrosion and a lack of biblical literacy, a new ‘fake Christianity’ is now being preached within the American church.”

“This counterfeit religion is Moralistic Therapeutic Deism,” stated Ms. Bratton, “a worldview that has quickly gained prominence and given many Americans a theology that looks nothing like historical Christianity, despite what they may claim.” She then goes on to cite the recent work of George Barna, whose February survey showed that Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD), or — watered-down, feel-good, fake Christianity – is the most popular worldview in the United States today.

Absent reading on, this seems an intriguing perspective, but the real “enemy” is revealed as anything “progressive,” which means complaining about the political left by casting doubt in the name of the political and Christian Right. Even the phrase “writing for the journal” elevates this commentary to the mainstream. After all, who can argue with “the journal?” Read on:

“The moralistic perspective is we’re here to be good people and to try to do good…The therapeutic aspect is everything is supposed to be geared to making me feel good about myself, ultimately to make me happy. Deism is the idea that God created the world but has no direct involvement in it. Basically, according to MTD, there is a distant God who just wants everyone to be nice, and the purpose of life is to be happy. American ‘Christians’ who have adopted this philosophy have… elevate[d] personal definitions of right and wrong above any objective standard of Truth — like the Bible.”

So, this “fake” Christianity is based in what they view as the moral swamp of liberal progressivism. It gets worse:

It is rather a syncretistic amalgamation of Bobby McFerrin and Black Lives Matter, sad solipsism of “don’t worry, be happy!” as we celebrate the “queering” of all that ails us.”

Read that again. Black Lives Matter, they allege, is part of the sinful culture brought about by this “fake” Christianity. The article continues its religious bigotry:

Ms. Bratton concludes: “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism distorts the God of the Bible in an attempt to make him bless all the dissipations and vanities of the modern world.” Ms. Barna adds: “MTD is one of those models that says you gotta live in the moment. This is all you’ve got, and you’ve gotta make the most of it.”

“It makes sense,” says Ms. Bratton, “that ‘Christians’ who embrace MTD are hesitant to [salt] the culture. How can anyone pass judgment if everyone’s just trying to be happy? The only sin is getting in the way of someone’s personal ‘truth.’

“That’s why so many are siding with [neo-Marxist atheistic] groups like Black Lives Matter and the LBGT movement. They’ll listen to the loudest voice on either side. Enter the screaming woke mob; [those who] promote sin under the guise of ‘loving everyone.’”

I would suggest this is very much a part of more traditional Christianity that alway pointed its judgmental and boney fingers towards sin in the culture, usually including an image of evil personified within the framework of poverty, unemployment, race, misogyny, and especially sexual and gender relations. When those with a mind to think for themselves in their interpretation of scripture reference the resemblance of these matters with the ministry of Jesus, blank stares follow, because, well, that’s not what the church teaches.

More from the Times article:

The Christian apologist Frank Turek recently said, “Some people call themselves progressive Christians when they’re neither progressive nor Christian because they disagree with Jesus on several significant issues. They disagree with Jesus on sex. They disagree with Jesus on the Bible. They disagree with Jesus on Heaven and Hell. They disagree with Jesus on his atonement. So, why would they call themselves a Christian?”

To paraphrase — Please stop calling yourself a Christian if you don’t believe in Christianity!

“Followers of Christ have forgotten that Jesus didn’t come to tell people to be nice. His message has always been a stumbling block, and [this is] especially hard for 21st-century Americans to accept,” says Ms. Bratton.

It is my belief (and that of a great many others) that this is a part of the disinformation associated with the Right’s version of reality. Jesus called us to love one another, including and especially the poor and the afflicted. You cannot find in the red words any condemnation for cultural sin. He was vastly more concerned with the damage that religious leaders of the time inflicted on the very people he came to save. In making such a proclamation, I realize full well that these views represent an attack on the institution that is the church. Institutions, remember from Clay Shirky, will always try to maintain the problem for which they are the solution. In this case, it’s a false narrative designed to keep them in power. We should reject this and all similar attempts as corrupt and not worth saving.

It’s all heresy, and we need a modern day Council of Churches to deal with it.

Revisiting the Evolving User Paradigm

Eleven years ago, I wrote an essay called “The Evolving User Paradigm,” and I believe this to be the most important piece of writing in my history as a new media observer. That’s because you can more easily see the message of that essay today, and it’s even more significant today, especially to special interest institutions such as business, media, medicine, and power institutions like politics, government, and higher education.

All of these groups are lagging behind as innovation continues to sweep our land, and the real problem for these institutions is that the disruptions are coming not from them, but from, as Jay Rosen so brilliantly stated many years ago, the people formerly known as the audience, the churchgoers, the customers, and beyond. It is bottom-up, and these institutions work from the top-down. You can see the conflict.

Moreover, institutional thinking cannot move as fast as the evolving user paradigm, so our culture’s status quo is tilting like a teeter-totter in search of balance. It can’t be done for long, so the very equilibrium of the whole world is gone, and as long as that status quo refuses to move with the evolving user paradigm, the quicker will be its destruction.

The pandemic greatly added to the ability of users to use, simply by isolating them at home with their computers. While the culture looked for solutions to bring us back to “normal,” people had already gone far past them. It’s to the point now where it’s difficult to find employees, because a lot changed over the past 18 months and the people have moved with it.

It has never been more important for us to band together and fight against a status quo that gives every advantage to rich people while sticking the rest of us to janitorial duty in cleaning up their messes. For example, Donald Trump’s tax welfare for the wealthy back when he first took office put 2 trillion dollars into the accounts of the most wealthy people in the U.S. He did it by borrowing money, which we are all now responsible for repaying. If this isn’t an illustration of how we are manipulated by the status quo, then I don’t know what is.

Let me warn everybody: Do not underestimate the evolving user paradigm, for as long as our constitutional freedoms exist, there is simply no way to contain it.

He who has ears to hear, let him hear.

The Evolving User Paradigm, an essay by Terry Heaton.

I strongly recommend reading or re-reading this old essay, and while you’re doing it, take note of the date it was first published.

The Press is Killing Democracy

CBS Sunday Evening Newscast reveals an example of by-passing the truth in favor of “independence.”

Let’s review a couple of important truths about our current culture and the shift to the postmodern era of Western Civilization.

In 1990, Historian Chris Lasch published his revelatory essay “The Lost Art of Political Argument.” Lasch wrote that we could track the decline in participation in the political process in America with the rise of the professionalization of the press. He further argued that the idea of objectivity originated to provide a sterile environment within which to plant advertising and its more destructive cousin, public relations. The public is increasingly aware of how they are manipulated by these two forces, and the internet is providing them with something to do about it.

Enter J.D. Lasica with his book “Darknet” and Dan Gillmor’s “We, The Media,” both of which described the personal media revolution taking place all around us. As surely as postmodernism is the age of participation, people in the new era would be making their own media to not only inform but entertain each other. Look what’s happened since. A pandemic hits, people lose jobs, people have a year off with stimulus and unemployment payments, which in many cases supercharged the rise of everything from YouTube to Instagram to OnlyFriends, Patreon and beyond. We actually now have an employment problem, because so many people have found better and freer ways to make ends meet. Even the term “job” has a different meaning today than it did back in the Modern Era.

These two important factors have worked together to put us in the precarious position we find ourselves today with the press, because the press doesn’t know how to respond. Does it cling to the idea of objectivity or does it opt for a more truthful way to share what’s happening in the world. Even old, tried and true methods don’t hold up anymore, and very smart but dangerous thinking has crept into the public discussion. However, based on what you read, hear, and see these days, you’d really never know it. It’s just the same‑o, same‑o “bothsideism” (as Jay Rosen calls it). It’s still still the AUTOMATIC default for the press, and it’s killing the pursuit of truth in order to stay free of the appearance of political labels. Chris Lasch is rolling over in his grave.

Here’s a current example. On the Sunday night CBS Evening News broadcast, reporter Debra Alfarone did a live shot from Washington that contained new polling on the state of the Republican Party. CBS News found that 80% of Republicans approved of removing Liz Cheney from GOP leadership on Capitol Hill. Ms. Alfarone said that Cheney is now “…paying the price for saying she would not enable or spread President Trump’s destructive lies — that’s her quote — that the 2020 election was stolen.”

The “that’s her quote” places Trump’s lies on an even playing field with those who embrace the truth that Donald Trump LOST the election and that Joe Biden is the real President. In other words, it’s presented as merely Liz Cheney’s opinion, which must be weighed against all the other opinions. Bullshit! Here, once again, the press is trying to present this as a standard, both sides have different points of view, which is surely a fallacy of immense proportions. The danger of Donald Trump’s lies is self-evident. Do we really need to play the old “objectivity” game with such a group? It’s a false balance, because one side isn’t sharing the truth.

Pursuit of the truth should be the objective of the press in the Postmodern Era, because the last century has been a heyday for the extreme wealthy manipulating everybody else with the sole purpose of deepening their own pockets.

What Ms. Alfarone should have said was “Liz Cheney is now suffering for being a truth-teller in the matter of Donald Trump’s ridiculous claims that the election was stolen from him.”

See the difference? One is an open question that says “Did Trump actually win? There’s a difference of opinion out there.” The other asks “Why are these people so deceived as to think Trump actually won?”

I mean, it’s no wonder America is confused right now. But, Terry, isn’t that taking the side of the Democrats? Are you serious? It’s called taking a stand for truth, just as Liz Cheney has done with her own people. Why is the press so extraordinarily afraid of simply seeing right and wrong? “Harrumph, well, Terry, it’s complicated.” No, it’s not.

This bothsideism delegitimizes so-called legitimate news organizations, and here’s the rub: the public knows it. To perform in such a way is to validate a fallacy, and how can that possibly be justified in furtherance of the truth? If it’s a lie, SAY SO! Is it dangerous? Absolutely!

But the Republicans will use it to add to their liberal media allegations! However, that is not of sufficient weight to justify falling back on “we just report about the differences.” What good is journalism if it is not married to the truth? It’s worse than useless; it’s destroying our culture, and let me add that the future absolutely does not align with bothsideism or false equivalencies.

Jay Rosen is equally disturbed by this and has been a strong advocate for new thinking. He told me via email, however, that “Both sides thinking and practices will never die. It’s the zero degree or most basic way to demo that you’re news, not politics.” That fear is a holdover from a prior age, and it’s being successfully used to manipulate us all today. The press is so concerned with maintaining the institution it represents that it has no defense against the forces of change in our world.

The destiny of the objective press is to die. Transparency is taking its place, and there are too many of us out here who choose not to tolerate being fed such nonsense from an earlier era.

Liz Cheney’s quote is truth and doesn’t need any balance.

Jerusalem Violence: Why the West Doesn’t Care

Hundreds wounded in weekend of East Jerusalem violence | The Japan Times

When examining the roots of the right-wing Christian uprising in the West, observers tend to deliberately avoid the truth that Israel’s resurrection in the Middle East started it all. This is crucial to understanding the religious delusions presented as facts in the region. These fallacies are then presented to whip believers up into a frenzy over modern times and the return of Christ to the Earth. Make no mistake: without Israel, we would not have found ourselves in the predicament of the January 6, 2021 insurrection.

What can possibly make Christians give up their loyalty to Jesus and become political pawns for the GOP? That would be a fallacious faith over what they believe are urgent cues about Jesus’ imminent return to judge humanity, both dead and alive. This means they’re living lives of expectation with eyes fixed on their “reward” of salvation. Cut away all of the social and foreign policy issues that the Christian Right votes for, and they’d still be supporting Israel and the return of their Savior as justification for clinging to a group of manipulators that they’ve been told to support.

Here are the hopeful lyrics from the bluegrass gospel tune “Any Day Now” by Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver:

Just any day now our Lord is coming
He’ll be returning for you and me
Oh I’ve been watching and I’ve been waiting
Just any day now His face I’ll see

This is the anticipation manifested among certain Christian sects, and it’s a powerful motivator for political action.

This was reflected in the very first sentence of the Mission Statement of the Christian Broadcasting Network:

“The mission of CBN and its affiliated organizations is to prepare the United States of America, the nations of the Middle East, the Far East, South America, and other selected nations of the world for the coming of Jesus Christ and the establishment of the Kingdom of God on earth.”

Mission Statement of CBN, circa 1980.

This could not have been anybody’s successful business strategy in the late 20th Century without the history of what now stands as the nation of Israel on land shared by Palestinians and Jews for centuries prior to modern times. Israel was given status among Western evangelists as a verifiable sign from God that the return of Jesus was imminent.

Remember that Jesus, according to their faith, comes back via Israel and Armageddon, so Israel NEEDS to be there in order for the evangelical message to seem real and relevant. It’s a big part of why we give Israel $10 million-a-day (holidays and weekends included) in “defensive” weaponry and other needs. It’s also why we perpetuate the myth that somehow Israel is the victim in the region. The reality is that Israel (with the U.S.) is the disruptive source in the Middle East, not the Arabs. Israel’s Zionist government constantly rails against the “existential threat” of murdering Arabs who want only to kill all the Jews in the area. This is a necessary position in the perpetuation of murder, maiming, harassment, intimidation, land and building seizures, property destruction, and the steady dehumanization of the Palestinian people through tactics designed to accomplish exactly that.

However, many believers refuse to look at this as Biblical prophecy fulfilled, because, well, it isn’t. Today’s version of the Jewish State is was engineered by people in the wake of the Holocaust, the systematic murder of Jews by the Nazis surrounding World War II. The Holocaust was Hitler’s “final solution” for the Jews. This implies a problem that needed solving, and that problem — known throughout Europe historically as “The Jewish Question” — was the Jews’ refusal to fully assimilate themselves into the cultures of their host countries in Europe. At the turn of the 20th Century, leadership of prominent countries had begun to seriously conceive of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. When it finally happened in 1948, smart Christian evangelists began to claim that this was “restoration” of Israel according to “everlasting” promises made to Abraham about the property. If this was the case, the thinking went, then it means that Jesus’ return was VERY near, because prophecies about that return were validated in their minds, because they claim that Jesus will return in the Holy Land, specifically Jerusalem. This is important, for these believers are easily convinced that Israel was permanently set aside for those with Jewish roots, among which they included themselves. This gave Christian evangelists a tool to use in preaching their message of “get things right, because Jesus is coming soon.” Of course, getting things right began with church attendance, tithes, and offerings, which catapulted prominent evangelists to positions of power, fame, and extraordinary wealth.

Moreover, the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine hasn’t done a thing to resolve the original “Jewish Question,” because the bulk of the Jews living in foreign lands are still right where they were. Other geo-political and business reasons now justify Israel beyond the faith of these Christians end-timers.

My views here are supported by my understanding as Executive Producer of The 700 Club in the early and mid 1980s. Israel and Israel’s future was one of the tap roots of not only The Christian Broadcasting Network, but other prominent big Christian ministries. The reality that this has gone virtually unnoticed by the press in covering events in the Middle East and even back home is a sinister form of ignorance, in part, because wealthy media owners, many among them of Jewish heritage and faith, want it that way.

Nobody publicly challenges this, because Jews claim the role of sole arbiter in determining who wears the dreaded outcast label of “antisemite.” Hence, the overwhelming majority of U.S. citizens avoid Middle Eastern violence or explanations other than what comes from the Israeli propaganda machine, hasbara. Exaggerations about the “miracle” of the 1967 war with its Arab neighbors have fueled it, because in war, the victors get to write the history (or at least they used to have that privilege before the internet). Israel was the smart aggressor, while the Arab armies were sitting ducks. How do you remove an existential threat? By attacking it before it can attack you.

So, if this view of a nearly sacred Israel is what’s behind all of the mischief of today, what’s to come? The answer is easy, if you follow end-times prophecies and Christian extremism. What comes next is that Jesus is supposed to come back via a rebuilt Solomon’s Temple, and what stands in the way of that today? The Al-Aqsa Mosque, which was built right on top of what’s known as the Temple Mount. Hard-line Israel right-wingers would love nothing more than to tear down the Mosque and build the new Temple, and here’s the thing. Christian groups would love it, too, so it’s easy to look the other way when Palestinian worshippers at the Mosque are ousted and even killed. Many actually believe that this is “God’s plan” for the whole region, and this is a difficult nut to crack when religious “saints” are busy telling them that they must pray for (the peace of) Jerusalem. In this view, a narrative that includes the sacrifice of any number of Palestinians is simply God doing His thing.

At the rate we’re going, this is quite likely to become reality within just a few years. Think about that. And, all because a group of religious fundamentalists want so badly for it all to be real that they’re willing to subjugate their own minds to fallacy in the name of supporting some of the most blood-thirsty and violent human beings in all of history.

Reality Steve: A Lesson in New Media Ethics

PREFACE:

When I lived in Dallas 10 years ago, I had the great pleasure to be an adjunct profession at the University of North Texas. They needed somebody to teach media/journalism ethics in the Radio-TV-Film Department, so my syllabus was focused almost entirely on ethics in a new media universe and not old-school journalism. My students would for the most part be working in new situations that greatly complicate ethics, so I called my course:

ETHICAL DECISION-MAKING IN THE MEDIA
(JOURNALISTIC ETHICS IN A NETWORKED WORLD)

This course will be unlike any you’ve ever attended for two reasons:

  1. Journalistic ethics are evolving. Tradition and the sacred canons have served us well for nearly a century, but technology and business disruptions are dismantling the institution of professional journalism and the companies that host the trade. In various academic circles, efforts are underway to address this evolution, one of which culminated in a gathering in September of 2008 at Kent State University. There is a sense that we are making this up as we go along, and no one should be afraid to admit that. As a result, we’re going to be teaching each other and learning from others involved in the process together.
  2. As a thought leader in the industries of local media, I am at the forefront of the changes taking place. My clients are dealing with issues in the real world of media that we will be discussing in this class. Therefore, this will be an opportunity for you to participate in a process that is current, topical and relevant. In the end, you will have a significant advantage over your contemporaries who haven’t experienced this class.

In the end, you will have learned how to make complex ethical decisions that will help you in any media endeavor and beyond. Ethical decision-making is critical in American society. Learn it and it will serve you well in work and in life.

And, so I provided ethical situations for discussion that involved a single journalist functioning in running their own brand, whether that was with others or alone. My thesis was that running your own blog or similarly functioning website providing news and information was a veritable minefield of ethical difficulties, because students would be their own owners, publishers, editors, writers, marketing managers, and distributors.

The following essay is a contemporary story of exactly what I was talking about all those years ago.

REALITY STEVE

Let me introduce you to Steve Carbone, known publicly as Reality Steve. A former sports radio guy, the 45-year old Carbone began spoiling the ending and other details of the television series The Bachelor and The Bachelorette in 2011. You can take a man out of the sports talk show business, it seems, but you can’t take that business out of the man. He writes often of gambling trips to Vegas and loves the entirety of sports betting. This is important to understanding his work, because sports gamblers need resources to work with, and Steve has pursued revenue over any thoughts of ethics, one of the many things we talked about in my class.

When you’re responsible for the money and the content, you will face ethical difficulties. There’s a reason, for example, that local media doesn’t take on the car dealers in any market. Too much money’s at stake, and so there’s an unwritten rule in newsrooms that you just don’t investigate car dealers. For individuals competing as media sites, this issue is doubly complicated, because growing such a business demands a degree of ethics not required by professionals working for a media institution.

Carbone’s website is RealitySteve.com, which he brands as “My Slanted, Sophomoric, and Skewed View on the World of Reality Television.” He is vulgar, inflammatory, fame-hungry, loose with the truth, a gossiper, and damned effective at spoiling the show for his followers. I’ve been a fan since the beginning, because, as a fan of the show, I’ve always found it better viewing when I knew how it was going to end. In fairness to the guy, he’s also been the most vocal voice about the manipulation of producers in reality television, which followers could then watch play out every week. When the New York Times “discovered” him at the end of 2015, his fame skyrocketed, and it seemed that he could do no wrong.

Today, we’re learning that Carbone has done a great deal wrong in the execution of his strategy for revenue growth, chief among them being the creation of artificial drama by spreading partially-cooked rumors that have caused embarrassment and far worse among the show’s contestants. By publishing false accusations as fact, Carbone created an image as extortionist among this group of people. His “friendship” with contestants was based on their fear of him writing something untoward about them, and for this, he’s claimed ignorance.

Contestant Jade Roper was relentlessly hammered over her participation in a Playboy photo shoot before her appearance on the show. Carbone used every opportunity to paint her as a whore. When Jenna Cooper became engaged on Bachelor in Paradise, Carbone published what turned out to be a false accusation that she already had a boyfriend back home. The support “evidence” he used was laughable. He used his connections to arrange a phone call with contestant Demi Burnett in which he told of a sex dream he’d had about her. In the past few weeks, Reality Steve has been outed now as a misogynist, a bully, careless, ruthless, and reckless.

He was naturally all over the story of Matt James’ “winner” Rachel Kirkconnell and her upbringing as a white Southern belle who never considered the grave implications of participating in behavior now considered racist. This was especially problematic considering James was the first black male lead in the show’s history. They were both overwhelmed and hounded by horrible accusations, and they fled to private locations to talk and work things out. Enter Steve Carbone, who’d received an email from a woman in Florida with evidence that James was looking to hook up with her just days before traveling to New York to meet with Kirkconnell. Carbone personally engineered passing this information along to Rachel through her family, thereby setting the narrative that James was cheating on her. Others described him as “creepy,” including Kristina Schullman, a contestant who reported numerous inappropriate contacts with her.

For his part, Carbone has apologized profusely and claimed that he’s changed his ways. He says he’s no longer the misogynist he was, and that these things were from long ago. He’s also publicly stated that he will no longer have personal relationships with contestants, something any observer of the press will recognize as a slippery, slippery slope to begin with.

He’s a victim of believing his own hype, which is the Achille’s Heel of contemporary journalism, whether you’re a gossip columnist, a neighborhood blogger, or covering the White House for the New York Times.

The earliest indication of problems with the guy appeared to me many years ago, for in earlier times — before the NYT article — I used to help him with proofreading and making corrections for his site. I had early interactions with him over the usability of his website and urged him many times to fix issues related to the pop-up ads from which he was making money. These ads occurred one on top of the other and made it nearly impossible to read the blog content. His Twitter feed was filled with complaints that his site was unusable. I even offered him the name and contact information for a WordPress expert who could help him. He refused, because despite the endless complaints from readers, fixing the problems would’ve impacted his revenue.

So today, Carbone finds himself a toxic influence on the Bachelor franchise. He’s shunned by everyone now, and nobody knows what will happen with both the franchise or Reality Steve. He badly needs to stay relevant, even though the rules of media life are changing. You simply can’t get away with this kind of behavior any longer, because we’re all connected, and we can speak to the same people to make things right. In this sense, he is a textbook example of what I was teaching 10 years ago.

According to Ms Burnett, Carbone asked her to keep his sex dream a secret. This far into the #metoo movement, did he really expect she would? Media ethics in a networked world are especially important these days when fallacy seems to have been a regular product of the old world.

Let this be a lesson to all my students and the rest of the media world. In the quest for self-support, be careful not to set yourself up for a big fall.

Let’s Talk About Substack

Atelier Ventures' Portfolio

About a year ago, a friend asked me what I thought of Substack. For those who don’t already know, Substack is a Silicon Valley start-up providing software for people to publish their own newsletters and charge for subscriptions. It’s all the rage today with promises of monetizing the work of individual journalists. The site has even been promoted as the future of digital media, a way to cut out the middleman in the process of monetizing the content of mostly opinion writers. The company considers itself a pioneer in the new media struggle to pay journalists in the wake of disruptions to their formerly well-paying employers.

I’d never heard of it, which bothered me, because, despite retirement, I still think of myself as pretty informed about new media. I watched as others wrote about its great value and speculating it would provide financial relief for the Fourth Estate. More people asked my thoughts, so I put my new media guy hat back on, and this essay is the result of my analysis. I’ve been following the goings on enough that I’ve developed my own opinion, and I’m confident this falderal is mostly a pile of steaming bullshit. Here we go.

It’s an attempt to provide an OnlyFans model for content other than the salacious.

Substack, it turns out, is an investment child of venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz and a host of other investors all in the business of disrupting media. So much money is being thrown at Substack that the newest round of investing has set the company’s value at $650 million. Is it worth that? Not even close, but that won’t stop the money tree. Disrupting media is big business these days with roots in many places, so building a successful business here may not be the point.

Substack is unnatural as a new media player in 2021. It’s old media pretending to be a breakthrough. It’s a high-priced, glossy, and expensive magazine. It’s what we used to call an aggregator. The value proposition flows from the oldest mass media play in the books, bringing an “audience” to a “show.” In this case the show is the many newsletters brought together in one place for subscribers to read and enjoy.

The idea that its uniqueness is built around the term “newsletter” is actually pretty hilarious. The first journalists were paid to travel to foreign countries that were in competition with their benefactors back home. They wrote “letters” back to those business moguls who were eager to know how their competitors were doing. These were called “newsletters,” so the word actually represents the oldest form of journalism, not some bright and shining new object. Fun software notwithstanding, the content sure resembles blog posts, and there ain’t nothing groundbreaking about that! The rush of big-name journalists to the platform has gotten a lot of attention, but this really has nothing to do with excitement over this “new” model. They’re being given enormous revenue “advances” ranging up to $350 thousand dollars in order to marry their brands to Substack. If a guy knocked on your door and handed you an envelope with that much cash, I suspect you’d quite quickly join your personal brand to his. Here’s a paragraph from a Substack blog post last month:

Six months ago, as a demonstration of our confidence in the model, we started a financial program to help writers launch their own businesses on Substack – and it’s working so well that we are going to expand it rapidly. In fact, the viability of the Substack model has become so clear that Facebook and Twitter are now chasing us.

The truth is closer to the reality that you can do things with somebody else’s money that you could never justify in a more realistic business plan. It’s like a giant thumb on the scales, and therefore, the fruit of this “financial program” can’t be used to judge the value proposition presented by Substack. Anybody who thinks they will make up for all of this with future revenues likely also has a prescription for medical marijuana. It’s all bright and shiny right now, but that simply can’t last.

Today, the press is just beginning to discover things my tribe used to write about 15–20 years ago and longer. It was all there for anybody to seize, but newspapers thought they knew better than the geeks who were actually building the technology of the web, so they simply copied their print model and moved it online. This is why media companies use words like pages, display ads, and below the fold. We can now look and see our prophecies coming to pass, even though we all went to great lengths to reveal the coming disruptions before they occurred.

The point is there is nothing new or different from Substack. I don’t think there’s a viable subscriber fee big enough to support this kind of journalism model for the writers absent the investment money tossed at them ahead of time. A newspaper was itself a form of aggregator, but its offer was many for one relatively small fee. If that’s Substack’s ultimate business plan, well, that’s already failed. If anything, it’s a model for the rich, because only one percenters could afford more than a handful of these newsletter subscriptions. This, of course, makes great sense, because there are right-wing forces present in our world that would love to own the narrative that everybody else has to follow. Trump taught us that, if nothing else.

But, there’s another huge problem with this, and that is the tangible way it supports the idea of celebrity journalism. I wrote of this in 2010.

The press changed forever during and in the wake of Watergate. Never before had the press “brought down” a sitting President of the United States. The Washington Post did this through an FBI source that we now know had an agenda. It was the pinnacle of professional journalism and spawned a whole new genre known as the “investigative reporter,” a redundant term if there ever was one. It also spawned the age of the celebrity journalist, because Woodward and Bernstein are enshrined forever as sterling examples of what to emulate in the world of professional journalism.

For celebrity journalists, attention must be given to brand identity and marketing, which is usually done on somebody else’s dime. Unwanted thoughts enter in, like “I can’t say that” because I’ll have to defend it later,” or “I have to get my hair done and don’t have time for that.” It can so burdensome to be a star, right?

Of course, with celebrity comes status and with status comes compensation for such. Who knew that journalism was such a big money business? Murrow was not on the same social rung as the people he covered, but such is not the case today. Celebrity is a trap of the God/mammon variety, and the pursuit of such status cannot help but produce shaky ethical behaviors. Not always, but often enough to take a step back and ask ourselves what we’re doing.

I’ve worked big egos all my life and especially in the business of TV News. There’s something about the people who are willing to risk complete embarrassment and even shame in front of a camera that lends itself to an emotional fragility that would probably surprise those who only see them on TV. Now that new media is producing a whole slew of reporter/anchor type personalities, this thing about ego is going to continue for the industry. Substack plays to that ego by making them feel good about themselves as celebrity journalists. “Come join us” is their cry, but the bag of cash in their back pocket reveals something untoward to me.

Journalism in 2021 is a living organism consisting of millions of cells working together in real time to keep us all informed. That’s it. Twitter and Facebook are much closer to a contemporary, participatory, 21st Century news organism than anything that came before. There’s no role in that for thousands of thousands of subscription newsletters, so I can say with confidence that Substack is not only doomed but likely not what it appears to be. In the modern news rivers (h/t Dave Winer) of today, it’s pretty stupid anyway to link to pieces that require a subscription in order to read.

Moreover, news is no longer a story with a beginning, middle, and end. That was the finished product model of the deadline-based news of the past (see: News is a Process, Not a Finished Product). This means that the Substack model is bucking the movement of the news model by dangling big cash in front of writers with the fallacious belief that the OnlyFans model will work for content other than the girl next door taking her clothes off for a few dimes.

Call me a nut, but I think we’ve just about reached the end of milking the mass media model. The web is a 3‑way communications medium, the first of its kind. Yes, you can do a form of one-to-many media, but that’s a terribly juvenile approach to such a powerful technology. Fatted calves are being whacked with regularity by the evolution of those who use the technology. I’m sorry, but that’s exactly what Substack’s investors are seeking.

Substack may surprise me yet, but I doubt it. Instead of jumping head first over a big (BIG) check in their hands, perhaps these journalists who are transferring their work to Substack should instead try playing out the tape that leads to tomorrow.

Finally, this is a classic case of plausible hyperbole, which is what big investment money can provide.

My conclusion? Proceed with great caution.