Future historians may well mark the date of April 6, 2014, as a watershed moment in the media’s epic bid to redefine itself in the digital age. For this was the day that Vox.com went live, heralding the golden dawn of a new journalistic epoch. Cofounded by Washington Post Wonkblog creator and liberal pundit Ezra Klein, prolific contrarian policy blogger Matt Yglesias, and former Post director of platforms Melissa Bell, Vox has not only challenged assumptions about what journalism is and how it should be done, but has altered ideas of what a digital media business can be.
In its brief history, Vox has become a model in an industry that’s moved from entrenchment to retrenchment. Vox’s rapid growth, its dream team of policy bloggers, its cachet with the White House, its ability to attract blue-chip advertisers such as Chevrolet and Campbell’s Soup, and its tech innovation have become the envy of competitors. Why? What is the secret of Vox.com and its thriving parent company Vox Media, which, according to a report this spring in Bloomberg Technology, is profitable and valued at $1 billion? Are there applicable lessons for the dwindling segments of the media industry that still care primarily about journalism? Or, is the Vox Media success story largely the product of clever—perhaps even deceptive—marketing?
The Vox creation myth begins, suitably enough, in a mood of liberal dissatisfaction. Ezra Klein conceived Vox from a trio of frustrations he had with old media institutions like the Washington Post.
First, he felt that the top newspapers made readers like him feel stupid. He found, at least as a young reader before embarking on a career in journalism, that he could easily understand only about 25 percent of a given article he would read in the New York Times. Sure, the Times would sometimes help readers out with sidebars and other explanatory supplements, but it never harnessed the potential of the web and the space afforded by digital formats to optimize the explanatory power of journalism.
Second, he believed that old media were slaves to the news—i.e., the ephemeral fodder of the cable-driven news cycle—instead of what really mattered. While traditional media is constrained by what happens in the world day to day, Klein felt he could build a better media company by detaching from the news to focus on truths that were, if not exactly timeless, then at least less time-sensitive.
Third, as a digital-only journalist, he felt hemmed in by the limits of the Washington Post’s technology, which was geared, in his view, toward producing print newspaper articles for regular subscribers. This backward-looking business model limited the ability of Klein and his Wonkblog team at the Post to produce content in the hypercompetitive, feed-the-beast, constantly updating digital sphere. Whatever one’s news preference, it’s clear that we all live in a new era of digital journalism as news syndication or wire service, and Klein has wisely embraced this truth. Most people consume their news content at all times of day via multiple routes—Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, RSS feeds, newsletters, etc. As a result of this ever-shifting media diet, news producers can’t assume that most of their readers are accessing their content directly from their own duly branded points of origin. Klein left the Post to found a company that understood itself as a wire service, in the way all digital publishers nowadays are wire services.
Man’s Search for Meme-ing
“Substance is viral,” goes the internal slogan at Vox Media. According to chairman and CEO Jim Bankoff, this means that good content will spread itself more or less organically, alongside good advertising. To speed this process along, Vox has its own proprietary content management system, called Chorus, which originated from Vox Media’s ur-project, the SB Nation sports blogging network. (Vox Media was originally incorporated in 2003 as SportsBlogs Inc.) The Chorus platform offers a powerful engine for doing the foraging, preparing, and serving of content at the hypersonic speed of the internet. Chorus is also an especially effective tool for marketers, who gain the same advantages of speed, flexibility, and content creation that the CMS offers to editorial workers. (After all, advertisers want to grab onto the viral coattails of memes at least as much as Vox’s editors do.) Thanks to Chorus and the team at Vox Creative, Vox is an innovator in native advertising, with ads that look, feel, and frequently are as explanatory as Vox’s editorial content—albeit with an appropriate disclaimer.
Vox represents the ideological grandstanding of the technocrat and the professional-managerial class.
And what is this viral substance that Ezra Klein et al. conceived to unleash on the internet alongside Vox Creative’s ads? His vision, by Klein’s own account, was shockingly ambitious and banal at the same time: he wanted to compete with Wikipedia. His dream was to create a “huge company that is devoted to helping people” by giving them content that sought to explain the world to them. Yes, that sounds like offering the reading public Brussels sprouts, Klein conceded—but he promised to roast such fare “to perfection with a drizzle of olive oil and hint of sea salt.” (To this day, one of Klein’s titles on the Vox site is “head vegetable chef.”) Here’s how Vox spells out its mission to freshly initiated readers:
Vox explains the news and world around you. Making complex topics easier to understand, Vox candidly shepherds audiences through politics and policy, business and pop culture, food, science and everything else that matters.
Vox’s central product innovation is what’s called a card stack. The cards in question are a linked series of discrete vantages on a topic that are supposed to offer continuously updated explanations in a simple question-and-answer format. Each one is “like a wiki page written by one person with a little attitude,” Bell told the New York Times. Vox liberally disburses these cards throughout the site. They regularly turn up in Vox articles, via links embedded in highlighted words, and the site also features cards as Vox’s own brand of stand-alone content. The more cards that stack up in Voxland, the logic goes, the better the company will be able to compete with Wikipedia as a go-to site for explanatory information. “They’re inspired by the highlighters and index cards that some of us used in school to remember important information,” Klein explained on the site’s launch. “We’re incredibly excited about them.”
Anyone who’s spent sleepless teenage nights cramming for college entry tests with a battery of index cards and highlighters probably isn’t going to share this particular brand of excitement. Yet in the efficiency-crazed, PowerPoint-oriented world of business achievers, this approach may feel more user-friendly than anything that requires sustained attention and critical thinking.
And in Voxland, the elite ambitions of the site are no secret. Vox takes pride in an audience that is purportedly five times as likely as readers of other sites to be a 25–34-year-old “business decision maker,” and it serves that decision-making audience what it wants. You can find a revealing glimpse of the site’s thought-leading aspirations in a recent notice touting its first bona fide Vox policy conference. As the introductory materials explain, the September confab was soliciting a cross-section of elite opinion—so long as all parties are comfortably ensconced in the bubble of meritocratic privilege. With a straight face, the Voxers announce that “we’re looking for a broad range of participants—not just people we already know.” And who, exactly, are the promontories in this broad range? Let the enterprising Vox staff explain: “We want to find the grad student whose research will change everything, the Hill staffer who sees a better way, the entrepreneur who’s figured out what’s wrong with the system, the industry leader with a vision of what could be different.” If these are the ingredients of a broad range of thought and a freewheeling exchange of opinions, then the Aspen Ideas Festival is a Maoist revolutionary cell.
Nothing Ventured, Nothing Explained
And just as the aspirational Vox readership turns out, on closer inspection, to be a marginally more pretentious version of LinkedIn Premium, so does the site’s central journalistic mission—explanation for the news-perplexed—turn out to be considerably less than first meets the eye. Careful reflection suggests, curiously enough, that Vox’s supposed added value of authoritative explanatory news-shepherding is not actually all that authoritative. Indeed, it need not even be explanatory. That’s right: Vox doesn’t have to traffic in actual explanations to persuade its readers, social-media followers, content partners, and advertisers that it is the preeminent name-brand source of digital explanation.
Let me, uh, explain. What makes Vox revolutionary is that it’s a trailblazer in the business of explatainment, a subspecies of infotainment, the model of information communications that began to replace journalism in the late twentieth century. In this regard, it’s strikingly similar to the brand of docented journalism pioneered by Nate Silver at ESPN’s FiveThirtyEight, which we might well dub “datatainment.” In labeling Vox and FiveThirtyEight entertainment companies, I don’t mean to deny that they’re capable of doing bona fide journalism. Vox does sometimes provide sound explanations of things, and FiveThirtyEight offers good data analysis, as its performance over the prior two presidential cycles has shown. (This year’s cycle, not so much.) Rather, I’m arguing that doing journalism tout court is not, strictly speaking, the business model; these are hybrid companies that combine information services with entertainment, much like the sports sites with which they are affiliated. And these digital companies represent the future of what was once called journalism.
To see the point, one need only to distinguish a serious and substantive explanation, which imparts genuine understanding to a reader, from what we might usefully call an explanatory experience—i.e., the subjective feeling generated by an explanation without the objective correlate of true understanding. Vox may be very successful at generating explanatory experiences in its readers, but does it provide good explanations that impart understanding? Regardless of how we settle the empirical question here, the larger, more dispositive point is that the answer doesn’t matter to Vox’s investors and advertisers: Vox’s business model depends only on the explanatory experiences, not the explanations; and readers can get the former without the latter. That’s explatainment.
It would be hard to sell college-educated, comfortably salaried millennials on the explanatory experience without at least doing some good work; otherwise, readers would lose faith and the corresponding enjoyment. Nevertheless, there are many reasons for concluding that Vox falls consistently short of its mission statement to “explain the news and the world around you.”
Let’s go back to the beginning. On Vox’s much-anticipated launch day, Ezra Klein published a lengthy essay that he had clearly prepared for the occasion. Entitled “How Politics Makes Us Stupid,” the piece examines the provocative research of Yale psychology and law professor Daniel Kahan. Although it netted a huge return of social-media shares and engagement, this site-launching salvo brought the whole mission of Vox into question—more, perhaps, than even Klein himself may have realized.
Klein begins the essay by alluding to the Enlightenment principles on which the overlapping projects of the American republic, freedom of the press, and explainer journalism are supposed to rest:
There’s a simple theory underlying much of American politics. It sits hopefully at the base of almost every speech, every op-ed, every article, and every panel discussion. It courses through the Constitution and is a constant in President Obama’s most stirring addresses. It’s what we might call the More Information Hypothesis: the belief that many of our most bitter political battles are mere misunderstandings. The cause of these misunderstandings? Too little information—be it about climate change, or taxes, or Iraq, or the budget deficit. If only the citizenry were more informed, the thinking goes, then there wouldn’t be all this fighting.
Klein built his wonky career on this hypothesis—that more information, more data, and more charts improved public understanding. If there’s anything that grounds Vox’s raison d’être, it’s that there’s no such thing as too much information.
But as Klein goes on to explain, there’s a problem: a body of psychological research brings this assumption into question. It shows how political, social, and cultural differences can warp our cognitive faculties and “make us stupid” when it comes to grasping facts and reasoning to resolve such differences. These larger background differences will distort our reasoned response to current events even when we are experts in the relevant field. As it turns out, our brains are especially well adapted to protecting our identities and our tribal relationships, and work very hard to use information that props up our identities and relationships while downplaying or ignoring information that challenges them.
For instance, in the monograph that Klein discusses, Kahan examines research demonstrating that even people good at math have great difficulty drawing the correct conclusion from a set of data when that data has to do with political disagreements—in this case, the relationship between gun control and crime. Because people tend to use their smarts to prop up their own biases, being smarter or learning more information only increases partisanship and deepens differences. “The smarter the person is, the dumber politics can make them,” Klein, the smart cofounder of a politics site, concludes in his inaugural post. (Perhaps Vox should have adopted the more forthright moniker of Slatepitch.com.)
After scratching his chin pondering the dark implications of this research, he concludes by appealing to—what else?—the clarifying power of policy:
The point of politics is policy. And most people don’t experience policy as a political argument. They experience it as a tax bill, or a health insurance card, or a deployment. And, ultimately, there’s no spin effective enough to persuade Americans to ignore a cratering economy, or skyrocketing health costs, or a failing war. . . . At least that’s the hope.
And to make that hope come alive, we have Vox and its civic-minded crusade to place explanatory journalism at the center of policy debate. Americans can now experience policy clarity in all its niggling detail via Vox explainers. Full steam ahead!
Would that things were so simple. The conundrum laid out by Kahan’s paper could never actually be resolved via more, and more clearly presented, information. Indeed, as Kahan himself demonstrates, selection bias is more or less deliberately constructed so as to continue distorting a limitless amount of information—and to tune out or disregard all conflicting data. So if Klein took the challenge presented by Kahan’s research to heart, he would have made Vox very different than it has turned out to be. To begin with, he would have taken more care to avoid biases of various sorts that might undermine Vox’s capacity to offer good explanations. The more that the venture has not taken these biases seriously, the more it has proven to be about explatainment rather than explanation.
Take that repository of human wisdom that Klein cites as a competitor: Wikipedia. It’s a nonprofit, crowd-sourced venture that accepts no advertising and aims to be the free encyclopedia for all. It has sixty-two million registered users and is constantly updated by nearly three hundred thousand active volunteer users who are organized according to a hierarchy of duties and rules for dispute resolution. The site’s staff maintains that all entries must be written from a “Neutral Point of View (NPOV)” and that all claims featured in an entry must be properly sourced. Each entry has a comments section, where users can discuss concerns, and its editing history is transparent to readers. The site does suffer from some problems and biases. Like Vox, Wikipedia can be wildly uneven in matters of style and content alike, and its content providers are disproportionately white, male, college-educated, affluent, and web enthusiasts. These traits also skew the site’s selection of topics to that demographic’s own pet interests—pop culture, tech, and current events. But Wikipedians, from cofounder Jimmy Wales on down, have expressed concern about systematic bias and have taken public steps to try to diversify the site’s user base.
The point of comparison here is not the success of one over the other—both suffer failures—but the integrity of each project and its mission. Vox claims to be a repository of explanatory journalism, cardstacks and all, but the way that Vox tries to pursue this goal brings its intentions into question. Vox is a commercial venture with a bold commitment to sponsored content that often undermines the trustworthiness of its explanations. And as a commercial venture driven by generalist bloggers (Jacks of all trades, because the internet can make you an expert on anything!), it too often pursues provocations (“hot takes”) about Zeitgeist memes to garner viral eyeballs. Its staff is comparatively small and lacking in diversity (including political, social, and cultural diversity). The same seems to be true of its readership demographic, which skews male, white, degreed, and affluent.
It’s not hard to see these built-in staff and audience biases shape the selection and presentation of Vox content. A genuinely good explanation depends not only on what is said, but also on forthrightly acknowledging doubts that may otherwise be ignored or suppressed; responsiveness to such doubts is crucial. What’s more, input from non-expert readers (or “explainees,” if you prefer) and diversity help bring such doubts—together with the critical discourse involved in their resolution—to the surface. (Expertise and talent are not enough, as Klein’s inaugural essay suggests; not only does everyone suffer from biases and motivated reasoning, but smart people are even more effective at using information to wall themselves off from views they don’t like.) Unlike Wikipedia, Vox offers no discussion section where such doubts can be aired and worked through. It has no public philosophy, modus operandi, or statement of purpose that will reassure readers that its processes ensure explanations that minimize bias. If Klein were truly worried that politics and other biases make us stupid, he would have made Vox more Wikipedian than it is.
Showing Your Cards
These telltale biases turn up even in Vox’s most Wikipedian feature, the card stacks. The card stacks suffer from two major problems: their quality depends too much on the individual writers who produce them (“with a little attitude”), and they are not “continually updated” in the way that Vox’s original mission statement had promised. While some cards are competent and informative (e.g. Matt Yglesias’s “Everything you need to know about income inequality”), others clearly show a lack of oversight, participants, and critical back-and-forth. Compare, for instance, how Vox’s Timothy B. Lee explains “What is the internet?”
The internet is the world’s most popular computer network. It began as an academic research project in 1969, and became a global commercial network in the 1990s.
with Wikipedia’s definition:
The internet is the global system of interconnected computer networks that use the internet protocol suite (TCP/IP) to link billions of devices worldwide. It is a network of networks that consists of millions of private, public, academic, business, and government networks of local to global scope, linked by a broad array of electronic, wireless, and optical networking technologies.
As for updating, success is not, it seems, in the cards. Even in a heated election year, for instance, the cards for Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton were left to molder; when election day rolled around in November, they had not been updated since August 26 and June 15, 2015, respectively. In fact, card-stack updating has fallen precipitously since the highs of summer 2015, which raises the question of whether Vox has all but abandoned its original mission. As I type these words, the last card updated was “The 18 best TV shows airing right now.”
Of course, explanation isn’t quarantined to the card stacks; every Vox article is a Voxplanation—i.e., at least nominally explanatory, but with a hefty dose of opinion. Again, the results are uneven. And I don’t just mean that Vox is very sloppy with its facts and sourcing and has printed corrections that are absolute howlers. (Here’s but one notorious example, which followed up on a report contending that the federal government could not hold the copyright to the appearance of an American coin: “Correction: This article was totally wrong.”) Though such red-faced retractions are common enough for the hyperspeed copy-and-paste practices of digital journalism, they stand out in embarrassingly high relief for a venture that seeks to brand itself as the internet’s authoritative explainer-of-first-resort.
The Voxplanation style doesn’t have to be factually wrong to mislead; it often distorts by focusing on the one obvious thing “smart” people know (e.g. free trade is good for all in the long run), while avoiding any of the too-complicated wrinkles that might slow down the reader’s briefing. (See box, “Explatainment Breakdown.”) Often that amounts not to “explanation” but to ideological grandstanding, albeit of a very peculiar sort. It’s one thing to do what ordinary citizens and activist journalists at ThinkProgress or Reason do when they appeal repeatedly to the same facts and arguments when addressing, say, gun control or marijuana legalization. This sort of grandstanding is at the heart of politics—the rhetorical push and pull of debate, where “teaching the controversy” isn’t confused with “explanation” but is, rather, a way to hammer the issue onto the public agenda. Vox writers, by contrast, pose as detached arm’s-length observers of the unreasoned ideological scrum of politics—not unlike referees who have mastered the rulebook determining the vocabulary and principles by which the game will be played, and who are thereby empowered to decide what is fair and what is “out of bounds.”
This is the ideological grandstanding of the technocrat and of the professional-managerial class, whose differences with you, ordinary citizen, are not political—no, no, no—but based on expertise. He “knows” what you don’t and “explains” what you “fail to understand,” so that you, too, like him, will see what he sees and agree that it is obvious common sense. You don’t need persuasion to support free trade. You just need a PowerPoint-style review of the facts—or at least, of those facts that your helpful pedagogic explainer class deems to be relevant.
We see the same ideological grandstanding at work in another trademark Vox innovation: the launching of a multi-post political campaign to advance a pet thesis. (This is what debaters and rhetoricians commonly critique as “special pleading.”) Take, for example, Vox’s handling of the ultra-wonky question of occupational licensing—the restriction that states can place on the practice of certain professions (e.g. nursing, hair styling, car repair) to ensure that they are performed competently and in the service of the public welfare. Since licenses require training and certification, they serve as barriers to entry that limit competition, restrict the supply of practitioners, and thereby increase the wages of duly licensed workers. While we certainly want doctors who are properly licensed, there are many professions that, one might think, shouldn’t require certification—for example, floristry. If we think unlicensed florists can do as well as licensed ones, the license acts as a rent—an added cost that hampers competition and fails to represent value—and closes off those outside the flower “cartel” from that employment. So there is reason to suspect that occupational licensing is bad for employment and for economic efficiency. Yet occupational licensing has increased dramatically over the past four decades, as union membership has plunged, suggesting that more and more workers are adopting a licensing strategy to boost their wages.
How big a problem would you guess this is? How high would you put it on your list of priorities? How much explanation would you devote to it? The White House has made a push on this issue, following the lead of economists, as an easy way to improve the economy—albeit on a rather miniature scale. Here’s what Jason Furman, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, concluded in November 2015 in a speech advocating the rollback of licensing to boost employment opportunities:
[A reduction in] licensing is only a small part of the effort to tackle inequality and raise real incomes. But when the problem we are facing is so large, we cannot afford to leave any stone unturned in addressing it.
Nevertheless, the anti-licensing initiative emerged as a reliable talking point for an Obama administration keen to come across as militantly single-minded job creators, and so the alleged glut in occupational licensing became a national crisis for Vox. A flood of explainers ensued, including (but not limited to) a strikingly one-sided card stack; a warning about how licensing has become an epidemic; a tip of the cap to Speaker of the House Paul Ryan for including the rollback of occupational licensing in his poverty plan; and a piece on how it’s a poor replacement for labor unions that actually exacerbates inequality. There was also not one, not two, not three, but four articles on how the Obama administration is taking on this “most underrated economic problem.” For muckraking fans, there was an exposé on the role of occupational licensing in a Marco Rubio scandal (while serving as majority whip of the Florida House, Rubio got a real estate license for his brother-in-law). For high-minded wonks, Vox issued a call for bipartisan unity to eradicate the practice and other scourges of “upward redistribution.” And rather bizarrely, there was a suggestion from Klein that California loosen its licensing laws so that poor people could move there and benefit from the state’s higher life expectancy. (This prescription, of course, neatly sidestepped the question of whether California might be an enviable place to live and work precisely because it had permitted a fair amount of occupational licensing to drive wages up there.) For the diligent, flood-the-zone explainers at Vox, one cannot understand occupational licensing without knowing that it is evil.
Why the inordinate amount of attention to such a “small part” of reducing inequality? Here’s a suitably common-sense (read: politically savvy) rationale courtesy of Matthew Yglesias:
For conservatives, making licensing less burdensome offers a basic deregulatory appeal. For liberals, shaking up insider-dominated cartels offers a form of antitrust appeal and a path to upward mobility for the socially marginalized.
How better for a company seeking political influence to push an economic growth policy favored by both Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers and the libertarian Cato Institute? Explanation (and lower wages for de-licensed workers) be damned—this is too important!
Then there is that other blindingly obvious source of bias: the need to please sponsors. All for-profit commercial publishers love to kiss the hand that feeds, but few are as obsequiously innovative as Vox. And I don’t just mean the clearly labeled native advertising that, nevertheless, has Vox-worthy explatainment values, or even the editorial articles with marquee sponsors (“The not-rich kid’s guide to graduating from college with almost no debt,” sponsored by Discover, that industry leader in getting college students into debt.) No, I mean the efforts that Vox staffers make all on their own, on the sly.
Take Vox sponsors Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase, persistent targets of populist rage for their exorbitant profits and their role in the wave of fraud that contributed to the financial crisis. Yes, Vox explains that breaking up the big banks—a policy senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren supported and Hillary Clinton opposed—is a bad idea. I’m sure this position had nothing to do with the influence of money, or Klein’s niggling worries about biases that make us stupid. Like good high-achieving students, Vox writers give their reasons and show their work. Nor does Goldman’s sponsorship of Yglesias’s podcast influence his conclusion in one of those podcasts that raising taxes on the superwealthy doesn’t actually do much to reduce inequality. (“I think it is not a great idea to have adopted this entire inequality focus,” he said.)
But must Yglesias write up an article that should have come from Vox Creative, on how wonderful Goldman’s plan is to offer savings accounts to the hoi polloi? Surely a marketer could save the time he took to write the following:
What Goldman Sachs has that other online banks don’t is a widely recognized brand name built on excellence in other dimensions of financial services that could help further push internet banking beyond the early adopter demographic.
As journalist and arch Vox critic Adam Johnson quipped, “‘A widely recognized brand name built on excellence’ would probably not be how the thousands it defrauded with faulty mortgages would describe Goldman Sachs.”
Or how about this great advertorial content that appeared as an ordinary piece: “Goldman Sachs paid to expand pre-K in Utah. It worked”? Here’s Vox writer Libby Nelson explaining how Goldman “paid” for the program:
The deal was that if the program delivered the results it promised and kept kids from needing special education, the state would pay most of the savings—about $2,600 per student—to the investors. If the program failed, the nonprofit Pritzker Foundation would help cover Goldman’s losses.
In other words, Goldman didn’t really pay for the program at all. Thus is the “world around you” helpfully explained.
Vox has even gone so far as to clarify, all on its lonesome, how your high cable bill is not as high as you think when you consider what it covers, and how the Obama administration’s stance against breaking up big cable companies is the right one. As the tirelessly Obama-shilling Yglesias explains:
The White House . . . thinks that reviews of merger and acquisition activity only get you so far in terms of genuinely driving competition. FCC activism around set-top boxes is a case in point. Breaking Verizon or Comcast into multiple smaller companies wouldn’t do anything to change the fact that most customers only have access to one or two pay-television providers, all of whom require set-top box leasing.
No need to go into explanatory depth about the Economics 101 problem of monopolies—or how companies like Comcast exert monopolistic power via their D.C. lobbying operations. Likewise, it wouldn’t serve any noble explanatory purpose to know that Comcast, via its ownership of NBCUniversal, is an investor in Vox Media. Vox only managed to add a mention of this relationship once after getting publicly called out for it, and only in a teensy-font footnote that requires a click to be revealed.
News from the New Nowhere
Truly impartial, fair-minded explanation is a lofty goal, one that neither Vox nor any other journalistic outfit would be able to achieve with every post. To nitpick this or that explainer serves no larger purpose than to demonstrate how the explainer in question falls short. But to the extent that the biases that plague Vox are systematic, obvious, and unaddressed—and to the extent that Vox suffers from the problems that worried Klein in his inaugural post—Vox takes on the aura of something other than what Klein promised in his mission statement.
What is more propagandistic than calling what is often straightforward opinion writing “explanatory journalism”?
In his 2015 book How Propaganda Works, Yale philosopher Jason Stanley warns of a dangerous form of propaganda, which employs the rhetorical force of an ideal so as to undermine that very ideal. For example, think of those who deny the reality of climate change by appealing to the ideal of scientific objectivity and pointing to this or that uncertainty. Or, more to the point, consider a journalism site that embraces the ideal of explanation only to undermine it as it pursues other, less rarefied goals. Is this out of bounds? Be honest: What is more propagandistic than calling what is often straightforward opinion writing “explanatory journalism”? If “Voxsplaining” ever gets listed in the Urban Dictionary or OED, it would describe the practice of telling someone what you think and calling it an “explanation.”
Indulge the idea that Vox is a propaganda outfit. What would be its larger purpose? Here we must introduce that bugbear of centrist liberal pundits: neoliberalism. Yes, this is an imprecise, overused, and oft-abused term, but as Vox’s Dylan Matthews said in response to the charge that Vox is neoliberal, “Fair enough.” Here I mean the political tradition of post-1970s New Republic–style liberalism that views the policies and institutions of the New Deal-Great Society welfare state skeptically and pro-capitalist free-market reforms favorably. It is the pro-corporate liberalism of the Democratic Party elite, the mindset of Ivy-educated technocrats who think they have all the fixes and wish that the shrill voces populi of our democracy—activists, interest groups, unions—would just entrust them with power and get out of the way.
There can be little doubt that the neoliberal label fits. We see it in Vox’s incessant campaigning for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (which also—surprise!—happens to be a focus of Comcast’s lobbying dollars). We see it in its cheery optimism (sponsored in part by JPMorgan Chase) about how technology and automation, far from causing anxiety among average workers, should revive their faith in the American dream. (“Robots aren’t taking your jobs—and that’s the problem.”) We see it when Vox dismisses the hypothesis of political scientists that America is becoming more of an oligarchy than a democracy, by ridiculing the expectation that, in a democracy, our representatives should make decisions that reflect (i.e., represent) popular preferences. The Vox counterargument is entirely of a piece with a neoliberal consensusphere that proclaimed Hillary Clinton the Democratic nominee for president before a single vote was cast in Puerto Rico, California, or any other of the states taking part in the allegedly high-stakes June 5–7 primaries—because a clutch of unnamed superdelegate insiders pronounced their Hillary allegiance ahead of the big primary day. In similar complacent detachment, Vox pooh-poohed the idea that democracy should be anything beyond voters hiring and firing their leaders, like expert plumbers, to do their jobs without any further meddling.
We see the same insular mindset when Vox argues that Americans are angry about politics, not the economy, by appealing to consumer sentiment surveys instead of people’s actual opinions about the economy. And we see it when Klein and Yglesias savagely attack Bernie Sanders’s proposal of single-payer health care for its lack of detail and implausible financial assumptions; neither criticism of the idea, as Seth Ackerman cogently argued in Jacobin, seemed to bother Klein and Yglesias before Sanders ran for president.
But so what if the label fits? There’s no special problem with a journalistic outfit being the standard bearer for neoliberalism—except for the propagandistic claim that it publishes explanatory journalism rather than the opinion fare we get at The American Prospect or National Review Online. Unlike its ideologically forthright competitors, Vox employs a sleight of hand that should put us on guard.
But while we should remain observant of such propagandistic tendencies, we should also acknowledge the multifaceted brilliance of its business model. A neoliberal propaganda outfit—especially one boasting an unassailable cutting-edge profile on the ever-expanding digital frontier—will certainly curry favor with the Democratic Party brass and their consultants. The site will naturally serve as a wellspring of free content, from CEA white papers on occupational licensing to sit-down interviews with everyone from candidate Hillary Clinton to Clinton super-lobbyist Heather Podesta to President Barack Obama himself. It will also win the favor and dollars of blue-chip corporate sponsors such as GE, JPMorgan Chase and Goldman Sachs, who will line up to approve Vox’s overall message. And it will attract a niche readership of white-collar darlings who want their fact arsenals replenished and self-esteem flattered while they read the latest explanation of how they and their peers can make the world a better place.
A feedback loop of political clout, content, advertising, and readers—with each node of influence dutifully echoing the core dictates of the political philosophy that rules the Democratic Party. Journalism finally has its unicorn.
At its worst, Vox’s style of explaining the news is gratingly clichéd, often employing a bemused, detached Socratic question-and-answer style. This method, much like the dialogues it distantly echoes, marches the reader through a battery of straw-man arguments and big-picture platitudes rather than capturing the lively give-and-take of critical inquiry. A common Vox strategy is to find something interesting on the internet, the more contrarian the better, to show that so-and-so (Conservatives, the Far Left, Average Americans, et al.) is wrong. Another typical Voxian strategy is to appeal to the One Big Thing everyone “like us” (college-educated, affluent, urban cosmopolitan liberals) “knows” as the generic template for a hot-take delivery device. Here are some examples:
The One Big Thing Known: Free trade agreements have helped alleviate global poverty (per economists).
What Is Putatively Explained: Why Bernie Sanders and others who criticize U.S. free trade agreements are immoral.
But There’s One Big Thing Left Unexplained: What should a U.S. representative do about the decline of U.S. manufacturing and middle-class jobs enabled by free-trade agreements?
The One Big Thing Known: Driving is more dangerous than flying.
What Is Explained: The TSA should be replaced by private contractors (perhaps hired by airlines themselves, so they can compete) because the security-line delays it causes convinces people to drive instead.
Left Unexplained: The delays, as another Vox piece recognizes, are caused by a budgetary staffing shortfall in the face of higher numbers of travelers. (“The TSA employees’ union, naturally, wants to hire more screening agents,” Vox-pert Dylan Matthews snorts. Naturally!)
The One Big Thing Known: Democracies don’t suffer famines (per Nobel laureate Amartya Sen).
What Is Explained: Ethiopia didn’t suffer a famine from recent drought.
Left Unexplained: Ethiopia is not democratic (except according to the CIA-funded metric of the Center for Systemic Peace that Vox uses).
The One Big Thing Known: Industrial chicken-meat production is horrifying.
What Is Explained: Concern over Cecil the lion’s death is overwrought.
Left Unexplained: Eating a chicken has utility, while shooting a lion does not.
The One Big Thing Known: Some shell corporations are used by good people to avoid scrutiny from authoritarian regimes.
What Is Explained: Not all shell corporations are bad!
Left Unexplained: The Panama Papers scandal.
The One Big Thing Known: Steak should never be well done (per top chefs).
What Is Explained: Donald Trump is not qualified to become President, because he ignores experts.
Left Unexplained: Why, beyond the lame joke, we should give a shit about this smug pedantry.