On almost a daily basis now, a high-profile figure in the media business is fired or resigns under pressure, often after falling afoul of staff for behavioral or political reasons. The most recent episode involved 27-year-old Alexi McCammond, who this week resigned as editor of Teen Vogue over tweets written as a 19-year-old. Donald McNeil and Andy Mills of the New York Times were dropped just before that, while before that noted cancel culture critic Nathan Robinson was booted from the Guardian, and figures like Matt Yglesias, Andrew Sullivan, and even Glenn Greenwald were squeezed out of mainstream organizations to varying degrees.
Reporters tagged with “reputations” are typically unhirable, barred from freelancing and public speaking, dropped as guests on radio and TV programs, and shut out of book publishing. Those who didn’t leave the business often ended up doing things like ghost-writing or writing for foreign publications. People who were once among the biggest names in American journalism and commentary (think about it) have for years now been publishing almost exclusively overseas.
In the last few years, that began to change, as subscriber-based platforms like Patreon and Substack allowed for some cast-offs to build new careers as independents. For a long time, this was a small enough group that few noticed or cared.
Now, however, these second acts are prompting a backlash. What’s the point of canceling someone, if they don’t stay canceled? Why consign someone to purgatory if they can make a living there?
Hence the crazy controversy of the last two weeks, when numerous writers — many of them Substack contributors themselves — decided to make an issue over the presence of “problematic” writers on this platform, including Greenwald, Sullivan, and especially Jesse Singal, a journalist and podcast host known for controversial writing on trans issues in outlets like The Atlantic.
CNN’s Reliable Sources blog ran a quote decrying Substack writers who “attack journalists, and stoke fears in transgender people,” while Adweek ran another saying, “to be associated with those names by having a Substack feels dirty.”
Vox’s “Recode” newsletter went with, “Substack writers are mad at Substack. The problem is money and who’s making it,” noting that some contributors were upset that Substack is [emphasis mine] “funding authors they don’t like — either directly via advance payments… or just by letting them keep a share of subscription revenue they sell.”
In a repeat of the Harper’s Letter scandal of last summer, which triggered a series of newsroom controversies at places like Vox because some of the letter’s mainstream signatories signed a document also signed by the likes of Singal and his co-host Katie Herzog, the Internet frenzy soon snowballed into demands that Substack drop its “problematic” writers. A major complaint was that Substack gave undisclosed advances to certain writers through a program called “Substack Pro,” resulting in an influx of a certain kind of writer — I’m often listed here — whose politics clash with other contributors.
Specifically, a writer named Jude Ellison Sady Doyle wrote a pair of articles focused, among others, on Singal. One accused him, without evidence, of being “a high-profile supporter of anti-trans conversion therapy who is also widely known to fixate on and stalk trans women in and around the media industry,” and another essentially demanded that Substack remove Singal and other writers as a pre-condition for remaining on Substack.
When Substack refused, Doyle and others bailed, triggering headlines like “Substack Pro Leads to Departures From Platform.” Facebook immediately issued a post clearly intended to welcome in defectors from Substack, announcing that they will be “partnering with a small subset of independent writers,” presumably of a much different ilk than the writers Substack attracted with its “Pro” program.
Once, it was enough that unpopular writers could be pushed out of jobs at places like The Intercept, Vox, the New York Times, and New York Magazine. The next demand will be that such writers not be allowed to publish anywhere, not even to audiences choosing to pay for their services. Singal might be a canary in a coal mine: the first person to be targeted for removal from a self-publishing platform.
Substack didn’t budge, however, and Singal survived, but as he told me and Katie Halper on this week’s Useful Idiots, the episode revealed a lot about a mentality gaining traction in the media business.
“People like [Jude Ellison Sady Doyle],” he says, “are expressing a point of view that is really common, that even Jesse Singal-center-left-shit-lib-ism is too far to the right for them.”
The “stalking” accusations mostly ended up being things like: contacting someone for comment for an article and not using the quote, linking to the critics’ own works (Julia Serano said Singal’s link to her article about “The Struggle To Find Trans Love In San Francisco” was “slut-shaming,”), or simply asking for proof of an accusation.
“I would quote-retweet someone criticizing me and say, ‘This is a lie, this is not true,’” Singal says. “At some point disagreement becomes harassment, and harassment becomes stalking.”
His co-host Herzog is even blunter, noting that none of the many critics co-signing the idea that Singal is a stalker could actually mention an incident of real stalking.
“Nobody can name a victim,” Herzog says. “It’s fucking QAnon.”
Herzog and Singal’s careers collectively read like an oral history of a moral panic. Both ran into trouble for writing articles deemed unorthodox and offensive by a small but vocal group of critics.
Their offending pieces were written using a traditional, down-the-middle, advocacy-free style, once standard in long-form journalism, which ironically appears to have been the problem. Herzog’s story in particular is amazing, given the extreme care she took to avoid eliciting the exact reaction she received.
“I was canceled first,” Herzog says, half-laughing.
Her professional trajectory changed in 2017, when she wrote an article called “The Detransitioners: They Were Transgender, Until They Weren’t” for the famed Seattle alt-paper, The Stranger. This was a profile of a handful of people who had “transitioned to a different gender and then later transitioned back.”
Herzog’s piece was filled with “some say A, but others say B” constructions that were once commonplace in feature writing. She took pains to warn readers that the true stories of the handful of detransitioners profiled should not be used as fodder to make broader political points, including whole paragraphs on that score that read like Surgeon General’s warnings:
Right-wing groups and media outlets use detrans people to further a transphobic agenda, arguing that their existence invalidates all trans people… Cass’s story has also been repurposed by the alt-right site Breitbart, which likens transitioning to being “mutilated by sex-change surgery.” There are real-life consequences to this kind of press, especially now, when the rights of trans people have become a political flash point.
She went on to note that signatures were being gathered for a “bathroom bill” in Washington State, adding that such bills “fundamentally demonize transgender people by perpetuating the myth they are somehow predatory or violent, when in reality, trans people are far more likely to be the victims of crime than its perpetrators… Rates [of violent victimization] are even higher for trans women of color.”
Herzog didn’t just warn against conservative propaganda tropes. “It’s not just the right-wing that uses detransitioners for its own ends,” she wrote. “Parts of the self-described feminist community do it, too.” Herzog explained that such “radfems” — in 2017 it was still necessary for her to introduce the term TERF, or “trans-exclusionary radical feminist,” to Stranger readers — often aligned with conservatives on trans issues.
Such women, she wrote, “allege that the modern trans movement is fueled by the pharmaceutical and biotech industries, which have fooled gender-nonconforming people—especially gays and lesbians—into seeking costly medical interventions for no reason.” She then mentioned that neither of these points of view was supported by her detrans profile subjects.
Herzog in her piece mentioned hot-button issues, but gave immediate space to critics in each case. When quoting a statistic suggesting that 80% of trans children “eventually identified as their sex at birth” — the now-infamous “desistance” topic — she immediately quoted a trans activist who said, “It’s time for the 80 percent desistance figure to be relegated to the same junk science bin as the utterly discredited link between vaccines and autism.”
When noting that parents and a few researchers had begun arguing the existence of “rapid onset gender dysphoria” in adolescents, she quoted from an essay by Serano, asserting that the rise in people coming out as trans was due to a positive change away from an old “gatekeeping” model of health care. Herzog also cited greater awareness and acceptability of trans lifestyles, saying “more people are aware of it as an option now.”
Non-denunciatory mention of the “Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria” theory of peer-influenced transitions appeared exactly twice in Herzog’s piece. The first was in the form of a quote by Lara Hayden of the Seattle Children’s hospital, who said: “The question of peer pressure comes up a lot… but always by parents.”
The second was in this passage:
Jesse, a 16-year-old in Portland who prefers the pronoun “they,” told me that five kids in their eighth-grade class came out as trans that year.
Still, Herzog’s piece was received as anti-trans propaganda — a “trans = social contagion piece,” as Serano put it, adding that Herzog’s mention of the social contagion theory was “reckless.” It was, Serano said, “akin to giving equal time in an article to scientists who don’t believe in climate change or who think that smoking-causes-lung-cancer is still up for debate.”
Herzog adds that the article was “threaded through” with what she calls, “Don’t yell at me, I’m a good one, I’m a good one!” passages. “I tried,” she says, “to make crystal clear that the existence of detransitioners does not in any way invalidate the trans experience.”
She also thought she might have leeway based on who she was. “I thought that because I’m a gay woman and had lots of trans friends, and always had lots of trans friends, that that might insulate me. That wasn’t true at all. In fact, it might have made it worse, because I was viewed as a traitor.”
The first consequence of writing the piece was personal. “For me, there were a lot more social consequences.” Around Seattle, she began to see fliers and stickers describing her as everything from a transphobe to a Nazi to a Jordan Peterson sympathizer (“That was the worst,” she quips).
“I would walk into a coffee shop and see a flier calling me transphobic,” she says. She even saw a photo of her face plastered in a urinal.
“It was really unsettling,” she recalls. “Everytime I used to get carded, I’d worry that people would figure out who I was.”
She ended up being shut out almost entirely by former friends. “At the time I lived in Seattle in sort of a queer scene,” she says. “My friends were cool leftist queers who now think I’m a literal Nazi.”
Singal, living in Brooklyn, didn’t suffer the same social consequences, but the approach he took to writing an Atlantic piece called “How the Fight Over Transgender Kids Got a Leading Sex Researcher Fired” was similar to Herzog’s.
He wrote a cover story called “When Children Say They’re Trans” for the Atlantic that earned him permanent enmity among trans activists for doing the same thing Herzog had done: showing multiple sides of an issue. Although it’s frequently cited as evidence that he favors “conversion therapy,” the piece is full of passages like this:
For gender-dysphoric people, physical transition can be life enhancing, even lifesaving. While representative long-term data on the well-being of trans adults have yet to emerge, the evidence that does exist—as well as the sheer heft of personal accounts from trans people and from the clinicians who help them transition—is overwhelming.
Where Singal got in trouble was in mentioning the existence of other outcomes. Note that he does the same thing Herzog did, making sure to wrap controversial factoids or assertions in reassurances that he’s not saying something broader:
For many of the young people in the early studies, transitioning—socially for children, physically for adolescents and young adults—appears to have greatly alleviated their dysphoria. But it’s not the answer for everyone. Some kids are dysphoric from a very young age, but in time become comfortable with their body. Some develop dysphoria around the same time they enter puberty, but their suffering is temporary. Others end up identifying as nonbinary—that is, neither male nor female.
He tried to present the article as covering all possible bases. “The Atlantic cover story was focused on the 12- or 13-year-old who wants to go on puberty blockers and hormones. The idea was, what should that process look like?” adding that “It included a 750-word section early in the article about how trans people have been cut off from medical care historically and how wrong that is.”
Neither Herzog nor Singal could have imagined that those articles would come to define their careers. Certainly, neither intended to focus exclusively on the topic (Singal, in fact, has a new book out called The Quick Fix, about the dangers of psychological fads, that doesn’t touch on the trans subject at all).
But both ended up incurring so much opprobrium for going near an issue deemed to be taboo that new professional identities were essentially assigned to them by critics. Increasingly cast out of mainstream journalism, both found success as independents, which ironically proved an even more annoying outcome to detractors.
“I’ve had crazy shit written about me, I’ve had people lie about me,” says Singal, “and by any reasonable metric, it’s enhanced my platform.”
“Like Jesse, this has been nothing but completely great for my career, which is the irony,” says Herzog. Her critics, she says, “have been doing my PR for free for years. And they’re quite good at it.”
The heat has attracted thousands of listeners to their popular Blocked and Reported podcast, which has thousands of paying subscribers. Singal also writes for Substack. Even the recent controversy involving Doyle and Substack ended up being a boon to both of them.
“Even this controversy led to a big surge of both Patreon and Substack subscribers,” Singal says, fixating on the paradox of being an outcast in modern media. As he’s been denounced, seemingly libelously, as a bigot and transphobe, and kicked out of one world, he’s been welcomed in another, in a process he describes with a mixture of horror and amazement.
“I can not in any sense claim to have been canceled,” he says, pointing out that he’s “fine” professionally, even though, like Herzog, he’s gone through a miserable personal ordeal. “It eats your soul,” he says.
Both would like to still work in the mainstream press, but how? “Even an editor who wants to support someone like Jesse as a free-lancer,” says Herzog, “why would you? You could go with someone else, who won’t result in you getting complaints from your staffers.”
“Katie was told by an editor at a national publication she writes for, that she just can’t write there that often,” says Jesse, “because the staffers get mad every time they do.”
This gets to the core of what’s happening in newsrooms. “It’s 25-year-old staffers and web producers who basically decide what gets aired,” Singal says, pointing to episodes like last summer’s firing of New York Times editor James Bennett (for running an editorial by Republican Tom Cotton) and the more recent firing of McNeil.
In this atmosphere, reporters are disincentivized to go anywhere near controversial topics, for fear of evoking the displeasure of co-workers. “Just think about the incentives,” says Singal. “If you were a 25-year-old journalist now, why would you possibly touch one of these hot-button issues, when it could overnight ruin your reputation forever? I’m much more worried about those people than myself.”
All of this has resulted in a media landscape where political homogeneity is the norm. “It’s not an accident that all the institutions where these people work and write for have become unreadable,” says Singal. “Because you know exactly what their opinion is going to be on every issue.”
This is tough for those organizations, many of which are seeing drastic drops in readership, resulting in mass layoffs in some cases. That should be bad enough. Now they want to export the same problem to self-publishing platforms? Let’s hope this is one media trend that doesn’t spread.
To hear more from the Useful Idiots interview with Singal and Herzog, click here at Usefulidiots.Substack.Com.