Hack List 2017: A brief history of Vox, the dumbest place on the Internet

[Note: I’m not rolling out Hack List 2017 in any special order. We’ll rank the Top Ten after posting stories about all the finalists, and then I’ll milk all this for another easy post where I rank them. I’m not sure how long this process will take but it will surely be done by the end of the year. You can read the two prior installments, on Dean Baquet and the New York Times here and “The Drones of The Intercepthere.]
You may be surprised to know that Vox, the four-year-old publication founded by Man-Boy Ezra Klein, almost didn’t make Hack List 2017. Sure, I’ve written about it many times, as recently as earlier this week, but today, four years after its founding, Vox is already a joke and just about everyone recognizes that it isn’t a journalism outfit, it’s a PR agency. But I decided to include it anyway.
It would be misleading to refer to Vox‘s decline, because this ghastly rag has sucked since birth (much like its top staffers), but until recently it was taken seriously by more people than you’d expect. I don’t know what its readership is currently, but I hardly hear about Vox anymore and I expect it’s audience is steadily declining. If not, the country is fucked far worse than I had previously imagined.
The turning point, if one can use that term about Vox, was the 2016 presidential election, when it served as an arm of the Hillary Clinton campaign, first when she and the DNC were stealing the Democratic primaries from Bernie Sanders and then when she was managing to lose in the general to pitiful Donald Trump, who most any other candidate would have shredded to minced meat.

Ezra just couldn’t understand that his beloved candidate’s popularity with the general public declines in direct relationship to exposure, because to know her is pretty much to hate her. So even as Hillary was crashing and burning on the campaign trail, Ezra was desperately seeking to promote her candidacy, and hence simultaneously helping doom it, with a relentless barrage of puff pieces, interviews with the candidate and video segments.

“How can you possibly satirize a dweeby hipster wannabe who wears a black T-shirt for a video segment that may as well have been a Hillary campaign ad?” I wrote a year ago. “Or who does a lengthy story on Hillary, featuring a whiffle ball interview with her, in which the stated goal is to answer a question that poor Ezra has been struggling with for the past eight years: ‘Why is the Hillary Clinton described to me by her staff, her colleagues, and even her foes so different from the one I see on the campaign trail?’”

Ezra’s valiant effort to market Hillary to the American public proved harder than selling rat poison to rats — which is not to say the Clinton campaign didn’t appreciate his efforts. He established himself as its most reliable mouthpiece, as seen in a Podesta email released during the campaign, in which a few Clintonistas were wondering which journalist could most reliably be called upon to push out the campaign narrative and keep other reporters in line.

“Lloyd Grove used to be the person who would hold journalist [sic] accountable – who is that now and is there an opportunity for that in real time today?” Cheryl Mills, one of Hillary’s closest aides, asked.

Campaign spokeswoman Jennifer Palmieri had the answer: “I think that person, the degree to which they exist, is Ezra Klein,” she wrote. “And we can do it with him today.” And do him they did, repeatedly.

But let’s step back for a second and examine Vox‘s founding and its guiding principles. I don’t really feel like doing the legwork necessary for that task, so let’s turn things over to David V. Johnson (who’s been promising me a piece for ages) in his Baffler story, Explanation for What? Vox.com’s capture of the know-it-all demographic. And to make my job today even easier, I’ll just liberally quote from Johnson’s piece, which I’ve rearranged below to my liking:

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.

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? 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….“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.

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.

(To this day, David V. Johnson also noted in his fine story, one of Klein’s titles on the Vox site is “head vegetable chef.”)

Let’s also briefly cite a hilarious story by Jacob Bacharach:
Among a certain class of Americans, those of us who go to “good” colleges and take, sometime during our freshman and sophomore years, some sort of introduction to sociology course, there is the universal experience of that one student. He is inevitably, invariably male; he is either in or has recently completed a course in biology, although he is almost certainly not a biology major; he finds, in almost every class, an opportunity to loudly and circularly suppose that some or other human social phenomenon is a direct analogue of some behavior in ant colonies or beehives or schools of fish or herds of gazelles.
But now over at Vox.com, Ezra Klein’s intrepid effort to out-USA Today USA Today, Zach Beauchamp has discovered two political scientists who have discovered “circumstantial” evidence that human wars are the genetic remnant of animal territoriality. DNA is mentioned, but there are no double helices in sight; what’s meant is something more akin to the “animal spirits” that Tristram Shandy was so concerned with, or perhaps a kind of pre-genetic, crypto-Mendelian, semi-hemi-demi-Darwinian understanding of trait inheritance. In this case, the authors of a study, and the author of the article, notice that animals are territorial, that humans are territorial, that both come into intraspecies conflict over territory, and therefore, ergo, voilà. It has the remarkable distinction of being both self-evidently correct and skull-crushingly wrong. The deep roots of human territoriality are animal, but explaining organized human warfare in this manner has the motel smell of a husband telling his wife that he’s been fucking other women due to evolutionary mating imperatives. “Babe, calm down! Have you ever heard of bonobos, huh?”
I also love my childhood friend Santiago “Sante” Javier Valenzuela’s simple description of Vox as “The dumbest place on the Internet.” And, returning to my own thoughts and words, let me note that Vox is awash in venture capital and sponsored content, which is a good thing according to Lindsay Nelson, the vice president of the un-ironically named division, Vox Creative. “Publishers have to get better with understanding the product side of native,” she explained in this 2014 interview.

One of the really annoying things about Vox is that just about everyone involved with it is a privileged shit head who had everything in life handed to them on a silver platter. That’s one of the reasons the site has no idea of what’s happening in the real world — of particular note here is that for most Americans, the economy is in a recession and life isn’t peachy as it is for high-end media types — and why it totally missed the Trump and Bernie insurgencies.

Klein was born and raised in Irvine, California, a planned city. Think Reality TV “Truman Show.” He attended one of the top public high schools in California, University High, and then seamlessly moved on to UCLA. It’s a rough life.

Ezra started off as a cautious but mildly left-of-center writer but sold out the minute the Washington Post came calling, and in 2009 founded “Wonkblog,” which covered “policy over politics.” His announcement of the blog revealed the policies that are most important to Klein:

I have felt personally ashamed that after spending so much time covering the passage of health-care reform and Dodd-Frank, I have spent so little time keeping you up-to-date on the efforts to implement the two laws. With Sarah and Suzy here, those stories will no longer go uncovered. I have always felt embarrassed that I know so little about energy and climate change, which are arguably the most consequential issues facing our economy, and even our planet.

To say that Ezra views the world through rose-tinted shades is a gross understatement so the idea that he felt compelled, after nine years at the Post, to found Vox based on the idea of explaining America to its people is not only ridiculous but extremely offensive. We don’t need an elitist twat telling us how and why things work. 

Not that being privileged and/or upper class should exclude you from being a journalist, but, you know, you’re probably going to miss a thing or two. In addition to Trump winning the election, I’d also point out here Vox‘s paltry offerings when it comes to “Explainers” about class and how it impacts social and political discourse. 

When it does wade in, it fucks things up big time, like in this 2014 Labor Day piece. In it Klein pretends to lean left but then gives the game away by writing, “America is the richest country the world has ever known. We can afford to guarantee workers a few days of paid rest a year.” “Let them eat cake,” eh Ezra? (Before moving on, I would be remiss not to note this pathetic item in which Ezra explains why Democrats need Al Gore.)

Moving on, let me note that one of Vox‘s co-founders with Ezra is Melissa Bell, who comes from a long line of lawyers. She attended Georgetown, worked in New York as a legal assistant (but quit after 9/11), spent time tending bar — in Vail, natch — and backpacking across Europe before moving on to Northwestern, per mummy’s request, in the “global journalism” program in India.

The third co-founder of Vox is Neoliberal Warlord Matthew Yglesias. He attended Dalton School in New York, where for only around $42,000 a year you learn to recite bland, liberal bromides on political and social policies. Yglesias later went to Harvard, natch, where he obtained a degree in philosophy.

Matt Yglesias, Vox’s Neoliberal Warlord
Let’s borrow liberally from Baffler again, this time in an article by my friend Chris Lehmann about Yglesias’s now-legendary 2013 Slate story about the collapse of a Bangladeshi apparel factory that killed more than 1,000 people.  Yglesias — “an eager Democratic partisan brandishing pious Washington credentials from The American Prospect and the Center for American Progress,” in the words of Lehmann, “framed his defense of the status quo regime of erratic standards for worker safety in the hoary rhetoric of the public choice ‘trade-off’.”
In the Slate story, Yglesias wrote some of the more offensive lines of journalism ever seen, saying, in defense of his appalling thesis, “While having a safe job is good, money is also good” and “Bangladesh is a lot poorer than the United States, and there are very good reasons for Bangladeshi people to make different choices in this regard than Americans. Safety rules that are appropriate for the United States would be unnecessarily immiserating in much poorer Bangladesh.”
But let’s return to the topic of Ezra, shall we, and let me now cut-and-paste very liberally from a story previously published in these pages. Ezra, I noted then, in 2016, had reached the ripe old age of 32 and was clearly making piles of dough. I’m not sure what he’s raking in at Vox, which is lavishly funded by venture capitalists and corporations like NBCUniversal, but he appears to be cleaning up on the speaker’s circuit — or journalistic buckraking, as the practice used to be known.

Using the alias of Emma Stoffels, Washington Babylon recently reached out to Klein’s speaking bureau, where his bio promises that he will use his “razor-sharp focus and wit” to give audiences “an unvarnished look at the intersection of today’s domestic and economic policy-making coupled with a political system that has major impacts from Wall Street to Main Street and around the world.”

His page says he can talk on about a score of topics, including Business Growth/Strategy/Trends, Corporate Culture, Creativity, Innovation, Jewish Interests, the Middle East and Social Media/New Media. It features glowing testimonials from Fordham University College Democrats and the California Association of Public Hospitals and Health Systems.

Emma Stoffels, who was supposed to be with a University of Texas at Austin group called the Coalition of Millennials in Politics, said that she wanted Klein to be a guest speaker at an event — titled to be as bland and boring as possible — next spring: The 2017 Millennial Policy Summit: What Happens Now? “There will be panels on a range of topics, ranging from health care to climate change to foreign policy,” she added.

We assumed that a mediocre hack like Klein would go for somewhere between $7,500 and $15,000 a pop but when we selected that budget range we got a note back from one of his handlers: “Thank you for your inquiry and your interest in Ezra Klein. I’m afraid that his speaking fee does fall outside of the budget range you indicated you have available….As an additional thought, I suggest you reach out to your local universities, libraries or media networks to inquire about talent.  They are great resources for finding expert speakers, authors or local anchor personalities for minimal to no costs.”

This was disappointing, so Emma wrote back that the Millennial group might be able  to increase its budget to nab Klein. “The role of journalism in American politics is undeniable,” she wrote. “Klein has managed to find a unique edge…We could plan to allocate $20,000-25,000 for him to join the forum.”

Tragically, even that amount of money wouldn’t necessarily be enough to lure Ezra so Emma was passed along to another handler at the speakers’ bureau. This person said that Ezra’s fee would be $30,750, plus hotel accommodations, meals and incidentals. (Airfare and car service were generously included in the fee). “That said, he really does enjoy college programs and I think he would consider an invitation at $25,000,” this person wrote. “Also, if Ezra’s fee is prohibitive – I’m happy to help with other journalist available at a slightly lower price point.”

Think about these numbers for a second. Median household income in the United States — which peaked in the late-1990s — was $56,500 last year. So with a single university speaking gig, Klein apparently takes in more than half of what a typical family lives on for a full year. (One imagines he charges more for groups wanting his thought on business strategies and trends. I asked Klein for comment via his Twitter page and sent him my email, but didn’t hear back from him.)

Meanwhile, Klein thinks a $15 minimum wage is a terrible idea and so does Vox, in an article that Paste said took “pro-corporate fear-mongering mixed with a severe allergy to analytical rigor…to a new, unprecedented level.” This, ironically, was a rare time that Vox criticized its favorite candidate, for endorsing a $15 minimum wage.”

Klein and Vox’s economic prescriptions in general come straight out the playbook of the most pro-corporate wing of the Democratic Party. Think raising taxes on the rich to reduce inequality is a good idea? Think againAnd again.

In closing, let me further self-plagiarize from my 2016 epic. Back during the Watergate era, I noted, plagiarizing various articles and books of mine going back well more than a decade, the Post’s then-executive editor, Ben Bradlee, said that reporters had become more and more conservative as they got paid better. It’s hard to be conservative on $75 a week, but seventy-five grand, you begin to think of the kids and the bank account and the IRA and roll it over and all this stuff,” he wrote.

Nowadays most reporters don’t make a lot of money — and of course huge numbers have been fired during the past twenty years — but those at the top drive a lot of the journalism conversation. That’s because few espouse economic views that would trouble a typical billionaire or Fortune 500 CEO.

Anyway, let’s close with some good news. Vox won’t make Hack List 2018 because it is quickly flaming into irrelevance. It may not be entirely gone but it will already be forgotten.
Coming next in Hack List 2017. The New Yorker and the Washington  Post.
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Politically eclectic DC-based investigative journalist and CEO, Chief Sleaze Purveyor (CSP) and Creator of WashingtonBabylon.com.