Puckish chaos agent” is how Charlie Warzel describes his former BuzzFeed News boss and current New York Times colleague Ben Smith. “He loves to make chaos,” says Katie Notopoulos, a BuzzFeed reporter. Smith has a “constant desire to stir shit,” another onetime colleague says, while ex-BuzzFeed editor Saeed Jones puts it this way: “Ben is a messy bitch who lives for the drama.”
Smith, the New York Times’ new media columnist — and BuzzFeed’s old editor-in-chief — has indeed spent the past six months stirring up an amount of shit, drama, and chaos that is notable even for these shitty, dramatic, and chaotic times. Consider:
There was the column in which he slammed the work of Ronan Farrow, The New Yorker’s star reporter, as revealing “the weakness of a kind of resistance journalism,” and another that somewhat trollishly described the lifestyles of the rich and not-that-famous media executives living in country homes in the midst of the pandemic. He helped break the story of Hearst’s troubled culture, leading to an executive’s resignation, and dropped the bomb that Brett Kavanaugh, long before he was on the Supreme Court, was one of Washington Post icon Bob Woodward’s confidential sources — and that scoop wasn’t even the point of that particular column.
On nights when his stories drop, blue-check-mark tweeters weigh in on Smith’s latest. “Holy Cow,” the man who is everywhere on the internet, Yashar Ali, said of one. “Tendentious” and “appalling” was Naomi Wolf’s take on another. The motley crew of Ann Coulter, Caitlin Flanagan, and former White House “ethics czar” Norm Eisen are also on the record as having strong reactions to Smith’s work. In a short time, Smith has returned the “Media Equation” column — made legendary by David Carr, the straight-talking ex-addict journalism folk hero who died in 2015 — to the position of power it had attained during Carr’s time in the chair.
Smith’s column isn’t the deeply philosophical, dignified sort that evokes a quiet room and brooding thoughts over cups of tea; it has hot thumbs, sweaty armpits, and AirPods that keep dying. It’s a reporter’s column, a tips-driven enterprise. “If you’re not breaking news, you don’t have any credibility,” Smith told me over breakfast near his Ditmas Park home, where he lives with his wife, Liena Zagare, the publisher of local-news site Bklyner; three kids; and three dogs. At 43, he’s freckled and still a bit boyish looking, like a cast member of The Sandlot all grown up. We chatted about his teenage son’s scoop revealing the new principal of Stuyvesant High School, and he was clearly proud — and took some of the credit: Smith has dictated texts and emails to his son while driving for years, so “he really knows, mechanically, how to report.”
By his own admission, Smith has never been comfortable passing what he calls “these sort of ethical judgments” about the messy media business. “I don’t want to be a scold,” he told me. Instead, his column has been a relentless chronicling of the things powerful people know, gossip about, and make business decisions off of. And Smith is doing it from the ultimate Establishment media perch, writing and reporting with a less polite sensibility than the Times reader may be used to. There are “internet values versus print values,” he said. Print first, apologize later.
He knows the way to torque the narrative of a story so that it plays into the most delicious angle or supposition. Smith’s columns don’t always deliver on the promise of the headline, but the reader gets pulled in anyhow. Week by week, Smith is laundering the internet’s voice through his column, loosening the Gray Lady’s corset ever so much.
Times traditionalists may be right to be spooked by Smith. If there’s one marked characteristic of his short tenure as columnist, it is his compulsive desire to make hamburger out of sacred cows. See: Ronan Farrow. Or his June column on Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron — hagiographically portrayed in the Oscar-winning movie Spotlight — that suggested, “Maybe this guy kind of sucks when it comes to Black-people stuff,” as reporter Wesley Lowery put it. Baron declined to comment for this story, and Carolyn Ryan, Smith’s editor, who used to work for Baron at the Boston Globe, told me the Times has to make sure “that we are never gratuitously hammering other outlets for their sins.”
But when it’s time to start hammering, it certainly doesn’t hurt that Smith is a white guy who grew up in New York City, went to Yale, likes wearing a tie, and used to run a digital news operation backed by a huge VC bet that, for a time, seemed like it might be the future of media. As Lowery, who left the Post in February, told me, Smith’s columns on race have just amplified what Black reporters had been talking about among themselves for years, but “people are more receptive to arguments and critiques, even of themselves, when they trust or know the person leveling with them.” Smith’s membership in the “I Run Stuff” club seems secure even as he pokes at the other members of it. It also may be that, for the bosses, there’s something oddly flattering about being targeted by Smith: His scrutiny is further confirmation of your power.
Still, New Yorker editor David Remnick tried to talk Smith out of the Farrow column, someone at the Times with insight into the editing process told me, to no avail. Though he wouldn’t speak to me about his conversations with sources, Smith did say he admires Remnick quite a bit and “he’s been really nice to me.” The New Yorker declined to comment.
Smith has the gift of being unafraid of making people uncomfortable. Or maybe just blithe confidence. In 2017, during the press tour for The Post, Steven Spielberg, Meryl Streep, and Tom Hanks did a panel interview with Smith, the sort of affair that usually takes on a chummy tone. Instead, Smith took the opportunity to ask Spielberg if he had been aware of any sexual misconduct by Dustin Hoffman when he’d worked with the actor decades ago. (This was at the height of Me Too, and Hoffman had been accused of groping and making inappropriate comments.) In a video of the event, Spielberg looks taken aback. “I, in working very closely with him, never experienced that,” he said. Afterward, I was told, the story circulated that Hanks was heard muttering “Fuck BuzzFeed” in the elevator.
A key part of Smith’s scoop-hound mentality is that “he likes to get yelled at,” Notopoulos said. He thickened his skin working at the Observer, the Sun, and the Daily News, where success as a journalist was measured by a source’s fear of not returning your call, not social-media likes. Many people described Smith to me as a creature of the New York tabloids. He came up with Maggie Haberman and Glenn Thrush in the basement press bullpen of City Hall. Seth Lipsky, one of the Sun’s founding editors, said Smith called him the day after 9/11 from Latvia, where he was a stringer, and said he was coming back to New York and looking for a job. The two had known each other since Smith’s days as an intern at the Forward. “The weird thing about it is that he was already a scoop hound,” Lipsky wrote in an email. “He just got the concept that if a story wasn’t first, it wasn’t news.”
Smith describes himself as a creature of blogs from the early to mid-aughts. “People were arguing heatedly with each other, but there was an assumption that the people you were arguing with were thinking humans who might change their minds,” he said. He called Andrew Sullivan “an obvious influence in my own career” in a recent column that went on to lament Sullivan’s flirtation with theories of racial determinism (a column timed to Sullivan’s departure from this magazine).
But Smith, whose father is a retired conservative judge and whose mother is a liberal semi-retired teacher, is hardly motivated by some earnest lefty zeal. He even once asked the Times to issue a correction for identifying him as “left-leaning.” BuzzFeed reporter Jason Leopold told me that when he ran into Tucker Carlson on a plane one time, the Fox News host ended their conversation by saying, “Tell Ben, who I secretly like, I say hello.” Which may just be game recognizing game — a 2017 clip shows Carlson pillorying Smith on his show for being part of the liberal Establishment, and a faint smile plays on Smith’s lips. (He likes getting yelled at, remember.)
When I asked how he now identifies politically, Smith paused. “I don’t really think about myself politically,” he said. “My ideology, to some degree, is really very much about journalism.” Meanwhile, in the Trump years, the Times has grown more openly adversarial toward the president — lies are called lies, and racism, racism. Inside the paper, reporters speak up, and on social media they speak out when they’re unhappy, leading to the resignation-under-fire of editorial-page editor James Bennet (and, less directly, the resignation of op-ed editor and writer Bari Weiss). And Times subscriptions continue to grow, proving it’s pretty good for business to be on the right side of history as its readers see it. But that’s not exactly Smith’s style.
Partly, this is just because Smith gets bored easily. He would strike up conversations in the BuzzFeed newsroom while reading Twitter and then would “walk away, depending if what you’re saying is interesting or not,” Leopold said. His reputation at BuzzFeed was as a boss intensely interested in the work of scoops — the best way to get mainstream attention for his upstart newsroom — with an at times intensely weird style. He had a habit of standing behind reporters, not talking to them, and reading their screens over their shoulders. Once, he grabbed a cheeseburger off Jones’s desk and ate it as he passed by.
Smith is interested in raw power and how it’s accrued, which shapes his story instincts — he’s covering Hollywood and Silicon Valley, not just the parochial New York City news world. “Every beat is basically just power,” he told me. And when he got the Times gig, sources came out of the woodwork. “I definitely had people who were like, ‘Welcome to the job. I was really helpful to David [Carr] and to Jim [Rutenberg], and now I’m going to be helpful to you,’ ” he said. Big stories beget big sources beget big stories. While it may not protect tipsters from scrutiny forever, there must be something nice about seeing your enemies twisting in the wind for a breathless media moment.
“Ben is interested in the question of who’s winning and who’s losing,” former BuzzFeed editor Rachel Sanders said. And she wasn’t sure that, as a member of management — who had stock grants whose worth was dependent on some eventual profitability for the organization — he grasped the moral imperative the newsroom felt about unionizing. BuzzFeed’s unionization process was contentious, and, like many staffers, Sanders, who now works for the NewsGuild of New York, thought Smith handled the process poorly. “Editorial management, particularly Ben, threw up their hands and sort of said, ‘I don’t know, it’s all Greek to me. Whatever the lawyer says must be right,’ ” she said. In May, Smith wrote about the push toward unionization in his column. “I doubted that the guild would be able to help its members make real gains at places where profits are scarce, and I worried that they’d simply make a tough business even harder to operate,” he wrote of BuzzFeed’s bargaining fights.
His handling of unionization seemed to particularly burn BuzzFeeders in part because of their sense that he’d always backed up his reporters in the past. “I identify with the reporter, I think of myself as a reporter,” he told me. Sometimes to a fault: Before BuzzFeed writer Benny Johnson was fired for over 40 instances of plagiarism in 2014, Smith issued a strong public statement in his support. (Johnson now works as the chief creative officer of a pro-Trump nonprofit.) And Smith’s desire to break news has pushed boundaries. BuzzFeed published the Steele dossier before the rest of the media. Smith defended that controversial decision, which ultimately fed Trump’s blanket denials of a media “witch hunt” against him, to the end.
He still does. “I think it was totally the right call to publish the dossier at BuzzFeed,” he told me, “but I’m not sure it would have been within the New York Times’ institutional remit.” Which leads us to the question of where Smith goes from here.
Ryan, Smith’s editor, is on the Times masthead, and — self-deprecation alert — “She told me that I was the most difficult, and possibly worst, writer she’d ever worked with in her life,” he said gleefully. “I feel like we had to wage a little psychological warfare on each other just to kind of get rolling.” Ryan was a bit more diplomatic (and pointed out that the two like each other very much). “We’re both editors of extremely high demands and kind of accustomed to a certain authority,” she said. Another editor might have been cowed by Smith; as Ryan put it, he is “somebody who, just a few months ago, was a media mogul.”
Does Smith miss media moguldom? He’s something of a Times Kremlinologist himself (he wrote about the race for the top editor’s job last year, and Ryan is in the running). Perhaps he’ll try to stick around and rise through the ranks. I asked him if he ever thought about getting into TV. He said that he was asked to try out for what is now Brian Stelter’s chair at CNN but that TV’s not a good fit for him: “I like asking weird, awkward questions that don’t necessarily make me seem like a good person.” (“I’m very curious to hear where that came from,” a CNN rep said before disputing that Smith had ever been approached.)
So for now, it’s scoops at the Times. Jones, for one, was introspective about the value of Smith’s column at this moment. “So much of the discourse on Twitter is ultimately lost, even though it’s talking about all of this stuff, and there’s a really rich conversation,” he said. “You want some record of how this industry weathered, engaged, or ignored what was going on, and I feel like it could definitely be a helpful text.”
- This article appears in the September 14, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!