Mar 20, 2021 • 1HR 17M

Useful Idiots Podcast: Jesse Singal & Katie Herzog On The Substack Wars

The hosts of the country's most popular podcast about "internet bullshit" tell Matt and Katie about life in the center of the country's dumbest online controversy

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Matt Taibbi
Useful Idiots is an informative and irreverent politics podcast with journalist Matt Taibbi and podcaster/writer Katie Halper. Episodes feature on-the-road coverage of the 2020 campaign and exclusive interviews, with humor, commentary and dissection of the politics news of the week. Join Matt and Katie as they examine important stories that have slipped through the cracks and what the media got wrong – and laugh about whatever is left to laugh about.
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This was a crazy one, even by Internet standards. As if it weren’t enough that reporters and editors are being purged at mainstream news organizations all over the world, from the New York Times to the Guardian to Teen Vogue, a new campaign has begun targeting writers already shunned by the regular press, working as independent contractors at Substack.

Last week, a series of articles and Tweets, including a much-circulated piece by Jude Ellison Sady Doyle called “In Queers We Trust: All Others Pay Cash,” targeted this platform, home to thousands of writers covering a huge variety of subjects, as a purveyor of bigotry and hate speech. Doyle called Substack a perfect example of how “patriarchy and capitalism function together,” among other things because it publishes… Jesse Singal, a soft-spoken Brooklyn-based writer who would probably win an inoffensiveness contest with a “Hang In There, Baby!” poster.

Singal and his co-host, Katie Herzog have nonetheless long been bêtes noires to the American left, for the crime of covering taboo gender controversies like detransitioners (people who have transitioned to one gender and then later transitioned back) the wrongful termination case of Canadian sex researcher Kenneth Zucker (despised by the trans community), and “desistance” (ostensibly, young people who stop experiencing gender dysphoria). Not liking their reporting is one thing. Doyle went further and called Singal 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.”

The stalking and “conversion therapy” accusations were gobbled up by a sizable portion of professional media figures, who seemed untroubled by the total absence of evidence for such claims. “Nobody can even name a victim,” says Herzog. “It’s fucking QAnon!”

As far as Singal is concerned, the crazy episode wasn’t all bad, unmasking as it did an increasingly common sentiment across the media business. “Even Jesse Singal, center-left shit-lib-ism,” he said, “is apparently too far to the right for these people.”

Ultimately, Doyle threatened to leave Substack unless the platform dropped Singal, which triggered a massive Internet fracas involving high-profile journalists on both sides. Free-speech advocates rallied behind Singal in an episode with Je Suis Jesse overtones, while backers of Doyle doubled and tripled down on invective geared toward Singal as the root of all evil in the universe.

Herzog, who’s had her own run-ins with many of the same critics, rushed to her co-host’s defense, and though Substack ultimately did the right thing and refused to give in to demands that Singal be ditched, it was a bizarre example of just how weird and unfriendly the news business has become in recent years.

Since Useful Idiots is all about making sure the targets of moral manias have a chance to tell their side of a story, we were glad to have both Jesse and Katie on for what turned out to be a fascinating discussion in this week’s episode. We’ve reproduced the bulk of it here, with more to come in a bit, along with a series of other segments geared more toward other issues in the news of late.

Also: Singal discusses his new book Quick Fix, about the dangers of fad psychology, while Katie and I talk about the Sovietization of media, the Biden administration’s indefensible hoarding of vaccine, and debate the important question: can robbing blind people ever be funny?