Carlos Maza at the end of the world (podcast + transcript)

"I think media watchdogs are valuable, but in the sense that you can move the beast, I think there's very little that good-faith criticism can do."

  
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Welcome to the Present Age Podcast.

I’m your host Parker Molloy.

On today’s show, I speak with my friend Carlos Maza. As the host of Vox’s “Strikethrough,” Carlos helped shine a light on the way the choices made by the media helped raise Donald Trump and Republicans to power.

His videos, with titles like “Why every election gets its own crisis,” “How Trump makes extreme things look normal,” and “The decline of American democracy won’t be televised,” were some of the sharpest pieces of media criticism of the past five years.

And then he stopped.

After becoming the target of an anti-gay harassment campaign by right-wing YouTubers, Carlos was let go by Vox despite being named one of Time magazine’s 25 most influential people on the internet in 2019.

I recently had a chance to chat with Carlos about all of this, and I’m really excited for you to check this out. Let’s get started.


Parker Molloy: So joining me today is the wonderful, the great, the talented, the prescient Carlos Maza.

Carlos Maza: Hey, Parker. Thanks for having me. It's a pleasure and an honor to be here.

Yeah. Thank you so much for agreeing to come on my new podcast-type thing. It's an adventure every day over here.

It's badass to watch you evolve over the years that we've been friends and it just feels like getting a front seat at a really cool story. So it's a pleasure.

We took a similar path in the sense that we both maybe have gotten a bit cynical over time and not unjustifiably so.

I would say my path is one marked by increasing cynicism, for sure. Yeah.

Yeah. Yeah. I mean, that's part of why I wanted to talk with you because the other day, I was going through and I was looking at old Vox Strikethrough videos and I rewatched all of them because one, they're very good, but two, looking back at them, it's just like, "Yes, everything he said was on point." You really broke down how Trump makes extreme things look normal, how harassment on Twitter became a giant issue, how the narrative around Antifa would keep flying up. And then also, I think this is important. It's you had one that was about the decline of American democracy and about how media generally is not equipped to deal with this.

And I think that we've seen that happen more and more over the past year or two, especially and we're at this point where there are people literally trying to overthrow the government, but media still can't stop inviting these people on meet the press and whatnot and treating them like they're totally normal. So I'm just curious, how do you feel about what's happening in the world as it relates to things that you predicted would happen in the world? Things that you were pointing out were happening in the world?

You mentioned cynicism, and that's my primary response to all this. Is that when I was making those videos, many of them were right at the beginning of the Trump era and then over, I think the first two or three years and it felt like sounding an alarm bell on a crisis that could maybe be averted. There was this feeling, I think for me during 2017 where I thought this might be a wake-up call. I'm sure everyone felt this way. Every week, this must be the thing that snaps things back into normalcy or back into some realistic sense of how bad things are getting. And now that we're so long away from that initial moment of weird optimism, my sense about it was just like, "Yes. I felt like I accurately described what's going on and I feel a little silly that I had hoped that things would correct themselves.”

I think I still had some faith maybe in myself as a media critic, or just more broadly in the media establishment, their ability to react to crises and adjust and course correct, and I think right now, you might feel a similar way. My sense is no amount of good media criticism will change corporate media's incentives. And I think media watchdogs are valuable, but in the sense that you can move the beast, I think there's very little that good-faith criticism can do because the people who make these media calls are not operating from a journalistic priority. They're operating from essentially a business priority. Yeah, I've just become really cynical. I look back at those videos and think, "What a sweet summer child unaware of how hopeless this is."

Yeah. That's how I look at a lot of my writing. A lot of my writing that I did over at Media Matters. So it was the same kind of thing. It was, "Tucker Carlson is a fake populist." It was, "Look out for the dog whistles," and stuff like that, but we ended up... Everything just kept going along as it was going along. And I wrote an article about the importance of not letting Trump and his cronies get away with trying to subvert democracy back in December. This was before January 6th, because it was clear what he was doing. And even after January 6th, there was a week or two where everyone was like, "Oh, well, we have to rethink things." And then they just went along doing the same exact things they've always done. So I feel like I am lacking in hope and optimism, which might be called for. I'm not quite sure.

We both started in this weird... I think we both got to know each other and we're doing work around queer issues at around the same time and I think... I don't know. I'm curious about how you feel about it, because my sense about it when I was doing it was like, "This could help." I had some real faith that I could alter the language and behavior of journalists and that's what motivated me, and I've had to go through a real shift on my own personal work journey about what I'm trying to do and what I think is possible and what I find useful, and that shifted a lot for me. Have you felt a similar...? We both started off as these fire-brand-y activists and I don't feel like that anymore.

No. Yeah. I mean, the past several years, anytime someone's used the word activist to describe me, I'm like, "Please don't. Please just don't." I mean, at one time maybe I would have been fine with it, but the more time has gone on, I went into... When I was writing articles about trans issues at The Advocate, for instance, I did that for about a year and I was operating under this assumption or this hope that by doing this, I could help enlighten the ignorant. I went into things under the assumption that by shining a light on injustices or explaining politely to people, "Hey, don't call trans women men, or maybe you don't need to include the person's former name in this article as they were not famous under that name. So there's no actual reason to add it." And stuff like that would happen constantly. And I think that there was some good that came from that.

Some good, but overall the messaging is just lost. And over time, we've seen these queer-specific publications either fold or shrink down to nothingness or just have zero traffic and that aspect of things hasn't been picked up by mainstream outlets. And that's scary to me, but at the same time, I wonder if it even matters and that's where I'm at.

Yeah. My sense is like I think I had a very rosy belief in the arc of the moral universe and things always slowly getting better, which is I think a luxury/hangover of the Obama years to some extent, and that feeling has been... I've had to grapple with that sense of I ended up part of some big inevitably successful project. What I do matters very little in the grand scheme of things and how do you try to fight for a better world when you get a sense that it might not matter, or if it matters, it's not because of you? And that's been a real... I was curious to how you felt about it because I think we both went through a collapse of faith maybe around the same time or a collapse of optimism and it's fucked me up as a writer and as a creator and looking back at my old Vox videos, I'm like, "I'm a very different person now in my heart, even if the arguments they make would be singled out."

Yeah. I feel the same way. I feel like a lot of my earlier writing, even though it came off in that firebrand-y activist-y approach, even though that was what I was doing then, I feel like I came to it with such a different energy. And now it's just this sort of, "Well, if things are bad, things are always bad. Things will continue to be bad. They'll probably get worse." And I don't want to feel that way. I want to feel optimism, but I want to feel optimism with justification. I want to feel justified optimism and I don't. And I think that the power of media generally is important. And I think that some of the flaws that have happened along the way, really come down to the fact that you'll have places like CNN's Reliable Sources, for instance, that show. They'll have the same people on constantly to talk about, "Oh this newspaper in that town," or they'll have Ben Shapiro or Eric Erickson on or whoever, and what are we learning?

What are we doing? What's changing? And I think that there's this reluctance to put people who really challenged the narratives that are pushed in media out there. The whole time that you were making these videos for Media Matters and Vox and on your own as well, it just blew my mind that you weren't being constantly booked on TV, because everything you were saying made perfect sense. And when I would use that to try to show someone who really meant well and wanted to learn something different, it would be effective. The way that you presented arguments was always so straightforward, but not condescending, which I think is really important, and I think it would've done a lot of good for CNN, MSNBC, whatever to put you on air, but that didn't really happen and made me lose a little faith in...

Not that I had much faith in corporate media, but it made me lose the remaining amount of faith that I had, because they would rather keep putting the same old, same old people back on and making the same arguments and pretending that they're not seeing what's happening in the world and it's beyond frustrating.

What have you been up to because that is something that you were everywhere and in 2019, was it Time Magazine? Said you were one of the 25 most influential people on the internet, which was very impressive. I was like, "Wow, that's awesome." But then you did your own thing and then you haven't really uploaded in quite a while. What have you been up to?

Yeah, it's been such a weird experience. I had my big falling out with YouTube and lost my job and everything and I think I just had a period afterward that was right before the pandemic and then I went independent in February and then the pandemic started. And I think honestly, the citizen that we're describing in terms of politics, to me has aligned with the broader anxiety or confusion about purpose and meaning in life. I don't mean to get too heady about this, but the last video I uploaded on my channel on my birthday in April was about Overcome with the Plague and it was like an existentialist reflection on trying to do good in the world that seems inevitably doomed and took me forever to make that video because I was trying to describe something that I think even after making it, I grappled to talk to people about, which is this, I don't know, this grappling with purpose.

I think this might just be me, but I certainly feel hyper-aware of living in an era where it does feel a little bit like the world is ending, at least in some meaningful way. I spent, I would say, four years at the end of Media Matters and at Vox working my ass off to make these videos that I thought were so important and truly, they consumed my whole life. My whole identity was making these videos and I was staying late at work every day and my whole sense of self-worth was wrapped up in these videos. And I think to have it fall apart so catastrophically, to very publicly get fired and to lose myself, lose my identity, to get dogpiled, to have everyone worrying about me and to lose it all I think forced a real... It's still forcing a real examination of who the fuck am I? What makes me happy? What do I want to do in this limited time on earth?

So I don't have a great answer to the question of what I want to do with my time, but I think to answer your question about where have I been, I feel like I've just been wandering through my life a little bit, trying to figure out what I want to keep. I know I don't want to work as hard as I did when I was at Vox because it made me a really unhappy person. I know I don't want to be as angry as I've been because my anger wasn't making the world better and I don't think it was making me happy, and I know again, sorry if this is a bit too heavy, but I know I can't save the world.

I would like to spend a little more time saving myself and that means it's more time taking therapy seriously, growing plants in my apartment, spending time with friends, fostering a cat, doing small things that I think keep me grounded in a world that feels often ungrounded and I'm trying to unlearn the lesson I learned when I was at Vox and I think to some extent, Media Matters, which is your only worth and happiness comes from making a big famous thing and becoming successful, and it doesn't. So I wish I had a really sexy answer. My honest answer is I feel lost and I'm trying to be okay with lostness right now because I don't really know a way out of it.

That's not something I've talked to people about, obviously, because it's embarrassing and shameful in some ways, and I think on the internet, or especially on Twitter where you and I spend a lot of time, it's a weird thing to admit. To go from this time person who's supposed to be really successful and popular to being like, "I don't know if I want to be as public anymore. I don't know if I want to talk to people anymore. I don't know if I want to have my identity wrapped up in a performance that I can't control all the time."


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Yeah. It's funny that you brought up existentialism just because, I mean, I named my newsletter and this podcast after Kierkegaard's The Present Age. So it's the same sort of idea. It's the same sort of stuff that I've been going through myself and in that same sense of, "Okay. Trying to find meaning in life and purpose, and I don't feel like there's anything that we're supposed to do or that there's anything that we're supposed to work towards. I feel like a lot of the time, it's just nothing and we have to figure out what we want to work towards, what we want our imprint on the world to be. And over time, it's that same situation where I put so much time and energy into writing articles about various issues and then six months later, I find myself in a position where, "Okay, it looks like I need to write that same article again because no one listened last time."

And after a couple years of that, it just got to this point where I realized I'm just not making the kind of impact that I want on the world while also leaving Media Matters, I viewed it as a personal failing on my part for not being good enough or persuasive enough or the right personality or the right person to get these messages across that I still believe in and still think are important. I still like everyone over at Media Matters and enjoyed working for them and wouldn't trade that for the world, but at the same time, I felt like I was spinning my wheels. I was telling the same story over and over and over, and I want to tell a new story, a different story, a more important story, a broader story that we can all relate to. And I think first to do that, it's important to really start to whittle away at all the bullshit that's out there and that's why I wanted to do this more free-wheeling kind of, "I'm going to write about whatever I feel like writing about.

I'm going to interview people about whatever I want to interview them about," type of situation because I'm genuinely pretty curious about what everyone's been doing with their lives in this weird year that the pandemic has brought to us. You have bands that have had to cancel tours and they're playing these weird streaming shows that are odd and I'm not... It's clearly not what they want to do. It's clearly not what their fans want. Everyone's operating at this level of, "Well, the best we can do right now is whatever." Even if it's an in-person concert, it's yeah, sure. But ideally, we would be going to concerts in these places where there isn't a virus just running rampant and that's the subtext of everything I do, is that we're in a world that is just flawed for all of us.

And the way that we communicate with each other is the only thing that there is left and it's been really interesting talking to people about this because it makes me feel less alone, if that makes any sense, to know that we're all going through some sort of different levels of horrific world events around us as it does seem like the world is ending in its own ways. And part of me wonders whether this is something that is somewhat unique to our generation, or if this is a feeling that everyone has had along the way, and that is the big question. Am I being too pessimistic or am I seeing things exactly as they are? And I still don't quite know the answer and that's why having these conversations is so important to me and so fulfilling in a different way.

Because both of us have had these careers that were very... I mean, we have both been very front-facing. Our names and our identities are wrapped up in our work and writing and I think both of us have personas that we at least for some portion of time performed online that are not totally identical to our real personas. I think we both are much... Especially when we first started working in the same spaces, are much more aggressive online than I think we are as people normally. And I have gone through this feeling and I wonder if you feel too, having this desire to retreat intensely and reclaim my identity and hide away from the rules for a bit.

And I'm trying to think about authors who would write a book and then go on sabbatical for five years and be like, "I'm not saying shit for five years until I have another book at me." Well, we don't really get that luxury because we were just constantly making arguments. Do you feel that desire to retreat and almost protect your identity from even friendly audiences and how have you managed that? Because I get the sense that your relationship to online identity has shifted significantly over the years that we've known each other and I know that mine has too.

Absolutely.

And I'm curious where your head is at with that stuff.

Yeah. I absolutely have felt that and I'm still in that weird position where I mean, first off, if someone is... If you manage a coffee shop or something or a factory, or if you're a CEO at a very successful company, whatever the case may be, it's not about being online constantly. A lot of people are online constantly for their own reasons, but in our positions, it was crucial to making a living is being online. That has been something that through, I mean, the past few years of therapy that I've been doing, a lot of it has centered on this idea of how do I deal with something that is making me feel terrible about myself and feel sad and feel angry all the time, which is social media, the internet, people, while also realizing that that is so core to what I'm doing and what I do with my life?

And that's part of why I decided to try this solo thing because at Media Matters, there's no out. You can't just go, "I'm not going to pay attention to Vox this week," because then you're not paying attention to whatever's happening in the world because a lot of the work revolved around what is happening in right wing media. And I still keep up with this stuff, but I've already started to feel less anxious now that tracking exactly what Tucker Carlson is saying every night or what Sean Hannity is saying isn't my job. It's not my core job. It makes me feel better about myself and what I'm doing in the world, even if at the same time, it feels like it's giving up in a sense.

Yeah. That phrase, “giving up” really resonates with me, because I think especially at a place like Media Matters or even just monitoring conservative media, there is this impulse I think you have as a media watcher that you need to be constantly drinking from the fire hose and just everything needs to be responded to and everything needs to be corrected. And I think one shift that's happened in my mind over the course of the Trump administration and the Trump campaign was something is happening here that has basically nothing to do with people having correct information and something being fact-checked enough. Know about the fact-checking to me, felt like it made a shred of difference to people who were ideologically committed to this and I think especially going into Media Matters, I had this real belief in people's good faith and the sense that debunking works as a persuasive strategy that I don't have anymore.

And I think even my work was built around this sense of, "I need to make a video every three weeks and respond to anything that's coming up, or if it doesn't get responded to, it'll spiral out of control." And I made those videos for three weeks and I was constantly at the office and it did not matter in any meaningful way. So I think I'm in this phrase, this period of if I cannot stop the fire hose, the fire's going to happen no matter what. And the people who I disagree with are not super interested in whether or not I can fact check them or debunk them, what can I do this meaningful? And I think for me making a video like How to be Hopeless, or the video that I'm working on now in critical race theory is starting from this place of I accept defeat when it comes to persuading those who don't see eye to eye with me on this.

I know that I cannot win that fight. If I'm talking to those who are interested in what I have to say, what can I do for them? And it's just a very different skill set and objective. Trying to speak to people whose hearts are aligned with yours is a different skill set and I think a little bit tougher. I find it much harder to write now that I've given up on debunking because fact-checking is easy. Really just to point out that something is wrong and find evidence for it. Trying to, I don't know, speak to someone who's in the same place of despair and have them understand the world a little bit better, or even feel less alone like you described is tougher as a writer and as a persuader, and I find that I struggle much more now with figuring out what is there to say that's useful? Because I don't feel like saying, "That's not true, that's not true, that's not true," is useful anymore and I would like to use my time more wisely.

So I don't really... Even though we've been doing this for a long time, I feel like an amateur again. I'm not quite sure how to make the argument because I don't know what I'm trying to persuade someone off right now.

Absolutely. Oh, that resonates so much. It's funny that so far, us talking has just been a lot of, "Yes, yes." But it's true. It's fascinating to me, I mean, just talking to you about these shared experiences that we had. Even if they were at different times in our lives is helpful and hopeful in a weird way that it doesn't make me feel like a total failure and I think that is what I'm grappling with right now is trying to figure out how to feel like less of a failure in life and less of someone who just does a lot of talking and not a lot of listening and doesn't really make a difference. I've been trying to figure out different ways to connect and that video, that How to Be Hopeless was just a fantastic video.

Thanks.

I'll be sure to link in the transcript of this. I make a point of getting full transcripts of every interview I do just for the sake of accessibility and whatnot, and aside from being expensive, it's very nice to have and it's a nice way to add little extras in there with links to YouTube videos and whatnot. The one other thing I wanted to ask you about, when it comes to the topic of cancel culture and all of that sort of stuff, when we hear people talk about that and use that, I see that as people talk about, "Oh, well this writer...." Andrew Sullivan got criticized for race science or something ridiculous that yeah, he's going to get criticized for and that was “cancel culture” for criticizing him. So he's going to leave and he's going to take a quarter-million dollars or whatever it was and everyone's going to feel bad for him because he was "canceled". And you see that happen all over the place.

Yes.

Steven Crowder, for instance, constantly... He's always been “canceled” because he was criticized or YouTube took him offline for a week to say, "Don't do it again." And then he's going to do it again. But when it comes down to it, the people who are affected by these things are the ones that typically don't have the kind of megaphone to get the "Help. I've been canceled," message out to the world and I saw that happen with you and with Vox. I mean, I feel like you were making a good point.

You made a video pointing out how Crowder was just attacking you and clearly violating YouTube's rules. And as much as Vox initially publicly came out in your corner, it seems like they hung you out to dry. I'm not sure if you want to speak on that at all, but it depresses me because I cannot believe that it's the fact that they're a company in their corporation, it's not necessarily mission-driven or even worried about what the function of a company is, but in retrospect, do you think the things...? They could have done something different or that they didn't have your back enough or was everything fine? I don't know.

Yeah. I mean, the humorously detached view of it is I spent all my time criticizing the way that corporate media prioritizes profit and finances over editorial good judgment. So then when I lost my job because I threatened Vox's financial interests as a partner, it was like, "Right. This makes sense. I should not be surprised." And I think the danger of any media critic at a media organization is invariably the things you're criticizing are going to happen in the place that you work too. My feeling about it is I don't have a ton of confusion about what happened to me. I'm very clear that the argument I'm making was right, the reasons that I was let go didn't really make any sense. Vox's trying to sell a show to YouTube that made them a lot of money. You could not run ads on my show because I was running a political show. So it makes sense. And I don't have a lot of anger because I feel like I've grieved that thing that happens enough that I'm not mad. I get it.

You don't get mad at a lion for hunting prey because that's what a lion does. And you of course, think what happened to me, it was really painful, but I don't have any confusion about the fact the lion was hungry and I was prey and Vox did what they had to do. I will say that beyond my anger or frustration with Vox, I had to go through this own reckoning of did I fuck up? Did I do something that was wrong or stupid? And was there something...? The way you described after leaving Media Matters of like, "Was I just not the right person? Could I have said this differently?" And now that I've got some space from it, I can look back and be like, "I am really proud of how I handled myself." That was a very difficult, painful thing to go through and my only motivation in it was, "Fight like hell for what's right, even if you think you're going to lose." And I fought like hell for what was right. I still think I'm right. I still think I did it correctly.

I still think my argument is solid and I like who I was during that and I'm still really proud of that person who I am now. The flip side of that is it does not shield you from suffering and punishment. It's been a very, very bad... It was a very painful experience and I think I'm still grappling with the pain of it and this sense of like, "It doesn't matter how good you are. The good people are not always rewarded and this has nothing to do with you being good or bad." There's no way you could've phrased this that would have been different. You just lost. The video of How to be Hopeless is ostensibly about grappling with grief at the end of the world, but for me writing it, it was also about you can't stop the plaque. If you're in the way, sometimes you just die. If this gets for me like dying is like losing my job and losing my identity as a public speaker, and rather than be angry about it forever, I had to just talk to myself and say, "I really like you."

“I'm glad you did this. If this is it for my career, that's okay." You're just one person and just live a decent life. So my existentialism is part, me grappling with COVID and Trump, and part of me grappling with feeling like I really tried my best and lost. And how do you make peace with losing it and not use it as a weapon against yourself and say, "I'm such a fuck up. I should have done this differently. I should have phrased it differently." And just being like, "Yeah, I lost, but I did not lose myself and I tried to maintain my integrity and act in a way that was aligned with my moral judgment and I feel like I did that." Even though that doesn't shield you from pain at all. It doesn't shield you from shame or feelings of worthlessness, you just have to work through it. Sorry, that's a very fluffy answer, but it's an answer based on a lot of therapy.

No. Yeah, I totally get it. And I get that it's complicated. Part of what to me on the outside stood out was that you were being framed as this... The argument for instance with Crowder and others on the right would push was, "Oh, you are the corporate one and he's just a little guy." I mean, he's loaded. He has so much power and influence and I would assume money. And you were being framed as the big corporate dude, which we both know wasn't accurate and it really hits home how life just sometimes is not fair and it's not right and I don't know. Would you have done anything differently in that particular situation or does it not matter given that we're moving past it? Have you thought about that at all?

Yeah. I mean, the only thing I would have done differently was I would say the first eight weeks that it was this big public thing, I was so on the defense and in activist mode that I just had this exterior of like, "Nothing fucks with me. I'm not phased. Everything is funny. These people don't intimidate me. I'm not scared." Part of that is true. You and I had both been in the trenches online for a long time. We've dealt with a lot of harassment and shit like that. A part of me was very solid and had no doubt. There was another part of me that was being traumatized about what was going on, and there were sessions where my therapist was like, "Are you good? I know you're talking about how you're okay, but this is trauma. Are you good?" And I'll be like, "I'm fine." And my family would be like, "Are you okay?" And I would say, "I'm fine."

And I was putting on a brave face for everyone else, but also for myself because I didn't want to admit that I was getting fucked about what's going on, and eventually, I did have a breakdown privately and really have to deal with the fact that I mean, I was getting PTSD and was having all these bananas anxieties about being afraid in public spaces. I just want to... I wish I would've given myself enough compassion earlier on to be like, "Publicly, you're this tough guy and this is fine, privately, you need to let yourself be okay being fucked up by what's going on." You can only fight for so long before your emotions decide to find you and say, "Now we're having a breakdown," but I really just...

My only thought when that was going on at first was like, "Survive, survive, survive, survive," and there's just not a lot of room when you're in that defensive posture to be like, "I'm okay, but this really, really hurts and I feel very scared right now." So that's what I would've changed. But in terms of the argument that I made and my choice to make it, I look back and I'm like, "Badass. That was badass," and that's how I think I feel about it. Badass.

Yeah. Well, that's great. This has been a great discussion. This has been a great conversation. I've really enjoyed this.

Me too.

This is wonderful and thanks so much for coming on my new podcast that hopefully more people will listen to as time goes on.

Of course. I got to say because we both [inaudible] on similar trajectories or both have been dancing in the same space for a while, I'm like whatever else happens to us, I'm very grateful that you and I have fought on the same side for a while and got to grow up with each other in this space, and convos like this... I think being an online persona can be very lonely in some ways and almost this reminds me that while the experience is often lonely, you're often lonely alongside other very good people. So I'm glad that I'm alongside you in this.

Yeah. Thanks. And I mean, I'm just glad that we're friends.

Same.

In addition to all of that.

Yeah.