Mixed Signals: Brits vs Biden, Richard Linklater on sexless cinema, and the song of summer

Nayeema Raza: I thought there’s so many bad news stories about men in Hollywood that I thought at a certain point I should do a profile of good guys.

Ben Smith: Don’t do that. That’s a curse.

NR: Why? What’s a curse?

BS: I wrote a profile of Eliot Spitzer. The lead of the story, I remember the wording, was that he’s without guile and has no secrets.

NR: When did you run that?

BS: Just right before the scandal.

I am Ben Smith.

NR: I’m Nayeema Raza.

BS: And this is Mixed Signals from Semafor Media.

NR: Last time, I said we were Mulder and Scully searching for truth, not aliens. That rings true today because we’re going to take on two conspiracy theories circulating. The first is about the British invasion at establishment US media, from the Wall Street Journal to, more recently, the shakeup at Washington Post. The dramatic question here is whether the Brits are going to burn down the White House like they did in 1812.

BS: Really, from the Upper West Side to Joe Biden’s White House, there’s a real concern about what is going on at these big establishments, these organizations. A lot of theories floating around. I’m looking forward to talking more about that.

NR: Then, we’ll take on the second question of whether it was Marvel, Me Too, or something else entirely that killed sex at the cinema. We’ll talk about that with acclaimed director Richard Linklater, whose new sexy flick Hitman is out on Netflix today. Finally, we’ll get into this week’s Blindspots, the stories you’re not seeing, with Max Tani. Ben, hi, how are you?

BS: I’m great. Good to see you.

NR: Tell us a little bit about your recent travel experience. There’s no story anyone likes to hear more than someone else’s shitty travel experience.

BS: I really hate it when journalists use their clout to complain about consumer products. I don’t really want to go into detail about how terrible my ride back on Amtrak was, although I am going to now move to China because they have better infrastructure. But I asked them for both a refund and a sit-down interview with the CEO of Amtrak. I also sent that to him on LinkedIn and to a number of his staff members.

NR: Did you copy Secretary Mayor Pete? You should actually.

BS: I haven’t. I will send that on to him as well.

NR: This is the kind of nepotism that people are worried about, Ben.

BS: This isn’t nepotism. This is reporting.

NR: Oh, okay. Okay. Selective reporting.

BS: Just trying to get to the bottom of things.

NR: For more on Ben’s travel experiences, you can check out his other podcast. But today-

BS: My LiveJournal.

NR: …let’s talk about more important stories. Everyone in media is speaking about the story from the Wall Street Journal. The White House Democrats are furious about this Wall Street Journal article with the headline Behind Closed Doors, Biden Shows Signs of Slipping. Effectively, it talks about a number of gaffes that the president has made: closed-door sources, a lot of Republicans, but also others, speaking about signs of the president’s age and/or competency for office. I think the best way to actually get a sense of this article is… I didn’t read it. I listened to it. There is a very joyous, robo voice on the Wall Street Journal that reads this article to you. I just want to play.

WSJ.com Article Reader: Behind Closed Doors, Biden Shows Signs of Slipping. Participants in meetings said the 81-year-old president performed poorly at times. The White House said Biden is sharp, and his critics are playing partisan politics.

BS: She is having so much fun.

WSJ.com Article Reader: By Annie Linskey and Siobhan Hughes.

NR: All right. We won’t play it all, but-

BS: What is the attribute that’s being dialed to 10 in that audio? It’s like a… just likability, passion. I don’t know.

NR: But that tone is what is akin to what-

BS: Can we get her on the show?

NR: The thing about that tone is that is the glee some people in Washington attribute to the Wall Street Journal’s writing of that article.

BS: You know what’s funny? I mean, you’re somebody who has edited stories like that. I’d love to talk a little about what happened with that story and then about the big picture. You can hear an editor’s voice in the back of that story because it’s saying, “Oh, let’s make some trouble. This is a thing everybody knows. Let’s write it. Let’s stir the pot.” Very kind of old-fashioned, hacky, fun approach to journalism, which is so not how big American media have been covering these very consequential high-stakes questions of politics over the last several years.

The story itself… We said things everybody knows and everybody, honestly, can observe. There are moments when Biden seems very, very sharp. There are moments when he seems less sharp. Republicans will tell you on the record that he’s falling apart and he’s senile. Democrats, particularly when the White House tells them to say things, will say whatever the White House wants them to say. The Journal didn’t quote those Democrats, which the White House… I was texting with a senior official this morning who was just furious that they would quote Kevin McCarthy but then not quote, on the record, Democrats who’ve talked about… But that town is so partisan, of course.

NR: This is the line in there that caught my eye the most. I wish I could read it with as much joy as the robo-reader, but I can’t. “The White House kept close tabs on some of The Wall Street Journal’s interviews with Democratic lawmakers. After the offices of several Democrats shared with the White House either a recording of an interview or details about what was asked, some of those lawmakers spoke to the Journal a second time and once again emphasized Biden’s strengths.”

BS: That is just how the sausage is made. Of course, if you’re going to write an unbelievably damaging story about the most powerful person in the world, he’s going to use his power to try to make his friends say nice things. The Journal seems to have been annoyed that they had not quoted the friends saying nice things. But ultimately, the story is a wash.

NR: You posed this to Vivek Ramaswamy in our last episode. But what was new? News is about what’s new and different. What is new and different about Biden’s age?

BS: I mean, I think there are big questions. I think we will read memoirs in 10 years about what was really going on in this White House around his age. How is he doing? I don’t know. The people around him have every incentive not to tell the truth. His enemies have every incentive not to tell the truth. There hasn’t been great reporting on what is really going on. But what was interesting about this story actually wasn’t the rehash of a legitimate question but the editorial choice just to say we’re going to write a trouble-making, old-fashioned Washington nothing-burger to get some attention, drive some conversation, have some fun today. That reflects a big shift in where these big American media outlets are right now.

NR: But this is much bigger than the Wall Street Journal. The actual concern here is around what has been establishment/mainstream media. There’s two conflicting conspiracy theories here because people on the right would tell you that establishment media/mainstream media is in the pocket of President Biden. Meanwhile, there’s another conspiracy out there, which is that the White House and the readers of many of these mainstream news organizations think that they’re abandoning the cause of democracy/the cause of Joe Biden, not falling in line, not supporting Biden, and they’re declaring their independence in odd ways or have these massive shakeups that are changing the way in which they have been covering politics during the Trump years and the 2020 election.

BS: This really is the sort of stuff we were talking about when we started this podcast, which is there are these big-picture theories about these political machinations of news organizations. Fundamentally, this is a conspiracy to make money. It just happens to be arriving at the absolute worst time for Joe Biden. What’s happening in the biggest picture way, and it’s happening in different ways at different publications, is that they built huge businesses and brands during the peak of the high-attention Trump years by promising to stand for democracy, by saying that democracy dies in the dark, which the Washington Post changed its slogan to. What you’re seeing now is the proprietors of news organizations looking around and saying… I think I’ll talk specifically about the Washington Post here-

NR: Yeah. Jeff Bezos being the proprietor…

BS: …which Jeff Bezos owns. We’re losing 70 million a year. People aren’t really reading us. This Trump bump thing is over. The cultural mood has changed a bit away from that kind of confrontation. If you are a news proprietor in that situation, so those are the people making the decisions, the owners, Rupert Murdoch, who owns the Wall Street Journal, what do you do? Well, first, you try to get your high-minded American editors to change course, have more fun, stop pontificating about democracy and stories nobody will read. Then, when that doesn’t work, you bring in a British person who comes from a totally different media tradition, where they really don’t view journalism as this highfalutin cause.

NR: Yeah. They’re less virtuous than us.

BS: Yeah. They’re less obsessed with their own virtue there. It is a trade. It’s a lot of fun. It can be very confrontational to power. It can expose great scandals. But it does not have the same crusading sense of itself as American journalism. It’s much cheaper. They don’t spend money the same way over there because they don’t have that kind of money. What you’re seeing is a combination of cost-cutting and a step away from what now, in retrospect, looks like it was a marketing strategy of saying we are these pro-democracy institutions. The problem with walking away from that is the people who love them most, their readers, didn’t think that was a marketing strategy. They thought that was a promise. The White House thought that, too.

I was talking to a prominent Brit in American media the other day and was saying, “What happened? What do you make of this sense that, at some unspoken level, the job of the establishment media is to stop Donald Trump?” They just said, “I mean, how’d that work out for you?”

NR: I mean, if that is the case, it worked out pretty well in 2020.

BS: Maybe we give the media too much credit. But I think that’s the debate underlying all of this.

NR: Yeah. I cut in on a couple of things, so, first of all, that it was just a marketing strategy. In the case of Jeff Bezos, of course, he also had his own challenges with Donald Trump, you’ll remember, and David Pecker and the National Enquirer.

BS: Bezos’ ownership of the Washington Post became a real political liability for him. Trump campaigned against him. You know what? I think that this is something… I just don’t know. I don’t have reporting on it, but I think there’s a thread of conspiracy that the editor he hired, a former aide.

NR: The editor in question is William Lewis, Sir William Lewis. He has been knighted. He’s the publisher and CEO of the Washington Post now. He was previously the publisher of the Wall Street Journal: Dow Jones. But he had a storied career: coming up through tabloids and then ran the Daily Telegraph in the UK for many years, where he broke the parliamentary expenses scandal, which is nothing compared to the scandals we see in American politics. It’s like people were paying for their shrubs to be trimmed.

BS: Incredible story, honestly.

NR: Wonderful story. Then, found himself in Murdoch-world. He was at News International and, early on, in 2011, I think, was involved as the clean-up guy when it came to the news of the world phone hacking scandal. It’s actually the subject of ongoing litigation in the United Kingdom right now, where Prince Harry and others are pursuing the Murdoch Inc. Will Lewis’ name has come up a lot in those conversations, so someone who’s really entrusted by Rupert Murdoch. Of course, the conspiracy becomes, well, now Rupert Murdoch is pulling the strings at the Washington Post. Oh, god. Isn’t democracy going to die in the darkness?

BS: I think you hear that from really puzzled people who loved what the Post was doing before. But I think it’s a misread. The real mystery here is, what does the owner of the Washington Post, Jeff Bezos, want to do? Because that’s who Lewis works for. Where exactly does this fit into Jeff Bezos’ real running conflict with Donald Trump is a conversation between Will Lewis and Jeff Bezos that I would love to hear.

NR: Love to be a fly on the wall for that conversation. But the big question here, and we should take a position on this, is what is the role of a free press in a democracy. Is the role of a free press a feature or a function of democracy? I think part of the argument you’re making is they already picked a side in some sense because they indebted themselves to readers/listeners/subscribers who have bought into a certain vision of the world. They’re now beholden to that.

BS: My view here, which is a bit of a cop-out, is that there’s no such thing is that “the media.” Different news organizations really do have different roles and see themselves differently. But you have a contract with your audience. You’re saying, “Here’s who we are.” I do think that the Times, the Post, CNN, in various ways said, during 2017 to 2021, “We stand with you, our liberal readers, against Donald Trump.” I think they’re in various quiet ways trying to walk that back to say another thing, which is probably closer to where I am, which is we have a function in democracy. We’re a pillar of democracy. That function is to tell you what is going on so you can be an informed citizen, to give you accurate facts but be very open to points of view on that fact, and not to put our thumb on the scale. But there’s a spectrum. These are legitimate points of view.

NR: That is actually the articulated purpose of these organizations. Let’s take the New York Times, for example. They have always articulated the highest editorial standards of the times, the independence of the New York Times. I’m going to take the Timesian position here, I guess, which is that the independence of journalism matters. It may be, actually, the stakes have changed because now it’s not just about Joe Biden and Donald Trump, although that is the big question in this election. It’s also that there has never been less trust in the media.

Whatever strategy you think was in place for the last four to 10 years hasn’t worked in terms of actually being able to establish facts or truth in the American dialogue. Just as existential a moment as democracy is in right now, press and media is in an existential moment. At the New York Times, they’re taking this turn. They’re not hard-hit on the business side the way the Washington Post is. That’s not a response to the economics. Sometimes, I think the Times also writes in this view of posterity. That’s one of my senses of having worked there. It’s like they’re writing sometimes for the readers of 2024 but also for the readers of 2058. In that long view, retaining your independence has more value.

BS: But could you imagine how infuriating it is to sit in the White House and hear that right now when you think this is the highest stakes moment in American history, and you’re being lectured by these people about how you’re writing for 2058. I think a few years ago, it did not feel like that. There was a real change. It is changing back. This happens to be the moment when it’s happening. It’s not a conspiracy against Joe Biden. But I think it will have real consequence for this election.

NR: Last question. There’s a sense on the right that “mainstream media” is overplaying this idea of Donald Trump as this great danger to democracy, that he’s going to come into autocracy. It’s going to turn into that film Civil War. There’s going to be a third Donald Trump term. The Constitution will be thrown out the door.

BS: We can discuss this in the internment camps in 2025.

NR: Oh, great, Ben.

BS: I mean, that is facetious. I think coverage of what Trump is saying he’s going to do is obviously the right thing for the media to be covering and trying to understand how he’s thinking about the next term. He and some of his supporters have said some very extreme things. Others have said very moderate things. We should cover that stuff and try to understand it. That all seems like very, very legitimate coverage and exactly what we ought to be doing. If Trump’s supporters don’t want coverage of outlandish plans, he and the folks-

NR: He should not-

BS: …around him shouldn’t say them, but he’s saying them for a reason.

NR: Exactly.

BS: Which also doesn’t necessarily mean that that thing’s the worst imaginings that people come to pass either.

NR: Let’s take a quick break. When we’re back, we’ll get into our second conspiracy, which is about sex at the movies. Our next topic, which is far sexier than the geriatric presidential rerun-

BS: A low bar.

NR: Indeed; is, where has the sex gone in cinemas? Where did it go? Is it back yet? There are lots of conspiracy theories out there about this and lots of discussion about this in places like Reddit and, really, in the broader media conversation.

BS: There’s a lot of speculation about what’s causing that. There’s a generation of films that were aimed at the Chinese market, including Marvel, which is much more prudish. There’s Gen Z’s deranged consumption habits. Other people blame feminism/blame the Me Too movement.

NR: That’s such an original path: to blame women for the lack of sex. There’s actually been analysis on this by a fellow named Stephen Follows. He went back and analyzed the top 250 box office films of the last 20-plus years, so 2000 to present. Basically, what he found is that 20 years ago, 80% of films had at least some sexual content. Now, that number is far closer to 40%, so a steep decline over time. It was cited in the Economist article that was published last month. It’s part of this wave of reporting about sex in the cinema and whether it’s making a comeback. But I actually had this conversation early last year with the director, Richard Linklater. He’s always ahead of the curve. He has this great, sexy new film out on Netflix called Hitman. It stars Glen Powell and Adria Arjona.

BS: I should admit. I’m a huge fan of Linklater. I think he’s best known for Slackers, for Dazed and Confused. But I think for people of my micro generation, at least the Before trilogy, Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, Before Midnight… We grew up with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in those movies. I was very impressed that you were able to take me backstage to meet him, honestly. I don’t usually get impressed by stuff like that.

NR: You don’t usually get impressed by me, Ben.

BS: I don’t usually get impressed by your fancy Hollywood friends.

NR: Oh, I don’t have that many, but-

BS: Surprising number. It’s very confusing. Explain how you know him.

NR: Well, Ben, before I got my big break, which is co-hosting this podcast with you.

BS: You’re welcome.

NR: Oh, thank you. I actually had a very exciting career as a documentary filmmaker. I still produced documentaries. That’s actually how I came into journalism, through video journalism. But back in 2019, Richard Linklater was introduced to myself and my writing partner, Bill Guttentag, to make a 10-episode documentary series about animal rescue, which we did for CBS. That’s how I met him. We stayed in touch/stayed friends over time.

BS: Animal rescue to sex in the movies.

NR: See, I think that’s what’s going to get you canceled, Ben.

BS: It’s so much harder to get canceled than it used to be.

NR: I think it could still happen to you. I’d love to have my own show. But before you get canceled, let’s have a conversation with director Richard Linklater. Hey, Rick, good to see you.

Richard Linklater: Hey, how’s it going? Good to see you guys. You’re still trying to squeeze this into the episode.

NR: We’re not squeezing it in. It’s like a set piece.

RL: Okay.

BS: It’s the best part.

RL: You do have little chapters. It’s pretty cool. It’s not just one thing

BS: Thanks, Rick.

RL: It’s a nice feature.

NR: This is less of an interview and more like we’re trying to get to the bottom of this conspiracy theory that… What killed sex in cinemas?

RL: It is interesting. You sent that stat. It’s just pretty demonstrable, isn’t it?

NR: Yeah. From 80% of movies that had some sexual content to 40 to 50% now. Where did all the sex go, Rick?

RL: Well, where did adulthood go? I think that’s what it comes down to because when they talk about sex, they’re not talking about explicit sex or suggested sex because I think most people… The history of cinema, the best sex in movies was like screwball comedies in the forties, where they wittily were suggesting sex or titillation. That sex… That’s great, too. Even in Hitman, we don’t have hardcore sex. It’s sexual, for sure.

NR: Yes.

RL: But I think what’s really been reduced is just… This just is Hollywood. It’s cinema of this generation. It’s just less adult. I think when superheroes took over, it’s clear they don’t have genitalia at all, do they? That usually-

NR: No, neither Barbie.

BS: I don’t know.

RL: Barbie. It precludes sex when you don’t really have that/if you don’t have the parts.

NR: It does. But Rick, when you and I spoke in February of last year… I want to say January or February of last year. I asked you what you were going to do with Hitman. You said something like, “I’m going to bring back the movie star. I’m going to bring back sex to cinema.”

RL: That must’ve been my elevator pitch. But, hey, it is technically true, though. I mean, that wasn’t the motivation for the film.

NR: You succeeded.

RL: Oh, thank you.

BS: Absolutely.

NR: I thought it was uncomfortable watching sex scenes with my parents. But watching sex scenes with your co-host for a podcast is also uncomfortable.

BS: Yeah. A bit awkward.

RL: Well, Adria and Glen are definitely stars. I mean, they feel like those are movie star parts. The sex is such a part of the story. You don’t believe their behavior as it goes on. If it wasn’t based on passion, love, and sex, they wouldn’t be doing things to risk their entire lives because that’s the thing that motivates you in the world, sex, to do really foolish and dangerous and risk everything. I’m kidding, and I’m not.

NR: No, but it’s true.

RL: Most human violence and so much comes out of sex/sex frustration. Most fights… Guys are crazy. Bar fights. Let’s just say you looked at my girlfriend. It’s crazy. Even terrorists and school shooters… It’s always guys who can’t get laid, whether it’s through religion or just their own lack of game, and just-

BS: You’re solving it. I mean, the world owes you a debt of gratitude here.

RL: Gosh, I’m glad I’m not a kid now. Being a young person, let’s say 10 through 13… The only reason I went to movies was to see… because they were all adult movies. You had to find your way into the movie. Now, we make films for twelve-year-olds. They’ve done a great job at convincing adults that those are good films. Just stay a kid forever. Keep reading comic books. That’s movies. They’ve just abdicated adult filmmaking and all its complexities, which includes sex. They’ve just tossed that out largely. That’s the studio’s game. They just thought it was probably more profitable to just make films for kids and the kids in all of us.

NR: There’s a lot of conspiracies, though, that it was the Me Too movement. What do you make of those? Me Too killed sex in the movies.

RL: Oh. That’s fairly recent. I was drawing a generational trend going back 15 years, maybe. Well, that probably made it easier to not have sex. If this is going to get us in trouble or if there’s anything that might be off-kilter, age poorly, or hit the wrong note, or offends someone, let’s just not even do it. But then, why do anything?

BS: I feel like I need to be the voice of the prudish Gen Z kids here. But isn’t part of it that-

RL: Go ahead.

BS: Seriously, though, isn’t part of this that actresses were being pushed out of their comfort zones? They brought in intimacy coordinators who are basically there to protect people’s interests.

RL: But that shouldn’t reflect on the final film. Yes, Hollywood history is just a horror show of particularly young actors made completely uncomfortable. It’s there to protect vulnerable people, which is really important, who shouldn’t have been ever put in that situation in the first place. An actor shows up. You’re doing a love scene. It’s like, “Hey, we have a new idea. You’re going to be completely naked. He’s going to be…” So many people have bad stories. Definitely, I’m glad there’s a mechanism in place to protect against that. But you see older actors, I think, with more experience, and when it’s their movie… Emma Thompson did that sexy film a couple of years back.

NR: Yeah, she was totally naked.

RL: She was talking about, “Oh, yeah. Intimacy quarters are really important.” She’s talking about protecting young vulnerable, actors. They asked her, “Oh, yeah. You used an intimacy coordinator?” She’s like, “No, no. I don’t need one.” I totally related. We didn’t need an intimacy coordinator on our film.

NR: Did you use one?

RL: Well, we had to have one. That’s what’s interesting. Adria and Glen and I… We work these things out. I say, “Hey, this is potentially awkward. We want to make this sexy.” We put our goals on the table. They were bringing in pictures. We really all choreographed and collaborated on this. We all were there for each other. It wasn’t awkward at all. I made them feel like the authors of this. It was just a collaboration and storytelling. But I know not all films approach it that way. They should.

NR: Yeah.

RL: What you just mentioned… the Me Too movement. I mean, I think it may be brought to everyone’s attention that when you’re watching a movie, and there’s a sex scene, it takes you out of the movie. You’re saying, “God, there are actors who are having to go through this.” You worry about the atmosphere they’re having to create in. Are they being exploited? It’s an old question. It’s always an old question. I think people thought, “Okay. Well, they’re professionals, and they’re good at this. They do that.” But it’s always awkward. It always has been.

NR: The films that are very sexy right now in the cinema, yours excluded, but a lot of them tend to have a very… actually, yours included. They tend to have these very strong female leads, or sometimes they’re written by or directed by women, so films like Saltburn or Joyride. Did you feel like you had to navigate that in Adria’s character in the film? Because she’s this trad wife turned revolutionary character in the movie. It also defines a woman in a way that it didn’t use to define a woman. The real movie stars, Julia Roberts, Sharon Stone, Natalie Portman… All these women had very sexy scenes early in their careers. It wasn’t defining for them, I don’t think. They went on to play all kinds of characters. Maybe younger actors would find it more defining.

RL: Wow. I mean, it used to make careers, too. One sexy scene, and you’re a movie star. Body Heat, Kathleen Turner… She shows up. It’s like, “Holy shit. Who’s that?” Boom. You’re a star. Just from being sexy and a good actor and a good movie. All the planets have to align. But you would be known for that. I think that’s particularly women. A guy can show up and be sexy/good-looking, but it’s not the same. Brad Pitt in Thelma and Louise, like, “Oh, who’s that sexy guy with the shirt on?”

NR: Yeah. He was that.

RL: He was that.

NR: I think there’s actually probably more permission to ogle men these days. You saw that with Barbie. Everyone was talking about how hot Ken was.

RL: I think if you’re going to be fair, in Hit Man, I was trying to… I am dealing with two very sexy performers. It wasn’t seen from his point of view. It’s not one of those things where he’s dressed, and she’s naked. It was pretty equal. It’s like real sex. They’re both naked. You could look at both of them from whatever gaze you wish. But at least it’s, I felt, equitable in its own way.

NR: Part of it is also, on Reddit, there are lots of Redditors out there musing about why sex has gone from the cinema, Rick. There’s an article that many of them point to called Everybody’s Beautiful and No One is Horny. But part of it is there’s so much sex outside in the world, otherwise. In 2013, when you really see sex decline in cinemas, which predates Me Too. It’s like the rise of streamers, House of Cards, bingeing, and then Instagram. Everyone’s-

BS: Pornography.

NR: Yeah.

RL: Yeah. I think there’s a generation now, adult, that has just been inundated with porn their entire life. To be the old guy here, when I was a kid, Playboy was just topless. It was very gradual that things got… It was very scarce. I think sex is just so ubiquitous. It’s boring. It doesn’t really fit in a story. It feels gratuitous. I think you have to earn your way into it being a part of your movie or your story.

NR: But in Before Sunrise, you had a sex scene, which you don’t show. It was pan-away, right?

RL: Old school. Even in the next film, nine years later-

NR: Wait. Don’t we know they had sex?

RL: Well, it wasn’t confirmed until the sequel nine years later. I mean, it was one of those… Yes, it’s implied. Of course. If you look how they’re dressed slightly different. Her shirt’s… It’s one of those old-school ‘40s movies. You just implied sex. That’s sexy in itself. Again, straight-up sex can be boring. There really has to be a reason for it. There was implied sex certainly in the first one. In the second one, there were soon going to be sex when the movie ends. You’re right on the cusp. In the third one, the fight at the end is… Yeah. I told Julie and Ethan. I said, “This is a sex scene.” It ends up a 30-minute fight scene. But it’s like this is really trying to be a sex scene. That’s what they came here for. You see a little bit of that, a little bit. Julie finally got to take her top off. She’d been wanting to do that in all the films.

NR: How very French of her.

RL: I know. Completely. She was like, “This is the last time I want to show my boobs while they’re still good. We better do it now.” I’m like, “Okay.”

NR: If there’s a fourth one… because people keep asking.

RL: Oh, you really don’t want to say anyone over 50 having sex, I don’t think.

NR: Oh, don’t tell that to Emma Thompson.

RL: Of course. Of course not. I’m kidding.

NR: Yeah. Here’s the last question. There’s always this question of whether art imitates life or life imitates art. We know that Gen Z is having less sex than other generations have. Young millennials, too. Can we blame Hollywood for the sad sex lives of Gen Z, Rick?

RL: No. You can blame, I think, the world they’re living in. Everybody’s distracted. I’m not saying anything original. If you’re staring at your phone all day, you’re not going to be social. Being social… The whole point of being social is to mix it up. If you’re not out socializing, then you ain’t going to be having no sex. But they’re not taking their cues from Hollywood. I think Hollywood is always just a reflection of the world. I don’t know. I think it’s just the new world we slowly have segued into. It’s sad.

NR: But also, you’re bringing it back, Rick.

RL: Well, it is interesting. There’s an awareness, just the fact that people are doing scientific… a look at it. There’s more awareness. There were these stories. Why isn’t there sex? If that’s what it takes to get a Hollywood exec to motivate them to like, “Hey, let’s do a movie with sex scenes in them again.”

BS: Thank you for addressing this important social crisis.

RL: It is a huge social crisis. I expect there to be a congressional hearing on it at some point.

BS: You got to drag these executives in and make them explain themselves.

NR: Thanks, Rick.

BS: Thank you, Rick. Thanks for the movie.

NR: Isn’t he the best?

BS: Yeah. It’s nice to meet somebody who lives up to exactly what you hope they are.

NR: Yeah. What do you think of his answer? That conspiracy isn’t really Me Too, but it’s around Marvel. It’s like the commercialization of this industry, the studio films.

BS: I mean, I hate to keep coming back to this, but it is the same thing. There’s a theory that feels so obviously sociopolitical and about Me Too. Then, when you look at it, it’s about selling boring movies about superheroes to teenagers and to the Chinese market.

NR: But sex still sells in cinemas. You can see that with Challengers. Have you seen the film Challengers?

BS: I have not yet, although the preview was very sexy.

NR: I’ve asked people, “Have you seen Challengers?” They don’t know what the film is. Then, I say to them, “Zendaya.” They’re like, “Oh, Zendaya threesome movie.” I’m like, “That’s not the log line.” But the actual film has very little sex. Sex still sells. Speaking of selling, Ben, we’ve got to get to the advertising portion of the event. Ben, take it away.

BS: I got some flack last week about making fun of podcast advertising for green juices. As I turn out to be wrong, I’ll happily eat crow. I will talk about how tasty the crow is when the time comes. But in this podcast about media, our advertising is about advertising. The branded segment on our show is sponsored by Think with Google, which is Google’s resource for marketing professionals looking for insights, data, and tools to do their jobs better. This week, I talked to Google’s VP of marketing, Josh Spanier, about a theory he has about Netflix and how it, along with YouTube, has become a marketing channel as well as a streaming platform.

NR: All right. Let’s hear from you and Josh. When we’re back, Max Tani joins us to regale us with Blindspots, the stories we’re missing in left-right media diets.

BS: Last time we met, you told me about a theory you have about Netflix. What is your theory about Netflix?

Josh Spanier: I want to go back to 2016. I want to go back to 2016. I’m on a plane. I watched The Accountant, a movie starring Ben Affleck, which went nowhere. Didn’t really do much. I enjoyed it. But I was on a plane. I read a couple of weeks ago that they’re making Accountant 2 with Ben Affleck. I thought, “Oh, that’s weird. Why would they make an Accountant 2, this nothing-burger of a movie? It’s been made by Amazon.

Then, three weeks after that, I actually noticed it’s the number three movie on Netflix’s most watched in America. I’m asking myself, “Hold on a second. Did Netflix see that Amazon is making this Accountant 2 and say, “Oh, we’ve got this in our reserve. We’ll put it on”? Or did Ben Affleck say, “I’ll only make this movie if it’s on Netflix, and Netflix makes it famous.” The original. I would imagine a lot more people are watching the Accountant original than have ever seen it up to this point.

We saw this last year with Suits, The Summer of Suits, as it was called, that Netflix managed to use its platform to make this show famous. YouTube has done similar with Mr. Beast. Mr. Beast is everywhere. Mr. Beast has more followers than nearly every cable channel in America. He’s got over 100 followers. He’s turned that into a content extension. But I think there’s something interesting going on here about these large platforms and can help celebrate content and where the edges of that are. It’s a really fascinating space.

NR: All right. We’re back with Max Tani. Hi, Max. Good to have you.

Max Tani: It’s nice to be back. I was listening in the booth. This is a real podcast now. You know that because we have a podcast host complaining about elite travel, which is like the staple of any good chat shows.

BS: I was taking the-

MT: Complaining about the airline lounge, Acela-

NR: I really have to cut off all conversation about Ben’s Travel.

BS: That was the regional. It was the Palmetto. I was sitting with some tourists from New Zealand when I got thrown out of my seat.

MT: No, this is great stuff. I mean, all great chat shows have long segments, truly, about where they’ve been and travel on elite spaces-

NR: I feel like we should really talk about my travel, which is far more exciting-

BS: I’m sure it’s nicer.

NR: …and interesting than Ben’s travel.BS: Probably, it’s private jets.

MT: When you guys want to start talking about the private lounges that you guys are in, that is the stuff that people in podcasts-

NR: Really nothing like Priority Pass to really kill a conversation.

MT: Are you-

NR: To kill sex in cinema. I actually blame Priority Pass for the death of sex in cinema. All right. Enough about our travel bubbles. Let’s talk about our media bubbles. Let’s pop them with the segment Blindspots. Max, what are the stories we’re not seeing?

MT: One story that’s not getting a lot of attention on the right is a story about COVID. The Times reported this week that the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine has a 265-page report finding that Long COVID continues to damage many people’s ability to function. A quote from the Times. The report cited data from 2022 suggesting that nearly 18 million adults and nearly a million children in the United States have had Long COVID at some point. Now, we’re probably going to get into-

NR: I actually have a question about whether anyone saw that story because I feel like there’s not a real desire to read stories about COVID, particularly Long COVID.

BS: It’s certainly a blind spot for me personally. I don’t want to read about COVID. I don’t want to watch documentaries about COVID. I remember during COVID, as you learn about how horrible the Spanish flu was, wondering why I hadn’t known that much about it. Now, you see why, which is it was so awful. Nobody wants to talk or think about it.

NR: I actually think people want to talk about the pandemic, but not in these… I think the pandemic was so defining for our culture and for our lives, for our experience, and particularly a lot of this millennial midlife crisis, et cetera. I think it comes out of the, also, pandemic. People feel like they lost time. People have a lot of distrust in government and media that came out of the pandemic. But I don’t think the story was picked up anywhere, even in a week where Fauci was testifying in Congress.

MT: Well, this is what I was going to say is that this is a big contrast to a big story on the right this week, which was Anthony Fauci’s testimony in front of Congress. It’s the first time he’s testified since he left his post. I think it illustrates the ways in which the discussion has really changed around COVID. Conservatives feel like actually they’ve been vindicated by the arc of COVID-19, which is very different than what I think is the point of this report, which is that it was something that was incredibly serious and was something that we wanted to actually try to stop from happening because it had real consequences.

BS: The journalism around this… I mean, there’s been a ton of really, really good reporting, good journalism. But the way in which media and social media just polarized everybody has distorted it so badly. I mean, there are a lot of very complicated things. There’s the horror of the actual disease and all that death. They’re the real policy mistakes made around lockdowns. There are the questions about the lab leak, which got so polarized when it’s really a question mark and a good subject for reporting. I think it’s hard to keep your feet in this story.

NR: What’s the blind spot on the left? Was it the Fauci stuff? No.

MT: Well, considering that you guys are New York media elites ordering your Baya Bar smoothies on Uber Eats and complaining about delays on the Acela, it was the regional.

NR: I love Baya Bar. I’d happily read a green juice advertisement for Baya Bar.

MT: I would, too. I am a fan of the-

NR: I get the BK protein smoothie.

MT: …acai bowls. I imagine you guys, considering this background, have not heard the newest praise and worship song making the rounds in some Christian music circles. Natasha Owens, who is a Christian conservative musician, has a new song out called The Chosen One in the wake of Donald Trump’s conviction. It’s what it sounds like. No, we’re going to drop the track right here, I think, if we can.

NR: Wow.

MT: Ally, can we play the track?

Natasha Owens: I’m not saying he’s something divine.
He gets in trouble bigly.
Time after time.
He’s controversial.
But one thing is true.
Imperfect people.


Oh, wow.

NO: A perfect God can use.
I’m standing with the chosen one.

Donald Trump: I am the chosen one.

NO: Ain’t no stopping what the Lord’s begun.
He’s only human.

NR: Who’s the backup singer there? Is that Donald Trump?

MT: You don’t recognize-

BS: Creative production.

MT: …our former president.

NR: Wow. That is… Yes, of course I do.

MT: I mean, honestly, that’s-

NR: I look forward to the 20 Feet from Stardom remake with Donald Trump in it.

MT: Now, on the one hand, this is obviously a slightly amusing song. It’s not meant to be taken super seriously. But on the other, it really got me thinking about how important non-secular media is as a part of American life and politics, particularly for some people on the right, and how terrible of a job we in the mainstream media do of covering this.

Christian media was not an insignificant part of the GOP presidential primary. He didn’t win. But Tim Scott crafted a lot of his media plan around going on Christian conservative media and, I think, managed to keep his reputation. Even though he lost to Trump, he managed to preserve his reputation to be a possible vice presidential candidate.

BS: The lyrics of that song, actually, do literally explain a thing that just deeply puzzles a lot of the secular media.

NR: Which is that Donald Trump is God.

BS: She specifically says he’s not. You got to listen to the lyrics here. You constantly read takes in the mainstream media about… Donald Trump is a sinner, a real sinner. How can these Christian conservatives support him? The logic is really, really clear if you’re really Christian, which is we’re all sinners. He’s God’s instrument. If you look at the record and you look at what he has done, he has advanced the cause of, particularly, the anti-abortion movement and a series of other really deeply held causes of the evangelical right. He has obviously succeeded in advancing those causes. That’s the argument. It’s not like if you-

NR: It’s not about the character of Donald Trump. It’s about the effectiveness of his policy position…it’s paid off.

BS: Yeah. And the notion that God uses a sinful man to advance these things is not some crazy idea.

NR: The fact that on, the left, people were scandalized by Donald Trump selling the Bible. On the right, there’s a song that’s taking off where he’s the chosen one. It’s just like an indication of how divided the country is.

MT: Do you think it’s also to own the Libs a little bit, to trigger people, like, “Oh, Libs are going to laugh at this”? Or is it just completely done without the-

BS: We got to look at…

NR: I can’t ascribe motivations.

MT: Let’s call her up next week and ask. I don’t know.

NR: We should find out. We should do the reporting on it. But I should say, I think the Wall Street Journal might want to replace robo lady with that singer. She much more-

BS: She brings a lot of energy.

NR: She brings a lot of energy. Less glee, more, I would say-

BS: It does seem to actually understand politics.

NR: That’s it for this week. Thanks for listening to Mixed Signals from Semafor Media. Our show is produced by Max Tani, Alison Rogers, and Alan Haburchak, with special thanks to Otis Gray, Katherine Gonzalez, Christina Stella, Britta Galanis, Chad Lewis, Rachel Oppenheim, Anna Pizzino, Garrett Wiley, and Jules Zirn. Our engineer is Rick Kwan. Our theme music is Billy Libby. Our public editor is the robo woman from Wall Street Journal, who will probably be calling you about your emails to the Amtrak CEO and the ethical guidance or lack thereof. If you like Mixed Signals, please follow us wherever you get your podcasts. If you really like us, give us a review.

BS: If you’re watching on YouTube, give a like and subscribe to Semafor’s YouTube channel.

MT: If all of that isn’t enough, and you still want more Semafor Media, remember to subscribe to the Semafor Media Newsletter which publishes every Sunday evening.

NR: People want more.

MT: I can’t see why not.

BS: You might want less. Then, the newsletter is also a pretty quick read.

NR: Way to send away audience, Ben.