This article is part of a regular series of conversations with the Review’s contributors; read past ones here and sign up for our email newsletter to get them delivered to your inbox each week.
On June 25, 2021, we published an article by Elizabeth Spiers analyzing the politics behind the Southern Baptist Convention’s recent meeting, at which the SBC narrowly avoided a takeover by ultraconservative hardliners. Spiers, who’s spent many years in the New York mediasphere, grew up Baptist in Alabama and has deep family ties there. She returned most recently for her grandmother’s funeral.
“I went to college in North Carolina and moved to New York right afterward, so at this point, I’ve lived in New York for as long as I lived in rural Alabama,” she told me this week via e-mail. “My family has mostly lived in the same part of Alabama and has very little experience with NYC or cities like it, so they’re a little wary—less of me than of the culture I live in,” she explained. “Sometimes it comes up—we get into political arguments occasionally—but more often we try to focus on commonalities, and when they complain about liberal New York media types, I remind them that I’m the only person they know who fits any one of those descriptors, and they invariably say, ‘Well, not you.’”
I asked her what New York media types get most wrong about the people who live in that world. “That the average red-stater is a rednecky non–college educated white conservative,” she said. “Alabama’s population is 28 percent Black, for example. Demographically, most of the red states should probably be purple states but some combination of voter suppression, under-resourcing, and gerrymandering prevents that right now.”
Spiers is perhaps most widely known for having been the founding editor, together with Nick Denton, of Gawker. Its history, from insurgent blog to influential media news and celebrity gossip site, could be read as a parable of digital media innovation, explosive success, and ultimate downfall—Gawker was forced into bankruptcy in 2016 by Hulk Hogan’s breach of privacy lawsuit, which was bankrolled by tech entrepreneur Peter Thiel, who had a vendetta against the site. But Spiers rejects any notion that Gawker’s trajectory described some cautionary tale of webby aspiration brought low by hubris:
Gawker was fourteen years old when Peter Thiel killed it, and it had published over a hundred thousand stories. The idea that the Hogan story in particular is indicative of all of it is silly. Gawker also published Jeffrey Epstein’s little black book and wrote about Harvey Weinstein when no one else would. I don’t think you can point to [its demise] and say this decade-and-a-half-old media company “flew too close to the sun” and that there are generalizable lessons there.
In a larger sense, though, she has had a ringside seat for the digital revolution in media. Her very first job, after graduating from Duke University with a degree in public policy and political science, was with an early social media site, TheSquare, “that was started by a Harvard grad who wanted to make an online face book for Harvard alumni, but was not Mark Zuckerberg,” she said. Given all that, I was interested to hear her perspective today on the whole “information wants to be free” ideology of the Internet boom era:
Techno-utopianists have always been oblivious of the potential for tech to be abused. When you’re designing software, you write something called a “user story” that articulates how a user might want to use the software—something like, “I want to be able to share a photo with a friend.” The user story that never gets written is, “I’m a complete asshole and I want to do as much harm as possible to other people.” And that’s how we end up with, say, Facebook’s facilitating the spread of disinformation.
But access to good information is better, too. I didn’t grow up with the Internet, and I wish that I had. I read encyclopedias as a kid; Google would have been amazing.
After Gawker, Spiers had a brief tenure from 2011 to 2012 as editor of The New York Observer, after it had been acquired by Jared Kushner. She’s written about that experience previously; her verdict now, having observed Kushner’s performance as a White House appointee, is simple: “I wouldn’t put Jared in charge of a lemonade stand, much less PPE distribution.”
Since then, she has established a political communications consultancy with the researcher and polling analyst Peter Feld. Their work has involved efforts in New York to achieve criminal justice reform and to help elect progressive Democrats to the statehouse in Albany. And Spiers has also done work back in Alabama advising down-ballot Democrats, a different challenge but one “important to me for obvious reasons,” she said.
Most of Spiers’s and Feld’s clients come through word-of-mouth recommendation, she said, and their attention is now turning to the 2022 election cycle. Still, I wondered if she’d given any thought to rebranding the business after January 6—it’s called The Insurrection.
I have no idea what you’re talking about! Ah, yes, we are probably going to…