Meidas Gold

Q&A with Brett Meiselas of MeidasTouch

June 26, 2024
Art by Alvaro Dominguez

For the new election-focused issue of CJR, Maddy Crowell writes about an array of “new left-leaning digital ventures—different from one another in approach, but all claiming to have arisen out of a shared discontent: with the country facing the prospect of a second Trump presidency, something about the traditional mechanisms for delivering information to the American electorate was broken.” The most popular among them—with billions of views on its YouTube channel—is MeidasTouch, which calls itself “the fastest-growing independent news network in the world.” The name “is a play on King Midas, the Greek-mythological figure,” Crowell writes. The network was founded by a trio of brothers from Long Island—Ben, Brett, and Jordan—with the last name Meiselas. Their project began in 2020, when the brothers—all working in jobs outside politics—were glued to cable news, following COVID updates. “Like most Americans, we were horrified by what we were seeing,” Brett Meiselas told Crowell recently. “We were witnessing the devastation caused by COVID across the world as the president of the United States was telling Americans ‘it’s going to disappear.’ And we didn’t believe that enough was being done to counteract the onstage barrage of lies. Our panic quickly turned into action.”

Since then, MeidasTouch has grown into a sprawling, profitable business, with videos posted on a nearly hourly basis. The network has sixteen talk-show-style podcasts on Spotify; Michael Cohen is a host. Like many of their cohort, the brothers claim not to be activists promoting the Democratic Party, but self-driven and “pro-democracy.” Notably, MeidasTouch is unique among peers—Tara McGowan’s Courier Newsroom, Marc Elias’s Democracy Docket, Faiz Shakir’s More Perfect Union—in that it was not formed by Democratic strategists. Even so, when the network started, Ben Meiselas told CNN, “These videos are not just anti-Trump ads, they are pro–Joe Biden ads.” And leading up to the most recent presidential election, MeidasTouch “devised an unusual fundraising scheme,” as Crowell notes: Rolling Stone reported on a PAC inviting fans to click a donation link, which split proceeds between MeidasTouch and the Biden campaign. “The blurred line between journalism and advocacy drew criticism,” Crowell observes. Last year, MeidasTouch changed the PAC’s name to Democracy Defense Action and the brothers separated themselves from it.

Crowell describes MeidasTouch as providing commentary on national politics “seemingly calculated to appeal to those for whom Rachel Maddow is too subtle.” In her recent conversation with Brett Meiselas, he struck a contrast. “We did feel—and continue to feel—that there is a lot lacking in what the mainstream media is doing,” he told her. “The natural framing of stories via the lens of corporate media is often to seek a ‘both-sides’ narrative.” He continued: “This conventional framing may have worked in the past, but we now have more bad-faith actors than ever who have figured out how easy it is to exploit it. No matter how extreme their positions, no matter how big their lies, oftentimes they just get reported as representing ‘the other side’ of an issue, giving credence to lies. The speed with which these lies now spread on social media makes it even more important for the media to quickly and clearly call them out.”

Meiselas spoke to Crowell about the aims, ideas, and reach of MeidasTouch. Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity. —Betsy Morais

MC: Where did you get the idea for MeidasTouch?

BM: The founding vision for MeidasTouch was to create a platform that would counteract disinformation and hold powerful figures accountable in real time. We decided to use our skills in media, the law, and marketing to create compelling and factual content that would engage and mobilize voters. We of course hoped to make a significant impact, but the rapid growth and the scale of our reach exceeded our expectations. In the beginning, we were thrilled when anybody engaged with our content who wasn’t one of us. But very quickly, the overwhelming support from our audience and the urgency of the political climate catalyzed our expansion far beyond what we initially envisioned. Suddenly, we realized there was a whole community out there with the same fears as us and a similar desire to do something about them.

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What happened to the MeidasTouch super-PAC, formed in 2020, and which is now called the Democracy Defense Fund? Is the MeidasTouch Network still affiliated with it?

MeidasTouch is no longer a PAC. We officially ended the MeidasTouch PAC in August 2023 and turned over the reins to the folks at Democracy Defense Action so that we could dedicate a hundred percent of our time to the separate MeidasTouch Network. We have no affiliation with DDA or any other PACs. The MeidasTouch PAC initially began after googling the best ways to get political content out to voters and discussions with attorneys in the political space. That structure served the original intention of the MeidasTouch PAC well, when our focus was on running advertisements, putting up billboards, and engaging in voter outreach. However, as we became more experienced, we realized that we could have a far bigger impact in the media space—and that PACs, while they may have noble causes, can often contribute to the same issues they are combating. Is spending money airing an advertisement on a network like Fox worth it when they spend the rest of the day using that money to spread the same propaganda and lies that you were trying to push back against? We quickly realized that it was necessary to control our own distribution and our own network to confront the problems we are facing. Thus, the MeidasTouch Network became our one and only focus.

As I wrote in my piece, Rolling Stone reported that the MeidasTouch PAC invited fans to click a donation link, which split proceeds with the Biden campaign. What was the idea behind this?

PACs, candidates, and other groups frequently offer split ActBlue pages to make it easy for followers to contribute to two causes they care about at the same time. In the lead-up to the 2020 election, our PAC was working to help elect Joe Biden and get Donald Trump out of the White House. We invited folks to donate to split a contribution between two causes they supported—our work at MeidasTouch PAC and the Biden 2020 campaign itself. Super-PACs are entirely separate entities from political campaigns, and the two are not allowed to coordinate. Therefore, we wouldn’t have been allowed to give money from MeidasTouch PAC to the Biden campaign, but we were able to split contributions directly in ActBlue so that folks instantly and directly would be able to contribute to both causes. And as your article mentioned, we ended up raising $31,623 for the Biden campaign and $30,000 for MeidasTouch PAC, which by all accounts was a huge success and something we were quite proud of. 

Frankly, much of that Rolling Stone report is completely inaccurate and doesn’t make much sense. Even veteran political adviser Joe Trippi, who was quoted in their article, pushed back at how the publication framed his beliefs and said what they wrote was completely false when he joined us on the MeidasTouch podcast in June 2021 and praised MeidasTouch’s strategy of engaging an audience. Rolling Stone also compared how much it cost our PAC to run a get-out-the-vote door-knocking operation in 2020 during the height of COVID in rural Georgia to “a similar door-knocking operation in a southern state several years ago” and other markets. How are those remotely similar? We paid a competitive market rate for canvassers to knock on doors in key areas of the state, paying those canvassers at least fifteen dollars an hour and providing them with PPE so they could canvass safely during a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic. They said MeidasTouch’s “grandiose self-promotion doesn’t match reality.” We never felt we had “grandiose self-promotion” to begin with, but the results and the engagement we had, both then and now, speak for itself. On the contrary, despite a large number of followers, Rolling Stone’s social media accounts barely receive any engagement whatsoever. The last four videos posted to their YouTube have a combined 16.8K views. There is someone here not living in reality—and it’s not us.

Photo courtesy of Brett Meiselas.

How many views do your videos get? How much money have you raised? Does the MeidasTouch Network make a profit each year?

Our YouTube channel receives about 250- to 270 million views every month, roughly 8 to 10 million views every twenty-four hours, and has received more than 3.6 billion views to date. Per the YouTube charts on Playboard.co, MeidasTouch consistently ranks in the top three of all channels on YouTube based on engagement metrics, and is frequently the number one YouTube channel in the world. 

A few weeks back, there was a week in which an Apple event, the NBA playoffs, and the Met Gala were all occurring, and our channel was number one, ahead of Apple, the NBA, and Vogue, respectively. We have been thrilled with the launch of our website, which sees roughly ten million page views per month. Our audio-only podcasts receive roughly five and a half million downloads each month. The MeidasTouch Network is a profitable business—a feat that has eluded much of the media industry and something we are very proud of. As a private company, we won’t get into specifics, but that profit has allowed us to reinvest in the network to build out our website, hire an editorial staff, researchers, editors, and more, without the need to rely on outside investors. 

To what do you attribute the popularity of MeidasTouch?

We grew MeidasTouch organically, utilizing our backgrounds in media, law, and marketing to produce high-quality, impactful videos released in a rapid-response style. But the main secret to our growth, the “secret sauce” if you will, is the pro-democracy community that virtually built itself. Our followers call themselves the “MeidasMighty,” and they are our biggest advocates. I believe that trust between our network and the MeidasMighty is something very unique to the media space, and is a large reason why our operation is able to compete with, and often beat, in views and engagement, established networks funded by billions of dollars. A priority for us is also to work with experts in their respective fields, something that I believe has built a unique level of trust with our audience and helped fuel our growth. 

How would you separate the work you are doing from that of MSNBC?

MSNBC does a lot of great work, and there are plenty of reporters who do a very good job, but they also fall into the “both-sides” media trope far too often. The perfect example is their network’s coverage of the Trump criminal trial in New York. If you were watching MSNBC’s coverage on Ari Melber’s show, you would have thought that Donald Trump’s lawyers trapped Michael Cohen in the ultimate “Perry Mason moment” and that Trump would likely get a hung jury or be acquitted. We had numerous sources inside the courtroom and were also following along with transcripts of other reports in the courtroom, and Melber’s reporting simply did not reflect reality at all. 

Networks like MSNBC also platform bad actors who have proven themselves to be prolific liars. There’s little to no value in bringing someone like Rep. Elise Stefanik on the air, for example, to spread lies that Trump’s New York trial was “rigged.” Even when you “push back” against those lies on air, they are still being platformed, and the whole thing ends up feeling more like professional wrestling than the news.

As I wrote in the piece, sites such as MeidasTouch have drawn criticism for blurring the line between journalism and political advocacy. Do you believe there should be a distinction between the two?

I believe that media in the United States should work in the interest of truth and democracy. Without truth and democracy, and a media protecting truth and democracy, we would not be the United States of America. Thus, when there is a threat to truth and democracy, I believe it is the media’s responsibility to combat it and show people the true stakes of what losing our democracy would mean. Propaganda has never spread in such a fast and vicious manner as it does today. Look at the recent lies spread about the letter filed by Justice Juan Merchan in the New York criminal case about someone claiming to be the cousin of a juror, who later turned out to be a self-proclaimed “professional shitposter.” Look at the way the New York Post and Fox are falsely reporting on President Biden “wandering off” at the G7 summit—when in fact, the uncropped video shows he did no such thing. Pushing back on these lies shouldn’t be viewed as activism. Something we joke about frequently on the show is that we don’t even consider much of what we do to be “political.” We wish we could have constructive debates about tax policy or different ways to tackle immigration. Instead, we are in a political dynamic where a major political party, the Republicans, are still pushing lies about January 6. They are supporting a convicted felon who was held liable for sexual assault and whose company was criminally convicted for fraud. Trump supporters are going to rallies wearing diapers and shirts that say things along the lines of “I’m voting for the felon.” Trump is telling stories about being electrocuted or being eaten by sharks, praising Hannibal Lecter, posting about “terminating” the Constitution. He’s playing a reworked version of the national anthem sung by violent insurrectionists in DC jail while he salutes images of the January 6 attacks. It shouldn’t be “political” to say that none of this is normal and to actively fight against it.

What is MeidasTouch’s relationship with the Biden White House? I know MeidasTouch has been brought in for meetings with Kamala Harris and other members of the White House before—what is the goal of those meetings?

The Biden White House is the first White House to understand the power and importance of digital media. They deserve a lot of credit for their unique outreach to digital creators and for bringing digital-first alternative media into the conversation. Our relationship with the Biden White House is similar to the Biden White House’s relationship with the mainstream press. For far too long, legacy media were the only ones who had a “seat at the table,” when it came to hearing from the White House. But this administration has shrunk that access gap in truly innovative ways. 

In the meetings we’ve had with the White House, they had various administration officials brief us on important issues the White House is tackling and opened the floor for questions. Picture the daily White House press briefings but redefined for 2024. Frankly, the questions I heard from creators in these meetings were smarter, more inquisitive, and in many cases tougher than what I hear day-to-day in the regular briefings. The goal of the meetings is to provide creators with data straight from the source and allow these creators to gather a deeper understanding of the work of the administration. 

Do you see it as the MeidasTouch Network’s goal to get Biden reelected in 2024? 

We do not see it as MTN’s goal to get Biden reelected in 2024. We have a set of values and principles, and candidates are welcome to meet us at those values. Our focus is on promoting democracy, fighting disinformation, warning of threats to fundamental freedoms, and holding those in power accountable, regardless of the candidate. While our personal beliefs likely align most with liberal values, we have no blind allegiance to any party or group, and we eschew traditional labels. As we often joke on the show in various ways, if President Biden and Democrats started talking about “terminating” the Constitution, praising January 6 insurrectionists as “warriors” and “patriots,” and told stories about either being electrocuted or eaten by sharks, we’d have no hesitation in calling that out with the same passion that we do Trump. But that’s not the political and cultural landscape in which we find ourselves.

Maddy Crowell is a freelance journalist based in New York.