Amid a sea of voices, Vox’s Carlos Maza breaks through

Photo by Justin Ray

Carlos Manuel Maza’s mother, Vivian, remembers when her son broke the news. They were singing Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” in her white BMW, coasting down Miami’s Palmetto Expressway on a Sunday afternoon after visiting his aunt’s house. It was two weeks before his 17th birthday. He stopped singing and said, “You know, mom, I’m gay.”

“Oh, Carly, you’re so funny,” she replied.

“No, mom, seriously. I’m gay,” he insisted.

She couldn’t breathe. “My first thought was, ‘Oh, my god, they’re gonna bully Carly. He’s in an all-boys Catholic school, and I don’t know how to protect my son.’” She broke down crying, and said, “Carlos, I love you to death. There’s nothing you can do that will make me think less of you.”

She later told her son the disclosure came as a surprise. She had no idea he was gay.

Carlos didn’t miss a beat: “Mom, you took me to a Cher concert.”

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These days, Maza openly embraces his identity in front of millions as a well-known media critic. His Vox video series Strikethrough has racked up 80 million views across Facebook and YouTube since it launched in January of last year. The show uses the outlet’s signature explainer approach to tackle everything from YouTube’s censorship of extreme creators, to the meaninglessness of White House press briefings, to why fact-checking Trump is futile.

“I love videos that don’t just explain a news event, but explain why the stories we tell about the news event matter,” Maza says. “A lot of news outlets are rushing to keep up with an ever-accelerating news cycle. Strikethrough is about saying, ‘Hold up—how are we talking about this, why, and how does that affect the way we interpret the events around us?’”

Amid the sea of YouTubers trying to sell audiences on their opinions, Maza’s persuasiveness stands out. By combining clips, on-screen graphics, and interviews with experts, he finds new perspectives on media stories, even when discussing well-trod territory like Trump’s mental fitness and harassment on Twitter. Basically, he’s Brian Stelter meets NowThis.

His success may have something to do with the philosophy that informs his work: “I’m not interested in telling you the news,” he says. “I’m interested in helping you build the mental tools to make sense of what everyone else is screaming about.”

Online, Maza is a Rorschach test of sorts; some viewers see him as a condescending, easily triggered liberal, while others see him as an erudite arbiter of truth. He uses his Twitter account, under the handle @gaywonk, to dish hot takes on the media, and even hotter takes on RuPaul’s Drag Race.

Off screen, Maza is less opaque. He’s about to turn 30, and he isn’t thrilled with that milestone. He gets embarrassed when people on social media leave hateful comments on his work. He goes to therapy. Despite the nature of his job, he describes himself as an “aggressive introvert,” who regularly ventures to Taqueria Nacional, a restaurant right next door to his apartment in Washington, DC, to eat egg-and-green-chile tacos in his pajamas. When I bring up his millions of video views, he says sarcastically, “Yeah, there are people who track the YouTube and Facebook views. I only track it in the sense that my whole self-esteem is based on that number.”

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For someone who makes his living off social media, as a child, Maza wasn’t particularly social. Born in 1988 (according to Maza, that makes him 115 in gay-man years) to two Cuban immigrants, he grew up in Miami as the oldest of four siblings, with one biological sister and two half brothers. His mother, Vivian, says he was smart, but socially awkward.

“Carly was a bit of an introvert. He had issues with weight, so he really kept to himself,” she says over the phone. “It’s funny how much he has blossomed, this kid who is all over social media and is such an extrovert. I don’t know where that came from.”

He spent long hours of his youth glued to role-playing video games. “I was obsessed with them because each [character] was their own world,” Maza says. Video game characters “trust you and like you. You get to feel like the protagonist of the story, as opposed to the weirdo person who didn’t belong. To this day, I’m still fixated on games that let you build a group of friends. I don’t like games where you venture by yourself.” (One of Maza’s four tattoos, a shield on his wrist, is a reference to his favorite game, Suikoden 2. “It reminds me that whatever work I do should be in service of others,” he says.)

 

Elyse MacNamara and Carlos Maza together on Thanksgiving during their freshman year of college, in November 2006. Image courtesy of MacNamara.

Maza started to come out of his shell when he joined the debate club during his first week at Christopher Columbus High School, a Catholic school in Miami. “Debate saved my life,” Maza says. “It was the most meaningful thing that’s ever happened to me. Joining debate gave me the language to speak for myself, the confidence to speak for myself, the feeling that I could do something intellectually that made me important and valuable. It gave me the confidence to come out early.”

He was 15 when he first said out loud that he was gay, and even then, he only kind of said it. “I was so nervous that I told my debate partner, ‘I equal sign gay,’ rather than ‘I am gay,’ because I thought if it was a math equation it would be less terrifying,” Maza says.

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He got something else out of that debate club—Elyse MacNamara, his best friend of what is now 15 years. MacNamara says Maza has always had a talent for seeing the entire landscape of an issue or topic. In debate, it allowed him to successfully argue whatever side he was tasked with presenting. Today, he uses that skill in his work.

 

Let’s keep their attention, and the way I do that is by being as gay as humanly possible.

 

“Honestly, he’s changed my mind on so many things,” MacNamara says. “The way he explains things, it makes so much sense. He’s extremely good at breaking things down.”

After graduating from Wake Forest University with a bachelor’s in political science, Maza knew he wanted to work in politics, but he didn’t know in what capacity. He interned at a progressive think tank, the Center for American Progress, after college, but he didn’t like the work. “I felt frustrated writing things that I felt like nobody would ever read,” he says, “dense, dry policy briefs that felt like they existed on a different planet.”

His boss told him that the nonprofit, progressive media watchdog group Media Matters for America was hiring an LGBTQ researcher, and so he applied. He spent five years there, writing about news coverage around topics such as marriage equality and discrimination. It was during this time that he came up with his Twitter handle, @gaywonk. “I was truly trying to imagine myself as exclusively a wonk about all things gay,” he says.

Eventually, Maza grew bored with writing, and started making videos about the media instead. And he made appearances on cable news, which gave him his first taste of public life.

“The very first time Carlos was on MSNBC, I lost my shit,” MacNamara says. “There’s a very funny photo of me freaking out at the TV. I always joke with him that one day people from 20/20 are going to call me to have a sit-down interview and Barbara Walters is going to be there showing Carlos’s first YouTube videos.”

Elyse MacNamara as she watches Maza during his first appearance on MSNBC in 2014. Image courtesy of MacNamara.

After a few months of making videos at the nonprofit, Maza says he had a “wild surge in confidence” and decided to propose his series to Joss Fong, a senior editorial producer at Vox and a Media Matters alum. Maza and his Media Matters producer, Coleman Lowndes, landed the job in January 2017. “After a couple of months of back and forths,” says Maza, “I twisted their arms enough that they agreed to allow me to have my own series.”

It was then, at the age of 28, that he got his first tattoos, both on his wrists—the shield from Suikoden 2 on the right, and on the left, a two parallel lines representing a pause symbol. “They were mainly to remind myself that I still own my body, regardless of what parts of myself I put out on the internet,” Maza says. “The pause sign is to remind me to check in with myself if I ever feel the urge to be destructive, and deal with my emotions rather than projecting them onto other people.”

Maza posted his first Vox video last February: a slow-paced, five-minute segment on ways the media can cover a White House that’s not afraid to lie. In it, he argues that news outlets should act like a buffer between the administration’s propaganda and the general public.

Since then, he’s published 25 more videos with Vox. The editorial process usually takes two weeks, from conception to publication. He throws out four or five broad ideas he wants to explore to his editor, Ellen Rolfes. The editorial team then offers feedback and helps figure out which is most worth doing.

Once the script is approved, Maza and Lowndes enter a room where most Vox productions are filmed, a space about as long as and slightly wider than a school bus. Maza stands before a white backdrop and delivers short bursts of dialogue from a script that will later be cut into the final piece. Since Strikethrough videos use a lot of cut-ins and voiceovers, the lines on their own don’t quite make sense and are delivered in a sort of staccato. From behind the camera, Lowndes gives Maza affirmations like “great,” “nice,” or “sweet.” (Maza tells CJR that Lowndes does this because the Vox host asked him to.)

Then, the production and editing begin. Anyone who has seen Vox videos is likely familiar with the format: They usually start with an example and then cut to Maza, who gives a monologue, cut with more examples that might come in the form of video clips, books, news articles, or Skype interviews. He usually closes with a forward-thinking sentiment.

For instance in the video below, Maza says that while extreme video creators on YouTube spreading hate speech may be a bad thing, it is “helping force the world’s biggest video platform figure out what it wants to be.”

 

 

Lowndes, whose voice is sometimes featured in the background, says there were a lot of growing pains once the pair arrived at Vox. He didn’t have a media criticism background, and Maza didn’t have video experience, but “once we learned each other’s language, it became more in sync.”

YouTube allows Maza tonal flexibility beyond what he can achieve with writing and broadcast. “I get to be a lot more playful in terms of presenting information because the audience is used to watching nonconventional forms of video.”

Out of all the Strikethrough videos, there is one clear fan favorite. Although “Comedians have figured out the trick to covering Trump” is his most popular, with 27.5 million views across Facebook and YouTube, according to Vox, Maza is most known for his Kellyanne Conway piece, which clocks nearly 25 million views across platforms. In it, he discusses the White House counselor’s ability to dodge tough questions and change topics within interviews with journalists. Maza talks to a professional debater about her four favorite tactics: Deflecting by finding a keyword, exploiting the interviewer’s preference to be polite, saying “I don’t know,” and making something up.

 

 

“It’s so weird. People now just recognize me as the guy who did the Kellyanne Conway video….Not what I thought my moniker would be, but I happily embrace it,” Maza says. “People ask me how I stomached watching so many Conway interviews, at which point I just stare at them for 10 minutes in complete silence and then don’t say anything.”

Maza has also been slammed. In October 2017, he released a segment on the loosely organized, left-wing groups known as Antifa that protested after Charlottesville. Maza argued in the piece that outlier, radical groups typically end up being the focus of news coverage of rallies because the media is so attracted to drama. Maza’s take sparked brutal reaction videos, which generally argued that in suggesting that violence at such rallies was overblown, Vox was therefore condoning it.

 

People ask me how I stomached watching so many Conway interviews, at which point I just stare at them for 10 minutes in complete silence and then don’t say anything.

 

“I was very worried going into that video that people would perceive me as defending political violence, so I tried really hard to make clear that that was not the argument I was trying to engage in, and I was trying to engage in a separate argument about outliers. I failed as a communicator,” Maza says of the piece. “The audience thought I was saying something other than I was. It is like shame without recourse, which should be the name of my autobiography.”

Maza views his videos as his “contribution to trying to make the world better.” He wants to help people “make sense of the world, cut through the noise, and develop the language to understand what is and isn’t bullshit.” And that’s why he says he agonizes over “every mini detail.”

“If I screw up, it doesn’t feel like I messed up my job, it’s like I messed up as a human trying to do good,” Maza says. “I think people would be surprised at how much time I spend at home staring at the wall saying, ‘Am I doing a good thing, am I helping right now?’ They may be surprised in a not-flattering way.”

The Vox team has been supportive of Maza. During his first weeks at the outlet, Maza made a vision board which included pictures of Jake Tapper and Ariana Grande for his video about comedians using satire while covering the Trump administration. “I had to make it in the office,” he remembers. “I was afraid [Editor at Large and Vox Founder Ezra Klein] was gonna come up and be like, ‘Are you out of your fucking mind? Get out of here.’ But he thought it was funny. I’m always surprised how loving Vox is when I do really ridiculous shit.”

“We are really opportunistic here,” Vox Editor in Chief Lauren Williams says of the decision to bring on Maza. “We have a style that is so broad, that so many different things can be ‘Vox.’ I think Carlos had a pitch that seemed like a good idea. Vox has only been around for three and a half years. There is no such thing as, ‘There’s only one way to do it, we’ve done it this way forever,’ because forever has not been that long.”

“They just like that the argument is serious,” Maza says. “I do spend a lot of time agonizing over the argument. But once I’m confident about that, let’s throw glitter, let’s make this interesting for people on the Metro where there might be a screaming baby. Let’s keep their attention, and the way I do that is by being as gay as humanly possible.”

 

Social media stardom, of course, comes with certain drawbacks, which can usually be summed up in a word: trolling.

One of the worst trolling experiences Maza has encountered since launching Strikethrough came last fall, when Breitbart developed a Twitter obsession with him. The site’s social account would randomly tweet images or memes of Maza, sometimes to make political statements against liberals, and other times with no comment at all.

“I don’t know why they picked me, I don’t really know why it started,” Maza says, his shoulders rising and eyes wide.  “It is super shitty…. The effect of trolling is that you feel like everyone is looking at you and thinking you’re a freak, which is not true. I think they were doing it because I look like the typical beta male leftist cuck person, so I was an easy target.” (Breitbart declined CJR’s request for an interview.)

Vox EIC Williams says the company has an online harassment task force for employees who find themselves the victims of online harassment, and that Maza took advantage of the resource during the Breitbart saga. She also says Vox developed an aggressive social media strategy in response to Gamergate.

“Our social media team does this thing where they like take the reigns on a Twitter account and the person who is being harassed will just step away for a day or two. The social team will purge all the hateful stuff from their mentions, block a bunch or people so when they sign back on it is clean and they don’t have to see all that stuff,” Williams says. “Their ability to say hateful things and harass you — that’s their power, so by not looking at it you are taking their power away.” 

Maza has also been targeted by Alex Jones. After a Strikethrough posted a piece on Fox News host Sean Hannity’s fixation on the so-called Uranium One conspiracy theory, Jones released a retaliatory segment on his show, InfoWars. In the piece, titled “Sniveling Cuck Caught Lying About Sean Hannity,” Jones doesn’t use Maza’s name, but makes jokes about his appearance.

“I think the whole beta-male, soy boy, cuck thing is a poorly masked way of engaging in public homophobia,” Maza says “If you say that I have a soft voice and I’m anorexic, you are just basically making fun of me for being gay.”

Maza’s very public job has, by its nature, invaded his personal life, and most of those invasions are unwelcome: He gets recognized in group therapy, which makes vulnerability challenging. Sometimes on dates, people believe they have reached a level of intimacy with him because they have seen his videos—an inherently uncomfortable scenario. But for Maza, the worst is the mental toll that comes with so many people discussing him on social media. 

 

 

“In my experience, having a public face has aggravated a lot of [my] personal anxieties,” he says. “It’s been a crash course in learning about self-confidence, self-love, tolerating both positive and negative feedback from strangers, knowing who you are, arguing from a position of wanting to help the world rather than out of narcissism.”

Fundamentally, Maza is still the same introverted child, whose success in social media likely has something to do with the fact that his work is performed in near-isolation. “I am very bad in social settings,” he says, “which I know is hard to believe ’cause the whole job requires you to be front-facing. But the product is front-facing. When you make it, it’s just you in a room with your best-friend producer making stupid jokes, and then it goes on the internet. It’s a very secluded experience.”

Maza’s next steps are unclear.“Having an internet persona didn’t give me what I wanted, so now I have to figure out something else,” he says, as the conversation drifts to his impending 30th birthday.

“In meaningful benchmark ways, I don’t have anything to show for my first few years of life,” he says, glumly. “I don’t have a wedding, a kid, or even a pet. I’ve never won an award for anything I’ve done. I don’t own property. There’s a part of my brain that’s like, you blew this.”

But another part of Maza—perhaps even a bigger part—doesn’t believe the diss.

“I’ve worked really hard to live an examined life,” he says. “There are people who hit 50 and don’t do a lot of work around that. I feel okay that I’m making an active effort to be less of a shitty human.”

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Justin Ray is the digital media editor of Columbia Journalism Review. Follow him on Twitter @jray05.