The most recent episode of You’re Wrong About, the beloved podcast by journalists Sarah Marshall and Michael Hobbes that reconsiders a person or event that has been miscast in the public imagination, brought with it a piece of big news: Hobbes is stepping back from the show.
The announcement came as a bit of a surprise, to me at least. Since You’re Wrong About debuted, in 2018, its deeply researched, funny, and heartfelt reexaminations of the past have helped the show accrue a steady, solid fan base, one that positively exploded during the pandemic as more people sought out new podcasts to consume as well as a sense of companionship during lockdown; there was even a glowing write-up in The New Yorker. From the outside looking in, it seemed You’re Wrong About was on an ascent of sorts: an underground indie darling that was now on a trajectory toward something much larger. Given the state of the podcast business these days, I started to half wonder if we were due to see Marshall and Hobbes announce a lucrative Spotify deal any day now. (They would never, of course. After all, “it was capitalism all along!”)
Instead, we’re seeing a radical shake-up. In the latest episode, Hobbes briefly mentions that the choice to step away was a personal one, a mixture of needing a creative reboot and the juice that can come only with new projects. It was a frankly refreshing explanation, one that feels true to the spirit of the show and its hosts.
You’re Wrong About devotees shouldn’t despair, however. Marshall will continue hosting the show, backed by a line-up of guest co-hosts, for the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, Hobbes can still be heard on Maintenance Phase, a podcast that applies a distinctly You’re About Wrong–esque critical lens to questionable health fads and cultural ideas, which he co-hosts with the writer Aubrey Gordon. (Hobbes also appeared on a recent midweek installment of WNYC’s On the Media, in which he walked Brooke Gladstone through the whole Bad Art Friend thing. This marked Hobbes’s third appearance on the program. More on that in a bit.)
Still, it’s the end of an era. And as a longtime listener of the show, I felt compelled to memorialize the moment. “Can I just comment on how weird it is that anybody would want to know my thoughts and my methods?” said Hobbes, who is currently in Berlin, when I reached out earlier this week. We talked about his decision to leave the show, its significance, and what comes next.
You’ve briefly discussed this on the show already, but could you talk about why you decided to step away from You’re Wrong About?
For me, so much of the experience of You’re Wrong About was tied to lockdown. We were doing two episodes a week. If I wasn’t recording an episode, I was editing or researching an episode.
You’re Wrong About also became so much more popular during lockdown. For a long time, it felt like Sarah and I were broadcasting into nothingness, and suddenly our listenership blew up and people were talking about us. It started to feel like we were actually influencing what people believed about the world.
Then lockdown was over. And as we started to come out of that hard-core period — for me, that was February or March; I hadn’t been vaccinated yet but was moving up the line — I just started getting this sense that the show was ending in this weird way. Like the show had moved on from me, or I had moved on from it. There were these little pangs of procrastination: “Oh, I don’t know if I want to research this yet,” or I’d put off editing.
I know myself well enough to know there’s always been a two-to-three-year fuse for me. I worked in human rights for 11 years before I became a journalist, and I moved between jobs every few years for that entire career. Same thing within journalism.
So part of me feels like I was reaching the end of my attention span for the You’re Wrong About format. And I started thinking about other stories I wanted to tell. For example, I’m really interested in the HIV epidemic and had thought about doing a series around that for You’re Wrong About. I wanted to interview people who were there, people who lost loved ones, epidemiologists. I wanted to find out what it was like in San Francisco at the time. Sarah and I talk about this a lot, but I just don’t think that works with the way we do the show.
I know myself well enough to know I will start slacking off once my brain starts getting excited about other things. And I didn’t want to leave behind something where people would be like, “Yeah, that show was good until the last six months. You could tell Mike wasn’t really into it.” That wouldn’t be fair to Sarah. It wouldn’t be fair to listeners. It’s not fair to myself. It just felt like a good time to make a move.
That level of self-knowledge is something that has always struck me about you and Sarah, and I think it extends to the way you both cover topics on the show. The phrase moral clarity gets thrown around a bunch these days, but you two really seem to have that.
A lot of it comes out of doing the research. You start reading up on something like, oh, I don’t know, Iran-Contra, and you’re like, Holy shit, this is a big deal. Why aren’t people talking about this all the time? The way I learned about it growing up was as a footnote, some complicated thing that Ronald Reagan might have done, but then you do the research and, no, it was straightforwardly really bad and far worse than Watergate on the merits. Yet it’s nowhere near remembered as a Watergate-level scandal.
So that sense of righteousness comes from the frustration of watching us make the same mistakes as our parents’ generation. Everyone should be treating huge scandals as huge scandals and not just moving on.
You can listen to the older episodes and hear me being radicalized in real time as I read up on what these events actually were and how the media—I don’t want to say deliberately, but how the media was almost deliberately misinterpreting things and fucking people over.
Does that ever make you feel out of sorts? Like you know this truth that nobody else seems to, so there’s this separation between you and everybody else?
That’s the best thing about having a podcast by far. First of all, Sarah is the best person to tell this stuff to because she adds so much insight and humor. She has made me a more empathic person. I’ve learned much from her about how to really take people seriously as people in a story.
And with our listeners, it’s the same thing. You’re Wrong About has this quality of being your buddy who’s really obsessed with something and wants to tell you about it at a bar, and I got to do that for a large group of people. Then in the aftermath, they’ll be emailing and tweeting at us, so there’s this aftershock where other people are going through the same emotional revelations that we’ve gone through with the research. It’s so gratifying. Other people will be like, “Now I’m really mad about Iran-Contra, and it happened 40 years ago!” And I’m like, “Yeahhh.”
In your good-bye episode, you mention how it feels like the culture at large is kinda meeting You’re Wrong About where it is now. Could you expand on that?
My favorite recipe YouTuber, Chef John, has this thing where he says, “You’re making a technique video, not a recipes video.” So he’ll do a curry recipe and he’ll be like, “This is a technique video, so whatever spices or vegetables you like, just swap those in.”
This was another reason why it felt like a good time to leave You’re Wrong About. It felt like we’ve been making this technique video where the kinds of things we’re doing — reading all the original documents, telling stories in order, taking each one of the characters in whatever story we’re telling seriously as people — and I think other people have started to do that around the culture with things that are happening right now.
Now, I don’t want to take credit. I don’t want to pretend we were the only people doing that. But it really makes me happy to see all those Britney Spears documentaries. People really loved our Jessica Simpson episode, and when her book became such a big best seller, there was this real cultural conversation around, like, Oh my God, what were we doing to people in the ’90s?
I realize many of these people are not even aware of our show, but it just feels like we’re in this cultural moment where we’re returning to these stories and literally retelling them from someone else’s perspective and coming to a completely different conclusion on them.
Why do you think the show caught on the way it did?
You should take whatever I say with huge salt grains, but I think people aren’t used to hearing historical stories told by one human to another human in a human way. A lot of us get our historical information from teachers or from these dry, nutritious Ken Burns–style documentaries, which try really hard not to have a conclusion or come to it from a perspective where you say, “This person sucks, and this person didn’t.”
That’s not the way people tell stories to each other. The way we process information involves quite explicitly bringing our own perspectives to it. This is one of the reasons I like Sarah’s work so much. She comes to stories from a perspective. She’s always open about how she’s making an argument: “This is how it makes me feel to read about Tonya Harding. Tonya Harding wasn’t the monster you thought she was — here’s the evidence.”
This is something I wish journalists would do more. If you’ve done all the reading on a topic and you’ve come to a conclusion, I wish you would share those conclusions more. Even if I disagree with them, I can respect the fact this is someone with a lot more expertise. I’d rather that than the fake “One side says this, and this other says this so who am I to say?” Well, you’re actually kind of an expert on this, and I’d like you to tell me what you think about it.
What comes next for you?
Honestly, I have no idea.
Like I said earlier, I have some half-formed ideas for topics and rabbit holes I want to explore, but I don’t know how I’ll be presenting those. Maybe something will come up; maybe nothing will come up. Maybe they’ll be podcasts; maybe there’ll be videos or articles.
You know, the hardest thing in this “rise and grind” culture we have is that we can’t just sit and not have any emails to answer or feel like you have to do something every day.
So I’m just going to experiment with that. I don’t know if I’ve ever had a period like this where there’s little going on in my life. I’m still doing Maintenance Phase, which is a lot of work, of course, and I’m very passionate about that show. It’s going great. But I have some time left over now, and I’d like to sit with it.
Berlin seems like a good spot for just sitting and being.
Oh yeah, totally. It robs you of your ambition, Berlin. The costs are low here. Everybody’s chill. There are nice cafés to sit in all day. There’s other nice non-online stuff that I’m also looking forward to focusing on.
You know, I had a real vision that you should be the next co-host of On the Media, but hearing this Berlin stuff makes me feel like maybe you should chill for a few years. That show seems like a grind.
Well, I’ve been lobbying them to hire Sarah, but she’s also going to be really busy. I mean, I don’t know … I have no idea what I will end up doing.
That sounds exciting, actually.
This is the first time in my adult life that has happened. I’ll probably break my promise in three days and start doing something again, but for now, it feels good.