a confused critique of Gawker

Over at the Columbia Journalism Review, the premier repository of old-guard journalistic “seriousness” and Ivy League pedantry, Sarah Grieco has a very odd critique of Gawker. I don’t find it odd just because I disagree with it; I find it odd because it defines bullying in a particular way, then immediately abandons that definition. Grieco defines bullying:

[Gawker] regularly takes down “weaker” competitors—the textbook definition of bullying. In the high school hallway that is the New York media scene, Gawker Media is the Biff Tannen-type, shoving whoever they want into a locker…. Gawker depicts its actions as an internet watchdog role, an upstart taking on the bigger guys.

The notion that bullying is a matter of the big picking on the small is fairly easy to grasp. I actually find it totally unworkable from the stance of adult conduct, which I’ll get to in a second, but OK — that’s a definition that I can at least understand. So what does Grieco go after Gawker for doing? Taking on media entities that are… larger than Gawker. She points out that Gawker pulls in 60 million uniques a month, which is indeed a large number. But she goes after them for taking on Buzzfeed, which gets more than twice as many! How is that a matter of the small picking on the big? Even more ludicrously, she attacks Gawker for criticizing the New York Times, literally the most powerful, influential entity in all of journalism. For good measure she adds Vice and Fox News, as if she hadn’t done enough to already undermine her own definition. Ms. Grieco: professional media companies, particularly of the size and influence of the ones you’re naming here, cannot be “bullied.” Roger Ailes is not some asthmatic on the playground. David Carr has a platform and power that rivals the reach and influence of many governments. It is ludicrous to defend these institutions using the logic of bullying. Benny Johnson is an adult, professional journalist. He committed a range of egregious journalistic breaches of ethics and his publication dragged its feet on punishing him. I don’t know where you got the impression that criticizing that is similar to stealing someone’s lunch money, but it’s a flatly broken, unworkable analogy, one that obscures more than it clarifies.

I can’t remember the last time I read something that failed so badly to apply its own, author-defined logic. (Boy, the work the scare quotes around “weaker” has to do!)

In case you think I’m just in the tank for Gawker, you can check my record— I have criticized the writers and the publications within Gawker Media many times. I have also praised them many times. That’s how publications work: they publish some good stuff and some bad stuff and some in-between stuff. What makes Grieco’s complaints so frustrating, in fact, is that what has marked Gawker’s evolution in the John Cook – Max Read era is that they have moved away from the pointless snark towards the less powerful which she’s critiquing. That was the point Carla Blumenkranz made in her n+1 piece about Gawker, and it was accurate then. But that was years ago. What has made Gawker Media a better, more useful set of properties is that it has gotten in the business of criticizing the powerful, particularly the powerful who are usually not attacked by the establishment media. Sam Biddle is the target of Grieco’s ire. While I have my complaints about some of Biddle’s work, the simple fact of the matter is that Valleywag performs an essential function: it goes after the Silicon Valley overlords that the establishment media simply refuses to criticize. For decades now, mainstream journalism has treated Silicon Valley like the noble, utopian princes of contemporary society. Somebody has to subject them to scrutiny, and clearly, that task hasn’t been performed by the Serious Journalisms types… you know, the kind who start out writing for the Columbia Journalism Review. Same thing with Deadspin: who, exactly, is the underdog, here? ESPN? The NFL? For real? ESPN’s power is so distorting, and so inherently threatening to anyone who wants to work in sports journalism, that the only way to cover them is through asymmetrical warfare. If that comes along with dick jokes and some failures to be appropriately skeptical of sources, I’ll take it. Lord knows that the New York Times and Fox News aren’t getting the job done.

That’s to say nothing of the fact that the people involved in GamerGate that Grieco defends are, in fact, not poor bullied kids. They are, overwhelmingly, employed, educated, privileged adult men, many of whom work for some of the most powerful and profitable industries in our economy. Their beloved sci fi and comic books and fantasy genres and media– those aren’t reviled and disrespected properties that people are ashamed to like. They’re economically dominant and critically lauded, and given the way the internet makes culture spread more broadly and intensely than ever before, are probably the most powerful force in the history of the arts. (No exaggeration.) And why are they attracting so much criticism? Is it because they’re weak and unpopular? No. They’re being criticized because they’re threatening women, because they’re revealing the personal information of people who disagree with them, because they’re making terrorist threats at venues that host their  targets, because they drive innocent people from their homes, because they refuse to disassociate from misogyny. That’s why. Grieco seems to imagine that the men behind Gamergate are skinny teens getting thrown into trashcans by the football players. In fact, they’re the dominant leaders of the new economy, who have vast computer skills and the wherewithal to use them against their critics, who have such economic power that they can make companies like Intel and Adobe tremble, whose whims dictate our entire pop culture industry, and who get just about everything that they want, all the time. That’s who needs defending?

I know that my regular readers are tired of hearing me say this. But the self-definition of this class of people as a beleaguered minority is not defensible. It cannot be justified through evidence. It flies in the face of reality. And the adoption by the overclass of the language and argumentative tactics used to defend actually-threatened minorities like people of color is disgusting and destructive. What’s more, the way in which the politicized term “bullying” is now deployed to shield people from criticism is simply incompatible with the critical work that is a necessary part of adult society. Subjecting us all to a juvenile standard of behavior thanks to a well-meaning but ineffective movement against petty individual cruelty does nothing for the actual victims of bullying and instead merely protects the powerful, like Shepherd Smith, like Benny Johnson, like the NFL, like Vice. 

The attitudes that Grieco demonstrates aren’t just confused and whiny. They’re toxic, because they’re indicative of everything wrong with old-guard media culture. Kill the Messenger, the Gary Webb biopic, is playing now. Webb’s career was destroyed not in spite of the fact that he produced some of the most essential journalism of the past two decades but because he did. He was punished because he did it for a small paper. He was punished because he didn’t defer to the CIA or the government. He didn’t follow “official procedure,” which means marinating in the self-seriousness of the journalist good ol’ boy network. And so even now, a decade after his death, he is subject to pathetic character assassination by someone like Jeff Leen, a symbol of old-school journalism standards if there ever was one. Those are the same standards that cause hatred of Glenn Greenwald, the same standards that lead Jeff Goldberg to defend the asinine campaign against Dave Weigel by suggesting that Weigel lacked “toilet training.” By calling attacks on the powerful and the comfortable bullying, Greico is locating herself squarely in that ugly tradition. I’ve never been one to celebrate the demise of the traditional media, as newspapers play an essential role that has not been replaced by new media. But these phony standards of comity that seem to only defend the powerful, they can’t die soon enough.

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