Peter Thiel’s assault on Gawker Media trudges onward. People at the company are putting on a brave face, and I hope they’re right to say that business will continue as usual. I have a hard time believing it’ll turn out well. Not because I know anything about these legal and corporate machinations, but simply because I’ve watched these past years with bored horror as the weight of money does its slow, inevitable work to crush the spirit of adversarial, provocative media. Gawker may or may not survive Thiel’s assault-by-proxy routine. But the message that this sends to an already-pliable, gladhanding digital media is unmistakable. If you don’t see that you’re either deluded by resentment or blinded by the dictates of the profit motive.
I have no interest in being the thousandth person to prosecute the case for or against posting the Hogan tape. And let’s set aside the guilt by association of that gallery of imbeciles who have cheered Gawker’s decline. I will simply say that the ability of a billionaire to use his vast wealth and seemingly limitless capacity to hold a grudge should scare everyone, including those that hate Gawker, and the fact that so many have responded to this with glee shows the capacity for self-delusion in the embittered mind. And I will say also that whatever else Gawker has been, it has been truly and unapologetically adversarial, and that this quality is rare, dying, and indispensable. No, you don’t need to accept Gawker completely or reject it completely, as some of its writers, stricken with a siege mentality, have insisted on social media. That’s an unhelpful pretense, if an understandable one in this moment. But what you do have to recognize is that there is no such thing as provocative media that does not sometimes provoke. There is no such thing as an adversarial press that is not sometimes adversarial to you and your interests. There is no such thing as a press that is both genuinely challenging to the interests of power and always civil and nice. You do not have to have as high of an opinion as I do of much of Gawker’s investigative work to understand that. And the story is so much bigger than Gawker.
It’s all coming together, from different directions, all congealing to create a media that is totally docile, totally in thrall to establishment power, totally unwilling to challenge corporations that might someday provide advertising dollars, totally eager to trade favorable coverage for access. You’ve got the traditional conservative distaste for insurgency and disrespect to those on top from below. You’ve got the power of corporate money, now only intensified in the era of the disastrous advertising-only model of media, with spooked and spineless businesses making demands of editorial at media companies in response to the internet-enabled whining of the privileged and aggrieved. You’ve got identitarian social liberalism defining harm so broadly and with such trivial standards of proof that anyone can accuse any publication of harm at any time, and in doing so kick off massive waves of righteous posturing from the performatively political. You’ve got the mushrooming charges of harassment, a term so watered down it now functionally means “someone saying something about me I don’t like,” which both makes it harder to stop actual harassment and which gives the powerful a convenient weapon with which to silence dissent. Always eager to get users that criticized them suspended, the powerful on social media have now turned to getting their critics fired in real life. From every direction at once – right-wing politics, left-wing politics, the influence of the corporate world, the cult of “nice,” the universality of litigiousness and legalistic ass-checking, the ruthless enforcement of the neoliberal consensus – the ability to meaningfully check the powerful and connected degrades.
The effects on media are obvious. With so many avenues for muscular criticism foreclosed on, media ethics crumble. We have the paper of record running sycophantic portraits of one of the most powerful women in the world, so utterly free of qualification or skepticism that it would surprise no one if it appeared as advertising on her own website. We have Facebook and Google who have carte blance to manipulate their algorithms to achieve particular political ends, with no oversight, transparency, or accountability, and thus no way for us to know if that does happen or how powerful the effect might be if it does. We have Demos firing Matt Bruenig because he dared to offend the head of a powerful thinktank. We have paid Hillary Clinton surrogates constantly appearing on cable news with no disclosure that they take money from her campaign. We have support for TPP in unlabeled advertorials for Goldman Sachs at Vox.com. We’ve got Media Matters, still routinely discussed as some sort of independent watchdog, acting as nothing else but a paid wing of the Clinton campaign, run by professional hatchet man David Brock. We’ve got “sponsored content” for Scientology in a magazine that used to publish Frederick Douglass. We’ve got Buzzfeed’s “no haters” law as it runs hard-hitting pieces on how Jiffy Lube is the place for fast, friendly service. We’ve got The Washington Post, the paper that broke Watergate, owned by an ambitious billionaire, running barely-disguised advertisements for Uber without disclosure of said billionaire’s considerable stake in the company. We’ve got Emmett Rensin drawing the sensible conclusions from liberal punditry’s own statements about Trump and then being suspended for it, as breaking the rules of propriety risks undermining monetization. And we’ve got all of the unknown corruption under the surface, all the ways prominent websites are undoubtedly trading positive coverage for money that we never find out about. The tech press, in particular, is so routinely indistinguishable from paid advertising content that I have no faith at all in my ability to determine when it’s an explicit quid pro quo. Meanwhile the demise of the expensive, unprofitable work of actually going out into the world and reporting the news that matters plunges on ahead. The collapse of the distinction between journalism and advertising isn’t some dystopian future; it’s already here.
Even worse, the capacity to reach the people responsible for these problems seems more diminished than ever. Sometimes people assume I have the ear of a lot of people in media, and I have to tell them, I can’t get anybody’s attention. Not anymore. All of the economic woes of the industry have people digging in and circling the wagons. It’s hard to blame them but it just deepens these problems. The “RIP my mentions!” attitude — the notion that any criticism that doesn’t come from an elite vantage is ridiculous, or actively predatory — seems to grow and grow. The social capture of media, the way that media professionals come to see pleasing other media professionals as the only meaningful criterion for success in their jobs, only deepens, and leaves our journalist class more and more remote from the interests of the ordinary people they are meant to serve. This is not a critique of the character of the people in this profession, which is filled with many decent, hardworking, and principled individuals. It’s a statement of the structural forces affecting an industry and how a group of people have responded. Peel your average professional politics or culture writer off from the pack, and they’ll usually be very upfront about this. But in the pack, particularly on social media, the response is always to hold the indictment up to each other for showy, communal ridicule. It’s a depressingly efficient system for ensuring that no critique is given the attention and consideration it deserves.
If you don’t believe me, wait and see the kind of response this post gets. It will prove every point I’m making, as always happens with my media criticism.
I can’t say that this is as bad as it gets. Surely the lead up to Iraq was worse; surely the consequences far more horrific. But I’ve never felt more hopeless about the chance for progress. At least the brutal pre-Iraq period led to the dawning realization, among the public and among our pundit class, that the war was a sham and a crime, and that there was something deeply wrong with the media system that had openly championed it. Blogs and other insurgent media really did insert themselves into the national conversation. There was a sense that, perhaps, something had fundamentally changed, that there was a new adversarial spirit at play in our media. But days passed into years and the people who were wrong failed up again and again and those who were right were largely ignored. Meanwhile many of those original insurgent voices got sucked up into the maw of establishment media. I can’t blame them – you have to pay the rent – but many of them absorbed all of the old prejudices they once disdained. Today, some of the self-same people who made a name for themselves on blogs now reach immediately for “you’re just some guy with a WordPress” when we are in conflict.
In years of reading and writing about politics, I’ve heard again and again that there is some space you can occupy that is perfectly civil while remaining challenging, independent, and adversarial. And I’m more certain than ever that this is an empty pretense. For Gawker to do its necessary work in mocking the moneyed and the powerful in media, politics, and Silicon Valley, it must necessarily risk being occasionally childish, unfair, even destructive. In those times we do not have to spare it criticism. But we can’t participate in the rush to punish it with bankruptcy and, perhaps, destruction. Indeed if you believe in the adversarial functions of the media at all I think it is your responsibility to defend it, today and tomorrow. If you can’t find that perspective out of respect for Gawker or Matt Bruenig or Emmett Rensin, find it out of respect for journalism’s essential functions, and if you’re a journalist or writer or editor who maintains a belief in the adversarial press, out of self-preservation. I assure you the noose will only tighten in time.
I will leave you by saying that it seems that a widely predicted outcome of digital culture has come true: that all of the new means of interconnection serve as a vast system of mutual surveillance, that there is now nowhere for us to go where we are not constantly observed and thus constantly judged by everyone around us, that the internet’s great power is not for more human diversity but for more human conformity, that we are now all constantly under supervision, supervision of the bosses and the government and the great Puritan effect of other people’s attention, that we are training generations to fear that people with power are always watching, that the necessary and inevitable effect will be a culture of docility and fear, that the constant guilt by association leads us to relationships that are prophylactic and insincere, that the future is the fascism of the HR department, the totalitarianism of our own grinding uncertainty about who might be offended by what we’ve done, and why, and of never knowing why we’re in trouble but always being keenly aware that we are, where only the wealthy and the connected enjoy the privilege of candor and indifference to offense, our country a democracy of fear.
(If you like this, and you’d like to keep me cranky and independent for a little while longer, albeit just as a private individual, you could drop a few bucks into the tip charge at the top right. In this environment, I can’t be too proud to beg.)