It's All Just Displacement
Blue checkmarks are mourning bad careers in a broken industry
Displacement - Displacement is a psychological defense mechanism in which a person redirects a negative emotion from its original source to a less threatening recipient. A classic example of the defense is displaced aggression. If a person is angry but cannot direct their anger toward the source without consequences, they might "take out" their anger on a person or thing that poses less of a risk.
Media Twitter does not hate Substack because it’s pretending to be a platform when it’s a publisher; they don’t hate it because it’s filled with anti-woke white guys; they don’t hate it because of harassment or any such thing. I don’t think they really hate it at all. Substack is a small and ultimately not-very-relevant outpost in a vastly larger industry; they may not like it but it’s not important enough for them to hate it. What do they hate? They hate where their industry is and they hate where they are within their industry. But that’s a big problem that they don’t feel like they can solve. If you feel you can’t get mad at the industry that’s impoverishing you, it’s much easier to get mad at the people who you feel are unjustly succeeding in that industry. Trying to cancel Glenn Greenwald (again) because he criticizes the media harshly? Trying to tarnish Substack’s reputation so that cool, paid-up writer types leave it and the bad types like me get kicked off? That they can maybe do. Confronting their industry’s future with open eyes? Too scary, especially for people who were raised to see success as their birthright and have suddenly found that their degrees and their witheringly dry one-liners do not help them when the rent comes due.
Things are bad, folks:
Life in the “content” industry already sucks. A small handful of people make bank while the vast majority hustle relentlessly just to hold on to the meager pay they already receive. There are staff writers at big-name publications who produce thousands of words every week and who make less than $40,000 a year for their trouble. There are permanent employees of highly prestigious newspapers and magazines who don’t receive health insurance. Venues close all the time. Mourning another huge round of layoffs is a regular bonding experience for people in the industry. Writers have to constantly job hop just to try and grind out an extra $1,500 a year, making their whole lives permanent job interviews where they can’t risk offending their potential bosses and peers. Many of them dream of selling that book to save themselves financially, not seeming to understand that book advances have fallen 40% in 10 years - median figure now $6,080 - and that the odds of actually making back even that meager advance are slim, meaning most authors are making less than minimum wage from their books when you do the math. They have to tweet constantly for the good of their careers, or so they believe, which amounts to hundreds of hours of unpaid work a year. Their publications increasingly strong arm them into churning out pathetic pop-culture ephemera like listicles about the outfits on Wandavision. They live in fear of being the one to lose out when the next layoffs come and the game of media musical chairs spins up once again. They have to pretend to like ghouls like Ezra Klein and Jonah Peretti and make believe that there’s such a thing as “the Daily Beast reputation for excellence.”
I have always felt bad for them, despite our differences, because of these conditions. And they have a right to be angry. But they don’t have much in the way of self-awareness about where their anger really lies. A newsletter company hosting Bari Weiss is why you can’t pay your student loans? You sure?
They’ll tell you about the terrible conditions in their industry themselves, when they’re feeling honest. So what are they really mad about? That I’m making a really-just-decent guaranteed wage for just one year? Or that this decent wage is the kind of money many of them dream of making despite the fact that, in their minds, they’ve done everything right and played by all the rules? Is their anger really about a half-dozen guys whose writing you have to actively seek out to see? (If you click the button and put in your email address, you’ll get these newsletters. If you don’t, you won’t. So if you’re a media type who hates my writing, consider just… not clicking that button.) Or do they need someplace to put the rage and resentment that grows inside them as they realize, no, it’s not getting better, this is all I get?
It’s true that I have, in a very limited way, achieved the new American dream: getting a little bit of VC cash. I’m sorry. But it’s much much less than one half of what Felix Salmon was making in 2017 and again, it’s only for one year.
You think the writers complaining in that piece I linked to at the top wanted to be here, at this place in their career, after all those years of hustling? You think decades into their media career, the writers who decamped to Substack said to themselves “you know, I’d really like to be in my 40s and having to hope that enough people will pitch in $5 a month so I can pay my mortgage”? No. But the industry didn’t give them what they felt they deserved either. So they displace and project. They can hate Jesse Singal, but Jesse Singal isn’t where this burning anger is coming from. Neither am I. They’re so angry because they bought into a notoriously savage industry at the nadir of its labor conditions and were surprised to find that they’re drifting into middle age without anything resembling financial security. I feel for them as I feel for all people living economically precarious lives, but getting rid of Substack or any of its writers will not do anything to fix their industry or their jobs. They wanted more and they got less and it hurts. This isn’t what they dreamed. That’s what this is really about.
What makes this niche platform worthy of a week-long media meltdown? They’ll suggest that this is about the political impact of Substack. What political impact? The combined influence of the writers they’re attacking is small. The combined audience of the writers they’re attacking is small. The combined wages of the writers they’re attacking is small. Substack is a tiny company that 99% of Americans have never heard of. The conservative media is immense and well-funded and more equipped to survive economic downturns than the progressive media. And that world is filled with people who actually, openly believe the terrible things we’re falsely accused of believing. They’re the ones endangering vulnerable groups. They come into the homes of a huge swath of the country and spread hateful propaganda. Why on earth would you invest 5 minutes of your anger on me, when Breitbart exists? What rational sense does that make?
My own deal here is not mysterious. It’s just based on a fact that the blue checks on Twitter have never wanted to accept. I got offered money to write here for the same reason I got offered to write for The New York Times and Harper’s and The Washington Post and The LA Times, the same reason I’ve gotten a half-dozen invitations to pitch since I started here a few weeks ago, the same reason a literary agent sought me out and asked me to write a book, the same reason I sold that book for a decent advance: because I pull traffic. Though I am a social outcast from professional opinion writing, I have a better freelance publishing history than many, many of my critics who are paid-up, obedient members of the media social scene. Why? Because the editors who hired me thought I was a great guy? No. Because I pull traffic. I always have. That’s why you’re reading this on Substack right now.
I’ve been given opportunities because I’ve proved profitable to media businesses and like all businesses media businesses only care about profit. The important question for my critics should thus be why I’ve been successful in the ideas market when I represent the rejection of many of their values. Since the line between professional and personal relationships has completely collapsed in the industry, media people think that any professional success must represent an endorsement of the writer as a person. (The question they ask about me is often “how did a guy nobody likes get published everywhere,” betraying the assumption that being well-liked should be the only criterion for getting published.) But popularity has nothing to do with me consistently getting work in the industry. I turn writing into clicks and clicks into cash. That’s not complicated.
Matt Taibbi @mtaibbiSingal on the current fear of controversy: “If you were a 25-year-old journalist, why would you possibly touch one of these hot-button issues, when it could overnight ruin your reputation? I’m much more worried about those people than myself.” https://t.co/SnyACSY1iu
Nor is it complicated how I’ve generated a public reputation. It never seems to occur to them that constantly having Twitter meltdowns about me raised my profile in ways I never could have accomplished without their help. You think Substack would have even heard of me if I only did what I spend most of my writing time doing, producing long ruminative essays about education policy or obscure books or the psychic wounds of 21st century culture? If you’re mad that I’m getting economic opportunity now, why did you play my game over and over again for the past 12 years1?
I have no idea if I’ll stay at Substack after this year. If the money is still good, I probably will. If it’s not, I probably won’t. If the Twitter hive succeeds in getting a purge going that gets me kicked off the platform, that’s cool too. I’ll just do other things. Whether I am allowed to serve out the length of my contract with Substack will have absolutely no impact on the integrity of the news industry or its finances. So, again: who are you really mad at? Me? What do I have to do with your broken industry? Why are you constantly tweeting about Substack and not the private equity creeps who are destroying your livelihood?
A really important lesson to learn, in life, is this: your enemies are more honest about you than your friends ever will be. I’ve been telling the blue checks for over a decade that their industry was existentially fucked, that the all-advertising model was broken, that Google and Facebook would inevitably hoover up all the profit, that there are too many affluent kids fresh out of college just looking for a foothold in New York who’ll work for next to nothing and in doing so driving down the wages of everyone else, that their mockery of early subscription programs like Times Select was creating a disastrous industry expectation that asking your readers directly for money was embarrassing. Trump is gone and the news business is cratering. Michael Tracey didn’t make that happen. None of this anger will heal what’s wrong. If you get all of the people you don’t like fired from Substack tomorrow, what will change? How will your life improve? Greenwald will spend more time with his hottie husband and his beloved kids and his 6,000 dogs in his beautiful home in Rio. Glenn will be fine. How do we do the real work of getting you job security and a decent wage?
Who’s your real enemy? Me? Matt Taibbi? Or your boss, your employer, your industry, your economy, your country? Think it over, really. I have much, much more sympathy for the average writer or journalist than people would think. It’s an important profession and many of them individually, when you peel them off from the pack, are lovely people. I hope all of them get financial stability, including the ones who constantly scream about me online. (Even Noah Blatarsky.) I want media to be healthier than it is, financially and otherwise. I want media workers to have higher pay and better benefits and more job security and powerful unions. In part because if they did they’d be more independent and media desperately needs more independence.
But how do things get better in that way? Only through real self-criticism (which Twitter makes impossible) and by asking hard questions. Questions like one that has not been credibly confronted a single time in this entire media meltdown: why are so many people subscribing to Substacks? What is the traditional media not providing that they’re seeking elsewhere? Why have half a million people signed up as paying subscribers of various Substack newsletters, if the establishment media is providing the diversity of viewpoints that is an absolute market requirement in a country with a vast diversity of opinions? You can try to make an adult determination about that question, to better understand what media is missing, or you can read this and write some shitty joke tweet while your industry burns to the ground around you. It’s your call.
Substack might fold tomorrow, but someone would else sell independent media; there’s a market. Substack might kick me and the rest of the unclean off of their platforms tomorrow, but other critics of social justice politics would pop up here; there’s a market. Establishment media’s takeover by this strange brand of academic identity politics might grow even more powerful, if that’s even possible, but dissenters will find a place to sell alternative opinion; there’s a market. What there might not be much of a market for anymore is, well, you - college educated, urban, upwardly striving if not economically improving, woke, ironic, and selling that wokeness and that irony as your only product. Because you flooded the market. Everyone in your entire industry is selling the exact same thing, tired sarcastic jokes and bleating righteousness about injustices they don’t suffer under themselves, and it’s not good in basic economic terms if you’re selling the same thing as everyone else. You add that on to structural problems within your business model and your utter subservience to a Silicon Valley that increasingly hates you, well…. I get why you’re mad. And I get that you don’t like me. But I’m not what you’re mad about. Not really.
In the span of a decade or so, essentially all professional media not explicitly branded as conservative has been taken over by a school of politics that emerged from humanities departments at elite universities and began colonizing the college educated through social media. Those politics are obscure, they are confusing, they are socially and culturally extreme, they are expressed in a bizarre vocabulary, they are deeply alienating to many, and they are very unpopular by any definition. The vast majority of the country is not woke, including the vast majority of women and people of color. How could it possibly be healthy for the entire media industry to be captured by any single niche political movement, let alone one that nobody likes? Why does no one in media seem willing to have an honest, uncomfortable conversation about the near-total takeover of their industry by a fringe ideology?
And the bizarre assumption of almost everyone in media seems to have been that they could adopt this brand of extreme niche politics, in mass, as an industry, and treat those politics as a crusade that trumps every other journalistic value, with no professional or economic consequences. They seem to have thought that Americans were just going to swallow it; they seem to have thought they could paint most of the country as vicious bigots and that their audiences would just come along for the ride. They haven’t. In fact Republicans are making great hay of the collapse of the media into pure unapologetic advocacy journalism. Some people are turning to alternative media to find options that are neither reactionary ideologues or self-righteous woke yelling. Can you blame them? Substack didn’t create this dynamic, and neither did I. The exact same media people who are so angry about Substack did, when they abandoned any pretense to serving the entire country and decided that their only job was to advance a political cause that most ordinary people, of any gender or race, find alienating and wrong. So maybe try and look at where your problems actually come from. They’re not going away.
Now steel yourselves, media people, take a shot of something strong, look yourself in the eye in the mirror, summon you most honest self, and tell me: am I wrong?
This is an aside, but here’s the stats from the median post on this blog so far in terms of total views:
And here’s the post I wrote to deliberately enflame the anger of media Twitter, prompting a lot of people to say “there goes Freddie again, he’s crazy, he’s embarrassing himself,” etc:
I suspect the people who keep doing me this favor have understood this dynamic for a long time, but ignoring me (which hurts my interests) gets you 0 likes and retweets from peers and having a fit about me (which helps my interests) gets you many.