You (Still) Can't Sit with Us

social capture in media is real

I am someone that people love to scold. This is true in my professional life as well as my personal one. Something about my personality or biography inspires it. (Couldn’t be my behavior!) I guess I just bring out paternalistic feelings in people, which is OK. I do need people to take care of me sometimes. And my readers do, often enough, gently guide me in particular directions, if there are enough of them and there isn’t much in the way of direct contradiction from other readers. (There usually is, though. Different people like different things.)

Lately I find myself in an odd conundrum: I made my bones as a writer doing media criticism, which I think is a vitally important topic, and it consistently does the biggest numbers for this project, which is my major income source. My piece about the SATs from last week was hugely successful in generating interest, at least for me, especially among people who don’t regularly read my stuff; it got less than a quarter as many views as my most popular post, which is media criticism. When I wrote about the Harper’s letter at my personal website, it was during a period when I was intentionally doing nothing to advertise or market the blog, resulting in most posts having views in the high hundreds, maybe 3,000 for a piece that really did numbers. Yet the piece about that letter and what it meant for media somehow escaped and got 120,000 views. That stuff generates more interest than anything else I write. (Unsurprisingly: the basic marketing strategy of my career has been recognizing that media people have large networks and those networks are filled with people with large networks and the easiest way to get someone to signal boost your work is to write about them and their world.) People want to read it, share it, and yell about it, and in turn this generates publicity and subscriptions.

But people also hate my media criticism. Hate hate hate it. You would not believe the number of people who write to me saying “I almost/might/did cancel my subscription because I don’t want to hear pointless media gossip anymore!” Do the other stuff, they always say, the good stuff, the probing, researched stuff. But this media stuff, it’s too personal. That’s always the claim: that when I write about media, I’m necessarily attacking individuals rather than structures. That it’s personal. Then I go back and read what I wrote and inevitably I see myself critiquing structures and find nothing particularly personal. There’s a real incommensurability here. People are free not to like whatever they want, but I think deciding that criticism designed to reflect on an industry rather than individuals is too personal forecloses on important conversations.

So let’s take a different approach. Call this one a rewrite, maybe? And then you can let me know if this one is too personal, too gossipy, too mean.

Complaining that I’m being personal, to me, is emblematic of the problem. People think that my critique of the media profession is personal because in media the professional is the personal. In other words, any meaningful criticism of our contemporary journalism and commentary world will necessarily look personal to some, as personal relationships dominate the conduct of people within that world. I think that our news media suffers from a social-but-structural issue in that the divide between personal and professional relationships has collapsed, and this badly distorts the profession. There is no such thing as a strictly professional relationship in media, anymore. Whatever old systems of professional advancement once ruled in the industry no doubt had elements of patronage and networking, as well as a bushel of obvious inequalities. But however much worse the past may have been in total, in the 21st century digital media the coin of the realm for getting ahead in your career is to cultivate friendships with as many other people in media as possible. This has consequences, bad ones.

I will concede upfront that every job involves networking and personal relationships. And I suspect that in all professions the line between working life and personal life has eroded due to social media, which ensures that people who would once have remained largely unknown to each other become revealed in supremely personal ways, their thoughts and relationships and tastes. But in media the consequences of social networks are particularly acute because what journalists and writers share there are not distinct entities from what they express in their professional output. It may not seem that important, knowing that a reporter covering the White House constantly quotes The Simpsons and loves his dog. But inevitably people’s professional work comes to be refracted through the prism of a personality that we come to know more and more over time. And, more consequentially, we learn enough about anyone’s politics that we can sort them into the rigid tribalism that now dominates American civic life. We no longer enjoy the pleasure of not having to know or care about what a CNBC stock analyst thinks about circumcision. As members of an audience, this is unpleasant, or so it seems to me. But for peers the consequences are darker. You don’t just have to know about all of your professional peers. You have to have some sort of social orientation towards them. Once upon a time a person who worked at another paper in another city could have been a pleasant blank to you. Now? Friend or enemy.

Look at anger towards Substack in the industry. I think a lot of the anger at crowdfunding and independent media lies in the fact that they have, to some extent, undermined what people in traditional media see as the deal they signed up for, that your career succeeds or fails to the degree that you form friendly personal relationships with others in the industry.

For a long time I have said that, were I trying to rise up the ranks in media, I would much rather be popular than good at my job. Again, I concede that there is an element of this in every profession. But there is a certain inherent subjectivity to media that doesn’t exist in, say, plumbing. A plumber can fix a squeaky faucet or he can’t. In media the quality of your work will always be fundamentally subjective. There are click metrics and similar, but in fact the bundling of media into publications often serves (to a degree intentionally) to obscure the popularity of any given writer. Besides, I would hope most of us recognize that popularity is not the same thing as quality. Meanwhile there are unusual labor market issues. Media seems, to my uninformed eye, to have an unusual level of career volatility, with people constantly switching jobs, meaning a constant need to ingratiate oneself to others in the profession. Media careers also live or die based on the amplification effects of peers sharing one’s work. And then there is the simple brutal reality that the number of seats in traditional media has shrunk and shrunk, with newsrooms having been cut in half in a decade. How could one feel that they have the luxury of being disliked?

And so you spend a career playing by those rules, understanding that socializing and maintaining cordial relationships with those you don’t like very much are bedrock values. You eat the kind of shit that we all eat as we make our way up in any industry; it’s just that, instead of being the one to make the coffee runs or getting the worst parking space, here it’s a matter of gritting your teeth and acting jocular on Slack with someone you can’t stand. I’m not saying this to suggest that there’s something more nefarious or unprincipled going on in media than anywhere else. These are the negotiations with our integrity that capitalism forces on absolutely all of us. Nor do I begrudge workers in media for playing by a set of rules they didn’t create. You gotta serve somebody. Certainly I do. Just different somebodies. But the social capture of media’s professional ladder is still a problem.

Then along comes this crowdfunding wave and it seems like the rules were broken. I think the explosion of takes in 2016 about Chapo Trap House were driven by this, in large measure. These guys who were defiantly outside of media culture and dismissive of the social norms of establishment liberalism were suddenly making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to do the kind of analysis that once was the near-exclusive purview of the news media. I can imagine the resentment that might come from being a 15-year vet of opinion journalism who realizes that they now made a small fraction of what some outsiders were making, especially if that veteran feels that they went through a long period of glad-handing to get where they are. And now there’s Patreon, and Substack, and Ghost… People who are not just not insiders but actively exiled are making a lot of money selling their opinions directly. Worse, precisely because of that bundling function of publications, many of those who are struggling to make ends meet with journalism careers do not have the kind of individual names that they could use to write independently. I think this drives much of the anti-Substack animosity, honestly.

Still, crowdfunded and other independent media attract a tiny fraction of total eyeballs on writing, and in the legacy media, every observation I make confirms that the necessity of being popular remains. I would hope the problem with all of this would be obvious: people who socialize together tend to share certain values, habits, and viewpoints, certainly including politics as narrowly defined but also tastes, temperaments, sense of humor, style of communication, consumption habits…. And for part of the audience, I think a large part, this condition contradicts one of the basic reasons to have reporting and commentary at all, which is diversity - certainly a diversity of viewpoints but also of style and passions and ways of thinking. Media these days, from my perspective, has an all-encompassing sameness, somewhat masked by rising demographic diversity, that some of us find quite stifling. Of course I’m glad that media is slowly becoming more diverse in terms of race and gender and gender identity. But it turns out that a liberal 26 year old Black Smith graduate who lives in Brooklyn and a liberal 28 year old white Swarthmore graduate who lives in Brooklyn don’t write or think very differently. For whatever legitimate differences exist in their points of view due to race there is still an immense similarity in how they communicate in their professional work.

For example, humor. People wonder why I fixate so much on the blank irony and limp sarcasm that defines so much of internet communication, certainly including professionally-published commentary and analysis. For one, as I’ve made clear before, I just find it joyless and annoying, a pantomime of actually funny behavior that takes idioms and attitudes from contexts where they were legitimately humorous and repeats them so relentlessly and unartfully that they become exhausting. I would add that the endless use of tired phrases (“when you are not mad,” “the friends we made along the way,” “thank you for coming to my TED talk”) is not generally undertaken to actually amuse. It indicates in-group status; it aligns one with a particular tribe. But either way, the experience for the reader is the same: most everybody in media uses very similar humor in a way that shrinks the possibility for surprise, which is an essential element of something being funny. It’s all the same shit.

The phrase “diversity of opinion” or similar has become one of those triggers for very online people; if you use it unironically, in certain discursive spaces, they won’t even listen to the rest of what you say. It’s like the phrase “Black on Black crime” in how it provokes instant derision. Unfortunately this kneejerk dismissal means that nobody has ever sat down and written the reasons why diversity of opinion is wrong, to the point of being laughable, in a compelling essay - you know, expressing important ideas in clear and persuasive writing to advance the public good, instead of telling some shitty joke for retweets. (Knowingness is a cancer: if you must signal to everyone constantly that you already know everything, you must never appear to be doing the work to find out what you are supposed to know.) So it’s not clear what the intellectual justification for denying the legitimacy of diverse perspectives might be. Instead I’m left with the impression that it’s as simple as “I only want to work with my friends, and none of my friends believes anything different than what I believe.”

There are certainly points to be made about the pipeline that supplies elite media with workers and its relationship to viewpoint diversity. Many veteran journalists have grumbled about the considerable rise in the number of reporters and writers who graduated from elite colleges. But the behavior of people within media certainly suggests that an ugly and constricting culture plays a large role. The tweet at the top is just some random jerk, but I had to laugh when I saw it, because it’s a dynamic I have dealt with constantly in 13 years of doing this. I will make some complaint about media social culture and its effects, and people will reply “he’s just mad he didn’t get invited to the party.” In other words, any criticism of the obsession with one’s social position must be an expression of one’s unhappiness with their social position, an example of obsession with social position. There is no alternative or escape. Nellie Bowles is, among other things, complaining that her union enforces political and social conformity in a way that is inappropriate, and that the workplace culture it enforces is toxic. Is this true? No idea. But the guy with the bad haircut, and other people responding to that thread, have responded not by defending the union’s behavior but by insisting that it is only Bowles’s place within that social culture that she really objects to. This is where we are with media: people are so deeply habituated to the obsession with being popular that they literally can’t comprehend the possibility of someone for whom popularity is not a goal.

In general, media culture does not have any patience for people who don’t want to get invited to happy hour. Sociability is inextricable from reputation. It is inevitable that some will respond to this piece by saying that I am trying to be friends with Bowles - again, everything must be about popularity. I’m cool, thank you, although I admit that converting to Judaism because you hate Lacroix is impressive theology.

The replies and quote tweets for the Bowles tweet, I think, suggest the orientation of many in the industry towards all of this. Bowles called journalism a bourgie industry, which I think is unkind and overly broad but not exactly wrong. Regardless, two commonplaces were “looks like she’s going to Substack” and “I’m not bourgie, I’ve never made more than $X in a year,” or similar statements of financial precarity. The combination of the two shows the deal these people have made: bad money in exchange for status. Vague and declining status, but still. The Substack thing is both a social signifier - the wrong kind of person writes for Substack, if you’re a member of the mainstream media - and an assertion of superiority. Legacy publications carry a sense of prestige with them, and as the traditional media contracts and journalists suffer economically they cling to that prestige as a form of payment to make up for the money they aren’t making. (It should go without saying that everyone in journalism deserves a living wage, good benefits, and a union, and most of them don’t have those things.) Many of these people are the types to dismiss traditional professional status markers, sometimes for political reasons, but I think they secretly really need the (diminishing) perception that writing for, I don’t know, The New Republic is impressive. They’re in a rough industry and people who they consider their inferiors are making several times their salary through new funding models.

Of course I am not saying, as I am frequently accused of saying, that people in media should not be friends with their immediate coworkers or with peers from other companies. Social connections in and of themselves are healthy and inevitable. The problem is a unusually set of economic, technological, and cultural conditions that have congealed in a way that has created social conformity in an industry where that conformity is uniquely dangerous to the basic mission. I can easily imagine a world where, without much change to the structural issues they cannot control, people in media develop natural and friendly relationships with some (some) peers that do not result in the kind of immense conflicts of interests that are prevalent in the current scenario, where they enjoy an enjoyable professional social scene while also understanding that it’s their duty to be, in a very real way, antagonistic to most of the people in their professional orbit, and where they take care not to let casual social media interactions become over time the type of relationships that prevent speaking completely openly and honestly. I can see the media becoming adversarial again. Unfortunately there seems to be something both in our times writ large and in this industry in particular that compels people to collect friends like merit badges.

If I had a central political philosophy, it would go something like this: principle comes before affiliation, always. And I frequently feel like I’ve been born in a time where anything else than affiliation, than tribes, has been systematically dismantled. If Breitbart had produced a video identical to this one, but which identified liberal reporters who cover MAGA rallies instead of conservative reporters who cover BLM, people from the Intercept would howl in outrage. But because it’s their perceived enemies that are being set up for targeting, rather than their friends, they proudly produce it. No principles, at all. Only affiliation. This is where liberal media is.

Ultimately, the political pretext for rejecting everyone who does not fit liberal media social culture will succeed. I suspect that those respondents to Bowles’s tweet are correct and her time at The New York Times will come to a close sooner than later. The Times, in particular, has demonstrated that it absolutely will not defend employees who are not popular with the majority of the people that work there, especially if they invoke race or gender-based complaints, however laughable they may be. And anyone who doesn’t share the politics of the Oberlin student senate will not be popular. I suspect that someone like Ross Douthat, who I imagine doesn’t have to interact that much with the more activist staff members, will be able to keep his head down and survive. Certainly the Times will always keep a Bret Stephens-type on the payroll to maintain the absurd farce that they are a politically-neutral institution. But by and large those who do not fit in with the social conformity mandated not just at the NYT but at all manner of publications will be gradually winnowed away, until there’s nothing left but college-educated woke Brooklynites who all get drinks together.

Perhaps this is for the best. Certainly those who leave the Times would enjoy less stress; it’s a notoriously toxic workplace culture, filled with cliques, queen bees, and unspoken but rigidly enforced social rules. (I thank god every day that I don’t ever have to use Slack.) Those who are run out of establishment media entirely can, if they are good enough to have an audience, go independent on any number of platforms. If not, perhaps that’s lucky for them anyway. I see no reason why media’s basic financial picture should improve in any substantial way anytime soon. Whether it does or not, the landscape is bleak if you prize independent thinking and you believe that the purpose of journalism, and writing, is to resist precisely the social conformity that seemingly everyone working in legacy media lustily enforces. There will be a media that we still call “mainstream” or “traditional” or whatever, and the people working within it will conceive of it as purely a vehicle for advancing social justice politics. And then there will be Andrew Breitbart’s reanimated corpse writing whatever goofy bullshit comes out of the conservative media these days. Those are you choices, friends: as if an entire industry was jointly writing White Fragility, or QAnon. Enjoy.