Where Do Journalists Come From?

Tom Wolfe wrote in his 2012 novel Back to Blood:

People have such a colorful picture of newspaper reporters, don’t they, all these daring types who “break” stories and “uncover” corruption and put themselves in risky situations to get a “scoop.” Robert Redford in All the President’s Men, Burt Lancaster in The Sweet Smell of Success … If you ask me, newspaper reporters are created at age six when they first go to school. In the schoolyard boys immediately divide into two types. Immediately! There are those who have the will to be daring and dominate, and those who don’t have it. Those who don’t, like John Smith here, spend half their early years trying to work out a modus vivendi with those who do… and anything short of subservience will be okay. But there are boys from the weaker side of the divide who grow up with the same dreams as the stronger… and I’m as sure about this as anything in the world: The boy standing before me, John Smith, is one of them. They, too, dream of power, money, fame, and beautiful lovers. Boys like this kid grow up instinctively instinctively realizing that language is an artifact, like a sword or a gun. Used skillfully, it has the power to… well, not so much achieve things as to tear things down—including people… including the boys who came out on the strong side of that sheerly dividing line. Hey, that’s what liberals are! Ideology? Economics? Social justice? Those are nothing but their prom outfits. Their politics were set for life in the schoolyard at age six. They were the weak, and forever after they resented the strong. That’s why so many journalists are liberals! The very same schoolyard events that pushed them toward the written word… pushed them toward “liberalism.” It’s as simple as that! And talk about irony! If you want power through words in journalism, rhetorical genius is not enough. You need content, you need new material, you need… news, in a word… and you have to find it yourself. You, from the weak side, can develop such a craving for new information, you end up doing things that would terrify any strong man from the other side of the divide. You will put yourself in dangerous situations amid dangerous people… with relish . You will go alone, without any form of backup… eagerly! You—you with your weak manner—end up approaching the vilest of the vile with a demand. “You have some information, and I need it. And I deserve it! And I will have it!”

Frederik De Boer writes:

Recently, after months of threats and intimidation tactics, the New York Times published a hit piece about Scott Alexander and his blog SlateStarCodex, by something named Cade Metz. You can read Alexander’s response here.

I’ll cut to the chase. The piece is an expression of a constant dynamic in media and the Times in particular: the establishment media believes that it is the world’s noble and benevolent arbiter of truth, and the kind of people who work for the Times are immensely disdainful of and actively hostile to anyone who seeks to inform or persuade the public who does not write for one of a dozen dusty legacy publications and who did not go to one of 20 or so elite colleges. Scott Alexander built up a large and immensely influential readership completely on his own, writing a blog that, whatever its faults, stepped far outside of the narrow and parochial currents that Very Serious Media refuses to leave. This was a threat, a challenge to people like Cade Metz who think that it is their divine right to be the ones to tell the story. So Metz set out to destroy Alexander, with the full backing of the official paper of crossword addicts and columns about bootstraps and dynamism. I’m sure a lot of ink has been spilled about this story, and more will come. Understand: Cade Metz wrote this story because he had to punish Alexander for writing an influential publication with no backing from the important people. Whatever anyone else says, that is the reality.

Metz, in his usual style of casual condescension and utter capitulation to dominant narratives, writes “many in the tech industry… deeply distrusted the mainstream media and generally preferred discussion to take place on their own terms.”

Boy, I wonder why! Perhaps – this is too crazy to contemplate – perhaps it’s because the mainstream media has been a complete and utter failure in its most basic functions for decades, an absolute cesspit of bad reporting, warmongering, deference to power, coverage slanted towards the interests of the rich and powerful, obsession with meaningless cultural trends and complete disinterest in stories of immense importance, a totally collapsed line between editorial and advertising, a greying workforce that knows less and less about the world and which is utterly resistant to learning…. People really hate the media, and they do because the media sucks at its job. Don’t take my word for it! Of all of the industry’s many pathologies, the funniest is its members’ inability to understand why they’re so hated, given that they have done nothing but fail for my entire adulthood. If the industry engaged in self-reflection, they might figure it out. But… they won’t.

… the New York Times is of course an entirely partisan publication, one which is in utter thrall to the Neera Tanden wing of the Democrat party. It’s the house paper of affluent class-never liberals, the kind of people who give to charity but quietly vote against tax increases in public referendums, the kind of people still will pigeonhole you at a party to insist that they like the Wire more than you do, the kind of people who go from Bowdoin to Teach for America to a year finding themselves by fucking and drugging their way across Echo Park, only to wind up in a Park Slope townhouse that really wasn’t as expensive as you think! and send their kids to private school so that they can concentrate on their careers in UX design and advertising….

Alexander is not one of them. He’s not in the New York media social rat race, so he’s not a part of their culture. He’s not on Slack. He doesn’t tell the same tired, shitty jokes that journalists make on Twitter literally from the minute they get up to the minute they go to bed. He’s not performatively filling his feed with only women writers and artists, because he’s just not that interested in cishet men anymore, man. He doesn’t make references to whatever shithouse bar in Nolita media people used to go to after work to snort coke. He doesn’t use Twitter as an outlet to scream his dedication to BIPOC to the world, knowing this will look good on his resume. He’s not a thirty three year old white person who speaks like a Black teenager, like half the journalists on Twitter. And most importantly, he jumped the line. He didn’t get paid $250 a week by Refinery79 for 60 hours of work for two years to climb the latter. He had the audacity to think that he could circumvent the system and challenge the official narratives.

I used to watch the naked social climbing going on, and it was the source of my disgusted fascination with Media Twitter. The fundamental thing that you need to understand about media Twitter is that it is a somewhat grosser, more explicit version of what media socializing is in real life: an endless, white-knuckled effort in pure careerism and influence trading. You ever see someone in the media announce that they’re changing jobs on Twitter? It is the weirdest fucking thing I’ve ever seen. I guess I understand the need to announce your career changes, but why do people always respond with absurd hyperbole on Twitter? “You are the greatest and best person in the world!” You don’t have their email address? You can’t text your congratulations? If you aren’t close enough to the person to do that, why are you congratulating them at all? And don’t even get me started on launching an independent tweet of your own (being sure to tag them, of course). DM them with your sincere happiness for them! I guarantee it’ll mean more. Do people who work at Geico do this shit?

…It’s a culture that’s full of bizarre rituals that only make sense if you understand that none of it is sincere, that all of it is motivated by the desire for social and professional gain.

You have to understand: most writers are losers, or at least, they secretly think of themselves as losers. They were losers in high school and never got over it and were surprised to learn that they couldn’t get their novel about Facing Adulthood with My Multiracial Friends in Bushwick published and so didn’t get the literary celebrity they felt they deserved. So they dive into the media ecosystem where they are delighted to find exactly what they were looking for: a new high school, a replacement for the one where they were a fucking loser, where this time they’ll be the quarterback, they’ll be the head cheerleader. And so they get up every morning and jockey for rank. They horse trade. They seek favor. They amplify work they don’t really respect because the person who wrote it is more popular or successful than them or both. They pretend that terrible, terrible jokes told by terminally unfunny people are entertaining, because they know the other person will reciprocate.

Anyone with the audacity to write from outside of that world is a target.

You will have noticed an explosion in the use of the terms “conspiracy theory” and “misinformation” lately. Ostensibly a response to the pathetic rump that is QAnon, this is the establishment media grasping at power nakedly. If you haven’t rode the Q train lately and you aren’t on Slack and you don’t tweet incessantly about how fucking deep I May Destroy You is, if you don’t participate in media rituals, if you don’t have a blue checkmark, you’re probably writing misinformation. You may have noticed that many people now cast SubStack as a hive of the alt-right and conspiracy theorists, despite the incredible ideological diversity of the platform. SubStack is a threat to the hegemony of establishment media, and so it must be politically toxic. Joe Rogan is reviled not because he and his guests say some stupid shit – and they do – but because he is immensely popular outside of the official channels, he is decidedly not part of the culture of media or overachiever culture in general, and his show is massively more successful than their terrible podcasts.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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