The Malicious Journalist Thesis

Elizabeth Spiers writes:

* The malicious journalist thesis is the one that was the hardest on my ocular muscles yesterday. Scott Alexander—the figure at the center of the piece—believes this, and has advanced this theory that the journalist who wrote the piece, and perhaps The New York Times institutionally, were out to smear him. To what end, it’s unclear. (A favorite fallacious rationale: clicks! More about that in a bit.) Scott has reconstituted Slate Star Codex as a Substack publication called Astral Codex Ten. In a statement on The New York Times article, which he did not like, to put it mildly, he writes, “The New York Times backed off briefly as I stopped publishing, but I was also warned by people ‘in the know’ that as soon as they got an excuse they would publish something as negative as possible about me, in order to punish me for embarrassing them.”

Only in a bubble as insular and tiny as the SSC community would this theory be even remotely plausible. To put this in context: SSC is influential in a small but powerful corner of the tech industry. It is not, however, a site that most people, even at The New York Times, are aware exists—and certainly, the Times and its journalists are not threatened by its existence. They are not out to destroy the site, or “get” Scott, or punish him. At the risk of puncturing egos: they are not thinking about Scott or the site at all. Even the reporter working on the story has no especial investment in its subject. That reporter is also probably working on six other stories at the same time, thinking about their friends, family, what their kid needs to do in Zoom school tomorrow, the book they want to read, whether Donald Trump will get arrested, whether rats dream of boredom. They do not sit around thinking about how they’re going to “get” people they write about, and when subjects think they do, it’s more a reflection of the subject’s self-perception (or self-importance) and, sometimes, a sprinkling of unadulterated narcissism.

Here I should note that I was a reader of Slate Star Codex and have subscribed to Scott’s Substack. I think it has some meaningful value or I wouldn’t have been a reader. I look forward to reading the Substack. But it is possible to appreciate something without absurdly venerating it.

Scott is not the first subject who’s unaccustomed to being on the receiving end of journalism who, confronted with a portrayal he didn’t like, attributed all forms of bad faith to the person who produced the portrayal. In fact, it’s pretty common among people who haven’t been profiled before. Even the most generous profiles will include things that the subject doesn’t like. Those are the only things the subject pays attention to. They also often think a journalist is obligated to privilege their version of what’s happening, however self-serving it may be, or however unreliable a narrator they are of their experiences. (And everyone is an unreliable narrator when they articulate their own experiences. No doubt some people reading this will read this essay and note areas where I might be saying things that are self-serving or self-indulgent. We all are, to some extent.)

* negative pieces are not de facto “hit pieces.”

* It makes a lot of people uncomfortable when they can’t control their self-presentation, and this extends to journalistic portrayals. This is especially true of smart people who are accustomed to believing that they can manipulate their own narratives at will via a process of rational self-engineering and diligent application of the right KPIs. People like Balaji, for example. Surely journalism can be gamed and / or nipped in the bud!

I suggest an easier route than summoning an army of bots, oppo researchers, Dark Enlightenment (ironic labeling for whatever that constitutes) warriors, etc., to go after journalists whose work you don’t like: pay careful attention to what you’re afraid they’re going to write, and why you wouldn’t want it to be public. Then apply some rational thinking.

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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