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Our Lazy, Decadent, Clickbait-Addled Media Industry

For the past few days, perhaps the most nuclear subject in the political-news ecosystem outside of Syria and North Korea has been the hiring—and then almost immediate firing—of National Review marquee name Kevin R. Williamson over at The Atlantic.

But amidst all the Washington and Hollywood hoo-ha, I’m struck by what we aren’t talking about. (For the record, I personally was not a fan of Williamson’s opinions—in particular, his thoughts on abortion, gays, animal cruelty, and his borderline-sadism towards the poor, though I did recognize the stylishness of his writing.) The whodunnit aspect of this sad and embarrassing (for all sides) affair has already been hashed out everywhere from Twitter to The New York Times. But the incendiary politics has obscured the realpolitik behind why decisions like the one over Williamson are made and the casual cruelty that drives them.

As someone who has worked in and around the publishing and media industry for virtually his entire adult life, and (at the risk of sounding a little sour-grapesy) who has had to crawl back from financial ruin after contracts were illegally broken—and, more importantly, as someone who has watched authors every inch as talented as Williamson of all and every race, sex, age, and political preference get blacklisted or fired from jobs for the flimsiest of reasons—let me give you a guided tour behind the publishing industry’s Oz-like iron curtain.

Moral questions aside, there is a very good (business) reason why Williamson was hired and also why—as soon as the mere whisper of law suits or mass boycotts entered the conversation—he was dropped like a hot potato.

It’s the same reason why I read (around 2011) that Snooki and Kim Kardashian were getting lecture and book deals roughly equivalent to Maya Angelou’s and Toni Morrison’s.

It’s the same reason why the big book industry, outside of young adult/vampire and Fifty Shades-type literature, is no longer even developing novelists or journalists.

And it’s why you see “The Real Reason Hollywood Won’t Work With So-and-So” and “You Won’t Believe What Such-and-Such Looks Like Today” and various and sundry clickbait clogging up your email feed.

During the worst of the Great Recession when journalists at established “trades” like Variety and Hollywood Reporter were being pink-slipped by the dozen, things couldn’t have been better for a small elite of “name” editors and columnists. The $800,000 deals and the company-leased Jags and Bimmers kept getting better for the Janice Mins and Nikki Finkes, the Richard Roepers and Michael Ausiellos of the world, even as the economy and the industry were collapsing around them.

That’s because these “prestige hires” and “marquee names” could be used as props to show shareholders that Everything Is Fine (“Hey, if we weren’t doing well, how could we afford to attract these blingy names?”) and that they could effortlessly hobnob with the Masters of the Universe. A slew of no-name, worker bee reporters unglamorously working their asses off covering and editing stories, writing copy, and crafting rigorous op-eds, just didn’t add the same value. In the all-too-true words of publishing expert Jane Friedman in Adweek, “Do NOT pitch a book expecting the publisher will bring their audience to you. It’s the other way around. You bring your audience and platform to the publisher.

Gee, I wonder what would have become of young, small-town college and high school teachers like Joyce Carol Oates, Margaret Atwood, and Stephen King, executive secretaries like Mary Higgins Clark, working moms like J.K. Rowling, and black writers like Morrison, Angelou, Walter Moseley, and James Baldwin, had they all been required to be already famousor better yet, infamous—before they got the book deal.

In 2011, I wrote an article for the FrumForum asking if we had “too many public intellectuals.” A young commenter (so young he said he had to resort to Wikipedia to make sense of a passing reference I’d made to Hollywood Squares) shot back a Truth Injection as brutal and cold as anything Kevin Williamson ever wrote. In an age when everyone’s opinion is online, he said, being a public intellectual is merely a commodity. You have to fit the format, parrot the talking points to make the big bucks. It’s not that the ones who make it aren’t capable of doing better—some are and some aren’t—it’s that today such considerations are largely beside the point.

To paraphrase one of Williamson’s most controversial bon mots about trans actress Laverne Cox, I don’t know if we have to worry about trans people being “effigies” of women, but I do know we have to worry about effigies and parodies of public intellectuals. Most of them are, like our young commenter noted, reduced to what their cable TV/YouTube appearances demand—doing highly paid ideological shtick where you know what the issues and answers will be before they even open their mouths.

Sadly, we can also see today that many of the mid-century Golden Age American intellectuals had at least one foot made out of clay. If Millennial women objected to Kevin Williamson rhetorically calling for a quarter of them to be hanged, then surely the literally violent, head-butting, wife-stabbing world of Norman Mailer would have put him right alongside Harvey, Kevin, and Bill-O in today’s blacklisted hall of shame. Second-wave feminist founding mother Germaine Greer once made fun of a Cleopatra-wigged, stubble-faced transgender woman who made the mistake of thanking Greer for all she had done for “us girls”: “You’re a man! [I] did less than nothing for you. Piss off!!”

I wonder what would happen if a novelist like John Updike were to glorify a character like Rabbit Angstrom (half Babbitt, half Archie Bunker, and all straight white male privilege) today? Or if a brand new writer published a novel about a reverse-prejudiced Jewish boy who spent his time kvetching about his Mrs. Bates-like mother when he wasn’t raiding panties like Philip Roth’s Alexander Portnoy? The great Truman Capote was unquestionably a top talent and groundbreaker, but what would even the most gay-positive person make of his Elvis-like decline, eye-rolling his way into Studio 54 with Margaret Trudeau, Liza Minnelli, and Andy Warhol propping him up while vamping, “Hiyyyya, Sugah!” or bellowing “Where the hell’s my Stolichnaya!!” at some flunkie en route to Joanne Carson’s house in Brentwood?

In any case, here’s a little pro-tip: feel free to be outraged by the way Kevin Williamson was fired, or reserve your fury for the fact that he was hired instead of another equally gifted but less notorious scribe.

But save your biggest brickbats for the laziness, decadence, and arrogance of a “publishing” industry that has deliberately forgotten how to turn talented unknowns into stars—a system for whom the only way out of obscurity is to be air-quote “outrageous” enough to separate yourself from the pack and bait those all-important clicks. Save your most vituperative vitriol for a media ecosystem that thinks being “fair and balanced” means having Richard Spencer at five o’clock and the Chapo boys at six o’clock. Let’s have a little chat about what happens when it’s the author’s job to bring his audience to a major publisher on a silver platter instead of the other way around, for a not-very-free market that chooses show horses over work horses every time.

The great Maya Angelou once said that when someone shows you who they really are, believe them. And at the end of the day, the Willamson controversy was an episode of The Howard Beale Show come to life. A “responsible” network or publisher puts on someone who many people find to be unstable because he has the potential to get boffo box office and top ratings by generating controversy—and then brutally pulls the plug the minute he becomes less of an asset and more of a liability. You may be offended by Williamson for his sometimes violent and tasteless opinions. You may be offended by Jeffrey Goldberg for hiring him and then firing him as soon as the going got rough. But rest assured, The Powers That Be aren’t really offended by any of those things.

They’re only offended because this time they got caught.

Telly Davidson is the author of a new book on the politics and pop culture of the ’90s, Culture WarHow the 90’s Made Us Who We Are Today (Like it Or Not) [1]. He has written on culture for ATTN, FrumForum, All About Jazz, FilmStew, and Guitar Player, and worked on the Emmy-nominated PBS series “Pioneers of Television.” 

21 Comments (Open | Close)

21 Comments To "Our Lazy, Decadent, Clickbait-Addled Media Industry"

#1 Comment By polistra On April 11, 2018 @ 3:48 am

I can’t muster up even the eensiest teensiest weensiest femtopiconanoscrap of sympathy or empathy for an evil monster like Williamson. When you live for the Inquisition you’ll eventually be burned by the Inquisition.

#2 Comment By Mont D. Law On April 11, 2018 @ 9:33 am

But he is right. To succeed as a pundit on the right, trolling is part of the job. Williamson is a very talented writer but to rise he turned it to triggering liberals. Not surprisingly this makes it difficult to move into the liberal, centrist press. Now, this is not always terminal, I can think of at least two NR writers that moved on. Betsy Woodruff and David Frum. Who didn’t troll.
Plus, the conservative press, which doesn’t hire liberals at all, isn’t all that interested in diversity, and never has been. Since they don’t hire liberal, those the send beyond the pale are other conservatives.

#3 Comment By PrairieDog On April 11, 2018 @ 10:53 am

Why is this article accompanied by a photo of Rachel Maddow and David Gregory? Gregory should be in jail right now for having conspired to violate the DC gun laws.

#4 Comment By Argon On April 11, 2018 @ 11:02 am

Speaking of clickbait, have you read Rod Dreher’s latest piece about the continued repression of orthodox Christianity as evidenced by people vocally disagreeing with a baker whose only crime against liberalism was that they wanted to stone witches?

#5 Comment By MarkedMan On April 11, 2018 @ 11:29 am

Rod, while I agree with many of the larger points you raised, I want to call you out for the way you characterized Goldberg’s decision to fire Williamson. According to Goldberg, the immediate cause for termination was the fact that Williamson lied to him. During his interviews with Williamson Goldberg explicitly raised the “hang them all” tweet and, reading between the lines, told Williamson that if that was The type of thing he was promoting it was a bridge too far for The Atlantic. Williamson elected to lie and tell Goldberg that it was a one time thing thrown off in the heat of the moment and did not represent his real opinion. Further, he let Goldberg repeat that lie in the editorial announcing Williamson’s hiring. When the Podcast tape was sent and it became obvious this was part of Williamson’s schtick and therefore he had lied in the interview process, Goldberg had the choice of either firing him or writing another editorial tha started “Although I found out yesterday that Williamson had deceived me during the hiring process, I have elected to keep him on because…”. And to be honest I can’t think of what would come after those ellipses.

All the issues you mentioned are factors in the hiring of Williamson, but I don’t know how much they factored into his firing. I think people on all sides of this debate are shoe-horning this case to advance their issues, but the reality is that this is much more about basic journalistic and employee/employer ethics.

#6 Comment By M. Orban On April 11, 2018 @ 11:33 am

Hmmm… We don’t need more people like Williamson, we need fewer of them.
Good article otherwise (though on the lengthy side)

#7 Comment By Kent On April 11, 2018 @ 11:59 am

Maybe all of this explains why I don’t read much of the media anymore.

#8 Comment By Geogman On April 11, 2018 @ 1:03 pm

BRAVO! BRAVO! STANDING O!

#9 Comment By Arjun Moorthy On April 11, 2018 @ 1:30 pm

You make an excellent point Telly. My startup, CivikOwl, is building an app that scores articles for quality as based primarily on the depth of research. Our hope is to surface the work of hard-working authors regardless of what publication they work for. We’ve found a segment of the public that appreciates this and hope to make this the norm vs. click-bait headlines.

#10 Comment By jk On April 11, 2018 @ 1:43 pm

I’m no safe space snowflake and agree that the profit model of the MSM incentives clickbait, but was wondering, in Williamson’s theocractic paradise, can a man that impregnated the woman that chooses an abortion (with a fetus that does not have a brain or conscious) be an accessory to “murder” also and be hanged?

#11 Comment By Daniel Baker On April 11, 2018 @ 3:47 pm

“Millennial women objected to Kevin Williamson rhetorically calling for a quarter of them to be hanged.”

Now wait just a goldarn minute there. Kevin Williamson didn’t do that. Saying that abortion should be a hanging offense *henceforward* is a completely different thing from saying that abortion should be *retroactively* made a hanging offense and that people who did it legally should be hanged. Just like calling for slavery to be outlawed and made criminally punishable is different from retroactively fining, imprisoning or hanging all the slave owners who owned slaves before the 13th Amendment.

I still consider Williamson wrong to call for abortion to be outlawed, and six kinds of wrong for calling to make it a hanging offense, but he wasn’t that seventh kind of wrong by calling for an ex post facto law.

#12 Comment By Carolyn On April 11, 2018 @ 4:34 pm

Thank you for this recognition of us “worker bee reporters.” We’re still here — a lot of us in community journalism where the dust up at the planning commission meeting is treated with the same seriousness a cable news gives to Trump’s Tweets.

#13 Comment By E Kent On April 11, 2018 @ 4:56 pm

With all of these scandals and mini-scandals and tempests-in-a-teacups involving the past writings and actions of an awful lot of people the past few years I have to wonder if there’s something like a generational understanding gap at work here.

I mean, the people who are in charge in newsrooms and websites and the halls of power no matter what stripe of thought still don’t seem to grasp the magnitude of the change that has occurred.

There’s no hiding anymore. If you make a speech you have to understand that EVERY person in your audience has a recording device in their pocket with abilities on par with a television studio of about the 1990s.

If you hire someone to write for you you need to understand that EVERY single thing they’ve written of any consequence in the past 20 years or more is probably easily found within seconds. You can simply type “Name, controversy” into a search bar. So they better not be someone who’s opinions are toxic to your readership, or they’ve got to at least have had a public change of heart over he years.

If your running as a reformer you better not have a long documented history of poor ethics, and if you’re championing the little guy you better not be making secret paid speeches to wall street bankers. If you get a job throwing ideological bombs at one side of the divide or the other, he past bombs you’ve thrown will inevitably piss off some of the people on your side as well.

Not saying that this is a good or bad thing, my opinion shifts back and forth each time this happens. I’m just saying, this is the reality now. Current new media devils Facebook and YouTube aside, there’s no changing things without wrecking a lot of things that people seem to really depend on now.

#14 Comment By Jeeves On April 11, 2018 @ 6:13 pm

@jk

Don’t think so. Murder is a malum in se crime requiring specific intent. How you might infer such intent from the point of impregnation is not obvious, not even to theocrats like Williamson, I’ll bet.

Thank you Telly Davidson for saying what needs saying.

#15 Comment By Jeeves On April 11, 2018 @ 6:23 pm

@Mont D. Law
“Plus, the conservative press, which doesn’t hire liberals at all, isn’t all that interested in diversity, and never has been. Since they don’t hire liberal, those the send beyond the pale are other conservatives.”

I consider the Wall Street Journal editorial page conservative. It has regular appearances by liberal journalists. The only columnist “sent beyond the pale” of the WSJ recently was Bret Stephens–and he was sent, I believe, by the incredible volume of Trumpista hate comments his column seemed to inspire.

#16 Comment By Emil Bogdan On April 12, 2018 @ 2:42 am

Thank you for an excellent article about “a “publishing” industry that has deliberately forgotten how to turn talented unknowns into stars.”

You recommend that we all chat about it. How does the chat proceed after logging the information that something important has been “deliberately forgotten”?

What does it mean to deliberately forget? Is the offending publisher a deliberate foe, or a forgetful one?

I feel enlightened and alarmed by your article, therefore, this gentle brickbat is quite sincere.

#17 Comment By Moone Boy On April 12, 2018 @ 7:31 am

Daniel Baker: it’s actually not really a big difference to only hang women who will have an abortion in the future. The problem with the slavery analogy is both: a) the holders not only weren’t hanged, their defenders got statues and their descendants got Jim Crow; b) the whole state-enforced human-incubator thing rather upends the analogy.

#18 Comment By Mont D. Law On April 12, 2018 @ 8:37 am

Brett Stephens, Bari Weiss. Robert Messenger, and Sohrab Ahmari are all Never-Trump conservatives, who read the writing on the wall and self deported. This was after Mark Lasswell was told not to return from a book leave.

If you want to list some liberal WSJ columnists we can debate their politics, but Stephens as a neo-con climate change denier hardly qualifies.

#19 Comment By Dale Arthur On April 12, 2018 @ 9:01 am

Public conservatives are making a martyr of Williamson, while simultaneously distancing themselves from his enthusiasm for hanging. Figure it out guys. Unless you just prefer the gymnastics needed to feel superior to the constraints of the publication that is _The Atlantic_.

#20 Comment By Ildebrando On April 12, 2018 @ 9:22 am

“It’s the same reason why I read (around 2011) that Snooki and Kim Kardashian were getting lecture and book deals roughly equivalent to Maya Angelou’s and Toni Morrison’s.”

Two overrated frauds competing against two others. What’s not to understand?

#21 Comment By b. On April 12, 2018 @ 4:17 pm

Curious: Is a veteran, or a disabled person without legs an “effigy”? Is a cancer survivor that has lost some parts of his or her body to surgery and amputation an “effigy”? How do we define a human being? Do we dehumanize a person because they were forced to, felt forced to, or foolish choose without need to change, even mutilate their body? How do we see obesity, or bulimia, or anorexia?

Is Kevin Williamson an effigy, and if so, of what, exactly?