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 famous—or 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 War: How the 90’s Made Us Who We Are Today (Like it Or Not). 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.”