The Rise of Systemic Tabloidism
To assert that journalism is dead is so tired these days as to be basically a cliché, and so self-evidently true as to be a tautology. Only the most self-righteous, dishonest, and clueless disagree. However, while the corpse of journalism continues to stink up our public square (to say nothing of our Twitter feeds), no autopsy on the patient has yet been performed. Instead, a simple explanation has caught on with those on the Right – namely, that the Left did it. This argument usually runs rather like a dark spin on a creation myth, where in the beginning, journalism was objective and rational, and the spirit of truth lay upon the surface of the waters, only for it all to be destroyed when journalists ate from the fruit of the tree of progressive activism, and thus proceeded to cast all of us out of Eden into the outer darkness where there is wailing, gnashing of teeth, and hot takes.
Needless to say, this explanation is attractive for two reasons: firstly, it’s simple, and secondly, at least for non-progressives, it’s self-serving. I don’t say that to condescend. Had you asked me a few years ago what caused the fall of journalism, I’d have regurgitated something very close to this thesis. However, upon reflection from years of work in and around journalism, I have come to a different conclusion: yes, journalism is rotting, but the pathology afflicting it is far more subtle, and therefore far more dangerous than simple Leftist groupthink. Yes, ideological fanaticism is a problem in any profession, and yes, journalists tend overwhelmingly to be fanatical in the same way. Yet while these facts provide a lot of room for condemnation, they lack a great deal in the realm of explanation. Why, if Leftism alone is the problem, do we see similar sensationalist, alarmist, and lazy work from some segments of the Right? How did sensationalism and alarmism proliferate more now than they did in the past? How is it that cancel culture, something that would have been unthinkable to the stoic chroniclers of, say, the Watergate era, is now the favorite pastime of people whose job is ostensibly to report the news rather than create it? And, if journalists are really liberated by this new media landscape relative to the past, why do so many of them seem so much more miserable than even the most Leftist writers of yesteryear? Why, despite claiming to fight dehumanization, bigotry, and the rapaciousness of modern capitalism, are Leftist journalists willing to engage in behavior that attacks the economically vulnerable, uses the excesses of capitalism (particularly at-will employment) as a weapon, and dehumanizes everyone in the process?
Clearly, something is wrong in this picture beyond mere affection for Leftism. Something in the entire enterprise of journalism was broken, and recently broken, in such a way as to produce the circumstances we see today. More to the point, I think many journalists must know, deep down, that something is wrong, and despise having to feed this monster they’ve created almost as much as we hate them doing it. But they have no choice. Because ironically, the biggest problem with journalism is not individual journalists. The biggest problem is that all journalists have been pushed, by economic and social forces beyond their control, into precisely the kind of malign, dehumanizing system that wokeness claims to combat. For the sake of brevity, I will refer to that system as systemic tabloidism, a term which hopefully captures both the laziness and the inhumanity at the heart of a system designed not to empower journalists, but instead to use them as a means for others to maximize their capital and power at the expense of everyone else.
By focusing on the dehumanization, classism, and capitalistic rapaciousness exemplified by so much of modern journalistic practice, I aim to show the ways in which this system operates, often without the consent of even those whose work powers it. I don’t do this to attack journalists, but rather to partially absolve them. I believe that only once you stop seeing the worst behaviors of our media class as individual failures of character and behold them as necessary side-effects of a system, can you begin to understand what that system is, and therefore, how to reform and/or dismantle it, something which I believe even many Leftist journalists will want to do if they read my arguments with an open mind.
I. Mary Sue, Bureau Chief: Stripping Humanity from Heroes and Villains
Let’s begin with a controversial assertion: Journalists hate racism, but they love racists. I know, it’s hard to believe. If you said this to me five years ago, I’d have at least raised an eyebrow. So let me put it less scarily: Journalists hate racism, but they love what racists can do for them.
Again, you may be confused. What can a racist do for a journalist? Answer: a journalist’s most basic job is to tell an interesting story, and evil (of which racism is a specimen) is inherently interesting. As a journalist’s ability to make a living is dependent on their ability to find interesting things to write about, this means that a racist can do the same thing for a journalist that an animal can do for a hunter: they literally put food on the table. Which means that, like people who rely on hunting for food, journalists have an incentive to cultivate the ecosystem that produces racists so they will go on having quarry.
However, as in hunting, not all quarry is created equal. Shooting a rabbit will not provide as much food as bringing down a moose, and similarly, a story on the racism of Joe Bob from Alabama with the Confederate flag tattoos will be much less interesting to readers than a story on the racism of a seemingly well-spoken, well-credentialed member of the elite class. Because while evil in a story is interesting, unpredictable evil is more interesting.
Unless, of course, Joe Bob has a following. Because then, even if his racism is predictable, the possibility that someone you know might listen to Joe Bob makes him threatening in a more urgent way. In other words, evil that is an urgent threat is even more interesting than unpredictable evil. This goes double if Joe Bob is rich, or if he’s in a position of power, goes triple if he’s rich, and powerful, and has a following, and reaches mythic levels of terror if he’s someone rich and powerful, with a following, who shouldn’t agree with Joe Bob, but does anyway. Find someone like that, and you have a perfect villain for a story about racism.
But wait, the job here is to tell a story, right? Even if you have a good villain, that’s not enough for a story. For that, you need a protagonist. You need someone who stands up to the urgently dangerous, unpredictable evil and brings it to heel. At this point, like many fanfic authors, most journalists just insert themselves. After all, the point of the protagonist in these stories is to be an audience surrogate, and thus to be maximally relatable. Putting themselves at the center of the story might compromise their objectivity, but it makes the story more attractive to readers, which is more important for reasons I’ll get into later. Anyway, this kind of self-insert journalism doesn’t have to necessarily be bad. Hunter S. Thompson was famously prone to it. The problem comes when journalists decide that, like the worst fanfic authors, they have to compromise every other character in order to tell the story they want. And unfortunately, unlike fanfic, that means misrepresenting the behavior of real people.
I should know. I’ve been on the receiving end of this kind of real-life character derailment more times than I can count.
I recall the first time I became aware of this behavior, particularly in Australia. A television reporter asked me directly if I was racist, to which I said “no”. Immediately I observed her entire demeanor drop, her shoulders slump and voice turn to a dull tone of defeat and frustration. After years of being asked this question, it finally clicked for me that journalists genuinely wanted me to say “yes” to being a racist, sexist, homophobe or whatever -ism they threw at me. Because people are complicated, even if narratives are not.
Which is why the media has to really stretch to make complex people into “neo-Nazi” cartoons. In reality, all the low hanging fruit – the Joe Bobs – have long since become old news, often due to the efforts of journalists who actually put themselves in danger to get a story. Which causes another problem for reporters trying to write reality-based fanfiction with themselves as the heroes: Trying to entrap an influencer into saying something stupid and having a “mask off” moment is basically baby’s first Nazi hunt, and no one would confuse that process with actual peril. Exposing actual, genuine neo-Nazis is both a lot more dangerous and time-consuming than that. You can’t expose the Aryan Brotherhood if you have to fill a quota of four think pieces on why the latest Marvel movie is problematic every single day in order to drive traffic. So, in order to elevate what are often very minor stories about largely unknown edgy influencers into a climactic battle against the Fourth Reich, journalists have to exaggerate both the threat posed by those influencers and the danger they themselves are in when they write about them. This is why you see moral panics around online harassment (which is a real problem, but is only ever talked about when it comes from the Right), and about the potential ties that right-wing influencers have to dangerous people just because they happened to unwittingly be in a photo with someone whose crimes extend beyond shitposting, It is not personal, and it is not even really designed to make the alleged bad people look bad: often, it’s to make the journalist look braver.
But, unfortunately for journalists, readers aren’t idiots. Most people can tell that it takes far more courage to stand up to specious media accusations than it does to make them. Which is another reason why it’s so desperately important that the media make themselves out to be heroes: because otherwise, people wouldn’t tolerate their industry at all.
This isn’t me just speculating. There’s actual evidence that the vast majority of people don’t share the same values as journalists, even when those values are expressed in their noblest form. A recent study by the Media Insight Project showed that of five “journalistic values,” namely oversight, transparency, factualism, giving voice to the less powerful, and social criticism, the only one that had more than 50 percent support from the public was factualism, or the belief that we should know all the facts before we make up our own minds. The others all fared worse, with “social criticism,” i.e. the idea that “a good way to make society better is to spotlight its problems,” scored the lowest at 29 percent. Indeed, only 20 percent of the public agreed with all of these journalistic “values,” and it was a group that was (unsurprisingly) made up overwhelmingly of partisan Democrats. The rest of the public – in both parties – was more skeptical. In other words, even journalists who actually adhere to the values of the profession in their most elevated form don’t have majority support from the public for their actions.
And, ironically, one of the things that the public is least willing to concede about journalists is that they’re moral. Which, needless to say, is the central conceit of the journalists pulling this Mary Sue con game. But most non-journalists wouldn’t be surprised by that, despite their professions of incorruptible pure pureness, modern journalists actually permit systemic tabloidism to warp all five of the values that journalism purports to stand for.
Oversight, i.e. the idea that the powerful need to be monitored, is applied selectively for the sake of reinforcing a simplistic “good vs evil” framing that sells well in fiction, but is easily seen through in actual events. The same impulse destroys transparency, i.e. the idea that on balance it’s better for things to be public than to be kept secret, and factualism. The idea of giving voice to the less powerful and least heard becomes thoroughly obstructed by over-simplified, mass-marketable but non-truthful definitions of who is the least powerful, often flattening complicated inequalities into Disney movie-style parables, because the theory is that those will sell better and draw more readers due to their lack of complexity. Social criticism, meanwhile, becomes simply a way of telling “Just So” stories in which we are always at war with Eastasia - um, Nazis and/or communists (if you’re on the Right, which is not immune to systemic tabloidism) and/or Gamergate, and as long as they survive even in the most pathetic, emasculated form, society remains an oppressive hellscape that only our brave Mary Sues of the press can clean up.
Worse still, the ideals of oversight, transparency, and factualism are often perverted by systemic tabloidism into a demand that journalists terrorize anyone who can be grist for a mob of angry readers with (often specious) accusations, no matter how irrelevant or private their lives, all in the alleged name of “exposing the truth” or “holding people to account.” When the reality is that all of it is geared toward creating a compelling product to entertain readers rather than inform them. As the left-wing social critic Lindsay Ellis recently observed in a brilliant and cutting video essay, “Do not give me this horses*** about accountability. This is obviously just entertainment to you. Just f***ing own it.”
The other problem that emerges out of this rush to substanceless, entertainment-oriented moralism is that many, many stories that involve harm to real people end up ignored because they either cannot be turned into readily packaged parables (as in the case of mass shootings that get ignored because the culprit is the wrong color), or because they’re too blasé to surprise anyone (stories about children being shot by gang bangers, for instance). The Joker in The Dark Knight observes, “If, tomorrow, I tell the press that, like, a gang banger will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will be blown up, nobody panics, because it’s all ‘part of the plan.’” He’d have made a good journalist, because he’s right. Marketable stories make careers. Stories that need telling but that don’t flatter anyone’s preconceptions and don’t serve an obvious agenda …don’t. So why would young, often poor, often precariously employed journalists seek out nuance when they’re probably looking for something that will catapult them out of the hellworld of unpaid internships and entry-level pay? They wouldn’t. Even in the case of stories that most people would want to know about, however complex or intractable they look.
This incentive to oversimplify and sensationalize would be bad enough in a society with a functioning education system, but unfortunately, that’s not what we have. Instead, we have armies of people graduating from even elite colleges not knowing how many were killed in the Holocaust, or what “really happened during the Civil War.” (No, I’m not making that quote up.) What little history such people do know becomes a form of entertainment in itself, so that the only comparison anyone can make when trying to explain the evils of a new idea is to a certain discredited World War II-era German political party. And even the portrayal of that political party is off, as they’re usually portrayed as though their only sin was racism, and were destined to lose because of that, when the truth is that the Nazis were so much worse and were defeated thanks to so many more complicated factors than simply “they were on the wrong side of history.” In fact, the idea that the Nazis were nothing more than obviously evil racist cartoons who lost because they were evil is one that the genuine anti-fascist scholar Hannah Arendt would scoff at for its simplicity and its ignorance of the “banality of evil” that made the Nazi regime so much more horrifying than a bunch of cackling villains. But in the world of moral certainty wedded to total intellectual incuriosity that our entertainment-focused culture creates, even history is rendered farcically. And if even world-historical heroes and villains cannot have their virtue, or their evil, portrayed accurately in hindsight, then what chance have those of us deemed “evil” in the present?
This is why, for those of us on the receiving end of press attention, wandering through the tales these people write can feel like walking through a fever dream. And, indeed, some of the reason behind the existence of this moralizing, oversimplified form of journalism is precisely that those who practice it are dreamers. Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed journalists, genuinely wishing to do something great. Their respect for great romance and fable, still well alive in their hearts, but perverted into something corrupt. And as you will see, that corruption is not their fault. Dreams and moral aspirations can be good. But in the hands of systemic tabloidism, as with everything else that it gets its greasy mitts on, nothing – including the aspirations of its own practitioners – is sacred.
II. Dehumanization: The Freakshow
Now, the fact of media figures fancying themselves as moral instructors might seem like a trope that has been around since the dawn of time. But in actuality, it is rather new relative to the history of the profession. To understand why, we have to go back a bit. Prior to the 20th century, journalism was widely seen as a disreputable profession akin to a personal injury attorney: journalists were ambulance chasers and vultures out to get a story, often whether it was true or not. Emblematic of this approach was that taken by William Randolph Hearst and his famed so-called “yellow journalism,” i.e. journalism that was sensationalized and cheapened to the point of outright falsehood. In fact, so influential was Hearst’s fact-optional style of newspaper reporting that historians still debate how much of a role its (often untrue) coverage of Spain played in starting the Spanish-American War. Hearst’s reason for supporting this kind of journalism was the oldest in the world: he knew it would sell papers. And because this style dominated in the late 19th/early 20th century, anyone reading papers put out by Hearst, or his rival Joseph Pulitzer, knew to expect facts to take a back seat to wild, sensationalistic, incendiary writing.
All that changed in World War I, when the US Army first established an office dedicated to censoring the American press during wartime. And it may surprise you to learn this, but the press happily played along with the idea and became dutiful propagandists for the American war machine. In the process, journalism shifted from a disreputable profession for scandalmongers and outrageous liars to an official source of information backed and edited by the government. It gained trust from Americans desperate for news of their friends and relatives who had gone overseas, and with trust came authority, and with authority came a sense that journalism was an inherently moral enterprise.
This official censorship regime continued until the Vietnam War, which has the distinction of being the first 20th-century war where the press was not censored at all. However, because the good will decades of “official” journalism during World War II remained, this meant that the press began to attract people who wanted to use their voices at “authoritative” papers to make a difference in the world. As such, while the actual coverage of the Vietnam War was closer to what you would have seen in a Hearst paper in the early 20th century, it was received as if it came from an officially sanctioned government organ. In fact, it’s arguable that the American press’s liberal disdain for the Vietnam War had as much to do with the war’s losses as the actual extremely flawed military strategy employed by the American government. Witness US President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s famous proclamation that, “If I’ve lost [Walter] Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America,” Walter Cronkite being arguably the most trusted news media figure of the time.
For journalists, the fact that their reporting could quite possibly end a war must have been heady stuff, and it only got headier when Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein broke the story of the Watergate scandal, which ultimately led to the resignation of US President Richard Nixon. The fact that journalists alone could end a war and fire a president changed the landscape of journalism forever, because now, instead of only caring about getting readers, journalists now cared about something else, as well: increasing their own power.
In fact, as long as newspapers and television stations remained the only possible places to advertise, journalists could focus solely on getting power, because having a captive advertisers’ market meant that the money to support their salaries would always be there.
Then the internet and the Great Recession happened. Suddenly, advertising was no longer solely the domain of newspapers. Instead, it was the domain of whoever could get a widely read website. Which meant that in order for papers to stay profitable, they once more had to care about getting readers more than about being seen as credible or worthy of social power. After all, survival was more important than accolades. So what’s an industry that needs to become profitable again to do? Simple: Do what they did the last time. Go back to yellow journalism. Become tabloids again. Sensationalize, inflame, and agitate just to make sure you kept people reading and subscribing.
Which means that whatever their moral pretenses, journalists ultimately are salespeople. And what gets more eyeballs than a good old fashioned freak show? Which brings me to the second pillar of systemic tabloidism: dehumanization.
If you read a lot of the modern journalism surrounding politics, you’ll find that quite often it focuses on showing how utterly pathetic, strange, and downright worthless the other side is. Since I am most familiar with this when it comes from the Left, I’ll focus on that element of it for now. Try reading any number of headlines from Leftist journalists on right-wing figures, and see if you can shake the idea that they all sound like this:
“Gather round, gather round, today I have found human beings so bizarre, so unnatural, one could barely call them human at all! Today I have a woman who is an anti-feminist! Come look, isn’t she silly, isn’t she mad? That’s not all though, from the furthest corners of Florida, we have found a black man who is a member of a pro-Republican organization, what a laugh! Our biggest attraction today though, a real live captured modern NAZI! You’ll never believe the quotes we’ve dug up from his Twitter ten years ago! You won’t believe your ears when we play these out of context soundbites!”
Sounds like a P.T. Barnum act, doesn’t it? That’s because it is. Because freak shows are interesting, and no one reads anything if it isn’t interesting. Which means that the most profitable journalism is often the most dehumanizing, which in turn means that if you want to make your journalistic outfit maximally profitable, there’s no reason it should bother with quaint notions like objectivity, fairness, or even lack of bias. Yes, those things make a powerful press feel more legitimate, but when your goal is profit rather than power, they’re hindrances, at best. And right now, with journalism rapidly becoming one of the fastest dying industries in America, profit is all that matters for any journalist who wants to avoid being out of a job.
Which means that, even when journalists want to be fair or objective, they may need to choose between that and their job. I’ve seen this firsthand. I used to have a relatively cordial relationship with a Buzzfeed writer, we’d have beers, laugh and get along just fine. Then he’d pop the question saying he has to publish a piece on me and needs a quote. We both knew that he’d have to portray me badly, but it looked best for both of us if he included a direct quote from the subject and I at least got a brief moment of my say. His twisting whatever I said wasn’t personal; it was just business.
Unfortunately, that sort of relationship is almost never that consensual. Witness Jordan Peterson's interview with Decca Aitkenhead, in which he was portrayed as a schizophrenic madman. In truth, the full recording which Peterson published later shows Aitkenhead emotionally coaxing answers out of Peterson, playing up her heartfelt sympathies for his health struggles. I’ve learned very well not to trust the words “I truly want to get to know you” from journalists anymore. Again, this almost certainly wasn’t personal: Aitkenhead likely saw this as a phenomenal opportunity to advance her career. And she was right. Despite much criticism (or because of it?), the article went absolutely viral. Which only proved that Aitkenhead was a profitable hire, which is the most important thing right now.
Or, to take a yet more tragic example, consider Zdzislaw Molodynski, a Polish photographer who had his life and reputation destroyed by journalists posting invented quotes of his slandering others in his community as dangerous drunks without fact-checking their origins. In a rare moment of clarity, Buzzfeed broke the true story, but the damage was already done. After the stories were published about him, his village assumed they were true and despised him. He didn’t leave his house for a year and had to be prescribed medication for the stress and mental torment that occurred as a result. The fake stories about him remain online to this day, and there are no legal actions he can take.
His entire life, in exchange for a day of clicks. It would almost be Faustian if it weren’t so utterly pathetic and small-ball. And if you’re still not convinced, let me give you a more painful personal example:
It’s come out multiple times that contestants on shows like The Bachelor are often manipulated by producers to say certain things which will get the audience going. Chris Bukowski from season eight of The Bachelorette claimed that his interviews with producers felt “more like police interrogations.” He continued, “I was saying lines verbatim from producers because I’d been sitting in a stupid room for an hour and just wanted to go. You would end up saying something you totally didn’t even believe or want to say, but they just keep asking you and asking you and asking you - just like you’re being interrogated.”
Despite never having participated on a reality T.V. show in my life, I too have experienced exactly what Bukowski describes.
In an act of supreme stupidity, I participated in a documentary where I allowed The Atlantic to follow me around for a few years capturing my media ventures. I truly have no excuse for not catching on to their deception by the 50th time they asked me if I was racist. No one asks a question that many times if they’re trying to get an honest answer. They keep asking it because they didn’t like the honest answer.
When I gave The Atlantic a curt “no”, they asked in different ways, to which I then responded with a long “no”, then a frustrated “no”, then a bored “no”, all the “no’s” you could imagine. Each time they appeared more and more frustrated that I was not giving them the soundbite they wanted. We did four years of filming. Filming me candidly, talking to friends, filming when I was just working and editing, filming when I was brainstorming with my video team, laughing, crying, in the morning, and in the night. They never got a single quote of me saying something racist.
Regardless of what the journalists knew to be true, this was an unacceptable outcome. Their outlet had invested hundreds of thousands of dollars into a project with the promise of producing something enticing, ie something that would get a lot of eyeballs. A girl making her way in the media with perfectly moderate conservative views is not nearly interesting enough for that. But because they’d already invested so much, they knew that like any good circus, this show had to go on. Even if they had to do the journalistic equivalent of gluing a beard to the “bearded lady,” the show had to go on.
Hence why I was shocked when I discovered the documentary and saw a clip of myself saying, “Gang rape is an inherently democratic process. It’s nine people voting against one on what they want to do.” Outlets like the Chicago Sun quoted this, saying “It takes a special level of awfulness to think this way. And you have to be next-level dumb and terrible to say something like that on camera.”
Leave aside that the substance of what I was saying was nothing more controversial than the famous quote, “Democracy is two wolves and a lamb deciding what to have for dinner.” The reality is that, yes, given how inflammatory my version of that statement was, it is weird that someone would say that on-camera. If I walked into a room, or up to a camera, and started going off about how gang rape was actually democratic, that would probably get me committed. Indeed, the fact that it would be so shocking out of context is why it made such good fodder for a documentary.
But, of course, no one saw the actual context, such as the questions being asked to me by the producer leading me to this statement. Nor the full context in which I am utterly condemning the action of gang rape, and making the comparison as to say, unfortunately in history terrible things have been voted for democratically, which is why we cannot always trust mobs or simply the majority in the room to make good decisions. In other words, the exact same sentiment as the “two wolves and a lamb” quote.
But of course, my context didn’t make the cut, because it would have spoiled the freak show just as surely as the fake bearded woman ripping her glued-on beard would. Which brings me to the ultimate point of this section: even when journalists have every excuse to be fair, those reasons will be ignored when they’re the difference between having a place to work and being laid off. Just like moralism produces a pretty, pre-packaged narrative of good and evil that is more easily digestible by the average consumer, dehumanization works because it keeps readers interested, and only fails when the targets have the resources to fight back (which I’ll say more about in a bit). This explains the relentless lack of empathy that journalists are required to have under systemic tabloidism.
You will probably notice that of the two tendencies I’ve identified, dehumanization is the one that more obviously makes money. Which means that you would think a maximally profitable paper would actually be one that hated everyone, rather than one that took sides. Moralistic journalism is useful for holding power, but under normal circumstances, it implicitly limits your reader base, because only people who hold your moral code will take it seriously, right? Well, hold that thought, as we now move on from investigating the twin tendencies of systemic tabloidism into looking at the overarching economic systems and incentives that keep it in power.
III. Capitalism and Classism
Up to this point, we have considered the tactics of systemic tabloidism. Now, we turn to the question of why it has become so popular. To explain that, consider the following scenario:
Let’s assume we cleared out all the bad apples from the media and enlisted only kind, charitable, perfectly honest journalists at Buzzfeed. Hell, let’s say we did that for every publication! Then let’s say the sociopaths, who got fired, all started their own publication.
Which one would get readers? Sadly, while it doesn’t bode well for the human race, I think we all know the answer to this. Assuming our sociopaths get more readers (which they do, and would), who gets all the advertising money and venture capitalists investing in their paper? Of course, those who get the most clicks. And, because those people make so much money from getting clicks, they have the ability to hire better lawyers, who will, in turn, defend them more capably against any potential libel lawsuits (which are very likely to accrue against a publication run by sociopaths).
Now, given this, what can even the most scrupulous journalist do, if they want to keep working in that field, or if they have student loans that they can’t pay off any other way? What can even the most moral publisher do? Answer: If they want to avoid going bankrupt, they have to copy the sociopaths. Maybe not all at once. Maybe they rationalize it by only hiring the least sociopathic of the sociopaths, or by only using those tactics against people who really seem to deserve it. But eventually, the need to get clicks will produce a race to the bottom, and even those good journalists will have to start using the extremely profitable, dehumanizing tactics of their more sociopathic peers.
However, having to do something and enjoying it are fundamentally different things. Which is why, in order to soothe their shrieking consciences, non-sociopathic journalists will have to come up with ever more extreme rationalizations for behaving in this way. This, in turn, leads to their casting themselves as valiant, misunderstood heroes, and the people criticizing them as irredeemable villains. Yes, a clear hero and a clear villain help a story, but for journalists with a conscience, extreme moralism is as much a psychological defense mechanism against their own guilt as it is a decision to improve their stories. “I’m not dehumanizing people for profit; the people I dehumanize really are that awful, and anyone who claims I’m being unfair must secretly be just as bad,” we can imagine them saying to themselves. This is where the impulse to view oneself as a Mary Sue figure originates.
We shouldn’t blame them for this because the reality is that they are being forced to act this way, not by their targets, but by the fact that our consumerist economy requires all businesses to cater to the lowest elements of human nature.
However, this need for moral rationalizations does produce a separate problem for the journalists who indulge it: only dehumanizing the people who deserve it is not a functional business model in a news business that demands as much dehumanization as possible. Which means that in order to preserve their fragile sense of their own morality, such people will have to believe in increasingly strident, unforgiving, and sometimes flat-out insane ideas of morality, in order to justify having to dehumanize and slander an ever-larger sphere of their fellow human beings. However, in following those ever-more extreme moral systems, ironically, the market appeal of their dehumanization is weakened. Lots of people love rubbernecking to look at freaks, but almost no one likes being preached to by the ringmaster, especially when the preaching gets more and more unforgiving and more and more people end up being branded as freaks.
But there’s a way out of this for our modern-day news business. To understand why, look at the metrics that online news websites use to calculate traffic. There are typically two: clicks/views, and unique visitors. The first is obvious: it’s the number of times a site is viewed. However, this doesn’t necessarily correlate with number of people reached. Theoretically, one person could refresh a site a million times and it would have a million clicks, even though only one person actually read it. This is why sites tend to also measure their traffic in “unique visitors,” i.e. the number of different IP addresses that visit the site, which does correlate more closely with how many different people read them.
Given this, you’d think sites would want to maximize their unique visitors and would pay less attention to clicks. However, this is not necessarily the case. A site that attracts millions of unique visitors on individual articles is not going to be as profitable in the long term as one that attracts only hundreds of thousands of them, but attracts those people consistently on all their coverage. As such, the most successful approach for a news site is to brand themselves in such a way that they get readers who follow them religiously, and only then to try to create coverage that can get attention beyond your core audience.
And what is the most effective thing to use to get religiously devoted readers? Why, the same thing that gets people devoted to a religion: moral urgency. And what creates moral urgency? Coverage that scares people to death about how evil everyone else is. And what’s most effective at making them believe everyone else is evil? Adopting an editorial pose that is maximally judgmental and paranoid about everyone who’s not part of the reader base. And how do you reinforce that pose? You hire journalists who really believe that all their targets are evil as a way to disguise their own feelings of guilt at following the perverse incentives created by our consumerist, capitalist society.
In other words, it’s not that journalists are evil or morally unreasonable, it’s that the profit-driven news market demands they be both. Which is not to say that nonprofit news is any better: if anything, they can be even more moralistic and vicious because the need to get readers takes a back seat to ideological purity, which in turn makes them inadvertent competitors for the profit-driven news sites, who then have to scale up their own ideological stridency in order to retain readers who might otherwise read the nonprofit sites.
But, you say, what about the libel suits you mentioned? Couldn’t those provide a check? Well, yes, and ironically, the check they provide makes the problem worse. You see, libel suits are expensive and time-consuming. So, to return to our mental experiment above, let’s say our hypothetically sociopaths-only publication finally gets sued by someone with enough money to hire the right lawyers, keep a suit going, and take them all the way to the end. And let’s say they lose. They lose so badly that their entire publication gets bankrupted and shut down. How does that change the business model of other publications that already imitate them?
Answer: They just stop libeling rich people.
Believe it or not, this part of the argument is not remotely hypothetical. Arguably the most sociopathic outlet in modern journalism – Gawker – was brought down in precisely this way by Hulk Hogan, whose lawsuit was in turn bankrolled by Peter Thiel. I’m not blaming Thiel for what he did. Taking down Gawker was a public service. But unfortunately, by the time Thiel took action, Gawker’s business model – systemic tabloidism – had become so widespread in the rest of the media that they simply couldn’t learn any of the right lessons from Thiel’s victory. All they learned was “be like Gawker, except don’t target anyone who can actually hit back.” Which is probably why you never see the media talking about Prince Andrew and his kiddy adventures, but spending reams of print on the dumb tweets of minor influencers.
And really, who other than influencers would make the best targets for systemic tabloidism? What other group has the fame of genuine celebrities, but none of the protections that actual celebrities have? Consider: even a popular YouTuber with a million subscribers may not see very much money if most of their videos are demonetized, and certainly doesn’t make as much money as your average movie star or pop singer with an equivalent fanbase. This is at least partially because popular influencers – especially conservative ones who offend the entertainment industry’s dominant political ideology – are generally not repped by big talent agencies who can demand high compensation, and therefore will likely not have the resources to hire hotshot defamation lawyers who could play hardball with reporters. Which means that, for reporters looking for a story about someone famous who can’t punch back, influencers are a dream come true. Of course, some influencers are independently wealthy, so they might get better treatment, but for the vast majority of people who actually use their audience to make a living, these kinds of tactics are the equivalent of a social death penalty. If an intersectional Leftist was analyzing this system without knowing its pro-Left biases, they would effortlessly be able to spot this as a textbook example of systemic classism. It doesn’t even hide the fact that it discriminates against poor people.
Don’t believe me? Look at some contrasting examples:
The most extreme criticism Lana Del Rey faced recently was a string of bad-faith think pieces asking, “Is her album potentially promoting racism?” This is still bad, but at least it was framed as a question, and Del Rey was spared accusations of Nazism. Contrast that treatment with the one afforded to Youtuber “Count Dankula” Mark Meechan, will easily be called a “racist” in headlines, despite his only crime being performing the kind of Nazi joke that mainstream comedians since Charlie Chaplin all the way up to Sarah Silverman have performed. In fact, even Prince Harry wore a Nazi uniform for a Halloween costume, apparently without irony. But does the Mr. Meghan Markle get called a racist or a thug in headlines? Not in a million years. But Dankula does. Why? Because Prince Harry is rich and powerful, and Dankula is not.
Or take the case of Mel Gibson, who has been accused of calling Jewish people “oven dodgers.” Has that followed him? Well, the most recent article I can find about Gibson in the press just refers to him as “Hollywood superstar,” and quotes his relatives saying he’s never been anti-Semitic. Contrast that treatment with the kind afforded to Pewdiepie, literally one of the most-watched YouTubers on the planet, who the media treated as a self-admitted Nazi for pulling what any reasonable person would have recognized as an obvious prank. Though to be fair, the attacks on Pewdiepie were probably less the result of systemic classism (Pewdiepie is himself rich) than of the news business recognizing that YouTube was a threat to their monopoly on information, and trying to shame the website into clamping down on any potential competitors.
Again, this is easily demonstrated by example. One highly illustrative moment came when Jimmy Kimmel posted a video discussing the Las Vegas shooting in 2017 and remained both monetized and promoted, while popular yet self-made YouTubers like Casey Neistat received advertising bans for posting clips fundraising for the victims. Youtube's response to Neistat was “We love what you’re doing, but no matter the intent, our policy is to not run ads on videos about tragedies.” Unless you’ve got a primetime TV show apparently, because the TOS was made to punish people not famous enough.
Not, of course, that systemic classism in the media is unique to their treatment of their targets. It also applies to their treatment of their own workers. For example, an extremely common practice at the largest and most progressive outlets you will find is the hiring of “unpaid interns,” a term that every antebellum slaveowner would kick themselves for not dreaming up. For context, unpaid interns, are people who labor – often for years – in the hopes of getting a paying job, while that hope is often used as a carrot that enables their employers to abuse and exploit them.
Only two groups of people can do this kind of work: people desperate enough to work in journalism that they suck it up while working two to three jobs, and wealthy trust fund kids with connections. And of those two groups, the former will be used and abused much more – no one wants to piss off Thad Callahan III’s father, but no one cares about Jane Q Public who lives on ramen and can only afford her apartment because of a secret OnlyFans. Worst of all, even the most progressive of publications (like Vice), who will swear up and down that they condemn this behavior, are often the ones investigated for abusing their unpaid interns the most. Even the BBC, while publicly condemning unpaid internships, were just in 2019 putting out ads for unpaid work. What’s more, when they did offer to pay, the rates were insulting. For instance, they would ask people to “help” their journalists at Wimbledon by working 40 hours a week for a fortnight, with reimbursement of only 15 pounds a day for food and travel. Let them eat clicks, I guess.
And it’s not just unpaid interns who are subject to this blatantly exploitative behavior. Even paid progressive writers such as Tracey Spicer have outright accused outlets such as The Guardian of literal “exploitation” after being offered a laughable fee for her work. The cherry on top of that particular story was that the article Spicer was asked to write was to be branded content on women’s financial empowerment, for a large bank client ANZ. Yes, you heard that correctly. The Guardian works with, promotes, and makes money off of some of the largest financial institutions in the world. Who gets paid for this? Not Mrs. Spicer! She was only offered a measly $140 for a bank-backed piece of work to be at least 1000 words. As she put it, “This column would have gone on both the Guardian and ANZ websites. So, women are being asked to spruik a bank, in a column about female financial empowerment, that they’re being paid next to nothing to write.”
Again, who can afford to be treated this way? Desperate people, and rich people. Which means, in practice, that today’s journalistic outlets are almost certainly made up primarily of rich people whose job it is to dehumanize and morally condemn poorer, vulnerable people. And often, they’re not even doing it out of sincerely held beliefs, but just because that kind of cruelty attracts more zealous readers, and therefore more ad revenue, while exposing the publication to minimal risk of lawsuits from their victims.
IV. This Helps No One
Now, progressives may be growing restive at this point. After all, most of my examples of those hurt by systemic journalism have leaned conservative, and, they might say, I’m just looking for excuses to complain about consequences for the presumptively evil actions I and others took.
Well, for the sake of putting my cards on the table, yes, I do think many of those “consequences” are ludicrously disproportionate to the crimes that I and other conservative influencers are accused of by the media, and I believe the process by which we were convicted of those “crimes” would be protested by human rights groups if it were used by any actual criminal court. What’s more, I think the idea that mere differences of opinion deserve to be treated as crimes deserving of “consequences” is disgusting, illiberal, and repressive, no matter which side of the aisle does it.
However, these principled objections actually have very little to do with my concerns about systemic tabloidism. Because ultimately, it is not just the targets of this rapaciously capitalist model of journalism who suffer from its attentions. The causes that its practitioners purport to support suffer as well, sometimes irrevocably.
Let’s say you are a devoted believer in social justice ideology. Fine. I’m not here to talk you out of it. In fact, depending on what you believe in, I could even be persuaded to agree with you! I’m not blind to the fact that there is rigorous social science showing that leftover remnants of racial and sexual prejudices could potentially cost as much as $4.4 billion annually to the US economy alone. If true, that seems like a lot of money to leave on the table for no good reason. But the trouble is that, even if you acknowledge the problem, you have to ask a follow-up question: what do we do about it? How do we diminish the behavior that produces that loss?
And if you are a social justice activist who is deeply concerned about the answer to that strategy, there is at least one actual answer. The Office of Multicultural Interests at Murdoch University in Perth, Australia, produced a lengthy evaluation of “the effectiveness of anti-racism strategies.” Their recommendations about what works were not what right-wingers might expect:
Now, right-wingers might still balk at some of this, but surely we can all notice one thing: much of this approach is the polar opposite of how “anti-racists” in the media actually behave. They don’t provide accurate information. They either lie or claim “it’s not my job to educate you” when asked to. They not only engage in “one-way” communication, they outright cancel and silence anyone who tries to argue back. They only permit people to speak out about racism when it conforms to their pre-set narrative. They actively seek to shut down empathy for others. They focus exclusively on attacking people for their beliefs, and often treat those beliefs as implicitly worse than taking racist actions (particularly when a media darling is the one doing it). They treat ethnic groups as homogenous. They explicitly try to exclude police from their coalitions. Their “interventions” are anything but long-term, and demand change immediately.
Why is this? Because in the media, conflict sells, and hard work to persuade people doesn’t. Thus, even if your ideology is one that is adopted by the practitioners of systemic tabloidism, you should understand that the version of your ideology that they will popularize will be the one that is most conducive to conflict, and least conducive to persuasion and unity. This is deliberate, because media people need excuses for dehumanizing as many people as possible, which means that every person who becomes “one of the good guys” is one less potential moneymaker for them. The fewer Nazis, the less ammo they have to scare the public with their articles. The more people who are deradicalized, the less need there is for ideological NGOs and all the grifters attached to them. If racism disappeared tomorrow, the entire race thinkpiece industry would be destroyed overnight. If enemies don’t exist, they have to invent them.
Again, you can see this in real life. Take a look at the spat between Exit UK leader Nigel Bromage and Hope not Hate. Both massively funded outlets around “anti-extremism”. Bromage’s anti-extremism.org, which receives millions in funding from the British government, is based entirely on his story that he recovered and left a radical gang called C-18. Hope not Hate adamantly claim Bromage has made this entire story up for his public grift. Either way, this story is depressing. If it’s true, it means you literally have people inventing stories of extremism for credibility, because there’s so much money to be made in the grift, but so little actual extremism. If it’s not true, then Hope not Hate are cynically trying to kick competitors out of the ring, just like mainstream journalists and their treatment of YouTube.
In other words, any ideology that systemic tabloidism gets its hands on will be deliberately corrupted into its most self-defeating form, solely to enable money-obsessed media companies to profit off using it to demonize even persuadable people. If you genuinely care about any cause that the media has made popular over the past few years, this is the last thing you should want. The goal of activism, I would hope, is to solve problems, not to blackpill the lion’s share of the population into being villains that grifters can use to scare their readers into believing the world is irredeemable, horrific and unchangeable ... UNLESS you subscribe to their publication for only $1.99 a month! Yet that latter scenario is precisely what systemic tabloidism will use the most worthy cause to produce.
Literally no one worth helping is served well by this system. Not the journalists who sell their souls and twist their consciences to become manufacturers of endless counterproductive click-hate; not the general populace looking to be informed rather than gaslit into endless ideologically driven panic attacks about how evil everyone else is; not the influencers striving to entertain or serve their audiences rather than be used as scapegoats for whatever evil makes the most money on any given day; not everyday people looking to get on with their lives peacefully rather than looking over their shoulder for anyone looking for a paycheck and a checkmark; not the activists who want their ideas popularized and embraced rather than used as a battering ram against an ever-widening circle of scapegoats, some of whom might otherwise have been persuadable; not even our politicians, who might prefer to produce policies that benefit their constituents rather than constantly signaling their allegiance (or lack thereof) to the dominant narrative. The only beneficiaries are those few genuinely sociopathic journalists and publishers who decided money was more important than truth, and that betraying the mission of journalism in order to save it was a tradeoff worth making. Wrecking society for their sake, needless to say, is not worth it.
I do not pretend to know a perfect solution to the problem of systemic tabloidism. Like most things that are labeled as “systemic,” it probably owes at least some of its success to dark but immutable elements of human nature. However, if the Left is right about anything, it is right about the idea that enough people being “woke” to a species of systemic evil eventually makes society unwilling to tolerate it. I hope that this piece has opened your eyes sufficiently to begin that process.
To all the journalists reading, I recognize that your complicity with this system is not entirely your fault. Until now, you might not have even been aware of the forces I have discussed. Even now, you might feel that you have no choice, even if you deplore the system. But I would challenge you to reconnect with the bright-eyed, bushy-tailed version of yourself that first sought to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Does systemic tabloidism let you do that? Is life as a wage slave chained to the content mill worth your soul? Is it worth anything? You may hate Nazis, as well you should, but can you abide working in an industry that demands their existence? That demands you act like them in order to drive traffic? Is the banality of evil any less real when you’re just following the metrics than when you’re just following orders? I am a journalist myself, and I know I could not stand to live as an accessory to this system. Even (or especially) if you regard me as irredeemably evil, then can you abide having lower standards for your craft than an “evil” woman? What does that make you? What does complicity with a system that demands dehumanization make any of us?
Answer: Nothing worth saving, just like systemic tabloidism itself.
Lauren Southern is a Canadian journalist, author, and documentary filmmaker. She is well known for her films Farmlands, Borderless and most recently Crossfire. For more from Lauren, you can find her at www.laurensouthern.net