Monday, February 18, 2013

maybe everybody shouldn't abandon professionalism at the same time

So Gizmodo's Kyle Wagner wrote a review of the new Blackberry phone, a pretty scathing one. I have no idea if the review is accurate, given that I've never used that phone (or any Blackberry product, for that matter). But certainly, the review appears to be fair and thorough to me. It takes time to explain all of the phone's positives, puts the product in context with its competition, and is generally judicious in its take. So when it ends up being a quite negative piece, it is strengthened. Wagner seems to be aware of the basic fact that criticism is harshest when it is fairest, that cheap attacks actually cheapen the person making them, not their object. Criticism that is willful or predicated on distortion is totally useless to me.

So you can imagine my disappointment that Sam Biddle, a senior writer at Gizmodo, popped up in comments and said, "Everyone in the office who tried this thing out hated it, for what it's worth. A friend of mine from another publication was talking about how much he wished he could sell it without being UNETHICAL because he hated it so much and had zero desire to use it." In other words, hey, I know you've just written 2000 words about this phone, trying to go in depth with what works and what doesn't with this product, in a way that informs readers who might be thinking about buying it-- but I'm just gonna shit on that and tell people how it really is in a completely unsupported assertion about its quality. Never mind the fact that tons of readers are undoubtedly going to read the words of another Gizmodo writer ripping the phone in comments as someone on the inside "telling it like it is," thereby utterly undermining Wagner's review. It's just a childish, irresponsible way to argue for a professional writer, one who will likely review Blackberry's products and and their competitors in the future. I have no idea if Wagner has a problem with Biddle doing that; he might even like it. But I don't. (And I told Biddle so, in the comments. Because it's best to be direct.)

Biddle has written many long pieces for Gizmodo that clearly indicate that he is someone who wants to be taken seriously. The popular opinion, it seems, is that you get to do both, to be taken seriously as a fair and independent critic and writer when you want to be and to act like a clown when it suits you, all without any tension of problems. More and more often, my feelings is: no, you can't. You can't actually have both. When you act like a clown, it cuts against your later attempts to act like a grownup. It erodes your ethos and calls into question your professionalism, the integrity that you're supposed to possess as someone who gets paid money for what you write. The question for Sam Biddle is, do you want to be a grownup who gets taken seriously, or do you want to fling shit like a monkey? Flinging shit on the Internet can be fun-- I do it all the time-- but you shouldn't do it in your own house, in a way that undercuts your colleague, under your own name.

I don't pretend these issues are easy. But I'm frustrated that so many people seem to think that there's no issues at all here, that they can effortlessly move between "take me seriously as a serious journalist because my journalisms are seriously serious" and "look at this video of a cat dressed like George Plimpton" without any tension or problems. It's like Ben Smith "defiantly" claiming that there's no problem with Buzzfeed running both "12 Aardvarks Getting Blue Balled" and interviews with the Minority Whip at the same time. Actually, there is a problem, Ben. Buzzfeed is hot fucking garbage that peddles the worst kind of juvenile clickbait the Internet has to offer. When it simultaneously interviews the most powerful people in the world, it becomes difficult to assess the quality and credibility of the information offered. Character matters, when it comes to important news, credibility matters. Turns out reporters who give the journalistic equivalent of a handjob to politicians when they play touch football can't turn around and effectively condemn their review-free assassination programs. Crazy, right?

Take Gawker, part of Gizmodo's parent company. I still read Gawker because there are things there that you can't get anywhere else. They publish a lot of really smart, incisive media criticism, a point that was frequently lost in those think pieces (back when Gawker was the sort of site that got think pieces written about it). Now I don't mind that they also publish lame viral "Look at this giraffe who resembles Peter Tosh" stuff. They've got bills to pay. If that sort of thing can subsidize work like this Tom Scocca post on Esquire's OBL piece, I'm all for it. (It's a little weird to see Caity Weaver pieces about Obama and Michelle sneaking a secret smooch next to Mobutu pieces excoriating the drone program, but whatever.) But there are costs. Like I said at the time, I have a problem with a website that has an upskirts tag going after the Creepshots crew. I think that matters; I think it matters when a website generates revenue from similar behavior to that which it condemns. I like Adrian Chen and I thought did a good job, and the piece was accurate in its reporting. But you can very fairly wonder how well the "hey, we're just kids at a keyboard here" ethic of Gawker jibes with the "very serious reporting on very serious issues" efforts. Right?

It would be one thing if it was just Gawker or a handful of other sites like it. But nowadays, when you could read, like, the Beirut correspondent from the New York Times tweeting about how she's sure the person sitting next to her on the plane just sharted, I really fear for the very notion of adult reporting and serious journalism. I really do.

Maybe I'm just old-fashioned and naive, I don't know. But to me, it has become more clear, not less, that it's actually necessary to have actual professionals, that there's a reason why we've had notions of adult public behavior in the past, and that everyone revealing to the whole world all the time that they are privately juvenile isn't actually good for our society. Everybody seems so sure that there is just no need for professionalism or responsibility anymore. If you're one of the ones getting paid to write for the Internet, why rock the boat? Nobody seems to want to think about it.

Certainly, the people who are going to hate-Tweet this post don't.

Update: Check out Josh in the comments for an opposite take.


Josh said...

I dunno. Biddle's comment doesn't strike me as a great example of the type that bothers you. It's anecdotal and informal, but assuming he's telling the truth (and I don't see a lot of reason why he wouldn't be, in this case; further, if someone in the office thought the phone didn't suck, they're free to say so), it seems relevant to me to know that a whole office of tech reviewers hated a piece of technology. I guess it's kind of mean, but it doesn't seem gratuitously so to me.

Speaking as a sometime journalist, I don't fear for the notion of adult journalism at all right now; this is one of the few things I feel pretty positive about, actually. Yeah, tweets about sharting don't thrill me no matter who's generating them. But it's wonderful that journalists are starting to communicate like real people, rather than hiding their humanity beneath a veneer of equitone. I can't think of a better antidote to the predisposition to institutional subservience that you know is a giant problem in our world.

It does cut both ways -- people who reflexively agree with everything Jon Stewart says or does because he seems like a cool guy aren't much better than people who voted for George W. Bush because he seemed like he'd be fun to have a beer with. You could devote a whole series of posts, or even a book, to the problem. But on the whole, I think it's a positive step. I suspect the shart tweets will be reined in some after the mode has matured a little bit.

(I wonder if your feelings about Buzzfeed aren't mostly predicated on Buzzfeed's sucky content sucking so hard. Unlike Gawker's, their brand has just never represented enough quality to balance out the linkbait. But this is an issue for any media company with more than one voice; I don't watch MSNBC, but you've always made it sound like Up with Chris is more an exception than a rule there.)

Boniface said...

Are you OK buddy. I didn't mean to offend with my comment about the new BlackBerry. It's just a very bad phone and I thought I'd chime in and say so. Be well.

Freddie said...

I'm not offended by the comment, I just think that it's not the sort of thing that a professional should do. You know?

Nick DeBoer said...

I just want to plug Up With Chris Hayes for a second time this post. Despite the very serious people we blow our time with on the internet, it's one of the few outlets for quality intellectual discourse.