(Photo: Chuck Johnson)
Gawker's J.K. Trotter thinks I hate him. He's said as much both in an e-mail to me and publicly in the comment section of a piece he wrote a while back. The truth is that while I can't even begin to wrap my head around his gossipy high school girl obsession with outing Shepard Smith, and a couple of his posts have contained language so sensationalistic that they bordered on defamation, I don't really care one way or the other about Trotter himself. I'd have to know him to hate him, or he'd have to be malicious, rather than simply misguided, for me to have any outright hostility toward him in absentia. That made clear, I've got to give Trotter some credit right now because the delight with which he's going after the giant shit-streak on the bottom of the internet toilet bowl that is Chuck Johnson is a thing of rare beauty.
For the past week or so, Trotter -- along with Deadspin's Greg Howard -- has been giving Johnson a taste of his own rancid medicine, not only opening him up for all the world to see but gleefully printing any embarrassing rumor or story from his checkered past. Certainly, it can be argued that two wrongs don't make a right, but in this case they do make for some undeniably entertaining comeuppance. Johnson is someone who deals in bullshit, egomanically casting it as fact and himself as a crusader for the truth, so it's fun to see his own questionable tactics being used against him. Johnson also happens to be somebody whose pathology is perfectly visible beneath his thin skin, so you just know that the people on his college enemies list coming out of the woodwork to provide instantly mockable revelations about his behavior during that era is torturous for him. We're talking about a guy who's such a slave to his own persecution complex that he admits his tyrannical behavior is a response to being "bullied" and he threatensto sueanyone who dares to write something negative about him.
A sniveling little asshole like Chuck Johnson could only thrive within the Thunderdome that is the internet these days. A couple of years back, I wondered aloud what could be done about a news outlet that refused to behave responsibly and would instead just report any bit of partisan misinformation and call it honest journalism. At that time, I was referring to Fox News and the answer of course was nothing. Nothing could be done. But while Fox News may still be the most powerful conservative voice in the universe -- and its impact is undeniably detrimental to the discourse -- it's the fact that anyone with a Twitter account can now "report" anything that's truly eating our media culture alive. I get that I probably sound like someone demanding the kids get off his lawn -- and I concede that it was social media connectivity that first brought me an audience and continues to -- but something is excruciatingly wrong when a reckless troll has the ability to publicly smear people he considers his adversaries. Johnson is almost surely a flash in the pan, but for the time being he's getting the attention of the mainstream media and his inevitable demise will only pave the way for someone just like him. All it takes to be a Chuck Johnson these days is a political beef, a complete lack of scruples and a Twitter account.
Maybe the clearest illustration of the dynamic between what-used-to-be and what-is-now in media came to us on Sunday in the form of a piece published by David Carr in the New York Times. In it, Carr interviewed -- and quietly skewered -- Johnson, correctly stating that he sows mayhem in the name of attention and pointing out that he's pretty muchalways wrong. His exchanges with Johnson are exactly what you would expect: on the one hand is Carr being incredulous but professional and on the other is Johnson being a self-important douche and proving how completely out of his league he is even being on the phone with Carr. If you're not a regular reader of his, David Carr is one of the most talented and insightful media writers in the country, a guy who's been at the Times for 12 years and who also wrote an absolutely essential memoir called Night of the Gun, detailing with a journalist's thoroughness his spiral into drug addiction. Carr earned his stripes and has proven himself to be potentially the best in the business; Chuck Johnson is a boil on the ass of society who's getting press in the simplest way possible -- by just saying whatever the hell pops into his head to the nationwide audience the internet provides. He's wrong constantly, but that hardly matters since that's the story: that Johnson has made a name for himself hijacking genuine news items and anarchically turning them upside down -- and toward himself -- by making accusations he can't prove. A tantrum-prone 12-year-old could do what he does (and would probably have an equally gargantuan sense of superiority).
Simon Owens, who's a friend of mine in addition to being a keen observer of media trends, asked an imperative question today about all the attention Chuck Johnson has been drawing lately: Is it just giving a troll exactly what it wants? Yes and no is his answer. In a way, Johnson is a collateral beneficiary of the fascination, hand-wringing and white-hot outrage he's spawned in major and not-so-major outlets. But as Owens says, "Johnson’s trolling has reached a large enough audience that columns like Carr’s have become necessary. Yes, the media attention helps Johnson attract the racists and homophobes that make up his core fanbase, but it also effectively marginalizes him, thereby decreasing the chances that his poison will spill too far into the mainstream." As offensive a creature as Johnson is and as infuriating as it is to have to write about him, it's essential that we do -- whether we're calling attention to his misdeeds, correcting his mistakes or just plain pointing and laughing at him. Chuck Johnson isn't a journalist and yet he's given us a master-class in the real-world damage an irresponsible journalist -- one untethered from any editorial judgment or oversight -- can do, particularly in the internet age. Because of this, he deserves to have a beam of magnified sunshine aimed at him at all times, to at least disinfect his work and at best burn him up entirely.
I used to be a flag-waving champion of the digital revolution and the ways that it's democratized media and taken it out of the hands of a select few. But anyone who's followed the trajectory of my thinking over the past few years knows that my battle cry lately has been, "Bring back the gatekeepers." For all the astonishing things the internet has given us, there are those among us who prove they aren't ready to use the awesome power of this technology responsibly, and they're wreaking havoc. The reason respectable journalists have forced themselves over 6-foot-high editorial hurdles for decades is that they knew the high cost of getting it wrong, not only in terms of their own credibility but that of the damage they can do to the innocent. When a real journalist makes a mistake, it's a paralyzing event, one he or she makes every effort to make amends for and prevent from ever happening again. When Chuck Johnson fucked up last week and posted a picture he said was of the alleged UVA rape victim but which turned out to be someone who had nothing to do with the story, all he offered was an anemic, "I still like my batting average." No, you fucking jackass. Your overall average is meaningless. The job of a journalist is to be right all the time and when he or she isn't -- because mistakes can sometimes happen no matter how many safeguards you put in place -- it should shake that person to the core. Journalists deal in the truth. Nothing else will suffice.
But needless to say, Chuck Johnson isn't a journalist. He's just some idiot with a broadband connection and delusions of grandeur. The problem is, as I once said in reference to Fox News, there's no way to force him to behave responsibly or to immediately remove him from society -- not as long as Twitter exists and continues to allow him a platform. So, as Simon Owens and David Carr both said, the best we can do is marginalize him through vigilant reporting. Along with a nice helping of the outright ridicule he so richly deserves. Johnson's doomed to eventually hang himself with his own rope, but until that time comes we can go right on pointing out every glaring, stupid mistake he makes. And maybe laughing at the stories of those who claim he shit on a floor in college.