If there were a person who could speak for digital news media as a whole, I imagine that person would presently be delivering an epic mea culpa to readers everywhere. The last six months, to put it charitably, have been rough for this industry. And while the websites that comprise it are hardly a monolith, there have been enough gaffes, oversights, and screw-ups emanating from a broad cross section of outlets to give the general impression that collectively, we are a complete fucking mess right now.
It’s usually not a good sign when the companies people rely on to bring them the news become the news. Although there have always been watchdogs monitoring media organizations, never has news about the people who bring you news been so seamlessly integrated into “the news” itself. A quick glance on the homepages of The Huffington Post or Gawker or yes, The Daily Banter will make this much clear thanks to our penchant for pouncing on each other when something goes wrong.
And boy has it been going wrong every which way. Right now the mess du jour, of course, is the situation at The New Republic, where beloved editors Franklin Foer and Leon Wieseltier were unceremoniously canned, prompting a mass exodus of staff. At the center of all this is the vision set forth by owner Chris Hughes‘ new executive editor Guy Vidra, who supposedly told staff during meetings that he wanted to “break shit” and strive for “disruption.”
“Disruption,” by the way, needs to die an immediate death. It’s arguably the most overused and most meaningless word in the lexicon of that dubious dialect known as Siliconese. If launch parties and investment decks are any indication, it turns out that virtually every company is engaged in “disruption,” which yields the absurd conclusion that disruption is actually the norm. In fact, there’s an annual convention called Disrupt — the 2010 edition of watch featured an award called “Startup Most Likely to Change the World.” That modestly titled honor was presented by the Omidyar Network, an investment firm started by billionaire eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, who would go on to found First Look Media and our next featured media shit-show: Racket.
Racket was to be led by journalist Matt Taibbi, who left Rolling Stone in February to head up the new First Look venture that was originally intended to bring Taibbi’s “trademark combination of reporting, analysis, humor and outrage to the ongoing financial crisis – and to the political machinery that makes it possible.” However, the yet-to-be-launched site’s mission seemed to shift when a post on First Look said that it had “partnered with the talented Matt Taibbi to plan and launch this fall a new digital magazine with a satirical approach to American politics and culture.”
This apparent shift was noticed back in July by PandoDaily editorial director Paul Carr, who attempted to get answers from Taibbi via email. As would expected by everyone but Carr, Taibbi was reluctant to discuss the internal workings of his ongoing project and downplayed rumors of office drama. For some reason, Carr found it unfathomable that Taibbi wouldn’t spill his guts to a fellow member of the media about the potential changes about the mission of Racket. Worse, Carr seemed to take it personally, as is his wont, and in turn acted like a spiteful douche.
When rumors began swirling in October about the unrest at Racket, Carr took to Pando to fellate himself for sniffing out the story. And although Taibbi told Carr their email exchange was off the record, Carr, in a very ethically questionable move, proceeded to publish Carr’s side of the exchange, leaving the reader to infer what Taibbi had said. Then, Carr removed all doubt about his lack of ethics when he published some of what Taibbi had said in that email exchange.
Anyway, thanks in large part to Omidyar’s micromanaging, Taibbi left Racket and returned to Rolling Stone. Soon thereafter, nine remaining employees of Racket — people who left their previous jobs to join this venture — were let go and the project was abandoned before it published a single story.
Shortly after Taibbi quit, it was announced that at the end of the year John Cookwould be leaving his position as editor-in-chief of The Intercept — also part of First Look Media — to return to Gawker. That move precipitated the removal of Gawker editorial director Joel Johnson, and a revamping of the site’s editorial structure, including the creation of the positions of executive editor and group managing editor. (Whatever overhaul is happening at Nick Denton‘s baby, it’s a good bet that writer J.K. Trotter will be allowed to continue obsessing over Shepard Smith‘s sexual orientation, and at this point, it’s hard to tell whether Trotter wants to get to the bottom of Smith’s sexuality, or if he just wants to get to Smith’s bottom. Either way, you can now add Kevin Spacey to Trotter’s celebrity man-crushes.)
Speaking of swinging Johnsons, BuzzFeedfired its Viral Politics Editor (sadly, an actual title), Benny Johnson in July over numerous documented allegations of plagiarism. What made this egregious offense even more egregiously offensive was the fact that his job consisted primarily of making lists with GIFs, including his much maligned magnum opus, “The Story Of Egypt’s Revolution In ‘Jurassic Park’ GIFs.” Not that plagiarism is ever ok, but if you can’t compile some bullshit list without appropriating content without attribution then you are one lazy motherfucker.
And while we’re on the subject of lazy plagiarists, in October there was the case of plagiarist hack Ctrl + C.J. Werleman of AlterNet and Salon, whose numerous instances of plagiarism were documented here and elsewhere. The most amazing thing about that story wasn’t the writer’s craven and misleading attempts to minimize the extent of his plagiarism once caught, but the reaction of Salon, which was to wait four days after the allegations came to light, issue a “correction,” and incredibly, keep the plagiarized articles on its website.
Sometimes, when digital media isn’t publishing plagiarized articles, it’s publishing exposés that aren’t able to be verified. Such was the case last week when it was revealed that a Rolling Stone story by Sabrina Rubin Erdely about a horrific gang-rape at a fraternity at the University of Virginia turned out to be full of “discrepancies.” The magazine issued a note from Managing Editor Will Dana that originally said it had “misplaced” trust in their source, the alleged victim called “Jackie.” (Welcome back, Matt Taibbi!) Dana revised the note after coming under heavy fire for supposedly throwing the source and victim under the bus to cover the magazine’s own ass.
Before the Rolling Stone story went to shit, the internet’s undisputed Queen of Rage, Jezebel, ran a vitriolic piece by Anna Merlan lambasting two writers for daring to suggest that something was off about the story. That skepticism turned out to be entirely warranted, of course, and to her credit Merlan subsequently apologized, writing, “It means, of course, that when I dismissed Richard Bradley and Robby Soave’s doubts about the story and called them ‘idiots’ for picking apart Jackie’s account, I was dead fucking wrong, and for that I sincerely apologize.”
Unfortunately, media outlets running with poorly-sourced stories is all too common, especially if those stories reinforce popular narratives. Take for example, the video that purported to show two Muslim video bloggers being racially profiled by a New York City police officer. The video’s original description said, “Wewere filming another video for our channel with our cultural clothing but we kept getting followed by Police. So, we decided to film this social experiment on racial profiling.”
Several outlets ran with the video, including The Huffington Postand the International Business Times, presenting it as legit. After the authenticity of the video was called into question, the vloggers admitted it was staged and issued a chickenshit “apology,” saying, “We sincerely apologize to anyone who might have been misled that this was an actual event,” and, “It was a dramatization — a reenactment — of what happens to us when we film with our traditional clothing on.” Might have been misled? You dishonest twerps initially presented the video as real.
A month and a half later, IB Times has yet to update its post reflecting that the whole thing was a hoax. No doubt if they ever get around to it, they’ll completely whitewash any evidence that they were suckered, just like they did last month in a piece on Bill Cosby. In that episode, IB Times fell for a too-“good”-to-be-true viral hoax about actress Raven Symoné alleging that Cosby had sexually assaulted her as a child when the two worked on The Cosby Show, not that you’d know it from the article as it was rewritten without a correction. Equally as bad, the author even had the audacity to write in the updated post, “The sensational ‘revelation’ was lapped up by Internet users,” without mentioning the fact that she was one of them.
Then, of course, there’s The Daily Banter, which should be more appropriately called The Virtual Island of Misfit Writers. It’s helmed by a mad Brit named Ben Cohen, who in November went against all conventional wisdom by instituting a metered system in the hopes that people will actually give us money to do whatever the hell we’re doing or at least think we’re doing. Will it work? I goddamn hope so.
Because if not, I’ll have to apply to the very places I just spent 1500 words excoriating.