On Gawker

Journalists love talking about journalism, and are unsurprisingly upset when one of the few remaining paying outlets goes under. It seems silly to me to blame Peter Thiel for this, when the problem is not that someone gave Hulk Hogan the money to pursue his suit but that the suit’s damages were sufficient to bring down the company. Tort reform, not banning billionaires from funding suits.

But put that aside. The common defense of Gawker is that it embodied an assault on power and a challenge to the powerful, and that in the absence of similar journalistic vehicles we are turning over our society to the unregulated greed of the wealthy and connected.

This seems to me a willful misunderstanding of the nature of power in our society, a misunderstanding that Gawker promoted, even as it itself was one of many hammers that power, real power, flings at the unwary and undisciplined. When Gawker eagerly helped to blackmail David Geithner, or exposed this one or that one’s badthink, it contributes to the manufactured consensus that allows the world’s richest and most powerful to assemble in Davos or Aspen, listen to sonorous platitudes, and fly home untroubled, with a conference call to determine which Maoist revolutionary will be honored by Google Doodle before they land.

The civility that so many on the left decry and that Gawker would so eagerly despoil is a protection against power, not mainly a protection of power. Yes, civility means that politicians and the wealthy might live more enjoyable lives than in civility’s absence. It seems like more fun to be a British Minister in the age of Yes, Minister than in the age of In the Thick of It, largely due to changes in the attitude of the press. But civility also means that ordinary people have the ability to assemble and speak their mind without fear of mob violence, can organize to oppose the agendas and mechanisms that drive politicians and the wealthy to do what they do, that ordinary people can speak to the interests of their own lives, their own interests, as political actors, without fear that each word they speak and each moment of their past will be brought out to crush them and brush them aside. Civility is the shield which each of us holds out before us as we step into the public square; we toss it away at our peril. Our trust in each other as citizens and in our government has sunk much faster than the changes in our population or cities could predict, often in spite of increases in safety and reductions in crime and physical decay. If we want to restore such trust, or even to organize ourselves for our interests as neighborhoods, communities, cities, and as a nation, civility would be a good place to start.

This article is already more than twenty years old, but the beginning always spoke to me as a way that the media– long before it sank into the swamps of Gawker– had begun to throw civility away.

David Gergen, Master of THE GAME

On Nov. 9, 1960, the day after John F. Kennedy defeated Richard M. Nixon to become the 35th President of the United States, a reporter for The Washington Daily News and a reporter for The Associated Press dropped by Nixon’s house in Washington, looking for a interview with the loser. The Vice President answered the door himself, and standing on the front stoop, the three men settled into a polite routine of questions and answers. Suddenly, Pat Nixon appeared. She was angry and, it was clear, not in control of her emotions. She damned the reporters and their colleagues for favoritism toward Kennedy that she said cost her husband the election. Nixon calmed her and led her away. When he returned, he said nothing about his wife’s outburst, and the reporters resumed their inquiry as if nothing unusual had occurred. Neither reporter ever wrote about Mrs. Nixon’s behavior; it wasn’t news.

This small, oddly dignified scene, remembered by one of the reporters, belongs to a world that has vanished utterly. A journalist interviewing the losing candidate on the day after the 1992 election would have done so as a member of a large pack, covering a set piece of political theater — a media event, as it is called. The event would have been scripted down to the level of minor jokes, in an effort to insure that the candidate committed no gaffes before the cameras. The reporters, hoping to shake things off-script, and aware of their own video presence, would have shouted self-consciously aggressive questions. Had the defeated candidate’s wife interrupted to scold the press, this would have been regarded by his handlers as a calamity (unless they had secretly arranged it) and by the reporters as the news of the day.

The story of this vast change is the story of how the idea of image became the faith of Washington, and how the President became the central figure of that faith, the architect and ultimately the victim of the world’s most elaborate personality cult.

In this new faith, it has come to be held that what sort of person a politician actually is and what he actually does are not really important. What is important is the perceived image of what he is and what he does. Politics is not about objective reality, but virtual reality. What happens in the political world is divorced from the real world. It exists for only the fleeting historical moment, in a magical movie of sorts, a never-ending and infinitely revisable docudrama. Strangely, the faithful understand that the movie is not true — yet also maintain that it is the only truth that really matters.

By the time Bill Clinton was elected the 42d President of the United States, the culture of Washington (and therefore of governance and politics) had become dominated by people professionally involved in creating the public images of elected officials. They hold various jobs — they are pollsters, news-media consultants, campaign strategists, advertising producers, political scientists, reporters, columnists, commentators — but the making of the movie is their shared concern. They are parts of a product-based cultural whole, just like the citizens of Beverly Hills. Some are actors, some are directors, some are scriptwriters and some are critics, but they are all in the same line of work and life. They go to the same parties, send their children to the same schools, live in the same neighborhoods. They interview each other, argue with each other, sleep with each other, marry each other, live and die by each other’s judgment. They joust and josh on television together, and get rich together explaining Washington to conventions of doctors and lawyers and corporate executives.

Not surprisingly, they tend to believe the same things at the same time. They believe in polls. They believe in television; they believe in talk; they believe, most profoundly, in talk television. They believe in irony. They believe that nothing a politician does in public can be taken at face value, but that everything he does is a metaphor for something he is hiding. They believe in the extraordinary! disastrous! magnificent! scandalous! truth of whatever it is they believe in at the moment. Above all, they believe in the power of what they have created, in the subjectivity of reality and the reality of perceptions, in image.

The growth of the faith of image has had a gradual but cumulatively momentous effect. It has made the old distinctions of profession and ideology that had defined the culture of Washington seem outdated and naive, like the blushingly remembered fervors of adolescence. If the reality of an action is defined by the public presentation of the action, then what is a television reporter but an actor? What is a newspaper writer but a theater critic? If the truth of an idea is defined by its advertising campaign, who but a mug can seriously believe in one set of ideas or another? If perception is reality, what is the point of any differences at all — between Republicans and Democrats, between journalists and Government officials, between ideologues and copywriters, between the chatterers of television and the thinkers of the academy, between Washington and Hollywood?

Indeed, the differences have become harder and harder to see. Yesterday’s reporter is today’s White House spokesman is tomorrow’s pundit. On the Sunday talk shows, the celebrity host and the celebrity reporter and the celebrity political strategist sit side by side, and the distinctions between them are not apparent to the naked eye. In effect, they are one, members of the faith, the stars of a culture they themselves have created. Indeed, they have acknowledged their oneness. They have given themselves a name, the Insiders, and a language.

The language reveals, as all languages do, a great deal about how its speakers see themselves and the world. It is self-referential, self-important, self-mocking and very nearly (if subconsciously) self-loathing. It is deeply cynical. It portrays a society where to be knowing is to admit the fraud of one’s functions in the act of performing them.

This is how the Insiders describe the passage of a day:

The day is composed, not of hours or minutes, but of news cycles. In each cycle, senior White House officials speaking on background define the line of the day. The line is echoed and amplified outside the Beltway to real people, who live out there, by the President’s surrogates, whose appearances create actualities (on radio) and talking heads (on television). During the rollout of a new policy, the President, coached by his handlers and working from talking points and briefing books churned out by war room aides, may permit his own head to talk. There are various ways in which he might do this, ranging from the simplest photo op to a one on one with a media big-foot, to the more elaborately orchestrated media hit (perhaps an impromptu with real people) to the full-fledged spectacle of a town hall.

The line, a subunit of the Administration’s thematic message, is reinforced by leaks and plants and massaged through the care and feeding of the press. It is adjusted by spin patrol and corrected through damage control when mistakes are made or gaffes are committed that take attention off-message and can create a dreaded feeding frenzy. Reaction to the line is an important part of the cycle, and it comes primarily from Congressional leaders of both parties, the strange-sounding biparts, whose staff-written utterances are often delivered directly to media outlets via fax attacks. The result of all this activity passes through the media filter, where it is cut into tiny, easily digestible sound bites and fed to already overstuffed pundits, who deliver the ultimate product of the entire process, a new piece of conventional wisdom.

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