The world would be vastly improved if highly paid journalists like Jonathan Chait stopped whining about mean online critics.
As intended, Jonathan Chait’s denunciation of the “PC language police” – a trite note of self-victimization he’s been sounding for decades – provoked intense reaction: much criticism from liberals and praise from conservatives (with plenty of exceptions both ways). I have all sorts of points I could make about his argument – beginning with how he tellingly focuses on the pseudo-oppression of still-influential people like himself and his journalist-friends while steadfastly ignoring the much more serious ways that people with views Chait dislikes are penalized and repressed – but I’ll instead point to commentary from Alex Pareene, Amanda Marcotte and Jessica Valenti as worthwhile responses. In sum, I fundamentally agree with Jill Filipovic’s reaction: “There is a good and thoughtful piece to be written about language policing & ‘PC’ culture online and in academia. That was not it.” I instead want to focus on one specific point about the depressingly abundant genre of journalists writing grievances about how they’re victimized by online hordes, of which Chait’s article is a very representative sample:
When political blogs first emerged as a force in the early post-9/11 era, one of their primary targets was celebrity journalists. A whole slew of famous, multi-millionaire, prize-decorated TV hosts and newspaper reporters and columnists – Tom Friedman, Tim Russert, Maureen Dowd, John Burns, Chris Matthews – were frequently the subject of vocal and vituperative criticisms, read by tens of thousands of people.
It is hard to overstate what a major (and desperately needed) change this was for how journalists like them functioned. Prior to the advent of blogs, establishment journalists were largely immunized even from hearing criticisms. If a life-tenured New York Times columnist wrote something stupid or vapid, or a Sunday TV news host conducted a sycophantic interview with a government official, there was no real mechanism for the average non-journalist citizen to voice critiques. At best, aggrieved readers could write a Letter to the Editor, which few journalists cared about. Establishment journalists spoke only to one another, and careerist concerns combined with an incestuous chumminess ensured that the most influential among them heard little beyond flowery praise.
Blogs, and online political activism generally, changed all of that. Though they tried – hard – these journalists simply could not ignore the endless stream of criticisms directed at them. Everywhere they turned – their email inboxes, the comment sections to their columns, Q-and-A sessions at their public appearances, Google searches of their names, email campaigns to their editors – they were confronted for the first time with aggressive critiques, with evidence that not everyone adored them and some even held them in contempt (Chait’s bizarre belief that “PC” culture thrived in the early 1990s and then disappeared until recently is, like his whole grievance, explained by his personal experience: he heard these critiques while a student at the University of Michigan, then was shielded from all of it during most of the years he wrote at The New Republic, and now hears it again due to blogs and social media).
What made the indignity so much worse was that the attacks came from people these journalists regard as nobodies: just average people, non-journalists, sometimes even anonymous ones. What right did they have even to form an opinion, let alone express one? As NBC News star Brian Williams revealingly put it in 2007:
You’re going to be up against people who have an opinion, a modem, and a bathrobe. All of my life, developing credentials to cover my field of work, and now I’m up against a guy named Vinny in an efficiency apartment in the Bronx who hasn’t left the efficiency apartment in two years.
That sort of sneering from establishment journalists was commonplace once they realized that they had critics and that ignoring them was no longer an option. Seemingly every week, a new column appeared in the NYT, Washington Post, or Time lamenting the threat to journalism and democracy and All Things Decent posed by the hordes of unhinged, uncredentialed losers who now had undeserved platforms to say mean things about honored journalists.
It was pure petulance and entitlement: they elevated a trivial feeling of personal offense (some unknown, uncredentialed person online said something mean to me) into something of great societal significance (this is a huge threat to all things Good). This grievance became so pervasive that pejorative journalistic caricatures of bloggers as nameless, angry losers became a cliché (and it continues now even when many of them have been forced by commercial realities to become bloggers themselves).
Social media – in particular Twitter – has greatly exacerbated this syndrome. Twitter by its nature is a confrontational medium. Its design ensures that anyone can force anyone else – no matter how prominent or established – to hear unrestrained criticisms about them from those with no established platform. It’s theoretically possible to use Twitter so as to avoid most such attacks, but one has to make a concerted and disciplined effort to do so, and it is usually much easier said than done. If one uses Twitter – as journalists are all but forced these days to do – then one will inevitably hear some aggressive and even vicious attacks.
Beyond being confrontational, Twitter is also distortive: it can make a small handful of loud, persistent people seem like an army, converting a fringe view into one that appears pervasive (my favorite example: MSNBC’s Steve Kornacki felt compelled to gravely address the Twitter complaint that a journalist must always use the title “President” when referring to Obama lest one be guilty of disrespect, even racism). That, in turn, can cause journalists to feel besieged – like the whole world is railing against them – when, in reality, it’s just several malcontents or, at most, a couple dozen people voicing a criticism that most of the world will never hear, let alone care about.
But this dynamic has made many journalists – and other prominent, powerful people – feel very unfairly maligned. And that, in turn, causes many of them to denounce the hordes and sound the alarm bell about the dangers created by all of this opinion-anarchy. It’s so common to read some new column or post by some writer or other luminary lamenting the dangers of online abuse aimed at them. It’s all grounded in self-absorbed grievance and entitlement (someone like me does not deserve this and should not have to put up with it) masquerading as something more consequential (free speech, journalism, democracy are imperiled!).
Let’s acknowledge some valid points among this strain of commentary, including Chait’s article. Certain groups of writers – racial and religious minorities, women, LGBT commentators – are subjected to a particularly noxious form of abuse, even when they have prominent platforms. The use of social media to bully kids or other powerless people is a serious menace. Online vigilante mobs can be as blindly authoritarian and bloodthirsty as the real-world version. Some journalists, pundits, party operatives and online activists frivolously exploit (and thus trivialize) serious accusations of bias, racism, and gender discrimination for rank partisan gain or cheap point-scoring against adversaries in much the same way that some Israel defenders routinely exploit anti-Semitism accusations against critics to delegitimize substantive critiques (thus dangerously draining the accusation of its potency as a weapon against actual anti-Semitism). All of that, I’d venture, is what Filipovic meant when she said: “There is a good and thoughtful piece to be written about language policing & ‘PC’ culture online and in academia.”
But the general journalistic complaint about uppity online hordes – and certainly Chait’s epic whine – is grounded in a much more pedestrian and self-regarding concern: anger over being criticized in less than civil and respectful tones by people who lack any credentials (and thus entitlement) to do so. This genre of journalistic grievance, in most cases, is nothing more than unhappiness over the realization that many people dislike what you say, or even dislike you, for reasons you regard as invalid. There’s just nothing more to it than that, no matter how much they try to dress it up as something lofty and profound.
I empathize with the experience (though not with the grievance). Literally every day, I come across online attacks on me that are either based on outright fabrications or critiques I perceive to be fundamentally unfair or inaccurate. Not infrequently, the abuse aimed at me contains anti-gay venom. I’ve watched as my Brazilian partner was attacked by a popular online Democrat (and plenty of others) in the most blatantly racist ways. As is true for everyone, it’s easy to predict that criticizing certain targets – President Obama, Israel, “New Atheists” – will guarantee particularly vitriolic and sustained attacks. Way more times than I can count, I’ve been called a racist for voicing criticisms of Obama that I also voiced of Bush, and an anti-Semite for criticizing militarism and aggression by Israel. All of that can create a disincentive for engaging on those topics: the purpose of it is to impose a psychic cost for doing so, and one is instinctively tempted to avoid that.
Of course, all of that can be unpleasant or – if one allows it to be – worse than unpleasant. Like everyone, I’m human and hold some of my critics in contempt and view some attacks as malicious if not formally defamatory. I’m not exempt from any of those reactions.
But that’s the price one pays for having a platform. And, on balance, it’s good that this price has to be paid. In fact, the larger and more influential platform one has, the more important it is that the person be subjected to aggressive, even harsh, criticisms. Few things are more dangerous than having someone with influence or power hear only praise or agreement. Having people devoted to attacking you – even in unfair, invalid or personal ways – is actually valuable for keeping one honest and self-reflective.
It would be wonderful on one level if all criticisms were expressed in the soft and respectful tones formalized in the U.S. Senate, but it’s good and necessary when people who wield power or influence are treated exactly like everyone else, which means that sometimes people say mean and unfair things about you in not-nice tones. Between erring on the side of people with power being treated with excess deference or excess criticisms, the latter is vastly preferable. The key enabling role of the government, media and other elites in the disasters and crimes of the post-9/11 era, by itself, leaves no doubt about this. It also proves that one of the best aspects of the internet is that it gives voice to people who are not credentialed – meaning not molded through the homogenizing grinder of establishment media outlets.
There are definitely people – most of them unknown and powerless – whose ability to speak and participate in civic affairs are unfairly limited by these sorts of abusive tactics. But whatever else is true, Jon Chait of New York Magazine, long of The New Republic, is not one of them. Neither is his friend Hanna Rosin of Slate. Neither is Andrew Sullivan – published by Time, The Atlantic, The New York Times, major book publishing companies, and pretty much everyone else and featured on countless TV shows – despite his predictably giddy standing and cheering for Chait’s victimization manifesto. Nor is torture advocate Condoleezza Rice of Stanford or HBO host Bill Maher. Nor, despite attacks at least as serious and personal, am I. Nor are most of the prominent journalists and other influential luminaries who churn out self-pitying screeds about the terrible online masses and all the ways they are unfairly criticized and attacked.
Being aggressively, even unfairly, criticized isn’t remotely tantamount to being silenced. People with large and influential platforms have a particular need for aggressive scrutiny and vibrant critique. The world would be vastly improved if we were never again subjected to the self-victimizing whining of highly compensated and empowered journalists about how upset they are that people say mean things online about them and their lovely and talented friends.
Photo: Bryan Bedder/Getty