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Pump This Washington Post Meltdown Story Straight Into My Veins
Not that that's healthy or anything
This is not a column about last week’s meltdown at the Washington Post. That has been discussed here, there, and everywhere. This is a column about how I reacted to the meltdown at the Washington Post. This is about what that tells me about how we relate to news and politics.
To say that I enjoyed the Post story is a massive understatement. There are salmon returning to their spawning ground who are less obsessed with their mission than I was with consuming every morsel of this delectable shit soufflé. In a time when Hollywood is arguably struggling to find stories that connect, real life gave us a narrative with vibrant characters and deep meaning that makes Hamlet seem like a six year-old prattling on about his rock collection.
Why was I so obsessed with this story? Why did I devote twice as much attention to it in the past week as I did to Ukraine or the January 6 hearing? I think there are two reasons, and neither of them are healthy.
The first reason is that this story confirmed several of my priors. If you read this blog regularly, you know that many of my columns relate to an over-arching narrative that goes a little something like this:
An illiberal, identity-obsessed ideology has gained prominence on the left. That ideology is most prevalent among young people and in elite institutions. Followers of this ideology exert disproportionate influence at the places where there they work and study partly due to new technology, especially social media. Once-venerable institutions — especially in media — have crumbled under this pressure and have chronically undervalued the importance of their long-term credibility.
The Post meltdown fits this narrative perfectly. A dumb, mildly sexist tweet by reporter Dave Weigel drew battle lines that caused people to divide themselves into Team Hooray For Sexism and Team Sexism Must Be Brutally Purged No Matter What The Cost. The self-appointed captain, lead council, and Judge Dredd of the second team was now-ex-Washington Post reporter Felicia Sonmez. Sonmez spent several days publicly torching the Post on Twitter, and when some of her colleagues waded into the fray, she went after them, too. The Post issued a sad little statement that only served to highlight the fact that they’d failed to enforce consistent standards of conduct, and it took them the better part of a week to fire the person who was obviously trying to burn their organization to the ground. All of this happened while the Post was running a series touting the 50th anniversary of Watergate, which reminded everyone that a titan of American journalism now seemed to be a coven of bratty teenagers publicly shit-talking each other in a display that would be beneath the dignity of a Bravo reality show.
I deeply enjoy the “I was right!” vibes that this story gave me. My priors were well and truly confirmed, and we should never lose sight of how satisfying it is to say “I was right.” At various points in a person’s life, one might seek out human connections, boundary-expanding adventures, or mind-blowing sex, but past a certain age, nothing beats the endorphin rush provided by encountering a headline that allows you to say: “Ha! TOLD ya!”
The second thing I loved about the Post story was the conflict. The ripe, juicy, summer-fresh conflict — when Sonmez responded with knives out to entreaties from her own fucking coworkers, it was like biting into the sweetest peach that nature has ever grown. I’d like to think that I’m no longer the person who skipped basketball practice in seventh grade to watch two kids fight underneath the bleachers, but it turns out that I am still that person, and these days, Twitter delivers the fight directly to my phone.
Reality TV producers know the same thing that anyone who witnessed that under-the-bleachers rumble would also know: People love watching a fight. The Real Housewives series — which will enter its 170th season when Real Housewives of the Native Enclaves of Nunavut premiers in July — is nothing more than attention-seeking morons being goaded into fights by savvy producers. I’ve experienced this dynamic first-hand: When I was on Last Comic Standing, I said something in one of the “talking head” interviews about feeling weird around the comics from New York and LA (I hadn’t lived in either yet). The producers spent the rest of the interview trying to get me to shit-talk the other comics — they asked questions like “Is there someone in particular you don’t like?” and “What would you say to the comics who are rubbing you the wrong way?” Conflict is the not-so-secret sauce that makes reality TV delicious, which is why producers slop it on by the bucket-full every time they get a chance.
Sonmez surely knew that her tweets were the type of shit-stirring combat that gets attention. She had previously sued the Post for discrimination and lost,so I think she probably deduced that she had no future at the Post and decided to go out in a blaze of glory. And if that blaze of glory happened to raise her profile and lead to her next gig, then hey: That’s a risk she was willing to take. Twitter has ushered in the era of the star reporter; the old “no publicity is bad publicity” axiom might be more true than ever. Of course, journalism also has axiom that says “Don’t make yourself part of the story,” so there could be a conflict there. Maybe something can be done to incentivize journalists to promote the story instead of themselves; maybe there should be a new Pulitzer Prize called the Outstanding Achievement By Some Anonymous Nobody Who Will Never Make Any Real Money award.
Sonmez metaphorically volunteered to fight another kid under the bleachers, and we all watched. Or at least I did — maybe you spent last week translating Finnegans Wake into Latin, in which case: Bully for you, o thou of many brain cells. I followed every twist and turn, and on the one hand: So what? It was a slightly trashy story, but a certain amount of trash needs to be allowed. None of us can eat lentils and kale three meals a day, and none of us can stomach a news diet comprised entirely of Financial Times articles about mortgage rate trends in Djibouti. The Post story wasn’t even that trashy; there were legitimate issues at play about sexism and journalism in the age of social media. The fact that it happened to include a highly public flame war between several shit-doesn’t-stink journos was just a nice little bonus.
But I wonder: Is the conflict the only thing that appeals to us about civic engagement? That is: Is politics just sports for nerds? It’s not supposed to be, but maybe it is. Maybe my enjoyment of the Post fallout is identical to the enjoyment I get from watching my favorite sports team trounce a rival. If you hooked me up to an EEG, would showing me articles that confirm my worldview stimulate my brain in the same way as watching the US knock Mexico out of the 2002 World Cup? This should be studied, preferably during a 4-0 US route of England in this year’s WC knockout round.
On some level, we all know that this is not what politics is supposed to be. Politics is supposed to be high-minded; it’s supposed to be an exchange of ideas that helps us build a better society. It’s not supposed to be a tribal grudge match in which we pray for our enemies to be immolated so that we might piss on their ashes. I know that humans are hard-wired to form groups and see things in terms of “us versus them”, so I have realistic expectations. And please remember that just two paragraphs earlier, I established that I am strongly pro-trash. Nonetheless, I think that political engagement often feeds our baser instincts instead of serving a higher calling.
I’ve been writing this blog for a year now. I have informed opinions about what gets clicks and eyeballs, and it probably won’t surprise you to hear me say: Conflict seems to be what does it. More contentious articles tend to get more retweets, higher open rates, and more new subscriptions. It’s not quite as simple as “conflict = readers”, but that seems to be the most potent ingredient. If a young writer asked me “What’s the quickest path to success?”, I’d say “Slay your enemies often, righteously, and flamboyantly.” If I’m right about that assessment, then it raises the question of whether the platonic ideal of politics as a quest for societal betterment is mostly or entirely bullshit.
I never try to fight human nature. I laugh at conservatives who think that sexuality can be willed away, and I think that Marx was cheating big-time when he invoked the “New Man”. With that being true, I’m not going to say “Gee, I wish we were wired differently” — our impulses simply are what they are. But I think it might be healthy to acknowledge the biases that we have towards conflict and news that affirms our worldview. We should try remember that politics — at its worst — can be a vehicle for acting out petty grudges. We might not be able to fully inhabit the better angels of our nature, but we can maybe keep our base impulses from pummeling our better angels like Ed Norton wailing on that blonde guy in Fight Club.
When I engage with politics, I’ll try to examine my motives. I’ll ask myself: Why am I doing this? What itch is being scratched? Am I being motivated by something positive, or by something petty? I’ll also try to reduce the amount of time I spend doing petty things; maybe I’ll place a hard cap on pettiness at 95 percent of my waking hours. That seems ambitious; getting down to 95 percent might be tough. But I feel like I should try. Because politics is supposed to be about growth, not grudges, and when you’re watching with jaw agape as a single loose cannon takes a once-great institution to Clown Town for almost a week, that can be easy to forget.
She reportedly plans to appeal.