Titillation and cruelty have become a business model for publications chasing clicks.
Last month, a manipulated video circulated broadly on social media that made House Speaker Nancy Pelosi seem drunk. Vloggers Diamond and Silk made mention of it in a Fox and Friends segment. Rudy Giuliani mentioned it on Twitter. Shame on all of them for propagating a fiction. They should be embarrassed for their credulity.
This story illustrated the issue of “fake news,” which is a legitimate problem. And there are pertinent questions to be asked about the extent to which social-media companies should involve themselves in policing content. Reasonable people can disagree.
But the story took a new and unfortunate turn over the weekend when Kevin Poulsen, a contributing editor at the Daily Beast, found the guy who made the video. Poulsen then revealed personal information about the individual, who denies he is the video’s creator.
Conservatives on Twitter complained about this article, which prompted Sam Stein of the Daily Beast to defend the decision to publish:
Can’t believe some people don’t think it’s news to discover the actual identity of the guy behind the doctored Pelosi video. It’s not just that he runs partisan news site + posted the video to make money. It’s that this story shows disinformation isn’t the purview of Russia alone. This video was pushed by the president’s lawyer and denounced by Hillary Clinton. It has direct implications for legislative debates over the biggest social media company in the world. OF COURSE it is relevant to know who made it. And for those attacking @kpoulsen by saying he wouldn’t dig into liberals, all I can say is get a clue and do your homework.
As the incomparable George Will might say: Well.
Where to begin?
Stein’s defense conveniently elides the actual calculation that the Daily Beast made. Yes, there is some news value in revealing the personal details of the man who allegedly made the video. But so what? Very few things in this world have no value. The real determination was that the value to the public of learning this individual’s identity was greater than the potential harm done to the man for having his identity revealed.
Such a claim is ridiculous. The person whose identity revealed was literally just some dude. Readers did not learn anything of importance regarding the proliferation of misleading videos, the problem of fake news on social media, or the impact of any of this on our politics. We did not learn anything about Trump voters that we did not already know. We did not become more informed citizens. We are not better equipped to hold the government or social-media companies accountable thanks to this exposé. Stein’s defense — “this story shows disinformation isn’t the purview of Russia alone” — is nonsense, because that was evident to everybody already. There is no “direct implication for legislative debates,” or anything of the sort. The value in revealing the man’s information was purely the satisfaction of idle curiosity and public shaming for his spoofing (which is not all that different from the business model of the Daily Show).
This conclusion is entirely consistent with a denunciation of both the video itself and the gullibility of the public figures who promoted it. The Daily Beast is pursuing an agenda that is simply not required by the public interest, Stein’s claims to the contrary notwithstanding.
I think this story illustrates two existential crises affecting modern journalism. Call them the red and the blue.
The red: Let’s face is, the media are deep in it. As in broke, busted, and (soon to be) bankrupt. Some outlets are going to be gone in five years or less. Others will survive, but only with massive and ongoing changes to their business models. Fifty years ago, the media made a profit because Americans could acquire information in only a handful of ways: local television news, national television news, the newspaper, and the radio. But the proliferation of media outlets has destroyed what was basically a cartel. How to prosper as a media institution when people can go anywhere for sports scores, weather reports, Sunday comics, crossword puzzles, and the like? One strategy — clearly on display at the Daily Beast this weekend — is titillation. The idea is not to elevate the public discourse by informing the citizenry about pressing issues or concerns but to appeal to their passions, prejudices, idle curiosities, and perhaps even cruelty. It is hard to drive traffic by facilitating an informed debate on the merits of increased immigration. But doxing a Trumpy vlogger? That’ll put butts in the seats.
Then there’s the blue. Ask yourself: If Paul Ryan had been the subject of such a misrepresentation by an anonymous vlogger, if a video had made him look drunk or feeble, would the Daily Beast have doxed him? Of course not. Stein says otherwise, but that is the rhetorical equivalent of peeing on my leg and assuring me it’s raining.
So-called mainstream media outlets are predominantly run by Democrats catering to a predominantly Democratic audience. This is a long-term trend that has become more pronounced in the last quarter century. Mainstream media have never been particularly friendly to conservative points of view. I do not think this is the result of a conspiracy; it’s just self-selection bias leading to groupthink. Journalism has gone hand-in-glove with progressivism for the better part of a century, so it attracts a certain type of person. When you get enough like-minded people together — of any cultural, religious, or ideological stripe — it’s very hard to convince them that the other side has some fair points of its own. Voilà, media bias, which conservatives have been complaining about for a long time. When alternative sources began to emerge — Rush Limbaugh in the late 1980s, Fox News in the mid 1990s, Drudge in the late 1990s — a lot of conservatives eagerly changed their news-consumption habits. That left the remaining “mainstream” audience much more Democratic, and given the economics of the industry, those outlets face a lot of pressure to retain their existing audience.
None of this is to say there is not a lot of good journalism still happening. There is. The problem is that the incentive structure of the industry has shifted so much over the last generation that a post like this — once unthinkable — is now published without a hint of embarrassment.
There’s a lot of blame to go around here. Lots of people on the right should have paused before hitting retweet on a fake video. And social media companies need to do a better job of defining their role in our public space. But there is plenty of blame left to say: Shame on the Daily Beast.