How Guilty Should I Feel?
I often feel guilt when I assign a story. This is partly a function of being a woman who would, if she had her way, please and comfort her entire universe of acquaintances, and partly a function of having been convinced at a relatively young age by the argument that Janet Malcolm famously made in The Journalist and the Murderer: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.”
She’s right, of course. The people who sing odes to my profession’s nobility are usually not journalists themselves. Peter Thiel is certainly not. He wrote in the New York Times op-ed section last week: “The press is too important to let its role be undermined by those who would search for clicks at the cost of the profession’s reputation.”
Thiel wrote that about Gawker, a place that is gone now, or will be tomorrow. Since we learned of Thiel’s covert campaign to bring financial ruin upon Gawker, the people who work here have done whatever we could to answer for our sins—feeling, as we often did, that those sins weren’t ours alone. Says Malcolm, “Journalists justify their treachery in various ways according to their temperaments. The more pompous talk about freedom of speech and ‘the public’s right to know’; the least talented talk about Art; the seemliest murmur about earning a living.”
I was the deputy editor of Gawker for four months, and in that time I enjoyed maybe three days without admonition from my own conscience over how I earned a paycheck. My guilt wasn’t exactly Gawker-specific: I would have felt self-recrimination anywhere I worked because I blush when I tattle, and journalism, no matter where, can sometimes feel a whole lot like tattling. Before Gawker, I spent about five years at the New Yorker, where I felt some measure of guilt, too, but it wasn’t so acute. I was more junior there, and the magazine has earned itself a sterling reputation, which generally keeps it above the ethical fray that Gawker is not only subjected to, but often courts. To me, though, that was part of the appeal of my new job. I looked forward to the challenge of publishing stories without the protection that a more meritorious reputation might have allowed. And we occasionally did that, sure. But it is easy enough to isolate our best stories from criticism with high-mindedness about bravery and Malcolmian ethics. In fact, quotidian posts that neither ruin a writer’s career nor make it are what fill most hours of blogging life. They do have consequences, though, and this is a story about that.
Here’s an example of guilt I have felt over earning a living: Back in May, I asked one of Gawker’s writers, Jordan Sargent, to write up a blog post as word spread that the music writer Sasha Frere-Jones had resigned from his job as a pop critic at the Los Angeles Times. I felt some self-reproach doing so, even though it was Frere-Jones who did the Bad Thing, and not me.
The Bad Thing was that he offered to cover some band at Coachella if the artist gave him a ride there, in a breach of basic journalistic ethics. He also tried to expense a $5,000 tab at a strip club, which isn’t so much an ethical lapse as an optical one. Neither of these things had any life-or-death stakes, but the whole episode was what we call in the old internet business, “a bad look.” That Frere-Jones took a pleasant gig for granted at a time when many writers can’t make a living brought about the customary hand-wringing as editors g-chatted and slacked each other in a frenzy: Can you imagine a woman of color ever doing this and expecting to get away with it? What could be more male than this? And did you hear he said he was writing a profile of a rapper when he went to the strip club? What is he implying about rappers? About black people? Does anyone know what strip club it was? Could he really not get a ride to Coachella? What a fucking mess.
My kindest, most generous and gentle friend, an editor whose empathic abilities dwarf mine and probably yours, expressed regret to me that all this was all happening so publicly. In Frere-Jones’ actions, my friend saw a man not waving but drowning. She couldn’t answer for what was going through his mind when he ran up that tab or tried to get that ride, and so couldn’t bring herself to wag her finger at him for it. But the problem with her generosity of spirit is that it is the sweeter, prettier cousin of a blind eye. Empathy overreaches when we can’t know and we can’t judge wrap themselves around each other so tightly that they become indistinguishable. My friend’s impulse was the opposite of schadenfreude, so potent that it gagged her. I get it, and have trouble disagreeing with her fully because I sometimes have that impulse, too.
I don’t mean to pick on Frere-Jones, anyway; he and I overlapped at the New Yorker for a couple years, and I found him to be a polite, generally thoughtful man. I have no such connection to, to take one example, the Eater restaurant editor Nick Solares, whose bosses suspended him after learning that he had been a part of a white nationalism-affiliated skinhead band in the ‘80s. Gawker received an anonymous tip nudging us to look into Solares’ past, and we did. J.K. Trotter, Gawker’s media reporter asked around and tried to get various sources to go on the record about it. The whole thing was standard, but it wasn’t fun.
My more professional angels shouted, But the man was in a white power skinhead band! That’s an affiliation so overtly racist and hurtful that his colleagues should know that he once held these beliefs, even if he no longer holds them! No one would go on the record with Trotter, and he didn’t write about it until Solares himself came clean in a post on Eater. I admit that I felt guilty the entire time anyway. What a fucking mess.
I doubt I am the only editor working in America who has paused over her keyboard to ask, Was what he did really so bad? What if he has kids who will read this? Though I suppose no professional would ever admit to hesitation this pathological and weird. Perhaps all this makes me dispositionally unsuited to journalism, which doesn’t so much valorize exposition of wrongdoing as consider it the job’s central mission. Or maybe I am a woman journalist who grew up in a world that has coached me to feel bad for the men whose misdeeds I point out.
Journalists—of all genders—pause before writing because we are told to, in ways big and small. Ways big: In Bangladesh, bloggers are murdered for blogging. Ways small: Journalists are called rude or unseemly when they point out that—or even ask if—someone else has done something rude or unseemly. When Cari Wade Gervin, a staff writer for the Nashville Scene, attempted to ask questions of Tennessee state Representative Jeremy Durham about a campaign finance report, the representative called the cops on her. Gervin had rung the doorbell of Rep. Durham’s home. He yelled at her and accused her of harassment. Rep. Durham was, at the time, under investigation for sexual harassment. A representative of Tennessee House Speaker Beth Harwell wrote to the paper that “A candidate’s campaign finances are under the purview of the candidate, so I would refer you to Rep. Durham for further explanation on those activities.” When Gerwin did exactly that, she was threatened with criminal prosecution.
This past spring, the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Department declined a request for an interview from Dan Bice, a journalist with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Later, Bice filed records request with the department, which Sheriff David Clarke interpreted as a sign of bad faith reporting, not professional diligence, and he took to Facebook to give Bice a piece of his mind in a post he called “When Journalism Becomes an Obsession.” Sheriff Clarke accused Bice of “journalistic stalking,” and called him lazy in the same breath. Door-knocking is called rude when it’s in service of reporting on a tragedy, and stalking when it’s about alleged misbehavior.
Last year, student members of the 1950 group, a group of activists dedicated to fighting for justice for black students at the University of Missouri, criticized journalists for attempting to cover a protest they hosted. Who, if not journalists, do they think brings them the news?
Those students, Sheriff Clarke, and Rep. Durham no doubt admire “the free press,” just as Peter Thiel does. “The press” or “the free press” are abstractions that are easy to revere, but you cannot have journalism without the journalists, no matter how much we might all want that. We rejoice when the corrupt king has been dethroned, as the credits roll at the end of Spotlight, when the door-knocking has brought about a grand reckoning that feels foregone in retrospect. The problem is that the only way to arrive at what feels, in the end, to be a moral certainty, is to ask invasive questions. Contrary to what we have been taught, journalists—good ones, anyway—don’t begin with the knowledge then bang on doors to get the proof. Perhaps that’s why the whole enterprise feels so rude. We don’t want any of that great journalism that we love so much to be about us, and if we’re being frank, we don’t really want to read it, either. But the press would be good to keep around, we tell each other, to burnish our credentials as a thinking people.
I get defensive. Don’t ask journalists to feel guilty for reporting, or reprimanded them about how the media is harmfully negative, I snap. To my editor friend who felt sad that the reporting on a subject’s misdeeds was public, I say: It feels good to remain respectfully quiet about the mistakes of others, and I am prone to it. Who among us, as they say, wants an article written about us on our worst day? We all live in glass houses, yes, but we have to throw stones anyway. You are telling me to feel guilty for what he did when you tell me to be kind and discreet, and ask myself, Was that bad thing really so bad that I have to talk about it in public? What if he had sexually harassed someone? Raped someone? Cheated on his taxes? Cheated at football? What if he was a millionaire? A billionaire? A president? Just another guy writing on another blog? What if he weren’t a person but a corporation? How guilty would you like me to feel in each of those instances?
It’s no matter to Gawker now, since Gawker is no more. We have been admonished out of existence by, among others, the Times opinion pages, which published Thiel’s utterly disingenuous call to action against invasions of privacy broadly, and Gawker narrowly. Never mind that he sits on the board of directors of Facebook, the greatest invader of privacy and purveyor of smarm of our time or anyone else’s.
But what is journalism without the disclosure of that which other people would prefer to keep private? It’s “storytelling,” that blank, folksy word used by media companies, ad agencies, and, yes, Facebook, to describe what they do when they want it to sound like what they do is somehow for you, and not for them. At its best, storytelling is heartwarming and entertaining, and at its worst it obscures the fact that on occasion, people and entities do bad things.
Storytelling also helped to kill Gawker.com. Peter Thiel told a story about why he wanted us dead, and plenty of people bought it. There was nothing Janet Malcom would identify as Art to any of the posts that, it has been said, are responsible for Thiel’s ire, not that I worked on any of them anyway. But there also wasn’t any Art to, and hardly any pompous claims to freedom of speech, in posts I did work on about a former skinhead at Vox, a music critic who ran up an idiotic tab, or even a bullshit startup, a stupid politician, or a racist cop. But an editor can make an Art of guilt if she so chooses, and I suppose I have done something like that.
That is how I earned a living for the past four months. I felt lakes of guilt fill inside me when an established, typically male figure fucked something up for himself and I, or the website I worked for pointed it out. I swam in that guilt and nearly drowned in it, because I have been told that I ought to. If you think I should feel more guilt than I do, please let me know in the comments.