From Investigative Journalism To The Twitter Sandbox, And Other Tales Of The Media’s Demise

I hated working at the copy desk for my college newspaper. While I did line edits and re-flows on one boring student government story after another, I thought about the powerful media people who never had to perform such mundane labor. This was back in 2000, and at least to seventeen-year-old me, opinion was king. Nobody told David Broder what to write; nobody killed a Thomas Friedman story. This, I thought, was where the action was and always would be. You dredged up a few facts  and earned the right to share your opinions.

In the pre-blog era, I deemed reporting, particularly investigative journalism, to be a real snooze, plus lots of work. Investigative journalism was embodied for me by San Jose Mercury News reporter Gary Webb, who wrote the stories about the CIA’s involvement in facilitating the crack cocaine epidemic. His stories eventually became Dark Alliance, a book my father wouldn’t stop talking about. (Webb, of course, was driven out of the business by “serious” reporters who dismissed his work, and he later committed suicide.)

Dad, I thought, was off his rocker. The truth wouldn’t set anyone free. After all, the Bill Clinton impeachment scandal hadn’t produced any smoking guns. Meanwhile, the president’s accusers, like Juanita Broaddrick, were dismissed as fame-seeking spotlight hogs by the commentariat.

Why worry about political corruption and abuse of power when you could turn on the TV and watch a bunch of talking heads chatter about Clinton’s odds of survival? This group consisted of distinguished op-ed contributors who wrote the same boring syndicated column week in and week out; political analysts in the David Gergen mold whose reputations were impervious to their endless string of bad predictions; veteran journalists hoping to burnish their reputation by switching from chasing stories to the grift of opining about them; and talk radio blowhards transitioning their spin cycling to cable news.

Little did I realize that the opinion business was going to change in a big way. Blogging democratized the process of editorializing and “exposure platforms” — like the Huffington Post’s unpaid contributor program, recently ended by the company because it had become an embarrassing cesspool of un-vetted reporting — ensured that all had the chance to shout into the echo chamber. Everyone was entitled to their own opinions and facts, as well as $0 paychecks for sharing them.

A few of the early blog stars rose from the muck of insipid opinion-sharing to become well known analysts, commentators, and op-ed stars. Some even secured treasure chests full of venture capital doubloons, paid out by investors hoping to capture the attention and clicks of the fast-rising millennial cohort who had grown up in this swamp.

Unless you were a hardcore reporter steeped in the history and tradition of the newsroom, it was easy to miss what was happening. Investigative reporting, which provided little bang for the payroll buck and inevitably pissed off the bosses, was ditched for blog-style analysis masquerading as news coverage, which was cheap and easy to mass produce. 

Writing over three decades ago, New Yorker columnist George Trow observed that public discourse was headed in the direction of Family Feud: “The most important moment in the history of television was the moment when [Feud host Richard Dawson] asked contestants to guess what a poll of a hundred people had guessed would be the height of the average American woman. Guess what they’ve guessed the average is.” 

And that is the essence of an analytical piece, not quite opinion and not quite news: what, pray tell, do the voters think about the candidates? “Here are my thoughts about what I think their thoughts are,” writes the wonk. “And I ran a few regressions of a data set selected more or less at random to substantiate this!”

Sure, as a journalist you could still while away the lonely hours hunting down companies evading responsibility for workplace injuries, or chasing dark money pouring into and out of various shady Washington nonprofits and institutions. But that’s hard and tiresome labor, especially if all you really want is a byline.

At the end of the day, muckraking is clearly inferior, career-wise, to pulling on adult diapers and sidling into the office of a legacy publication that pays you $250,000 a year to type up a few vapid columns a week. And better yet, with no consequences if anything you write is patently wrong-headed or brain-dead.

This is the modern news ecosystem.  A few investigative reporters continue to track worthwhile stories and, if they’re lucky, get paid a living wage and defeat some bad guys in the process. But the great majority of today’s journalists are engaged in a brutal battle for likes and shares in the Twitter sandbox, eager to sell their pandering opinions in the hopes of establishing a “brand” and “reach.” Meanwhile, sleazy publishers will continue to get caught doing underhanded things to keep their sinking ships afloat, like buying clickbots to drum up advertising dollars.

And Washington Babylon will be here to follow the media gossip and bullshit all the way to Davey Jones’ locker.

 

 

The Big Grift: A Christmas Story

Regardless of what one thinks about global warming and inflation and the Russians and crime in the streets, our situation stinks. It is bad here, in these United States of Amnesia, and even worse elsewhere. Everybody seems to be grifting, hustling, struggling to get by. The big shots steal big; the rest of us grab what we can.  

As we grift along, we try to help where we can, contributing our soft-earned doubloons to one appealing Patreon grift after another. These poor creative people deserve it, we think. It’s the least we can do.

The least we can do is all most of us ever do, myself included. We pick for scraps down in a giant shit pit real world, a shit pit of hot takes and viral trespasses across ill-tended timelines, and each of us wants to gather our scraps as quickly as possible so we can scurry back to the online void.

To dwell on the Internet is to participate in our modernity; to use Twitter is to hate your life, perhaps even life itself. What will some vile senator or powerful editor or beta-male leftist freelancer do next, we wonder. The song remains the same: unless you’re earning that do re mi for some rich company or backed by the truly powerful, you’re chum in the water. “That’s entertainment,” warbled Paul Weller in 1980, and he’s still right.

Matt Taibbi, who is chum in the water on account of his alleged past misdeeds, wrote Griftopia in 2010, christening our age. The grift was in: the bosses were hustling us, and we were hustling each other. Everyone is a free lance, peddling a bunch of banal, easily-thinkable thoughts instead of their polearms.

Not that this has made us savvier consumers. You’d think we could resist a presidential grift, but millions doubled down on that brand. Why not? We own closets full of LuLaRoe merchandise and other multi-level marketing scamwear. We are a hopeful bunch, convinced we know something, and we hurry to act on our hunches and intuition. Bitcoin in our coinpurse today…tomorrow, the world!

“You don’t know a fucking thing,” my father, a grifter who retired early, used to tell me. “And neither do I. People aren’t stupid, but they’re lazy. They lie because it’s easier than remembering, and they’ll believe your lies because not thinking at all sure as hell beats thinking twice.”

My father was a great scammer, so fooling him was easy peasy. The more accustomed we get to conning, which requires a vast amount of effort, the less energy we have to resist the cons of others.

The mere chance that he might receive money for nothing launched my father into a state of enthusiasm; he would give up everything for a shot at doing nothing. He pulled out all the stops on the off chance he might stop and steal a moment’s respite.

As my father aged his way first towards irrelevance and then towards death, he realized that the world, at least his world, was indeed going to end. He had come close to that grass crown a few times, bumming around the semi-pro football ranks and owning airplanes and businesses and such, but missing the big payoff by a few moments at some appointed destination — the way all heist movies conclude. He had seen Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing many times; he knew what lay in store for him.

He was skeptical about the possibility for reform. Each generation existed to fuck over the previous one — ”après nous, le déluge!” — and why the hell not? You get only one crack at the piñata.

“If it came down to you or me, I hope you’d want it to be you because I’d sure as hell want it to me,” he repeatedly told me. That admonition used to haunt me, but now I find his candor refreshing. Unlike the Baby Boomers who came after him, he owned up to the disaster he left in his wake.

Grifting ought to start at home. My father stole tens of thousands of dollars from me, turning me into a full-time beast of burden by age 17, but nobody needs to hear that sob story retold. He never denied his crimes, unlike every politician I’ve had the pleasure of observing. He didn’t tell me he was charging me for modeling photos he promised he would share with fashion executives or say that he was using his don’t-ever-pay-writers platform to give me exposure or any of that shit. No, he screwed me over and said, “Hey, it was you or me, buddy.”

All of us have an angle. The people who don’t seem to have an obvious product they’re peddling, the people who try to disguise their marketing methods,are the most loathsome. Anyone trading on virtue or incorruptibility is full of crap; it falls to outlets like Washington Babylon to trash them loudly and often.

If you see a lot of retweets or Facebook shares or whatever from a quasi-public figure, understand this: nine times out of ten, that person is running game, not speaking truth to power. Lana del Raytheon, that disgraced Twitter leftist, offered a prime example. There was no there there, just a nerdy person trading on exceedingly minor fame to prey upon naïve fans. How such a person can have fans is another story. 

A friend remarked recently that Twitter personalities “in the low five digits’ worth of followers seem to consist of people who have contributed something substantial to the world but are woefully overlooked online, and self-manufactured entities who are clearly overjoyed to have a voice and a platform in little tweety bird land.”  There are more of the latter than the former, and probably a lot of the former would like to be regarded among the latter, if only because that would mean a few more solicited pieces with the resulting paychecks.

The National Enquirer Did It First

I grew up far from the madding crowds, surrounded by acres of fallow farmland and heaps of tabloids. My father always had the latest National Enquirer, though he didn’t discriminate; he grabbed National Examiners and Globes and Stars by the handful as he pushed his cart through the checkout line at the Giant Eagle.

Not to say that he didn’t have limits: he hadn’t the time for Time and hated People almost as he hated people. The old man owned used car dealerships and dive bars and other slimy operations, and he knew native advertising, public relations, and career-fluffing when he saw it. He preferred to wallow in the dirt and always wanted more of it.

“Everything in these magazines is true,” he’d say when my mother protested that this choice of reading material catered to the prurient interests of its dim-witted audience. “But you know, what I’m really worried about is everything that isn’t.”

We would sit together on the leather couch in the den, loutish, aging father and impressionable home-schooled child. I didn’t attend preschool or kindergarten, so instead of seeing Dick and Jane run, I heard about Gary Hart and Jim Bakker fooling around. My father, who in those days had a magical way of earning maximal income with minimal effort, believed this to be “quality time,” thinking that he was wising me up to the ways of the world.

Jim and Tammy Faye. Oh, how we miss you.

“Yeah, sure, you can make it up,” he told me. “But even when you make it up, it’s on the money. The whole system, the way the big shots carry on…If you only knew a little bit of the truth, it would make your toes curl and the blood shoot out of your eyes.”

His beloved National Enquirer was a vestigial relic of the Hearst publishing empire that had wound up in the hands of allegedly mob-connected Generoso Pope and stayed there until 1988, when it was bought by Macfadden Publishing, itself a vestigial relic of the glory days of of muscleman Bernarr Macfadden’s publishing empire (of which the tabloids The New York Evening Graphic and the confessional True Story once constituted major parts). The rag sold for $412 million, roughly $350 million more than it cost to purchase the Boston Globe in 2013.

“Those pubs [like the Enquirer] paid a fortune to writers,” veteran alternative press publisher Russ Smith told me. “Of course, if you worked there, it was a stain that couldn’t be erased.”

The knock on the Enquirer, of course, was that much of its content was bullshit, which didn’t exactly distinguish it from other, more esteemed publications that ran stories from post-truth journalists such as Stephen Glass (New Republic) and Jayson Blair (New York Times). Most respectable folks confused it with its all-bullshit sister publication, the Weekly World News, which led with amazing stories about Bat Boy and other such sham wonders.

Jayson Blair, New York Times: And the Enquirer is the one that publishes fake news?

In our family, the heyday of the National Enquirer came during the Clinton impeachment scandal (also known as the “Monica Lewinsky scandal,” though not to her). By then, my father had fallen on hard divorces and harder times and was living with his brother. The old man had been anticipating his fall from grace for years. Like his political idol/college football opponent/semi-pro football teammate, Ohio Democratic Congressman Jim Traficant, he went long stretches without paying his federal income taxes. Both of them would meet their makers in similar fashion: as CTE-addled lunatics screaming about how life itself was one big rotten conspiracy, a joke played on all of us.

But Bill Clinton gave my father a brief reprieve from the business of giving up on life, handing him a scorching-hot issue he could sink his teeth into. A sleazebag like Jim Traficant was a mere crook, the sort of person who could be surveilled and thereafter kept at arm’s length. Clinton, on the other hand, struck my father as an inveterate liar, a man whose success hinged on a number of falsehoods that eventually earned him the presidential salary my father’s tax dollars were paying, if my father ever remembered to pay his taxes. “You can watch a thief, but you can’t trust a liar,” he’d intone like some guru with each new bit of Kenneth Starr/Linda Tripp-pseudo-story.

Congressman Traficant: He swore to tell the truth.

For my father, the issue with Clinton wasn’t “Slick Willie’s” adultery. No, he assumed everyone, himself included, engaged in that when given the slightest opportunity. It was the abuse of power in order to incentivize adultery, the abuse of power to weave elaborate lies, that incensed him. Slick Willie simply couldn’t lie and keep his facts straight like the rest of us; instead, he was forcing himself on a younger person who lacked the willpower to refuse his advances. Over the course of a lifetime, the son of a dead traveling salesman and a very lively nurse had accumulated vast amounts of power for no better reason than the one that causes your dog to chase its tail.

Slick? Willy looks like Dorian Gray nowadays.

There was no point to it all, except because. We competed and destroyed one another, and why not? What the hell else could you do?

Like any publication, the National Enquirer operated according to its internal political logic — logic that became clearer during the most recent election, when its current ownership kept bad news about Trump off the front page and tasked its reporters with exposing his rivals. But that wasn’t all the Enquirer accomplished during the previous decade.

Indeed, the preceding ten years had witnessed some of the publication’s best work, when it shifted from trying to “out” Scientologists John Travolta and Tom Cruise to forcing Sarah Palin’s teen daughter Bristol to admit she was pregnant (after numerous TV appearances in which she urged teens to abstain from sex) and John Edwards to come clean about his rotten behavior (Edwards, a blow-dryed, ambulance-chasing dead ringer for “30 Rock’s” page Kenneth Parcell, was simultaneously publicizing his dying wife’s heroic fight with cancer, trying to capture the progressive vote in the 2008 election, and fathering a child with a woman whom he initially ordered to claim she had conceived with former campaign staffer Andrew Young).

Initially, Palin and Edwards tried to deny the claims, falling back on the fact that most people believed the National Enquirer was comprised of fiction. But they were eventually hoisted on their own petards, as rubber-faced Ted Cruz, who survived the Enquirer’s allegations of extramarital affairs but recently slipped and “liked” a pornographic tweet (he attributed that whoopsie-daisy to a careless staffer), assuredly will be.

Ken Silverstein, the editor-in-chief of Washington Babylon, almost wound up working for the National Enquirer — a state of affairs he wouldn’t have minded, had Hillary Clinton won. But the mission of this website, which owes its title to pioneering director Kenneth Anger’s delightfully ahead-of-its-time tattletale Hollywood Babylon, extends much further than that.

May god fuck you both.

You see, pretty much everyone with even a modicum of power is a fucking asshole. That’s the plain truth of the matter. There are a few good ones to be raked from the rubbish, I suppose, but this free market in awfulness eventually turns everyone into a monster — men, in particular.

The powerful are trash people almost to a man, and the attention paid to tabloids over the past century certainly isn’t owing to bullshit pablum like “Stars…they’re Just Like Us,” but rather because they aren’t anything like us; they steal, hoard, and abuse their power, and we hate them for it.

We hate the marginally powerful (Twitter celebrities who turn their followings into sexual harassment clinics), the somewhat powerful (Garrison Keillor, somehow), and the reasonably powerful (Harvey Weinstein, alleged pederast Bryan Singer once the authorities catch up to him). We would hate the very powerful and the mega-powerful too, the Carlos Slims and Mark Zuckerbergs, if we could turn high-powered paparazzi lenses on them and expose their gross goings-on; likely no airport barf bag could contain our upchuck and no padded cell could contain our rage.

“As long as these rat bastards go down, I don’t care if it’s one at a time,” my father used to tell me. “To hell with all of them.”

Readers of this site would like to see radical change happen much faster than that, but, like many of these recently-humiliated creepy-ass men on the creepy-ass fringes of social media, we will have to take what we can get.

And you can count on one thing from Washington Babylon: We will treat Carlos Slim and Mark Zuckerberg with the same contempt we have for Harvey Weinstein, Anthony Weiner, Hillary and Bill Clinton, and Donald Trump.