Friday, July 11, 2008
True story: I had a job at Gawker.com -- for about 24 hours.
Just a couple of days after my firing from CNN became public knowledge, I was contacted by Noah Robischon, managing editor at Gawker Media and high-level minion to site founder, internet mogul, and notoriously mercurial pain-in-the-ass, Nick Denton. He sent me an e-mail asking whether I thought my foul mouth and Jedi-like mastery of the dark art of the cheap punchline might be well-suited for a home at New York City's premier online destination for astringent snark. Being suddenly out of a regular paycheck and admittedly enticed by the possible opportunity to say a figurative "fuck you" to my former employer by landing a new, high-profile job so soon after being canned, I agreed to meet with his boss and engage in a little mutual rear-sniffing. Denton and I wound up grabbing a quick lunch in SoHo on a Saturday afternoon and by the end of the meal he had offered me a provisional gig writing about television for Gawker, with instructions to report to work the following Monday morning for whatever training and orientation I might need.
Turns out I never got that far.
The next morning I received a short e-mail from Denton saying, in so many words, that after taking a closer look at the kind of material I was putting up on my own site, he'd decided that I wouldn't, in fact, be a good fit with Gawker. I admit that I was caught slightly off-guard by the quick dismissal; it seemed startlingly schizophrenic, even for someone with Denton's reputation. The impression that I got from the e-mail, though -- the rationale I could glean from the words of Gawker's publisher as to why his site and I just wouldn't be right for each other -- was that I was actually a little too caustic and vicious, ungovernably so, when it came to my opinions. For a moment, I couldn't help but think that being told you're too much of a prick to work at Gawker is like being told you're too gay to audition for the lead in Torch Song Trilogy. Almost immediately, however, I realized something: Denton was absolutely right; I'm the furthest thing from Gawker material -- and taking a somewhat righteous stand against the abuses I witnessed at CNN and in the mainstream media, only to then turn around and crank out snotty, Fountainhead-referential one-liners about celebrities, Manhattan socialites and Chuck Klosterman probably wouldn't do much for my credibility, to say nothing of my long-term career.
It's right about now that I should mention that I have nothing against Gawker.com or any of its sister sites. On the contrary, the kind of writing -- the kind of thinking -- popularized by Gawker's rotating cast of quick-witted wonder kids has been eminently entertaining over the years (although a lot of folks will tell you that the one-note joke, coupled with an overabundance of in-house drama, has worn very thin). For a long time, I was an avid reader of several of the titles under Denton's hegemonic banner and, in the interest of full disclosure, his people have linked a few of the pieces I've written for this site, bringing me exposure that I might not otherwise have had. That said, there's been an awful lot of negative press aimed at the House of Gawker over the past year or so, and even the most unctuous of Denton apologists would have to admit that quite a bit of it is well-deserved.
Gawker's biggest problem -- the most looming threat to its own success -- has always been, ironically, its own success. The namesake site and its counterparts, at least the ones based in New York, were founded as a place where elite (and elitist) members of the city's self-described "creative underclass" could come together and do what they did best -- stand at the bar or in a corner at the party making fun of everyone they considered beneath them -- on a grand scale. The trouble, of course, is that those kinds of people are generally callow, insecure, obnoxious, monumentally narcissistic and, whether they'll admit to it or not, want nothing more than to be a part of the very crowd they mock so venomously; give them a taste of the fame they purport to be so openly hostile toward and not only will they become the very thing they supposedly despise, the entire concept of the place they work for will be put at risk. Put simply, Gawker and sites like it, to be effective, need to have some sort of Menudo-like policy when it comes to the notoriety of their writers and editors: Once the kids hit that personal fame ceiling, their time's up and they're out.
But Gawker and its siblings probably wouldn't exist if it weren't for the voices of writers who are, in reality, interested in self-obsession above all else.
Which makes it even more of a shame that, on paper at least, Jezebel.com was supposed to be different.
Jezebel's been in the new media press quite a bit lately -- for all the wrong reasons. A couple of weeks ago, Lizz Winstead, co-creator of The Daily Show and an undeniably whip-smart lady, invited two of Jezebel's most potent and popular contributors to take part in an off-the-cuff talk show called Thinking and Drinking. Moe Tkacik and Tracie Egan -- whose nom de plume is "Slut Machine" -- are fulltime staffers at Jezebel, a site which casts itself as an edgier alternative to the glossy, Oprahfied banality of most media aimed at female audiences these days. As writers, both kids fit the Gawker Media mold almost perfectly: street smart, acid-tongued City Girls with an obligatory air of ironic detachment and, in Egan's case particularly, more than a passing affection for the dramas that make up their personal lives. Winstead claims to have propositioned the Jezebelles because of a respect for their reputation as standard bearers for the new model of female empowerment; what she found out in short order, however -- at least if you believe her story about being unaware of what she was actually getting -- was that Tkacik and Egan come off a hell of a lot smarter in print.
During the course of their conversation, which can be viewed in its entirety on Winstead's website, the ladies of Jezebel managed to embarrass themselves and their employer in ways so pronounced that you were kind of left feeling sorry for them rather than pissed-off that anyone had ever made the mistake of holding them up as models of savvy womanhood. Tkacik and Egan each seemed to punctuate every sentence with "like" -- as in, "I guess I, like, regret being date raped," and "I think (not being date raped) has to do with the fact that I am, like, smart," respectively; Egan -- remember, "Slut Machine" -- was a trucker's mouth full of requisite in-your-face navel-gazing, defiantly offering up that she "once paid someone to rape me once." Both women were drunk. Neither one gave a shit about how the two of them looked to anyone sitting in the studio audience or watching at home, nor how swiftly and entirely their dumb-ass, giggling party girl act may have been undoing the very mission statement of Jezebel.com.
Insulted by the Jezebelles' behavior and offended at their glib treatment of the very serious subject of rape, Winstead wrote a scathing column in the Huffington Post late last week, basically taking Tkacik and Egan to task by publicly taking them apart. In response to the piece, which brought the entire miasma front and center for both fans and critics of Jezebel.com and its Gawker Media mothership, Sarah Hepola fired off a column of her own in Salon.com, lambasting the girls for their lack of maturity and rightly recognizing that, as with far too many of the Gawker kids lately, neither thinks beyond her own self-mythology and potential stardom. This led Jezebel.com's managing editor, Anna Holmes, to post an apology on the site in which she called the whole thing "a fucking shame" for everyone involved -- including Winstead, whom she accuses of having "unrealistic expectations" -- and explicitly stated that the actions of Tkacik and Egan are not representative of Jezebel.
Except, of course, that they are.
To react with shock that a writer who calls herself "Slut Machine" and blogs ad nauseam about -- and stop me if you've heard this one before -- all the partying and hot, indiscriminate fucking she does in New York City might be apt to embarrass the hell out of a site that aims to be taken seriously on the subject of women's issues seems comically disingenuous. Likewise, to allow two girls to speak for you in an official capacity who as recently as late last year were gleefully engaging in their best Courtney Lovecraft for a drugged-up-chic promotional photo shoot smacks of trying to have it both ways. I can't imagine that Anna Holmes is a stupid woman, which means she's either really good at self-deception or really bad at deceiving everyone else. She had to know what would happen when Tracie Egan and Moe Tkacik took the stage at an event that actually had the word "drinking" right in its name (although to be fair, if she did any research at all, Lizz Winstead should have known as well); being surprised that these two made drunken asses out of themselves is like being shocked your house in bone dry, brush-laden Big Sur is burning down.
I've never met Anna Holmes personally, but interestingly, I have met Moe Tkacik -- specifically because I didn't meet Anna Holmes when I was supposed to.
Let me explain: Holmes was scheduled to take part in Gelf Magazine's "Non-Motivational Speaker Series" on New York's Lower East Side last month, an event I'd also been booked for. At the last minute she canceled, telling organizers that she'd just come home from her honeymoon to discover bedbugs in her apartment and simply couldn't make it. (If this strikes you as the kind of hilariously horseshit excuse that only a borderline sociopath would expect anybody to actually buy, you once again don't understand the earth-shattering importance of each of the millions of mini-dramas that make up the daily life of the average New Yorker.) In her place Holmes dispatched Tkacik, who was introduced to the small crowd only as "Moe." Although it's unfair to be too harsh on someone who was forced into a tough spot at the last second -- improvisationally tap-dancing on behalf of her boss -- the issues I had with Tkacik at the time had less to do with her obvious level of discomfort at having been put in such a difficult position than it did with her way of thinking in general. To be blunt, she was just so damn Gawker. She made cracks about needing Adderall -- the official drug of children and 20-somethings who have the maturity level of children. As with Winstead, she carpet-bombed every sentence with enough "like"s to make a college English professor give up and go sell Amway. She struck an almost admirable pose of aloof non-chalance, seeming at every turn to be playing the part of the cool kid who just doesn't give a shit but whose insecurities can practically be seen swimming around just beneath her thin skin. I had no doubt at the time that Moe was a nice enough girl -- just young and completely wrapped up in her own self-perpetuating bullshit. She was, quite frankly, the one thing I doubt she ever wanted to be (though if you asked her, she'd probably pretend to insouciantly embrace the label in the same way that a hipster might wear a t-shirt emblazoned with the Ghostbusters logo as a badge of ironic honor): She was a cliché. I found myself wanting to give her a fucking hug or something and tell her it's not her fault.
It's Emily Gould's.
If you have no idea who Emily Gould is, you A) don't live in New York City, and B) are very, very lucky. The Gould fiasco from a couple of months back was so outrageously stupid that even though it dealt directly with the subject of new media-versus-old, I didn't dare touch it, lest I in some small way perpetuate both the nonsensical "controversy" that so many seemed to be talking about and the career of Gould herself. To recap quickly for the blissfully uninitiated: Emily Gould rose to fame blogging for Gawker and at her own personal site, both of which, to some extent, became a daily treasure trove of Gould's personal exploits (relationship and otherwise), neuroses, dropped names, schoolgirl giddiness and general self-absorption. The wholly unimaginative within the media, clamoring to find a reference point that the unwashed masses would understand, tried to dub her at one point "The Real Carrie Bradshaw." Still, there were plenty of people out there who had no idea who Emily Gould was -- much to her own dismay, I'd imagine. That changed this past May, when The New York Times Magazine published a cover story on Gould that not only featured some of the most hysterically awful writing and unabashed narcissism ever to grace The Times -- and this is a paper that employs Thomas Friedman -- but also a suggestive cover photo of Gould lying on a bed giving the camera her best "morning afterglow" look (in case you needed reinforcement for the idea that Blogging = Inviting You Into the Bedroom). The backlash from Times readers wanting to know why the fuck the paper had stooped to legitimizing someone like Gould in such grand fashion was so furious that editors actually shut down the online comment section to spare their cover girl, and themselves, any more invective.
Emily Gould's neck-breaking, yet strangely dull, confessional introspection -- her lamentation of "I've Never Been to Me" -- seemed to confirm everyone's worst fears about young bloggers: they're shallow; they think the world revolves around them and their problems; they grow addicted to the rush of instant feedback or instant fame; they become nothing more than caricatures of real people after a while. For someone who now writes fulltime, mostly via the internet, I couldn't help but see Emily Gould as a kind of new media literary Stepin Fetchit, setting the whole damn movement back a decade or so by smiling broadly and doing the happy little shuffle that would guarantee her minor fame -- at least that of her idol, media gadfly and real-world nobody Julia Allison, whom Gould name-drops with Tourette's-like consistency -- but would also ensure that any larger responsibility toward women in new media (and women in general for that matter) went unattended. By greedily grabbing the lowest-hanging fruit on the massive tree available to women bloggers -- writing mostly about her love life, which seems to always assure an audience of one kind or another -- Gould helped to lower the bar and set a new standard for the women who would follow in her wake.
Women like Tracie Egan, who's seen her dreams of New York-centric notoriety come true by writing about, what else, how much she loves to fuck and get drunk.
Women like Moe Tkacik, who is, I have no doubt, far too smart to be acting so goddamned dumb.
The point that Lizz Winstead was trying to make by raking these kids over the coals was that, as women with a forum and an audience, they have a responsibility not necessarily to represent or speak for all women, but at the very least to understand that what they say matters -- that people are listening and give a crap. There are often larger consequences to what those with a forum say and do. Winstead believes that acting stupid isn't feminist, or even neo-feminist -- it's just stupid. I on the other hand look at the behavior of Egan and Tkacik from the perspective of a writer and a journalist, but the conclusion is the same: What we say, what we write -- whether in long form pieces or in quick deadline-driven bits on sites like Gawker; whether in print or on the internet -- all of it matters. It's easy as hell to be clever and glib, and God knows I'm guilty of both quite often, but provocative doesn't always equal insightful, and it damn sure doesn't always equal smart. It's an old cliché that sarcasm is lazy humor, but that's only true if there's nothing to back it up -- if there's no substance under all that incisive wit and no real point or passion to bolster all that flowery sound and fury. Detached irony simply for detached irony's sake will only take you so far.
I can't help but feel, unfortunately, like Gawker has already found this out.
It'd be a shame if Jezebel followed the same path.
(Related: If you haven't already seen it, take a look at Emily Gould's now-legendary appearance on CNN. Jimmy Kimmel absolutely eviscerates her on live television, although I get the feeling that she'd look like just as much of a 12-year-old special needs child had Kimmel not been playing inquisitor. This was my first introduction to Gould, by the way. I remember standing in the middle of the newsroom, watching this interaction unfold live and asking out loud, "Who the hell is this idiot?" You can view the clip here. Photo Courtesy: The New York Times)