Nice Kills: The Favor Economy and the Constant Death of the Media

Meredith Bryan observes in the NYO today that—hello!—niceness is back! On the internet, and in New York in general. Goodbye to cynicism! This interesting and somewhat true phenomenon will destroy us all, if we let it.

Once, the internet media was famous for being a mean, cynical place. Particularly the portion of the internet media you are now visiting. But things evolve. The ubiquity of Facebook and Tumblr and their currency of "friends," along with the overall maturing of the online world, has made everyone a bit gun shy. One PR lady tells the NYO: "That very cynical voice worked really well from 2003 to 2006." But "really negative people, they don't have a lot of friends."

Quite true! She also astutely points out that ""All of New York really runs from this idea of the favor economy...Can I do a favor now for this person so they'll do one for me later?"

This is it, in a nutshell. The careerist bubbles of New York have always been thus. What does this mean for THE MEDIA, friends? There was once a time when feisty young upstarts believed they could circumvent the existing calcified media power structure via the amazing unfettered internet. These were "The days when Gawker was cool." ETCETERA. As time goes on and the internet becomes just another mainstream media channel, however, things change. For the worse.

In any form of journalism—even the quasi-critical commentary form we practice around here—honesty is the currency of quality. It is honesty that ultimately makes things worth reading. Literary deftness and style and graphics and speed and broad distribution are all well and good, but without honesty, they are nothing but a styrofoam sandwich in your media diet.

Unfortunately, the dialectic of the average media critic career goes like so: Brash outsider upstart gets a foot in the door, gains notoriety for speaking truth to the calcified media power structure, thereby becomes more of an insider, trades a bit of his license to speak harshly for access to inside stories, and keeps on trading, forever, until another brash young outsider upstart comes around and starts criticizing him. Even the boldest, most outspoken, and least beholden-to-power of media critics—Jack Shafer at Slate, for example—has a constant mental calculus of just how far he can go with certain people and institutions. It's not quite censorship, which is why even the most worthless, ingratiating, shit-eating media critics will maintain plausible deniability to the very end of their shit-eating careers. Rather, it's a very subtle shading of language, the replacement of a word that stings with one that merely objects, the extra consideration given to an argument that might have once been rejected out of hand, the going-out-of-one's-way to compliment a merely competent story, the celebration of a piece because of its author's name and friendship and usefulness to one's own career and personal satisfaction rather than its inherent brilliance.

This is just how the world works. Harassing media people to admit this dynamic is a lot like arguing with a J-school professor about whether "objectivity" exists. Everyone knows it is how it is, but we've all mutually agreed to ignore it and proceed ahead, for our own mutual benefit. Any fair media critic would readily admit their biases (to a point); the more strenuously one argues their own ability to be judgmental of their own friends and drinking buddies and business connections and sources and employers, the more full of shit they generally are, and the more worthless their commentary. It truly is the Facebook-ization of the media, in the sense that you can watch much of media criticism evolve into little more than the media critic's own Facebook page of links to friend's articles and formalized mutual masturbation with fellow colleagues in the media. To be criticized by such a modern media critic, one must first be unpopular, before actually being wrong about something even becomes a topic of conversation.

Nice Kills: The Favor Economy and the Constant Death of the Media

And the piquant proof of all this, from the aforementioned Observer article: the media man trotted out as the counterexample, the living emblem of one who has failed to profit from the mutual backscratching of the Twitterized world, is Michael Wolff—a man widely despised (even by us!) because of his stubborn refusal to be diplomatic with anyone, which is actually his best quality. Michael Wolff will never be a popular guy, and he's too attention-grabbing on purpose to ever be a true wise man. But I never respected him more than when I saw him, on a discussion panel, turn to Phil Bronstein—the editor of a Hearst paper, and an apparently nice guy—and tell him that Hearst papers are crap, so it wouldn't be a great loss if they went out of business. It was shockingly rude and shockingly true, and only Michael Wolff was enough of an asshole to say it so directly.

Michael Wolff is certainly not the Platonic ideal of a media critic. But we should all admire those willing to be seen as jerks for the sake of telling the truth. Civility is a good quality to cultivate in daily life, but it has only limited value in journalism. We all have those secret little friend lists in our head, demarcating the people we are determined to treat nicely. Those media people who want to remain useful to readers will do their damnedest to keep those lists as small as possible. The rest of the media people, with the long lists, will probably get the better jobs. Until some snotty little asshole without a friend in the world comes along to tear them down again.

[UPDATE: Turns out our own (friend) Doree wrote about this internet civility topic months ago at NY Mag, as well!]