New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan has given a stern talking-to to Andrew Goldman, the freelance reporter who conducts front-of-the-book Q-and-A's for the New York Times Magazine. The ostensible occasion for the beat-down was a deeply misguided Twitter insult Goldman directed this week to the author Jennifer Weiner. But it was premised on the preposterous and malicious falsehood that Goldman routinely asks misogynistic questions of his female interview subjects. This is bullshit.
Andrew Goldman is a close personal friend. He will be in my home this weekend at my son's fourth birthday party. If you are looking for a disinterested analysis of the kerfluffle that led to Sullivan's blog post, you should stop reading. But since I was drawn into a Twitter-fight today with Weiner today—and, like Goldman, accused by her and others of being sexist—I am writing here in his defense and mine.
The backstory: Since he took over the Q-and-A column last year, Goldman has approached it with an off-kilter sensibility, kind of a louche party guest. He has asked some confrontational questions of female interview subjects that have been seized on by critics as "misogynist." One of those critics is the novelist Jennifer Weiner, who had previously taken Goldman to task on Twitter. Last Saturday, in response to Goldman's interview of Birds actress Tippi Hedren, Weiner took again to Twitter to write:
Saturday am. Iced coffee. NYT mag. See which actress Andrew Goldman has accused of sleeping her way to the top. #traditionsicoulddowithout— Jennifer Weiner (@jenniferweiner) October 6, 2012
Goldman responded with a deeply misguided and totally out-of-line insult implicitly denigrating Weiner's physical appearance: "@jenniferweiner sensing pattern. Little Freud in me thinks you would have liked at least to have had opportunity to sleep way to top ."
That is indefensible. I won't defend it.
Goldman was rapidly and roundly rebuked on Twitter by New Yorker critic Emily Nussbaum—"If you can't respond to criticism without embodying the very douchebaggery you're accused of... C'mon"—and many, many others. After briefly trying to explain the insult as an attempt to comically embrace the caricature he felt Weiner was painting, Goldman apologized for the comment and deactivated his Twitter account.
Last night, Sullivan weighed in. After interviewing Goldman's editor Hugo Lindgren and Weiner, she correctly criticized his "hideous misjudgment" in attacking Weiner personally on Twitter. But she went farther: She gave credence to Weiner's charges that Goldman had exhibited sexism in his interview questions, sending an angry and unhinged critique by blogger Ed Champion to Lindgren and asking him to respond. And she was eager to see Goldman disciplined, strongly suggesting that he should have been fired for the error: "It sounds as though he's going to get [a second] chance. Given his misbehavior on Twitter and his status as a highly replaceable freelancer, I think his editors are extraordinarily generous to give it to him." (She also, oddly, repeatedly harped on the "strong obscenities" Goldman used on Twitter, as though bad words are an offense worthy of disciplinary action. The obscenities he used were "shit" and "bullshit.")
Sullivan's condemnation of Goldman was smug and unforgiving. Calling for his head over one insult, for which he has apologized, is massive overkill. And the eagerness with which she contemplated Goldman losing his job over a mistake that he regrets—almost gleefully calling him "a highly replaceable freelancer"—was unbecoming. Astonishingly, Sullivan, who purports to be the Times' ethical line judge, didn't even contact Goldman for his thoughts before virtually calling for his firing.
But the worst part was Sullivan's seeming endorsement of the charge that Goldman is some sort of misogynist based on the questions he had asked various interview subjects in the past. As evidence of the purported controversy, she cited Champion, who called Goldman "vulgar" and "repulsive" and floated half-baked conspiracy theories about Harvey Weinstein's role in his career. If you're interested in checking out Champion's bona fides on the subject of misogyny, here he is joking about double-teaming the First Lady of the United States.
The rap against Goldman is this: He asked Hedren, "Actors have been known to sleep with less powerful directors [than Alfred Hitchcock] for advancement in show business. Did you ever consider it?" (In Sullivan's inaccurate framing, that became Goldman "asking a successful woman if she has slept her way to the top.") Goldman asked that question in the context of a new HBO movie about Hedren's relationship with Hitchcock, which was a bizarre and cruel sort of sexual slavery—he was obsessed with her and ruined her career over her refusal to give in to his vile advances. Asking did you ever consider it is a perfectly legitimate question—Hitchcock forced her into an awful choice, and he's asking her if she ever had second thoughts about the one that she made. It is most emphatically not, per Weiner, an "accusation" that Hedren slept her way to the top. After I went back and forth with her on Twitter today, Weiner acknowledged to that if she had been Goldman's editor, she wouldn't have thought twice about the question.
But Weiner is also upset about this question Goldman posed to the comic Whitney Cummings last year: "On those Comedy Central roasts, your fellow comedians liked to joke about how you slept your way to fame. How accurate is that criticism?" This was obviously not offered as a serious question. It was not an attempt by Goldman to assess the veracity of the claims being made by Cummings' fellow comedians. Any attempt to read it as such is willfully obtuse. It was a chance for Cummings to address the jokes, and to either riff on them or respond in earnest. (She riffed on them: "If sleeping with people worked, I would be doing it.") It was a provacative way of saying, "What's it like to constantly be accused by men of sleeping your way to the top?" Which is a question I'd imagine a lot of women would want her to be asked.
But there's more. Weiner also cited this Q-and-A with NPR's Terry Gross, in which Goldman asked: "I gather that people frequently assume you're a lesbian. Several years ago, it came up at a cocktail party for your husband, the writer Francis Davis, celebrating his Pew Fellowship." That question was premised on the book Gross was promoting. Here's what Gross herself wrote:
The second most frequently asked question about me is whether I'm straight or gay (this may be number one in San Francisco).... The confusion about my sexual orientation has led to some pretty amusing scenarios. About ten years ago, when my husband, the writer Francis Davis, won an arts fellowship, I went with him to a reception honoring him and the other recipients. My mother-in-law came with us, and at one point I saw her laughing at something the wife of one of the other fellows had just said to her. She later explained that the woman had pointed at me and whispered, 'Terry Gross is here. Did you know she's a lesbian?'"
Goldman's question was literally in invitation for Gross to tell a funny anecdote from her book. There's nothing remotely inappropriate about it. Goldman also asked Gross in the same interview whether she chose "'Fresh Air' over having children," which some may object to as somehow presuming that women are baby-making machines, or something. Of course it doesn't—it simply asks whether she considered her career and children as incompatible alternatives, which is a totally reasonable question. (The answer is no.)
And then there's this interview with Arianna Huffington, which Weiner cites as one of Goldman's offenses. The only question that comes even close to hackles-raising is this: "I look at your writers much less than I find myself clicking on stuff that's been aggregated or the more salacious, boob-related posts." Can men not look at salacious pictures of women? Even when they're on Arianna Huffington's web site? Is it somehow dismissive of women to confront Huffington with the shit she posts while posing as a savior of journalism?
Because of the above, I told Weiner today on Twitter that her complaints about Goldman—the ones she had repeatedly made prior to his unjustifiable insult—were "bonkers." (Actually, I wrote a Twitter post defending Goldman, which I didn't direct at Weiner, and she replied to me, and we began arguing.)
@jenniferweiner and yr accusations about his questions being somehow inappropriate are bonkers. Takes a heroic effort to read sexism into it— John Cook (@johnjcook) October 11, 2012
What I didn't know is that it is totally sexist to describe arguments presented by a lady as "bonkers." In fact, it's literally just as misogynist as calling a lady too ugly to sleep with or ascribing her behavior to her menstruation cycle:
@johnjcook "Bonkers?" Another page from the playbook. If she's not ugly, she's...crazy! (Or on the rag).— Jennifer Weiner (@jenniferweiner) October 11, 2012
Please note that I did not, in fact, describe Weiner as "bonkers." I described her accusations as such. My intention was to use "bonkers" as a colorful, brief stand-in for "unreasonable" or "unserious." But this is sexist to do this! Because if you disagree with a woman, you can't use mean names to describe their arguments. What's worse, if you do, you are indistinguishable from the sort of guy who asks women if they're on the rag. Same difference.
This is a pernicious accusation. The intent is to delegitimize people who disagree with you. You are not arguing in good faith. You are arguing because you hate, or fear, or insufficiently respect women. Your arguments are suspect because they are motivated by a morally repugnant impulse.
To apply the weight of that charge to someone who calls your accusations "bonkers" is either a willful and deceitful attempt to reclassify all criticism as motivated by illegitimate prejudices, or a lazy and stupid inability to distinguish criticism (blunt as it is—this is Twitter after all) from misogyny.
I chose stupid.
@jenniferweiner how about stupid? can I call you stupid?— John Cook (@johnjcook) October 11, 2012
(For the record, I never actually called Weiner stupid. I just asked her permission to do so. It's still on the table!)
Anyway, apparently calling someone stupid on the internet is a gross breach of decorum. I wish someone had told me that years ago, because I have been calling people stupid on the internet for years. I've also been called stupid on the internet on more than one occasion that I can recall. Clearly by taking the highly unusual step of juvenile name-calling on Twitter, I was in thrall to a dark and hateful impulse.
That's just picked at random, but it's representative of the reaction I got.
The problem here is that Weiner and her defenders are trying to reclassify misanthropy as misogyny. I readily confess that calling someone stupid, as opposed to engaging their arguments, is immature and generally unhelpful. But basically everything about Twitter is immature and unhelpful. It is a medium suited to insults and witch hunts, not deliberative consensus-building. Weiner engaged me, I attempted to argue with her, she mindlessly accused me of saying she was on the rag, I called her stupid. That opens me to many avenues of criticism, but misogyny is not one of them. (It's a variant of the old "Asteroid to Destroy Earth; Women, Minorities Hit Hardest" joke. "Man is Jerkface, Women Insulted Most.")
Likewise, Goldman engaged in name-calling that, as I mentioned, was without justification. And he apologized. But to tie that in with a series of baseless accusations derived from willful misreadings of his interviews and tag him as someone who hates or diminishes women is unthinking character assassination. People can act like assholes now and again without being sexists. And as the Atlantic Wire's Jen Doll puts it, not every offense requires indulging the "pleasure of engaging in yet another Internet battle, or, possibly worse, in a quest for page views based on a 'strong opinion'-because, you know, rage is great for page views, for accruing Twitter followers, for amassing armies." (That is advice, by the way, I can also take.)
To her credit, Weiner explicitly told Sullivan that she didn't think Goldman should be fired, and said today that he's a "talented writer." I won't however, apologize for calling her stupid. It says so right there on her Twitter bio: "Number-one New York Times bestselling novelist. Mom. Very slow runner. Fan of reality TV."