When mainstream media is the lunatic fringe

Digital media gives cruelty, new visibility, but does the prestige of old media give bigoted ranting respectability?

Media's old guard believe social media has eroded standards of ethics and behaviour [AFP]

On January 8, 2014, Emma Keller, a journalist for The Guardian, wrote a column about a woman named Lisa Bonchek Adams. Adams has stage IV breast cancer, and Keller was annoyed.

“As her condition declined, her tweets amped up both in frequency and intensity,” complained Keller. “I couldn’t stop reading – I even set up a dedicated @adamslisa column in Tweetdeck – but I felt embarrassed at my voyeurism. Should there be boundaries in this kind of experience? Is there such a thing as TMI?”

Keller’s column inspired outrage among the thousands of people following Adams’ Twitter account, many of them cancer patients who find solace in Adams’ words. Guardian readers questioned the cruelty of believing the worst thing about pain was that it is too consistently expressed. Why had Keller not simply stopped reading the Twitter account, instead of belittling an ailing stranger? Why would The Guardian sanction a column attacking a cancer-stricken mother of three?

But the attack on Adams had only begun.

On January 12, Bill Keller, husband of Emma Keller and the former executive editor of the New York Times, wrote his own column chastising Adams for not dying more quietly. He accused her of “raising false hopes” for other cancer patients, and compared her active online presence unfavorably to his “father-in-law’s calm death”.

Writing about cancer is not new. Under Bill Keller’s tenure, numerous Times contributors penned articles about their own struggles. But these were different than Adams’s Twitter account: they were sanctioned by Keller for print consumption. In Keller’s world, mere mortals should not deign to tweet about their mere mortality.

When Keller was pressed by the Times’ public editor to explain himself, he did not apologise for hurting Adams or for using column space to defend his wife’s ill-begotten ideas. He blamed his critics for using Twitter: “A medium [that] encourages reflexes rather than reflection.”

Keller’s aversion to social media is common among media’s old guard, who believe it has eroded standards of ethics and behaviour. Outlets like The Atlantic regularly run pieces like “Is Google making us stupid?” or “Is Facebook making us lonely?” (It is not). “Twitter is a poisonous well of bad faith and viciousness”, tweeted Nation columnist Katha Pollitt in a typical blanket condemnation.

“The medium is the message,” Marshall McLuhan famously said. In the digital age, condemning the medium is often shorthand for condemning not only the message but the messenger – and their right to speak. Twitter, which is extremely popular among young African Americans, functions as a public gathering space for marginalised groups to rally under common causes – one of which being their terrible portrayal in mainstream media.

Old viciousness, new visibility

The condemnation of digital media has two sides. There is a legitimate claim that digital media has given old viciousness new visibility, as demonstrated in Amanda Hess’s piece on the attacks women receive for writing online. (Hess’s piece neglected to include women of color, who arguably experience more vicious harassment than anyone.) Certain facets of social media – speed, anonymity, the ability to “dox” – have changed the nature of harassment, making it easier to accomplish and less likely to be redressed.

But is the mainstream media any different in its biases and cruelty? It does not appear to be. Mainstream media cruelty is actually more dangerous, for it sanctions behaviour that, were it blogged by an unknown, would likely be written off as the irrelevant ramblings of a sociopath.

Mainstream media cruelty is actually more dangerous, for it sanctions behavior that, were it blogged by an unknown, would likely be written off as the irrelevant ramblings of a sociopath.

Instead, the prestige of old media gives bigoted ranting respectability. Even in the digital age, old media defines and shapes the culture, repositioning the lunatic fringe as the voice of reason.

Shortly after the Kellers’ debacle – which resulted in the removal of Emma’s piece – a journalist nonchalantly announced that he had prompted the subject of his story to commit suicide. In Grantland, a publication associated with ESPN, Caleb Hannan profiled a mysterious inventor known as Dr V. During the course of Hannan’s interviews with Dr V, he learned that she was transgender. Hannan threatened to out her against her will. A few days later, Dr V committed suicide.

“Writing an eulogy for a person who, by all accounts, despised you is an odd experience,” wrote Hannan, in a typically heartless and cavalier passage. Much as cancer patients condemned the Kellers, so did transgender activists condemn Hannan, for an act of cruelty most incomprehensible in that it was actually published. A woman died for a story, and that, for Grantland, was okay. A woman suffering from cancer was attacked for suffering the wrong way, and that, for the New York Times, was okay.

It is not surprising that people lack empathy. What is surprising is that unbridled antipathy toward innocent people continues to be sanctioned in an era where fatuous arguments – and terrible ethics – are called out en masse. For critics of mainstream media cruelty, social media is a means to prevent lunacy from being accepted as logic. To the mainstream, it is mere “snark“.

Mainstream media cruelty targets those who lack power. Their crime is daring to exist. Along with cancer patients and transgender individuals, racial minorities are a frequent focus.

Over the past year, Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen has argued that interracial marriage triggers the “gag reflex” of “conventional Americans” and that young black men like Trayvon Martin deserve to be viewed as suspicious (and by association, shot). This is not an unusual position – one can find similar views on white supremacist websites. But when a mainstream newspaper promotes an extreme viewpoint as normal, it helps make it normal. It sets parameters – “Are interracial relationships repulsive?” – that most Americans would never countenance, and forces us to take them seriously.

This tactic is not limited to newspapers or websites. We find it in book publishing as well. Next month, professors Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld are set to release The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America, which ranks groups by cultural superiority.

Unsurprisingly, Chua and her husband fall into the most exalted categories: Chinese and Jews. The book is peddled as “scientific”, but its hierarchy of peoples is racist propaganda with a careful omission of the word “race”. Anthropology’s theory of culture, which sought to debunk racial stereotypes, is now used by people like Chua to uphold them.

The most interesting thing about Chua’s book is that someone agreed to publish it. This is also the most interesting thing about Cohen, Hannan, the Kellers, or the innumerable mainstream media publishers who trade on biases most find repugnant. Some have attributed this to a search for clicks and traffic – “hate-reading” as profitable pastime. But there is a broader question here: That of legitimacy.

Disproportionate influence

Sociologist Zeynep Tufekci has called the internet “a public sphere erected on private property”. All voices can speak, but only few are heard. Amplification is tied to prestige, meaning that where you publish – and what privileges you already have – gives your words disproportionate influence.

The terms of public debate are rarely set by the public. “Inequality” has risen to the fore in pundit discourse, but mostly in terms of whether it deserves to be debated at all, as recent columns by the Washington Post‘s Ezra Klein and the New York TimesDavid Brooks demonstrate. For a public well aware of income inequality – since they have to live with its consequences every day – such debates reflect an inequality of their own: A paucity of understanding among our most prominent voices.

In the American media, white people debate whether race matters, rich people debate whether poverty matters, and men debate whether gender matters. People for whom these problems have no alternative but to matter – for they structure the limitations of their lives – are locked out of the discussion.

In January 2014, Suey Park, an Asian-American activist, was asked by the Huffington Post to help curate an “Asian Voices” section that would bring prominence to underrepresented Asian-Americans. She was thrilled – until she was informed her contributors would not be paid a dime. Disgusted, Park rejected their offer and took to Twitter with the hashtag #ExploitedVoices.

The hashtag was meant to highlight how minorities are priced out of journalism but it aptly captures the ethos of our times. In the mainstream media, exploited voices are meant to be seen – and criticised, and chastised, and caricatured for clicks and cash. But rarely are they heard.

Sarah Kendzior is St Louis-based writer who studies politics and media.