Source: the ANOVA
Recently, after months of threats and intimidation tactics, the New York Times published a hit piece about Scott Alexander and his blog SlateStarCodex, by something named Cade Metz. You can read Alexander’s response here.
I’ll cut to the chase. The piece is an expression of a constant dynamic in media and the Times in particular: the establishment media believes that it is the world’s noble and benevolent arbiter of truth, and the kind of people who work for the Times are immensely disdainful of and actively hostile to anyone who seeks to inform or persuade the public who does not write for one of a dozen dusty legacy publications and who did not go to one of 20 or so elite colleges. Scott Alexander built up a large and immensely influential readership completely on his own, writing a blog that, whatever its faults, stepped far outside of the narrow and parochial currents that Very Serious Media refuses to leave. This was a threat, a challenge to people like Cade Metz who think that it is their divine right to be the ones to tell the story. So Metz set out to destroy Alexander, with the full backing of the official paper of crossword addicts and columns about bootstraps and dynamism. I’m sure a lot of ink has been spilled about this story, and more will come. Understand: Cade Metz wrote this story because he had to punish Alexander for writing an influential publication with no backing from the important people. Whatever anyone else says, that is the reality.
Metz, in his usual style of casual condescension and utter capitulation to dominant narratives, writes “many in the tech industry… deeply distrusted the mainstream media and generally preferred discussion to take place on their own terms.”
Boy, I wonder why! Perhaps – this is too crazy to contemplate – perhaps it’s because the mainstream media has been a complete and utter failure in its most basic functions for decades, an absolute cesspit of bad reporting, warmongering, deference to power, coverage slanted towards the interests of the rich and powerful, obsession with meaningless cultural trends and complete disinterest in stories of immense importance, a totally collapsed line between editorial and advertising, a greying workforce that knows less and less about the world and which is utterly resistant to learning…. People really hate the media, and they do because the media sucks at its job. Don’t take my word for it! Of all of the industry’s many pathologies, the funniest is its members’ inability to understand why they’re so hated, given that they have done nothing but fail for my entire adulthood. If the industry engaged in self-reflection, they might figure it out. But… they won’t.
For a good example of journalistic failure, look to, well, Cade Metz. As Alexander points out in his response, among other basic acts of dishonesty Metz just directly and unambiguously lies about Alexander and Charles Murray. He says that Alexander has praised Murray, and that Alexander has acknowledged that Murray has promoted the race-and-IQ stuff. (Unlike me, despite what you’re likely to hear on the internet.) This is written in a way designed – designed, now, as this is not at all accidental – to make it seem like what Alexander was agreeing with Charles Murray about was race science. But this is completely untrue. Alexander was agreeing with Murray that telling people to train themselves out of poverty is gross and cruel. (A major theme of my book.) Metz doesn’t care.
As Scott Aaronson says, “The trouble with the NYT piece is not that it makes any false statements but just that it constantly insinuates nefarious beliefs and motives, via strategic word choices and omission of relevant facts that change the emotional coloration of the facts that it does present. I repeatedly muttered to myself, as I read: “dude, you could make anything sound shady with this exact same rhetorical toolkit!””
All Metz had to do was to connect Alexander to Murray through any means necessary, and he knew that this would fool his audience, white Crown Heights residents with BlackLivesMatter signs in the windows of the brownstones they own which are appreciating fast enough to drive countless black people out of the neighborhood. These people aren’t clicking links to investigate the truth; they’re just looking to have their beliefs parroted back to them. What else is a newspaper for?
I guess it’s worth taking a second to address that. I am amazed that this is even a conversation: the New York Times is of course an entirely partisan publication, one which is in utter thrall to the Neera Tanden wing of the Democrat party. It’s the house paper of affluent class-never liberals, the kind of people who give to charity but quietly vote against tax increases in public referendums, the kind of people still will pigeonhole you at a party to insist that they like the Wire more than you do, the kind of people who go from Bowdoin to Teach for America to a year finding themselves by fucking and drugging their way across Echo Park, only to wind up in a Park Slope townhouse that really wasn’t as expensive as you think! and send their kids to private school so that they can concentrate on their careers in UX design and advertising. Those kinds of people. They’re the New York Times. A Ross Douthat column every two weeks can’t change that. Again, it is just baffling to me that some people pretend this is even a question. (Poor Ben Smith has to pretend that it’s a question because, well, his paycheck is signed by the Times. What’s your excuse?)
I try to avoid looking at Media Twitter as much as I can; spending more than a few minutes in that space leaves one needing to decontaminate as if recently exposed to radiation. So I don’t know for sure if this is true. But I’m going to make the easiest bet in the world and say that media Twitter loves Metz’s piece. And they loved it because, again, Alexander is not one of them. He’s not in the New York media social rat race, so he’s not a part of their culture. He’s not on Slack. He doesn’t tell the same tired, shitty jokes that journalists make on Twitter literally from the minute they get up to the minute they go to bed. He’s not performatively filling his feed with only women writers and artists, because he’s just not that interested in cishet men anymore, man. He doesn’t make references to whatever shithouse bar in Nolita media people used to go to after work to snort coke. He doesn’t use Twitter as an outlet to scream his dedication to BIPOC to the world, knowing this will look good on his resume. He’s not a thirty three year old white person who speaks like a Black teenager, like half the journalists on Twitter. And most importantly, he jumped the line. He didn’t get paid $250 a week by Refinery79 for 60 hours of work for two years to climb the latter. He had the audacity to think that he could circumvent the system and challenge the official narratives.
I used to watch the naked social climbing going on, and it was the source of my disgusted fascination with Media Twitter. The fundamental thing that you need to understand about media Twitter is that it is a somewhat grosser, more explicit version of what media socializing is in real life: an endless, white-knuckled effort in pure careerism and influence trading. You ever see someone in the media announce that they’re changing jobs on Twitter? It is the weirdest fucking thing I’ve ever seen. I guess I understand the need to announce your career changes, but why do people always respond with absurd hyperbole on Twitter? “You are the greatest and best person in the world!” You don’t have their email address? You can’t text your congratulations? If you aren’t close enough to the person to do that, why are you congratulating them at all? And don’t even get me started on launching an independent tweet of your own (being sure to tag them, of course). DM them with your sincere happiness for them! I guarantee it’ll mean more. Do people who work at Geico do this shit?
REBECCA: I’d like to announce that I’m transferring to the motorcycle division.
JENNIFER: (standing up, loudly) REBECCA IS THE MOST AMAZING HUMAN I HAVE EVER ENCOUNTERED. OUR LOSS IS THE MOTORCYCLE DIVISION’S GAIN.
It’s a culture that’s full of bizarre rituals that only make sense if you understand that none of it is sincere, that all of it is motivated by the desire for social and professional gain.
You have to understand: most writers are losers, or at least, they secretly think of themselves as losers. They were losers in high school and never got over it and were surprised to learn that they couldn’t get their novel about Facing Adulthood with My Multiracial Friends in Bushwick published and so didn’t get the literary celebrity they felt they deserved. So they dive into the media ecosystem where they are delighted to find exactly what they were looking for: a new high school, a replacement for the one where they were a fucking loser, where this time they’ll be the quarterback, they’ll be the head cheerleader. And so they get up every morning and jockey for rank. They horse trade. They seek favor. They amplify work they don’t really respect because the person who wrote it is more popular or successful than them or both. They pretend that terrible, terrible jokes told by terminally unfunny people are entertaining, because they know the other person will reciprocate.
Anyone with the audacity to write from outside of that world is a target.
You will have noticed an explosion in the use of the terms “conspiracy theory” and “misinformation” lately. Ostensibly a response to the pathetic rump that is QAnon, this is the establishment media grasping at power nakedly. If you haven’t rode the Q train lately and you aren’t on Slack and you don’t tweet incessantly about how fucking deep I May Destroy You is, if you don’t participate in media rituals, if you don’t have a blue checkmark, you’re probably writing misinformation. You may have noticed that many people now cast SubStack as a hive of the alt-right and conspiracy theorists, despite the incredible ideological diversity of the platform. SubStack is a threat to the hegemony of establishment media, and so it must be politically toxic. Joe Rogan is reviled not because he and his guests say some stupid shit – and they do – but because he is immensely popular outside of the official channels, he is decidedly not part of the culture of media or overachiever culture in general, and his show is massively more successful than their terrible podcasts.
A piece like this could never make a difference, and not just because I’m a lonely voice on a lowly WordPress. Metz will never have to consider that what he’s done is fundamentally dishonest and utterly lacking in integrity (to say nothing of prose style, because Jesus, that man cannot write), because he writes for the fucking New York Times, dude! People at the Times are so stuffed with self-regard and self-congratulation for working at the paper that lied us into the Iraq War that they can’t engage in genuine self-inquiry. That’s why people fight so hard for those jobs, after all. Writing for one of these places means you never have to say “I’m sorry.” I’m sure Metz will land a book deal where he gets to repeat his utterly dishonest horseshit.
And Media Twitter, forget it. Again: Alexander is an outsider. His readers don’t pay the Times for access to their shitty recipes. He’s probably never heard of Clubhouse. Unlike everyone on Media Twitter, he’s got a real job. He’s a lost cause. They will always hate him because he’s indifferent to climbing their rancid social hierarchy, the thing they care about the most in the whole world.
I hate Silicon Valley, significantly more than the average member of the media who is critical of it, and would enjoy it if all the individual companies burn to the ground. I disagree with much of what Alexander publishes; in fact he has emailed me in the past to ask why I’m so mean. And since it’s 2021, people will assume that this post is a declaration of allegiance to a particular cultural group, as there is nothing but culture war, but I am not a part of that world and no one within it would think I was. Rationalism is almost totally contrary to my philosophy and ethic of the world. I don’t think rationality exists. I don’t fuck with the libertarianism and techno triumphalism endemic to that space. I believe in human failure above all else. We will not build utopia with formal logic because the world is broken and we are broken within it.
But as many problems I have with them, none of it matches my contempt for the media, for The New York Times, and for Cade Metz. Some people with similar politics to mine lament the possibility of the NYT folding. This is bizarre even if you think the Times has value; its digital subscription business is booming and it is in vastly better financial shape than many publications that have virtues they don’t, such as intellectual integrity, writers who are thoughtful and talented rather than self-obsessed Ivy League automatons driven by naked ambition, and a willingness to say things their readers don’t want to hear. Personally, I don’t. Think the Times has value, that is. It’s a mouthpiece of the very worst parts of the Democratic party whose reporting is immeasurably worse than in my youth, which folds at the slightest ripple of disapproval on Twitter and which has the audacity to cover itself in shit-eating, self-impressed artificial gravitas despite somehow failing even worse than the governments it covers. When the New York Times dies it will be a profoundly positive day for journalism and for all of us. Let a thousand new flowers bloom.