Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Great and Historic Moments of Controversialism, Part 1!

Oct. 11, 2001: A Day of Controversialism Best Forgotten

Shortly after Sept. 11, Andrew Sullivan decides that such desperate times call for desperate measures, and so he begins to attack the patriotism of various individuals whose views he disagrees with regarding the newly declared war on terrorism. First these rants appear on his own blog. Then they appear on the op-ed page of the Wall Street Journal.

Among those who stand accused by Sullivan apparently are those of us who live on the East and West Coasts-- although Sullivan himself lives in Washington D.C., which the last time I checked was thought by most to be part of the East Coast. A nest of traitors is all but waiting to welcome the Taliban with open arms, Sullivan warns, foremost among them the "decadent left enclaves of the coasts [that] may well mount a fifth column."

Never mind that all of the fireman and police officers and office workers who lost their lives at the World Trade Center are from the "coasts". Or that all of the servicemen and public servants who lost their lives or limbs or loved one at the Pentagon were from the "coasts". And never mind that every American who died on all three of the hijacked flights was traveling that fateful day from one "decadent" coast to the other.

Sullivan is for the most part ignored at first, perhaps because he is viewed as a crank, but more probably because we have become so inured to all the controversialism that pervades the media. David Talbot, however, takes on Sullivan, after Sullivan names Talbot personally as one of those who he does not believe is patriotic enough in response to the terror attacks. Never mind that Talbot had already been publishing similar diatribes along the same vein by former leftist-controversialist turned rightist-controversialist David Horowitz in the pages of Salon even more inflammatory and reckless claiming than anything written by Sullivan. But now that Talbot has been personally attacked, he now concludes that controversialism is wrong, and with a publicly traded, $70 million URL of his own, he decides Sullivan must be taken on.

Desperate times call for desperate measures, and so Talbot decides that controversialism must be met by more... controversialism!

Talbot's column itself is a classic case of controversialism, and deserves our analysis.

Since this blog is meant to be, in part, a teaching tool for journalism students, a number of whom themselves may be aspiring controversialists, they should closely study the Sullivan-Talbot exchange. There was once a time when kids spent their parents' hard earned money on tuition for journalism school aspiring to someday be Seymour Hersh, David Halberstam, or Robert Caro. But there is a such a bright future in controversialism! Andrew Sullivan and David Talbot and Joe Conason and Bill O'Reily and Matt Drudge have not only all succeeded in the milieu of controversialism, but thrived financially and professionally in the mainstream media.

Think of Drudge being interviewed on Meet the Press by Tim Russert about Clinton, for one example, or being offered a contract by Disney and ABC to do a syndicated radio show. If controversialism does not have its rewards, then how is it that Sullivan once banned from the pages of the New York Times again now writes cover stories for the Times Book Review? The answer is all about buzz and controversy.

As a result, there is almost certainly more than one kid in J-School today who watches these characters' talking head appearances on cable, lucrative book advances, their constant presence in the gossip columns, and wants to be them someday.

So for those aspiring controversialists, here is an assist!

Let's attempt to deconstruct a single example of controversialist journalism.

Let's start with the headline and sub headline of Talbot's commentary: "Andrew Sullivan's Jihad: Since Sept. 11, the British journalist has declared himself the mullah of the media world, sitting in judgment of American writers' patriotism."

Analysis: Talbot strikes all the right emotional chords: Sullivan's "jihad." He is the "the mullah of the media world." In a single sentence, Talbot has associated Sullivan's name with three entities most people consider deplorable: terrorism (jihad); the Taliban (mullahs), and perhaps the worse of all, the elite media. Indeed, Talbot is so artful in his economy of the language that he combines two of these hated groups in one phrase: "the mullahs of the media world." Effective smear. Effective controversialism. And good writing. Never mind that Talbot has himself lived and died to be part of the very same celebrity media culture with which he attempts to associate Sullivan with.

Talbot's commentary begins this way: "I like and respect journalist Andrew Sullivan, though I often disagree with his opinions."

Analysis: If you are going to engage in adhomenim attacks in an attempt to destroy someone's reputation, it is always best to first make oneself appear reasonable and even handed.

Talbot's next sentence: "I find much of what [Sullivan] has to say about soggy thinking on the let to be a bracing tonic-- which is why Salon has published his views, along with those of David Horowitz, Norah Vincent, Camille Paglia and other conservative or independent critics of lockstep, left-wing thought."

Analysis: Talbot attempts to position himself as a legitimate critic, rather than one from the reflexive left. He too has only disdain for many of the same people Sullivan is writing about, but...

Never mind that the conservative columnists who Talbot names as publishing in his magazine are not mainstream conservatives for the most part, but controversialists like Sullivan. Why are virtually all of the conservative columnists in Salon for the most part controversialists? That is because controversialism draws unique visitors to a website that must explain to stockholders who shelled out $70 million why they are not drawing traffic and making a profit. And never mind that David Horowitz in particular has engaged in similar smears of liberals for not being sufficiently patriotic enough in the pages of Salon for some time that in comparison make anything written by Andrew Sullivan seemingly tame.

Talbot later writes: "Earlier this year, Sullivan was exposed by the gay press for advertising for "bareback" sex (unprotected by condoms) in an AOL chat room and denounced as a hypocrite by his liberal gay critics after attacking President Clinton for his own incautious behavior. Salon was among Sullivan's most vocal defenders, running two pieces that condemned the invasion of his sexual privacy and the political motivations behind his `outing.'"

Analysis: Talbot wants to raise again the disclosures regarding Sullivan's private life to simultaneously inflict pain upon Sullivan one more time and discredit him-- all the while claiming to abhor the conduct by those who outed Sullivan in the first place. In this manner, Talbot can smear Sullivan once again while claiming to take the high road in denouncing those responsible for the original smear. Apparently Talbot hasn't given it much thought, but because of his commentary many of his readers are learning of the allegations regarding Sullivan's private life for the very first time. Or perhaps he did give the matter some thought. (They do not teach the art of controversialism at Columbia Journalism School just yet-- but here it is!-- on the Internet for free!)

Talbot wrote: "Speaking of the `decadent left enclaves on the coasts,' who does Sullivan think fights for his right to enjoy the sexual pleasures of his choosing? His increasingly intolerant rhetoric is an affront to the very culture that protects him. If a right-wing theocracy ever came to power in America, guess who'd be the first person whose ass would be rounded up, self-described `power glutes' and all? And guess which Web journalists would be the first to demand his freedom?"

Analysis: The worst of this passage speaks for itself. I am not sure what "power glutes" are, and am thankful I don't. Please no explanatory comments from those who may know. This is a family blog.

Regarding Talbot's rhetorical question, as to which "Web journalists would be the first to demand [Sullivan's] freedom", the answer is, of course, Talbot! However, in his imaginary world of a U.S. controlled by a Taliban-like theocracy, most of the important journalists-- including Web journalists-- who would question the authority of the state would be jailed too. That is unless they were so marginal that those in power were not paying attention.

It should be noted that not long after the exchange above, Talbot hired Sullivan to publish his blog on Salon.

Talbot claimed that this was evidence of his civility, his ability to reconcile with those who had wronged him, and further proof of his commitment to freedom of speech and his tolerance for diversity of opinion (although Jonathan Broder for one might have good reason to believe otherwise.)

The real reasons that Talbot began running Sullivan's rants, I believe, had to do with the fact that controversialism is profitable for all around. In the short term, it increased traffic to Salon's website, and buzz about a faltering news product. Sullivan was able to reach more readers to engage in the very conduct Talbot had only recently claimed to decry.

That Talbot and Sullivan entered into a partnership shortly after smearing each other's character and stating that they despised everything the other stood for, illustrates the real nature of controversialism. All of the heat and passion is often times nothing more than for show. It is the journalistic equivalent of professional wrestling. (No offense meant to professional wrestlers.)

Those from opposite sides of the political spectrum yelling at each other on Crossfire or The Factor are often only moments later making dinner plans together in the green room. The viewer/reader/unique visitor of a preferred demographic (18-34 yrs. old, a certain amount of disposable income) is the only rube, unless he too has been in on the joke the whole time.

One wants to say to both Sullivan and Talbot what Jon Stewart told Tucker Carlson: "It is not so much that it's bad, as it's hurting America... Stop, stop, stop... hurting America."

Has it really come to this? America's foremost fake journalist telling supposedly real journalists to stop faking the practice of journalism?

In the meantime, antics like these by Sullivan and Talbot are a means of practicing journalism without having to endure the burden of actually practicing journalism. It is in fact not journalism at all. But for those of us who have liked to believe that we have belonged to a profession that ascribes to values of some kind-- any kind-- perhaps we should call ourselves something other than journalists.

To his credit, Talbot has been, as David Carr of the New York Times has wrote last night, upon the announcement of Talbot stepping down as Salon's editor, "a pioneer of online journalism." Despite his many forays into controversialism and partisanship, he has been a more than capable editor of innovative cultural coverage, literary and media criticism, and political commentary.

But Talbot's legacy as an online pioneer will almost certainly also be that of a controversialist. His online spat with Andrew Sullivan is only one example. The outing of the personal life of Henry Hyde is yet another. Talbot damaged his editorial credibility not only when he wrote about a consensual extramarital affair by Hyde-- some thirty years in the past-- but more so when he wrote this editorial explaining his decision to publish the story:

"Aren't we fighting fire with fire, descending to the gutter tactics of those we deplore? Frankly, yes. But ugly times call for ugly tactics. When a pack of sanctimonious thugs beats you... upside the head with a tire-iron, you can withdraw to the sideline and meditate, or you can grab it out of their hands and fight back."

Talbot's uses of controversialism, of course, did not end there. Salon later published unsubstantiated allegations that George W. Bush had abused cocaine as a younger man and perhaps had even been arrested for possession of cocaine. The allegations later turned out to be fabricated.

And then finally there was the classic case of Talbot controversialism when he sent writer Dan Savage to Iowa during the 2000 presidential caucases to infiltrate the campaign of Gary Bauer. Ill with the flu, Savage decides it would be just keen to infect Bauer and everyone else associated with Bauer's campaign. When he is at most ill (and presumably his most infectious) Savage says he licked the doornobs, telephones, and coffee cups in Bauer's Des Moines campaign office. But his most proud moment was when Savage handed Bauer a pen that Savage had put in his mouth: "Score! My bodily fluids-- flu bugs and all-- were all over his hands."

Talbot later defended Savage's actions by suggesting that perhaps Savage had fabricated portions of his account, something of which the reader was unaware when it was published, and something Talbot had not claimed in his first defense of Savage. "He later made it clear to me that he was exaggerating." In the end, the story generated just the right enough buzz-- generating an article by Howie Kurtz in the Washington Post and appearances on all the cable shows. In the process, Savage and Talbot were able to accomplish something for Bauer that his campaign advisors and handlers could never do: turn Bauer into a sympathetic character.

Some personal disclosure is perhaps required here: I worked for Talbot and Salon during the impeachment year of 1998. I quietly resigned my position, after, among other things, Talbot told me that he was going to publish the Hyde story. It was not so much the Hyde story that distressed me (although I did strongly believe it was wrong to publish), but the editorial written by Talbot accompanying his story.

(After Talbot sent me a draft of the editorial, I emailed back:

"There is an expression that an eye for an eye eventually blinds everyone. This is not going to elevate the political discourse, but sink it further if you publish this story and editorial...

"If you look back in history, what did in Joe McCarthy was that his adversaries such as Margaret Chase Smith and Edward R. Murrow and Drew Pearson did not sink to the gutter with him, but rather simply spoke the truth and never compromised their own principles."

"Perhaps you should sleep on this for another night...")

Talbot fired my colleague, Jonathan Broder (now an editor with Congressional Quarterly), after Broder publicly questioned the "fairness" and "journalistic" purpose in publishing such a story. At the time I also resigned, but agreed stay on for a short while, and without making my differences public: The magazine was largely insolvent at the time and new investors were hard to come by to keep it afloat, Talbot told me. The simultaneous public resignation of two of his political reporters, he argued, would lead to my friends and colleagues losing their jobs-- so I stayed silent at the time. I am still not sure whether that was the right decision or not, and in retrospect was perhaps naively taken in by his claim that my friends were going to soon be unemployed. But I am free to speak my mind now:

David Talbot was indeed an "pioneer of online journalism". But he also was a prominent practioner and promoter of controversialism. He will be remembered as much for the phrases "ugly times call for ugly tactics" and "licking doornobs" along with all the good that he did for online journalism.

Talbot has privately argued to others that the necessity of the marketplace dictated for him to do so and his medium (the Internet) all but required as much from him. Without stories about the private sexual affairs of politicians some thirty years in the past, an uncivil feud with Andrew Sullivan, or publishing unsubstantiated allegations that the President of the United States used cocaine, the literary criticism of Laura Miller, the media criticism of Eric Boehlert, and the ethereal personal essays of Anne Lamot would never have seen the day of light.

Talbot might be right, but I am hoping that he is wrong. Controversialism has not only been anything other than corrosive to journalism, but also to the society that journalism is purported to serve. And as journalists, not only should not participate in it, we should not defer to those who do.

To the three unique visitors who occasionally read this blog, "Great and Historic Moments of Controversialism" will be a regular feature here.

And this post was updated late on Wednesday night after the New York Times reported that Talbot was stepping down as Salon's editor. A copy of the original post can be found in my archives.

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