The lowest kind of takedown may be the ad hominem—an attack against someone’s character, rather than the argument at hand. Last week, a writer for popular frat-boy blog Barstool Sports fired such a shot after finding himself the subject of an unflattering story on another site, Sports Illustrated’s The Cauldron. In response, Barstool blogger Kevin Clancy, who writes under the moniker “KFC,” claimed he was being attacked simply to reap clicks.
True or not, his accusation raises a valid question: Are the dynamics of competing in the digital space encouraging journalists to dish up personal smackdowns even if there’s no real news value in doing so?
First off, let’s establish the groundwork. The evidence is fairly clear that, if you write an attack piece, you’ll attract an audience. Take Gawker, famous for taking a swing at those it deems villains. Ten percent of the site’s 100 most-read stories last year pounded Josh Duggar of the reality TV show 19 Kids and Counting. The evangelical Christian family activist’s history of molesting young girls, infidelity, and general hypocrisy was fair game, and Gawker did a thorough job of scrutinizing the guy. But the coverage’s booming popularity—generating a total of almost 11 million unique clicks—shows how far the thud of a punch can reverberate.
Gawker isn’t the only one. Consider this Indianapolis Star story, which contrasts the hometown football team’s beloved quarterback Andrew Luck with rival Chicago Bear Jay Cutler, who comes off as a selfish, shrivelling grump. The story earned over 2,600 social shares—nearly 10 times that of a positive piece titled, “How much better can Luck get?” The Cutler takedown generated 540 more Facebook comments than its non-confrontational counterpart, along with fiery Twitter attention and media coverage. (Unlike Gawker, most news outlets don’t display individual stories’ traffic numbers, making social shares and subsequent news coverage the next best proxy.)
Professional right-wing hitman Breitbart.com posted a piece last year that slammed Fox News host Megyn Kelly when the cable channel called her “talent,” instead of a journalist. The two terms are interchangeable in broadcast news—a fact that didn’t keep the anonymous Breitbart writer from shaming Kelly, gathering more than 5,000 social shares, and inspiring a livid Mediaite piece that made the rounds among journalists.
Baseless hit pieces have been zooming across the internet for so long that the genre has become a digital staple. Vice has long made a sport of trashing predictably gross fast food, like Wendy’s pretzel burger (3,000 Facebook shares), as well as its series on which of the world’s cities are the most dreadful. An anti-Phoenix piece generated a whopping 32,500 Facebook shares and a lot of headlines. Then there’s this BuzzFeed story—parts of which were later proven inaccurate—that portrayed a popular online cartoonist as nothing more than a money-driven marketer. The bruised cartoonist published a line-by-line rebuke, causing Poynter to label the BuzzFeed story a “hit piece.”
Mandy Stadtmiller, an editor of the website xoJane and a former New York Post writer, says takedown scribes are keenly aware that negative jabs out-perform positive stories. “We can decry it all we want, but I just do not see that ever going away because it is such a successful go-to,” she adds. “People love schadenfreude. They love to build people up and see them fall.” Stadtmiller should know; she used to write takedowns for a living and claims she was once the subject of a hit piece herself.
The dubious takedown preceded the digital age, but today’s hunt for audience has ingrained the practice and spread it well beyond the tabloids. “The Internet has quietly cemented its economy on saying the most extreme thing imaginable as loud as possible,” wrote The Daily Beast’s Ben Collins in November. “You’re not going nuts. The Internet is getting objectively, deliberately confrontational and subjectively worse.”
All of this fuels the idea that journalism is a bloodsport, and for good reason. Readers may applaud the kind of rigorous reporting that exposes genuine villains, but they also roar like drunken Romans when someone gets taken down for the sake of the takedown.
As Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan wrote earlier this week, “The business of media has very little, if anything, to do with quality journalism.” Of course news outlets need to make money, and that explains some of the “garbage with broad appeal,” but it’s a weak argument for unbridled attacks.
Representatives of Gawker didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. We’ll update if they do.
Reckless fire gives actual wrongdoers the cover to label legitimate reporting as traffic-hungry smear jobs. The CEO of the medical startup Theranos did just that after The Wall Street Journal published a convincing report on alleged false claims made by the company, employing what appears to be a popular technique to dismiss journalism that is critical of Silicon Valley. Why debate the merits of a probing story when you can simply challenge the writer’s motives?
And that is probably the most dangerous consequence of all.Jack Murtha is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow him on Twitter at @JackMurtha