We the media are obsessed with our destroyers. We could even be said to love (or love to write about or edit) the many individuals who are taking us down. These include the mega-moguls and their hedge fund cousins who are or would like to buy newspapers in the raw, as well as the fashionable blog upstarts who are together profiting from and creating the end-of-media-as-we-knew-it. We are deeply, madly fascinated with former Gawker mistress and post-teen Emily Gould, who overshared with readers in The New York Times Magazine this past Sunday; as well as with Rupert Murdoch, who seems to be altering the mission of The Wall Street Journal; and now with The New York Times’ potential hedge fund cannibal, Phillip Falcone.
This month, Fortune and BusinessWeek have fixated on Falcone’s Harbinger Capital Partners, A $19 Billion Hedge Fund That Is Trying To Take Over The Times—and the fact that he thinks the Times should “monetize” all the comments on its stories. In the latest magazine accounts he is framed as the new seductive killer we love to hate. Business Week has dubbed Falcone The Midas of Misery. Very glamorous! It’s the same impulse that made the hero of every 1940’s noir film fixate on the man or woman that will soon steal their money and kill them. Today‘s media gazing, in fact, can seem like an endless noir movie—a danse macabre with our assassins and those benefiting from our demise. We watch as they develop, learning a few of their tricks as they destroy us with better ones, all the time ceding our platforms to them.
You don’t have to be Anna Freud to figure that our fascination with these people is “identification with the aggressor.” And we are equal opportunity identifiers—we embrace the aggressor vultures from on high and the aggressor barnacles from down low that are chipping away at our industry. Why all the ink—or should I say code—wasted on our young or rich oppressors?
It would seem to be a defense mechanism, where a person who is externally threatened and torn down by an authority figure identifies with the source of the threat. According to psychoanalytic literature, the person does so by appropriating the aggression or taking on the qualities of the threatening figure. And when you identify with your aggressor— we, us, the victims— ostensibly replace our sense of fear and helplessness at our oncoming fragmented and demonetized media with the illusion of omnipotence. For a brief moment, we have the power of the Falcones, the Murdochs, the bloggers who just don’t care about anything…
We have most recently “appropriated” aggressor Emily Gould by running her extended diary entry—Gossip Girl without the sex—as a cover story in the Times magazine. The problem isn’t enshrining bloggers per se. It isn’t that the medium is a sinkhole (hello, Lee Siegel). Rather, the problem is that we are celebrating and lying supine before the bloggers who have no message, even when some of them really do.
So the Gould piece was a final insult, some of my writer friends said in angry, teeth-gnashing emails—this blogger got 8000 words. And it felt to me, too, like the final sop to our culturally anorexic aggressors. Here we have a young woman who imagines that the stance of self-revelation creates a self rather than simply an audience for your sophomore year tattoos. The piece makes Joyce Maynard’s New York Times Magazine vestal-virgin cover story back in the day, “An 18 Year Old Looks Back on Life,” read like C. Wright Mills. (At least Andy Warhol understood that calling his stable of dirty ingénues “superstars” was ironic.)
Yet Gould is at the front flank of those who are turning us upside down by writing about their dogs and their make-out sessions and insisting that we make them stars—and we are partly responsible for doing so. In a desperate play for the water bottle of youth, we the media attempt to rub some “blogglow” on ourselves—attaching ourselves to blog culture, although not really understanding it.
Perhaps more understandably, although just as Stockholm Syndrome-esque, there have been 281 mentions of Rupert Murdoch in The New York Times over the last year, especially as he wrapped his lips in a death-and-life giving kiss with the Journal.
I looked up the “cure” for identification for our aggressors and of course I should have known better. There never is a cure for anything. But there is a recommendation that the patient—our industry—once bullied and now eager to serve or appropriate their defilers, start to find some “healthier” role models for relating. We the patients have, after all, developed an unnerving attachment to the people that are taking us down. But we may actually be “testing.” looking around for “healthier relationships,” and not finding them—in the words of one philosopher deciding, apocalyptically, to “enjoy our symptom.”
So here’s a novel idea. When the old-school moguls, take-over artists, the blog stars grab our flailing business, let’s not passively cede the floor to their charms. After all, they like being framed and defamed by us. Show some self-respect: refuse. Leave the confessional blogs with nothing real to confess alone. Don’t run another story about the content-averse glories of our new media masters.
Take back the word count.
Alissa Quart is a CJR columnist and contributing editor. She is the author of two books, Branded and Hothouse Kids. Her third, about American outsiders, comes out in 2013. She is also senior editor of The Atavist and an adjunct professor at Columbia Journalism School.