Which is how I came to write this. One day I was casually telling Massing how an old friend of mine from the Journal, a sweet, respectable thirty-year-old with a husband and no personality disorders or history of substance abuse, had recently quit full-time journalism and started freelancing so she could also write poetry—“I can’t imagine what the twenty-two-year-old J-school me would think,” she told me, “but I just couldn’t see how I could get any better without branching out from journalism”—and a month (and several more conversations) later Massing e-mailed a suggestion that I should write about “the life of a young urban writer now.”
So I wrote what I know, or rather what I’ve learned, which could be summed up this way: when the Internet forced journalism to compete economically after years of monopoly, journalism panicked and adopted some of the worst examples of the nothing-based economy, in which success depends on the continued infantilization of both supply and demand. At the same time, journalism clung to its myths of objectivity and detachment, using them to dismiss the emerging blogger threat as something unserious and fundamentally parasitic, even as it produced a steady stream of obsessive but sneering trend stories on the blogosphere.
Consider the breathless (and stylishly photographed) April 1 piece in The New York Times that spotlighted the “notable scoops” broken by the latest microgeneration of up-and-coming gossip bloggers—two had involved sub-sub-subplots of the lives of reality-show starlets, one was about NBC’s Black History Month cafeteria menu, another was referred to as “an ‘investigation’ into the White House budget director Peter Orszag’s hair,” and the rest were arguably less meaty than those.
Yet one of the featured “next big thing” bloggers was twenty-six-year-old Bess Levin of the Wall Street blog Dealbreaker. The Times had listed as Levin’s “notable scoop” her procurement of an embarrassing party invitation sent out by the “prominent but discreet” hedge-fund manager Steven A. Cohen. Tellingly, the Times failed to mention several much more notable “scoops” Levin had published about Cohen’s hedge fund, such as the one about the portfolio manager who was sued by one of his (male) former traders in what was perhaps the most disturbing sexual harassment complaint in Wall Street history. (And I have read at least fifty of them.)
More troubling was that the Times listed as Levin’s “memorable gaffe” a post in late 2008 in which she reported what she termed an “unfounded rumor” that a major hedge fund’s prime brokers were threatening liquidation. “It turns out the rumor was indeed ‘unfounded’, so she quickly removed it under pressure,” the Times explained in a condescending sentence that could have only been written by someone who didn’t understand that in 2008 virtually all hedge funds were so massively leveraged—in an effort to amp returns—that the threat of liquidation was perpetually on the table.
This passage lays bare an old-media strategy of dismissing bloggers by policing the permeable walls between news and gossip, analysis and opinion, perspective and attention-seeking. Hedge funds are largely unregulated; “news” about them is often inextricable from “rumor.” It is this disturbing reality that has helped make Bess Levin’s “gossip blog” an important source of information about the financial industry.
So, in this context, her pulling this “rumor” can either be seen as a “gaffe” or, given the obvious power imbalances, an example of a hedge-fund manager trying to save his ass and/or blow off steam by intimidating some kid two years out of college.