Ester Bloom, an associate editor at The Billfold, wrote a piece Tuesday calling "The Daily Show" correspondent Jessica Williams the "Latest High-Profile Victim of Impostor Syndrome." Bloom was reacting to a tweet by Williams, 25, about being "extremely under-qualified" to replace outgoing host Jon Stewart. Bloom wouldn't have it: “Jessica Williams, respectfully, I reject your humility. What on earth does 'under-qualified' mean when it comes to being a comedian? You’re smart, you’re funny, you’re self-possessed. Is there something I’m missing?” She went on to say that Williams needed “the best Lean In group of all time” to give her “a pep talk.”
Williams didn't appreciate this unsolicited concern; she and many others launched an extensive Twitter-based privilege-checking of Bloom.
Bloom quickly apologized on Twitter and added an update to the original piece. The Twitter consensus: Apology not accepted.
Her critics made some fine points, and her most recent apology and most recent update to the original article suggest she agrees. Her tone was condescending, especially in her response to Williams’s tweet about being “under-qualified”:
How modest! How self-effacing! You can almost hear all the old white people who benefit from the status quo nodding their approval. We did it, they whisper. We have succeeded in instilling in yet another competent, confident young woman a total lack of understanding of her own self-worth! We didn’t even need to undermine her; we gave her the tools and she undermined herself. Well done all. Good show. Let’s play eighteen holes and then hit up Hooters for lunch.
Bloom was essentially accusing Williams of having failed to stand up not just to sexism, but racism.
But the sheer volume of responses to Bloom's article was striking. (Last I checked, Williams has 113,000 Twitter followers, Bloom 1,400. That may have something to do with it.) There are now pieces at Vox and Slate offering Williams further support, as well as one in Fusion, in which Latoya Peterson uses Bloom’s piece as a springboard for a discussion of the “whitesplaining” that “feminists of color regularly contend with.”
This episode demonstrates two problems with online debate today. One is all too familiar: viral shaming. Outrage pile-ons so often end up directed at writers who are self-identified allies or even fellow members of the marginalized group in question. While clueless allies (recently parodied on "Portlandia") may deserve and even seek criticism, the social-media mob has a history of silencing allies, as writers including Michelle Goldberg and Jonathan Chait have observed. In arguing for greater media representation of black women, Bloom has been cast as an enemy of progress. Whether she's been silenced remains to be seen, but she's pinned this tweet atop her stream:
The second, and I think greater, problem, is with Bloom's piece itself: Not that she claimed to know what's best for Williams, but that she had to project thoughts and feelings onto Williams in order to make her point.
Bloom engaged in an increasingly popular style of writing, which I've discussed on my blog before, which I call “feelings journalism.” It involves a writer making an argument based on what they imagine someone else is thinking, what they feel may be another person’s feelings. The realm of fact, of reporting, has been left behind.
This is especially tricky when a white writer projects onto a black one. In an xoJane piece last year, “It Happened To Me: There Are No Black People In My Yoga Classes And I'm Suddenly Feeling Uncomfortable With It,” Jen Caron described the myriad emotions she felt an overweight black woman in her yoga class might be feeling: “Over the course of the next hour, I watched as her despair turned into resentment and then contempt. I felt it all directed toward me and my body.” Gawker pounced, but it felt almost too easy. Looking back on this now, a line from “Broad City” comes to mind: “Sometimes, you’re so anti-racist that you’re actually really racist.”
A similar dynamic emerges in Katie Johnson’s recent Guardian review of the “50 Shades Of Grey” movie—or rather, her review of a Mesa, Arizona, audience watching it: “If you’re going to spend two plus hours watching one dimensional characters act out the not so nuanced fetishes of handcuffs and ass slapping, you might as well go somewhere where you can enjoy the show around you.” Mesa, she wrote, is the kind of town where people “eat at places like Piggly’s Barbecue or, if they’re feeling adventurous, Pei Wei.” For evidence of the audience’s thoughts about the film, and toward sexuality more generally, Johnson studies their facial expressions and unsophisticated attire. She describes women who “had come in groups, presumably to dilute their feelings of guilt and embarrassment,” as if there’s no other reason a group of women might be at a movie together. “I looked around the room during the film’s raciest moments,” she writes, “and registered looks of secret acknowledgment and endearing shock.”
I'm no fan of social-media outrage as a strategy, but it's clear why such pieces inspire it.
The temptation is to fault the individual journalist for failure to push further for the story. Why couldn’t Johnson have interviewed some of these audience members, perhaps not about sex, but at least to determine whether they actually were “the ones who left the kids at home and told their husbands they were at book club”? Or, as one of Bloom's Twitter critics asked, “Why rush an essay full of assertions instead of interviewing Ms. Williams directly in the first place?”
There are structural reasons for the popularity of feelings journalism. News—and yes, these days a few tweets from a "Daily Show" comedienne can count as news—begets opinion pieces, and those pieces beget more arguments, which beget news stories about the "brewing controversy;" and every step of the way, countless outlets are trying to be first. Thus, the “take,” the shallow but hyper-timely articles that have become ubiquitous. There are ways to write insightfully about Williams's tweets, ways that don't involve feelings journalism. But would anyone have cared, two weeks or months from now, what Bloom had to say about Williams as a “Daily Show” contender? That the answer isn't obvious betrays the systemic problem with journalism, the rush to opine.
This is not only about time, but money. Especially in feminist journalism, low-paid essays that take a personal or provocative stance are the norm. If a publication can get at least as strong a reaction to a piece that cost $50, as one that took hundreds of dollars to report, why wouldn’t it encourage the former? Unlike outright fabrication, feelings journalism doesn’t necessarily cross an ethical line, just one of good sense—and, perhaps, of good writing.