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The Death of the Rude Press

Deadspin and Splinter were only the most recent victims of a culling that began many years ago.

Flickr/Trending Topics 2019/

In April, Great Hill Partners, a private equity firm, purchased Gizmodo Media Group, the collection of websites formerly known as Gawker Media, from Univision. Great Hill’s leaders also acquired The Onion, changed the parent company’s name to G/O Media, installed a bunch of the CEO’s washed-up cronies in executive positions, and spent most of the next few months alienating nearly all of the most talented veteran employees of the sites they purchased.

In October, they abruptly shuttered Splinter, the left-leaning news and commentary site that had grown out of Univision’s fantastically expensive and doomed experiment in millennial-focused media, Fusion. (Disclosure: I was an editor at Splinter until last year, and worked at GMG and Gawker Media for a number of years.) They proceeded to blow up the widely beloved sports (and culture and commentary) site Deadspin, first by instructing the staff to restrict their coverage solely to sports, and then by firing the site’s longest tenured employee, deputy editor Barry Petchesky, triggering mass resignations of the entire staff.

This is not a story about the private equity vampires ruining this specific company. It is about the implications of the fact that Splinter was not allowed to live, and Deadspin is not allowed to be political. Rude media, for lack of a better term, is dying.

Deadspin was rude. This was almost its defining characteristic. It was rude, by and large, to people who deserved it: amoral and venal team owners, predatory sports media personalities, bandwagon Warriors fans. Splinter was notoriously rude, just as Gawker was rude before it, to figures at the towering summit of influence and craven strivers who wished to join their ranks. In an earlier era of digital publishing, Suck was rude (just look at the name the site’s founders chose for themselves, back when online magazines called themselves high-minded things like Salon). Rudeness in media was not invented alongside the the web browser. The Village Voice in its heyday was rude as hell. Rolling Stone was often rude, except to Jann Wenner’s friends. Mad was so rude that it only survived comic book censors by becoming a magazine. Some of America’s greatest journalists and critics, from Ambrose Bierce to H.L. Mencken to Dorothy Parker, were decidedly rude.

Rudeness is not merely a tone. It is an attitude. The defining quality of rude media is skepticism about power, and a refusal to respect the niceties that power depends on to disguise itself and maintain its dominance. It’s often hard for me to imagine that anyone can grow up in this era and not end up doubting the competence and motives of nearly everyone in charge of nearly every American institution, but some of us grow up instead to be Bari Weiss.

For various reasons you could figure out after a couple hours with the writings of a Noam Chomsky or a Robert McChesney, this skepticism is frequently missing from the coverage of what we once called the “mainstream media,” and people who have long and successful careers at our most prestigious press outlets tend to either never possess it, or have it systematically beaten out of them over time.

But writers whose insufficient deference to power rendered them unemployable by The New York Times still had, until recently, hope of finding employment elsewhere. When I was growing up, every major American metro area had both a polite press—the local dailies—and a rude one: the alt-weeklies. The alt-weeklies were funded by advertisers the family-friendly media wanted nothing to do with. Craigslist put a large dent in that revenue (and the government has now effectively banned much of it), and Facebook vacuumed up the rest of it, leading to the alternative press’ rapid decline. But it was not merely the market speaking: In the end, many of these publications were also simply killed by rich idiot owners or corporations that routinely purchase publications and ruin them out of both greed and incompetence. And so we (mostly) don’t have alt-weeklies anymore.

Still, we thought as we watched this process, it was fine, because, after all, we had blogs! Blogs were a refreshing novelty in the rapidly constricting world of print because they were allowed to be rude. This made many people—primarily people whose most consistent belief is that they are owed deference because of their social or professional status—outraged. David Denby, America’s worst living film critic, actually wrote a book about how much he detested this rhetorical mode he couldn’t even accurately describe.

Unfortunately, for all the early aughts talk of blogs taking over the world, the era of independent blogs turned out to be a brief one, and attempts to professionalize the blogging genre required stamping the iconoclasm out of it. To give one example: Web portals like Yahoo and MSN make content licensing deals with publishers like the former GMG, splitting ad revenue on stories they republish for their still-massive audiences. Splinter had such a deal with Yahoo—until, after Yahoo repeatedly complained about headlines containing swear words, the portal ended the arrangement. Deadspin had similar problems. At one point, according to a former employee, MSN began adding “OPINION” to every Deadspin headline, until GMG asked the company to stop doing so without permission. A news outlet cannot have a distinct point of view and be given the same privileges as the ones that don’t.

So, even if you want to read a website with swear words in the headlines, and even if there is actually a substantial audience for websites that put swear words in the headlines, institutional conservatism will punish sites that put swear words in the headlines. Even if you think putting swear words in the headlines is simply childish, you should still be concerned about a media ecosystem with no room for these sites, or the people who want to make them. You may not miss the vulgarity itself, but the vulgarity was a stand-in for an entire perspective you will find less and less of in the for-profit press. In the elite press—on cable news, in newspaper opinion sections—you can say the most monstrous things imaginable, as long your language is polite. What you can’t do is rudely express a desire for a more just world.

Even Vice, once the rudest magazine on the planet, is more respectable now. Early in the Trump era, Vice’s social media team posted a video to the brand’s various accounts in which they announced that, even if it cost Vice advertisers, they were not scared to say what they really felt. That turned out to be “F*ck Donald Trump,” asterisk and all. (The video has long since been completely disappeared from the internet, though probably more out of embarrassment than actual fear of losing advertisers.)

For years, established and self-appointed arbiters of our public discourse bemoaned the seemingly inevitable rise of the snarkers and haters. People without sufficient respect for their obvious superiors were, they tried to warn us, storming the media, and they would soon run earnestness and respect out of the industry. Instead, power consolidated the whole thing down to, in the terrarium-like industry capital of New York, the most prestigious, and therefore credentialed, and therefore respectful-of-power publications. The rest of the country was meanwhile condemned to relying on a press ecosystem that’s far too dependent on shrinking ad revenue or giant platform support to dare risk pissing anyone important off. Alt-weeklies are dead. Blogs are dead. Bootlickers and the civility police won.

And even worse things have survived. Much as there is a parallel right-wing media that’s insulated from market forces by the ideological mission of its wealthy funders, there is another media that superficially resembles the endangered rude media, but effectively pursues the opposite agenda. It is the anti-P.C. media, where the audience’s vicarious thrill comes not from watching scrappy underdogs heckle their supposed betters, but from watching guys sitting comfortably atop social hierarchies belittle and dominate their lessers. The difference between a rude press and an anti-P.C. press is in each enterprise’s respective relationship to power. The anti-P.C. press certainly delights in titillating its audience, but it always, unfailingly, endorses a completely servile relationship to authority. The very idea of standing up to your boss is described as childish; the mature thing to do is accept domination and even abuse, unless and until you yourself manage to accrue some power over others. Mainly because the audience for this kind of posturing from a position of maximum privilege is male, and young, and probably has some money to throw around—and little to no interest in overthrowing existing power structures, even when they are victimized by them—the same corporate money that is terrified to be associated with a left-wing site that sometimes writes “Bitch McConnell” can only be deterred from sponsoring the anti-P.C. media by mass organized action.

Obviously the sentiments behind things like the Village Voice and Suck and Deadspin will not disappear from the world. Veterans of those places are scattered throughout the surviving press. There will always be a way to write and publish true, rude things, and the internet will allow you to disseminate those things to the largest audience in the history of the world. But it’s hard to imagine the spirit of those outlets returning as journalism. The podcast Chapo Trap House is in the grand tradition of rude media, and it’s only sustainable through direct contributions from listeners, insulating it from advertiser pressure but also limiting its reach to the already converted.

If the news media has no place for journalists and critics and columnists who voice contempt for people like Peter Thiel and Jim Spanfeller and Bret Stephens, then you will read and see no news from people who have these entirely compelling ideas about Thiel, Spanfeller, and Stephens. It turns out that even the bygone, now-lamented golden age of the blog was a diminution of rudeness’s influence. If your local media has no place for people who voice contempt for your city’s police chief, say, or your state’s attorney general, or the publisher of your city’s largest newspaper, all of those people will feel more comfortable in abusing their power. They will grind you down, and in the process, they’ll tell you to be civil about it.