What I Learned About Myself From Jill Abramson’s Merchants of Truth
You know how weird it is to hear yourself in a recording? Sure, there are some maniacs who take delight in it, hence the startling proliferation of podcasts, but there are also people who enjoy covertly digging their index and middle fingers through their pants and underwear just the teensiest part of the way into their anus and then discretely taking a whiff of the scent effused upon their digits. Narcissistic masochists, I guess.
For those of us who automatically cringe at the sound of our own recorded voice or full-body appearance on video, however, being written about is even worse. At least on tape or screen there’s nobody but yourself to blame — that’s just reality; the camera/microphone can only capture what you do in front of it. In text, every word is the writer’s choice. (Well, theirs or the editor’s.) So now you’ve not only got whatever awful vocal tics or postures your body unconsciously affects to reckon with, you have another human being’s impression of the whole package, arranged as flatteringly or derisively as they feel like. If that doesn’t make you squirm, you can just go and sniff your ass with the rest of the podcasters.
While I take no narco-masochistic pleasure in being reported on (that’s a soft c in narco-) I do agree with the great Scottish poet Robert Burns when he says:
“O wad some Power the giftie gie us to see oursels as ithers see us! It wad frae mony a blunder free us, An’ foolish notion.”
This was my thinking about a year ago when I agreed to an interview request from former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson for her upcoming book on “new media,” Merchants of Truth. What better Power to show me how I look to ithers than the most powerful journalist at the country’s most powerful newspaper for the powerful? Right?
Well, you can imagine how pink I was tickled to receive a review copy of Merchants of Truth last week and discover that Abramson had written an entire chapter about me and the 15 years I’ve spent working at Vice. Not only did Ms Abramson gie me the giftie of seeing mysel through the lens of her 50-odd years of journalistic training, her publisher Simon & Schuster didn’t even spoil the surprise by having some fact-checker call me up and run through my section. Man, I’m gonna be free from so mony blunders an’ foolish notions after reading this thing!
Here then, why don’t you join me as I so do and let’s see what we learn about me?
-Apparently, before interning at Vice, I wrote a fan letter to Gavin McInnes “gushing over [my] adoration” of the magazine. That’s odd considering that I didn’t know who he was until my first day at the office. Maybe he was answering the general Vice email account to whom I sent my request for an internship.
-Interesting! I listened to “southern gangsta rap” while growing up in suburban Atlanta. That’s way cooler than the indie bands and old 80s goth crap I thought I was into at the time. I must have been playing dumb when I rolled into this 2008 interview with Young Jeezy and made it seem like I had no clue who he was or what he did for a living.
-I also “wore skinny pants and T-shirts with ironic slogans.” She must be referring to the white painter’s pants I got at Psycho Sisters in 12th grade since all my other pairs required substantial belting just to stay on my waist. Man I loved those pants. If you were fortunate enough to be born after about 1985–86 you have NO IDEA how hard it was in the late 90s to find men’s jeans with legs that didn’t envelope your entire foot in a voluminous tube of denim. This was the heyday of JNCOs and “relaxed fit” slacks, and the skinniest pants you could buy at most stores were bootcut jeans that hung halfway off your ass. It looked like everyone had that gypsy curse from Thinner.
As for the ironic slogans, I guess if I was listening to “southern gangsta rap” it was pretty ironic of me to wear my old Cure shirt around (size L, of course, which made it more of a dress).
-Wow, turns out teenage-me “bought psychedelic drugs online, shipped in hollowed-out books and CD covers to evade [my] parents’ detection.” No clue how I pulled that off using my family’s dial-up Earthlink account, but color present-me impressed!
It’s funny, about ten years ago I wrote a blog post about drug receptacles that opens with the sentence “I’ve never bought drugs online.” It then goes on to describe an Alan Moore book someone once tucked a sheet of acid in for me and a Black Sabbath CD case that likewise secreted a payload of DMT. Is it possible I got both of these in-person transactions from my early 20s confused with an internet purchase of illegal drugs shipped to my parents’ house? My memory must be scrambled from all those psychedelic drugs, because there’s no way the former executive editor of the New York Times would get something like that wrong.
Jeez, I’m only a single page in and look at all the wild shit I’m finding out about myself! Let’s keep going…
-So, when I was studying English Lit in college, I hated the Journalism students because they were “too primped and polished” and “crippled by their fluency in journalese, too caught up in their ascent to power… and [they] mistook 10-dollar words for intellect, sobriety for seriousness.” I thought I hated the J-school kids because most of them were self-absorbed, entitled-acting pricks, but I guess it could have had something to do with their ambitiousness and vocabulary (strange, though, for an English major of all things to begrudge others for using “10-dollar words”).
Also, moreso than the kids, I took issue with the courses the Journalism Department ran, which seemed to reduce news writing to rote, restrictive formulas and promote a set of ethics which served the interests of the publisher over the integrity of the reporter or the truthfulness of his or her work.
The idea that there is a single correct way to tell a story in conformity with the institution of capital-j Journalism felt abhorrent to me and seemed to pollute the minds of those J-students I saw who took it as gospel. Not only did it flatten their individual writing styles into a bland, identikit textual monotone (see every newspaper in the country for examples), they all adopted the haughty attitude and demeanor of an initiate into the mysteries of their profession. They were now “actual journalists,” and could playact their job like they were in a dinner-theater production of Fletch.
I’m sure you’ve run into one of these twerps before — the kind who carry around a spiral-bound steno pad instead of a Moleskine or some other notebook, as if they’re taking down notes in shorthand, and who ask people questions in that clipped double-time cadence that sounds like they’re exasperated at the fact they have to explain what information they’re after (which they often are). The kind who end phone calls by saying “Great!” then just hanging up. I call them journalistes.
I remember arguing with one of these smug little shits about how J-school teaches kids that there’s only one proper “Journalistic” way to write about something, and they retorted, in complete earnest, “Bullshit! There’s three ways: reporting, feature-writing, and op-ed.”
-I first discovered Vice at “one of [my] favorite streetwear stores”? Now wait, that’s not right. Granted, it’s been close to a year since Ms Abramson interviewed me and, as mentioned, my recall is a bit less than total due to all the psychedelic drugs I bought online in high school, but there’s no way I said those six words in that order. Not to her, not to anyone. She must have mistaken something else I said for “favorite streetwear store.”
What sounds like “streetwear store”?
Strayed west or?
Treat we stole?
Street where’s tour — that’s it! Street where’s tour. I was probably saying the old Vice store in Soho was on my favorite street where [there]’s tours. You know those double-decker tour buses that are always clogging up traffic on Broadway? They used to disgorge their passengers on Spring St. right by Lafayette, where the Vice store was. That has to be it.
Anyways, honest mistake on her part — I’m pretty mumbly over the phone.
-Hmmmm. Supposedly I was “so flattered that McInnes even bothered to respond to [my] fan mail, so excited by the offer of an internship at Vice that [I] didn’t waste time quibbling over the pay rate.” I mean, I guess it’s true I didn’t quibble over it; it was an unpaid internship as advertised up front, as used to be insanely common in the publishing industry in the early 2000s. So much so they eventually passed a law against it. But why does Abramson think Gavin McInnes responded to my internship request, I mean fan letter? Did I accidentally say “Gavin McInnes” instead of “Laura whatshername, the person who handled the interns at the time”? My bad if so.
-”When [I] showed up in Brooklyn for [my] first day, in the fall of 2004, [I] found a pile of boxes on the sidewalk out front — Vice’s latest issue, ‘The Party Issue’.”
OK, now I’m getting confused. I don’t think, semantically at least, you can show up in Brooklyn when you’re leaving from your apartment in Brooklyn. And, again this is semantic, but the month of May, when I started my internship, is traditionally considered to be in Spring. Then again, she didn’t capitalize the f in fall, so maybe she meant like the downfall of 2004, not the season. Odd turn of phrase, but I appreciate her sense of poetry.
That pile of boxes on the sidewalk, though, I definitely didn’t find that out front. Would’ve been weird for the delivery guy to leave them there at 9 in the morning given that the office was inside up three flights of stairs and didn’t open until 10. Would’ve been even weirder for me to go rifling through the mail of the company at which I was starting my internship that day and take a magazine for myself to read. Pretty sure I was handed a copy of the magazine’s new issue by Pat Riley from Vice Records, who grabbed it from a stack they kept in the mailroom — I remember because he said, “Here let’s see if I can grab you a copy of the magazine’s new issue from the stack we keep in the mailroom.”
It was the Party Issue though, to be fair. That part’s right. The June 2004 Party Issue.
-“From the second [I] arrived, [I] felt at home in the Brooklyn office, everyone crammed together, the bathroom walls decorated with Dash Snow polaroids, and an organ discarded from an old recording studio placed randomly in the middle of the floor.” …What? How am… I mean, wha… What?? What office is this? Did I tell her this?! I suppose it would’ve been kinda cool if there were Dash polaroids in the bathroom and an organ in the middle of the room… I mean, I could have felt at home there… everyone all crammed together… around that organ, presumably.
Good God, did I fall asleep while being interviewed and spout a bunch of nonsense about some phantasmagorical workplace to Jill Abramson?! That’s mortifying! The only other explanation is that she either wasn’t recording our conversation or never had it properly transcribed and just cobbled together a bunch of stuff from her occasional handwritten notes, but that can’t be it. That’s like something a stressed-out rookie reporter who couldn’t get their recording device to turn on before starting the interview would do the night before deadline. This is the former executive editor of the New York Times we’re talking about here.
I must have been sleeptalking. Lordy, how embarrassing!
-Jesus, I don’t know what to do with the rest of this mess. I’m aware that somnambulists are capable of performing feats far outside their natural character and past the bounds of general decency, but I refuse to accept that any altered state of consciousness could impel me to liken Vice to a fraternity. That’s been the go-to characterization of the company by lazy critics for decades, and it’s as off the mark as it is insulting to all the women who’ve worked at Vice and whose contributions to the magazine, the videos, and the overall operation have been essential to its style, its culture, and its success for as long as I’ve been there.
I just did some quick apple-Fing and found not one mention in the whole book of any of the female colleagues I told Abramson about working under and with. No Amie Barrodale, who expanded Vice’s editorial content into fiction and literature. No Lesley Arfin, whose writing style and sense of humor basically beget the Vice “voice.” No Monica Hampton, who led our fledgling video efforts back in the VBS days. No Amy Kellner, who brought Vice into the downtown NY art scene and helped forge its visual aesthetic — woops! Sorry, there is one mention of Amy Kellner. Abramson quotes from her interview with that old riot grrl band Bratmobile, which Kellner used as an opportunity to frame this very debate about Vice as a bunch of fratty dudes, way back in 2002! Only Abramson includes it so she can pass off Kells’ punchline to the article, “I hate me,” as a pained, earnest “confession” that somehow slipped past the misogynist editors.
It’s always amused me how critics of this ilk, when forced to acknowledge something Vice has done that they agree with or find merit in, invariably try to play it off as a mistake or oversight, further evidence of our ineptitude. What’s the term in logic for this kind of fallacy, pleading the argument? “Even when they’re right it’s because they were wrong.” Or is it kettle logic? Either way, it’s some bullshit is what it is.
Back to the glaring omissions, I didn’t even find a single reference to Jesse Pearson, the editor of the magazine who hired me, gave me my first written assignments, helped me develop my first work with video, and served as my direct mentor for the first half of my 15-year tenure at Vice, in addition to heading up the entire editorial side of the company. I probably talked about him for a good half-hour and he’s nowhere to be found. Instead, all his actions are attributed to Gavin or sometimes Shane. Weird, right? Could it be that Abramson either thought I was referring to a woman or that her readers might mistake his name for a female’s and question the frat house thesis? Pretty telling snub, Jill.
All right, no more of this faux-naivety conceit. If I were to go error-by-error through the remaining 69 pages in the chapter (right now I’m only on page 5) this thing would be a novella. There is a major mistake in practically every sentence. There are chronological sequences so scrambled they literally create instances of the Grandfather Paradox. In one case, after taking over writing the DOs & DON’Ts directly from the outbound McInnes (sorry Jesse, Andy, Johnny, and everyone else who came between), Abramson has me commission an action figure of myself as a DO, an action figure (in reality designed by Gavin six years prior while I was still an intern) whose nickname I would subsequently adopt to write my first article, which, years later, would eventually lead to me taking over the DOs & DON’Ts. BYEWNEEEEEEEEZOOOSHHHH (time travel noise)!
It gets even crazier once Vice starts making videos. According to the book I flew from one shoot directly to a shoot that took place two years later then from there to another shoot that took place five years earlier then from there to a shoot I didn’t go on at all! Take that, time’s arrow!
Obviously it’s going to get tricky when you’re interviewing however many different people and trying to integrate all their accounts into one linear chain of events, but what shouldn’t be tricky is transcribing verbatim quotes from a recorded interview. Shouldn’t, but evidently somehow was. There are quotes in the book edited to make me sound obnoxious and full of myself (fine, more), quotes edited to make me say things I don’t think, quotes edited to make me say the exact opposite of what I think, quotes lifted from old interviews I did with other publications, and some quotes I’m reasonably certain were just made the fuck up.
Oh, you got me, Jill! You got me good.
I’m not entirely sure what I said or did to warrant this bizarre, pseudo-biographical pillory — I thought we hit it off pretty nicely on the phone — but there’s a recurrent theme expressed throughout the chapter that I think might be a clue to Abramson’s rationale/ization. At every stage of Vice’s growth, one of its employees (often this guy [both thumbs in]) mentally assures himself that what they’re doing is journalism. Serious journalism.
Abramson assumes that everybody who worked at Vice from the late 00s into the 10s bore a colossal chip on their shoulder against mainstream journalists for failing to include us in their ranks and recognize the worth of what we were making. Certainly that and not, say, because of the hours of literally stupefying pap they were making and foisting upon the public daily. It seems outside the realm of conceivability to her that said chip had absolutely nothing to do with what we thought the news media thought of us, but what we actually did think about them. Which I enjoy visualizing as a massive golden trough into which a million pigs are simultaneously spraying diarrhea while jacking each other off.
On one of the few occasions Abramson manages to quote me with complete accuracy, she reprints the opening sentence — oh, pardon me, the lede — of an article I wrote in 2007 about attending the Gathering of the Juggalos, just to point out that because it contained a curse word this sentence would never have made it to print in the Times.
Good thing I wasn’t writing for the Times!!
What’s double-funny is Abramson then spends nearly an entire page waxing nostalgic about the New York Times’ chief copyeditor, who would never and had never mistakenly let a swear word into print, apparently running with the assumption that I’d snuck the dread, unprintable obscenity “shit” past Vice’s own copyeditor — who was, in fact, myself.
The idea that anyone would knowingly commit words to paper that don’t meet the standards of the New York Times’ style guide simply does not compute for her. There is no Tower of Babel in the Abramson Bible; different reporters and publications don’t write in a diverse array of dialects and argots that reflect the varying speech patterns and sensibilities of their readerships. They just fail to write well enough for the Times. And if they can write in fluent Timesese but choose not to, well that can only be them lashing out at their social and professional betters.
It’s generally considered bad practice in non-fiction to write what other real-life people are thinking or intend at any given moment, provided they haven’t explicitly said so. The typical reason given is that you don’t actually know this information and could be way off about it, but I’ve always considered it a good rule to follow because when you attempt to channel another’s thoughts you’re usually just projecting your own into their heads and potentially revealing far more about your own psychology than you may realize. What’s great about Abramson’s repeated commission of this cardinal sin of journalism is that it flings open a sliding glass door of insight into her thinking via her guess of my own. (And turnaround’s fair play.)
For instance, when I tell her that what first appealed to me about Vice’s writing was that it captured the way “smart and funny” people actually spoke, those two qualities swiftly morph into “cool and extreme” in my head. After all, “smart” people wouldn’t debase their speech with profane exhortations and teenage slang unfit for print in the Paper of Record. And what’s “funny” about referencing sex acts and drugs in a manner that implies you’ve actually done them? Now, Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, THAT’S funny. They make it clear that they’re playing to their listeners’ intellect instead of trading in “asinine male humor” just to appeal to young people. Just to be cool.
The idea of “cool” is clearly one of Abramson’s chief bugaboos, and you can tell because she peppers it throughout the text like it’s a Del Close bit. Like most Baby Boomers, she understands the word to connote a latter-day Fonzie in skater clothes straining to affect an air of smug indifference. Isn’t it nuts how contemporary writers never seem to employ the word “cool” in the sense normal people use it in everyday conversation, to refer to folks who are pleasant and fun to spend time with? It’s always in reference to some caricatured intellectually-averse trend-hopper who’s obsessed with being considered cool, and it’s always delivered with implicit finger-quotes to distance the author from guilt by association, like they’re using the word “groovy.”
Abramson believes the whole workforce of Vice, the male part at least, exemplifies this version of “cool.” Aside from the standard handful of cliche “hipster” signifiers she collectively assigns the staff at will — beards, tattoos, Sparks “energy drink”[sic] consumption — she characterizes the entire enterprise as being ruthlessly predicated on “projecting authenticity” via a “raw aesthetic” to “commercialize underground culture” — the operational equivalent of a trucker hat hanging on a fixie.
She actually manages to skirt the kettle logic this take verges on — “these doofi are too wrapped up in being ‘cool’ to make a successful media company, and anyways the only reason people give them money is they think they’re ‘cool’” — by delineating Shane Smith from his employees, making him the calculating overlord who’s out to monetize his staff’s pathetic efforts at maintaining their status as cool.
The Tragical History of Thomas Morton that thus emerges from Abramson’s evidently troubled mind is the story of a young man generously credited as “well-educated” and “under no pretense that he was cool” (a major testament to character in Abramsonian ethics), who is seduced away from the righthand career path of “real” journalism by an all-male gang of tattooed dirtbags and becomes a hapless goober willing to endure any form of abasement for the chance to hang out with the “cool kids.” This hamartia, his unflagging need for validation and concomitant acceptance of endless hazing finally ends with him crashing on a friend’s couch at the end of a long-term relationship in the throes of a tropical disease he acquired on a shoot, while Shane is being feted at the Pierre Hotel in a suit and tie. A SUIT and TIE.
Sidestepping the facts that the “friend’s couch” I was crashing on was actually “my bed in my bedroom” and the “end of a long-term relationship” was actually “my divorce which had been finalized almost a year earlier following a year-long separation” and that the “tropical disease” I had “acq — Jesus Humping Christ, how many completely egregious fucking errors did this woman make?! Like, you have to try to fuck this much shit up — anyways, sidestepping all the niggling little errata, the bigger mistake here is in the bigger picture.
The most insulting part of this hatchet job — well, truthfully, the most insulting part is the assertion that I had a favorite streetwear store — but the SECOND most insulting part is this bullshit cautionary morality play she mangles facts, quotes, and the linearity of time to cram me into. “Oh boo hoo hoo hoo, I got dumped, caught a fever, and now I have to live on a couch. If only I’d taken those ‘mirthless journalism seminars’ more seriously and gotten a legitimate job. Don’t be like me, kids. Stay in school. Wah bloo bloo bloo bloo!”
Back when she’s first lining up my conflict with J-school to ironically foreshadow my hardships down the road, Abramson cites my complaint that the “atmosphere was too preprofessional.” I can’t remember if I used that term; I wanna say I didn’t, but it does sound like the sort of quasi-words I tend to rattle out when I’m struggling to come up with the right phrase. In this case the right phrase was “careerist.” As an error, that’s pretty much as small a potato as you’re gonna find in this Mt. Spudmore of ludicrous falsifications, but it nicely embodies the difference in philosophies that underpins this whole magilla.
Journalism is not a creative industry. You learn that the second you walk in the door to Reporting 1. The J-School curriculum is not a liberal arts education; you are not encouraged to harness your ingenuity and imagination to further the development of the news media. You are taught the precise way in which information is to be communicated to the public, right down to the pat phrases you’re supposed to employ as “colorful” descriptors (Take a shot every time you read the Times or the Post call the nice part of town “a tony neighborhood”).
It’s a trade school. You are trained how to do a job exactly the way it is done in the professional field so you can become an assembly-line worker in the construction of our society’s view of reality. The career ladder young J-school grads are boosted up is literally ladder-shaped: You get your first job as a cub reporter at a small local paper, rise through the ranks to lead reporter, move to a larger regional paper, rise again to some sort of bureau chief or editorial gig, finally make it to the big national paper, climb its ranks and then you’re done, free to either go write books or sit and grow old at your desk like that copyeditor Abramson’s in love with.
Abramson climbed that ladder all the way to the position of executive editor at the New York Times. Now she’s watching a bunch of untrained, degree-less cocaine-takers bypass the entire system and make their own news and succeed at it. This is a big problem. Oh! Not for her, she went through the training, learned all the rules, got all that experience. She’s a real journalist. It’s these amateurs who are in trouble. They don’t know how to properly journalize. They never learned how to write a lede, and how to request a comment, and how to go “off the record,” and how you can never buy someone a coffee, and how to ask those hard questions. You know those hard questions all the top reporters are famous for? The ones that make their subjects get all flustered and walk out of the interview without answering them, but ooh, how bold and daring the reporter looked putting it to them with those hard, hard questions? These are vital skills you have to be taught by a qualified instructor!
I suppose members of all trades like to draw distinctions between people within their profession and the laity without, but nobody does it as hilariously as journalists do. Imagine a plumber running from an advancing police line with his tool belt swinging everywhere, waving his toilet snake in the air and yelling “PIPES, I’m PIPES!” to avoid getting baton’d. Or a funeral director dipping under the police tape at a crime scene and flashing his mortician’s license to the paramedics looking after the victim’s grieving family, saying, “It’s OK, I just want to sell them a couple caskets.”
Full disclosure: When I was working for my high school newspaper I used to abuse the ever-loving crap out of our press passes — I’d flash that laminated index card to get to the front of the lunch line, to slip out to the parking lot to smoke cigarettes, to show up like an hour late in the morning and skip out a period early to get some Wendys — it ruled. So I get the inclination; hell, I’d say I admire it.
What’s fucked, though, is the more journalistes I meet, the greater the sense I get that they genuinely do consider themselves in a separate class from the rest of society. Just think about some of the ridiculous titles they’ve assigned themselves. The Fourth Estate? Um, pretty sure unless you’re sporting royal blood or a Bishop’s mitre, you’re still very much in the Third Estate. The Gatekeepers of Information? Err, ok Zuul, give my regards to Vinz Clortho, Keymaster of Gozer.
I have no doubt Jill Abramson is of this camp, is maybe even its chief Gozerian, given how stridently she decries the rise of “citizen journalists,” a phrase which sounds suspiciously like something somebody originally said to stop themselves from saying “civilian journalists.” Abramson is appalled that erstwhile legitimate operators like CNN would give air time to ordinary citizens who happen to have close ties or some other point of access to a newsworthy event, instead of sending a trained professional to interview them and then regurgitate their answers in a standup outside some location of minor relevance to the story. Again, not because this threatens the livelihood of her and everyone else who spent years in “mirthless seminars” to ascend the career ladder like you’re supposed to — that’s not her concern. It’s that these amateur sentence-sayers and thing-describers are bound to make a bungle of the facts, and then no one will know what’s true and what’s false, and the next thing you know we’re watching Ow! My Balls! in Idiocracy.
To prove her point, Abramson drums up a “rookie mistake” I made in a short youtube video on waragi, Uganda’s national bootleg liquor. My big fuck-up is that in my on-camera introduction to the piece, I assert that Uganda is “the alcoholism capital of Africa” — or as Abramson transcribes it for some reason “the drunkest place on earth.” Tomato tomahto. The problem with this statement — her version of it, not the one I actually said — is that according to a blogger from MIT there’s a study, somewhere, that says that more than 20 other countries around the world consume more alcohol per capita than Uganda. Oddly I couldn’t find this study or any references to it online, but I did run across this 2004 survey from the WHO about alcohol consumption in my notes from when I was first researching the story — which says Uganda leads not just Africa but the world in per capita boozing. Then again, that other guy did go to MIT, so he’s probably got it right.
That’s not the only slam-dunk evidence Abramson provides to show that I “clearly lack knowledge about the people and places [I] cover.” In the same video I state that Uganda hasn’t had any major civil wars in the past 25 years, to which Ms Abramson herself offers the stinging rejoinder, “Uganda was in the throes of multiple conflicts that had claimed some five million lives and displaced two million since fighting started in 1998.” Might have helped her case a little if any of those conflicts had been a Ugandan civil war.
It’s curious that out of all the stories I’ve done that have provoked criticism, Ms Abramson selected this one to harp on, particularly since I brought it up in our conversation as the only video segment I’ve ever hosted that was edited completely without my involvement and rushed to air while I was out of the country on another shoot. The voiceover isn’t even my voice — I’m pretty sure it was recorded by the producer who oversaw the edit and then left the company before I could fly home and be like, “What gives?” Funnily enough, I’ve been requesting to have that video taken down from Youtube for years, so naturally it’s the example Abramson trots out.
Being falsely accused of impugning the sobriety, and I guess war-tornness?, of the Republic of Uganda would be galling enough on my lonesome, but Abramson then goes on to blame the company for my fictitious transgression, saying “When [Morton] did pass off his uninformed commentary as founded fact, Vice had no standardized measures in place to check him, and even less interest in doing so at the cost of a great story.”
My god, how rich is that shit coming from her at this point?
I’m not sure what exactly Abramson means when she contends that I know nothing about the subjects I report on — whether she sincerely believes that I bounce off to parts of the world I’ve never heard about and let the producer or filmer tell me what the story is and what all to say to the camera, or if it’s more that I haven’t spent years studying each individual topic in order to become an expert before finally setting off to document it. I’m going with the second, since she uses the next few paragraphs to expound on the “rigorous training” foreign correspondents at the Times are put through: how long they have to live in and learn about the culture of their regional “beat” before they’re allowed to write about it. This segues into the survival skills training they’re also required to undergo, and which reporters at Vice are presumably not. Do you think she realizes she’s actually boasting about the Times’ material resources under the guise of explaining their standards? I’d fucking love to take half a year off to loaf around reading history books and practicing the local tongue of whatever country my employer’s paying for me to live in and not do work. That sounds like college.
I’d also love to go through some sort of hostile environment survival training so that next ti — oh wait, I did go through hostile environment training. Twice! That’s where I learned that wearing a helmet and bullet-proof vest can cause you to be mistaken for a soldier and that the protection they offer is offset by how heavy they are and hard to run in. I bring up this specific point because Abramson brings it up by omission.
Now, granted, those two factors weren’t my only considerations when I chose not to wear a vest while filming the HBO segment in 2013 with the Kurdish YPJ militia in Syria which Abramson points to as evidence of my “inner swashbuckling daredevil” and Vice’s “unnecessary risk-taking” (and which she decides to combine with a completely different Vice.com story I filmed in 2012 with the Kurdish PJAK militia in Iraq — but hey, a Kurd’s a Kurd, right?). Nor was I “following the example of [my] mentors at Vice” by foregoing armor; if Abramson had actually watched any of Vice’s reports from conflict zones (including the ones she cites in the chapter) she might have noticed that all the other hosts routinely don the chunky grey flak jacket and helmet. I made my decision — my stupid decision, as I stressed to Jill during our phone call — because I thought it unfair to deck myself out in protective gear that none of the Kurdish people we were filming could afford for themselves, that it would visually separate me from them and suggest that my life was somehow of greater value. And what’s wrong with that? I can hear her blithely respond, the lanyard of plastic-encased press credentials hanging from her neck twisting idly around her costume jewelry. A reporter’s life IS of greater value than some subject’s.
By the way, the purpose of the pricey “rigorous training” the New York Times puts its foreign reporters through, Abramson believes, is to avoid the use of local fixers. She doesn’t say what’s wrong with fixers, just that Vice uses them and the Times doesn’t. Or tries not to. Personally, I have never understood this beef. I think that paying a native resident of the country you’re in to help make arrangements and clarify cultural questions is a much better way to work abroad than planting a solitary expat there and waiting months and years until they’re self-sufficient.
Better yet, fuck the travel entirely, just hire someone who grew up and lives there to be your correspondent. That’s what we used to do at the magazine when we wanted to understand what was going on in places like Iraq and Appalachia. We asked Iraqis and Appalachians to tell us.
But this doesn’t gel with what Abramson considers expertise — you can’t be an expert at something if you didn’t have to work at it. Not just work, labor. Doesn’t matter if you understand the subject down to its most minute particulars and can explain it as easily to laymen as to your colleagues; unless you toiled joylessly for months and years at an accredited school to achieve that understanding, you’re just a dilettante. Or worse, a citizen.
A citizen just lives somewhere. He or she didn’t have to train and journey and acclimate to become the kind of great self-reliant foreign-born expert you want to get your news from. A citizen didn’t pay their dues, like Jill did. And now these citizens are destroying “actual journalism,” circumventing its sacred tenets with their sensationalism and emotional manipulation and coolness and secret advertisements and profanity and sex and drugs and, least journalistically of all, humor. Asinine male humor.
I’ve been wrestling with the question of why Abramson did all this ever since cracking my review copy of the book, so going on a week now. Why did she go so insanely far out of her way to blaspheme the truth just in order to portray Vice and myself as amateurs — a characterization she probably could have pulled off, albeit far less vituperatively, without even straying from the actual facts. I mean this has to be the most drastic case of “careful lest you become what you hate” I’ve ever witnessed — it’s like a metatextual Cronenberg film. Not a novelization, the actual film itself, just, like, on paper. I know. Let it marinate a while.
I can’t help but feel some sort of personal dimension to my appearance in the book, or rather the appearance of the drool-lathered cool-worshiping homunculus who’s given my name. It’s almost like there’s a hidden message in here for me, like maybe if I’d been dedicated enough to make it through J-school, less fixated on streetwear and gangsta rap and letting cool people haze me and hip-hop jewelry (oh yeah, naturally, there’s a whole bit in the chapter about the notorious Vice rings the company had a jeweler in Greenpoint whip up for a holiday party one year — Abramson takes the “drug-addled morons accept shiny trinket in lieu of a bonus” tack in criticizing these incidental pieces of company swag versus the more ornate “there’s a secret hierarchy a la Freemasonry that corresponds with variations in the rings” theories you sometimes see online), maybe if I’d had the drive or moxy or chutzpah or sproingle to sit through those “mirthless seminars” I never described as such, maybe then I would have understood the role of the Journalist as objective observer of the human race and its affairs, like an alien referee devoted to collecting, collating, and communicating the capital-T Truth. Maybe I, little old I, could’ve had what it takes to be a big-shot, rigorously-trained foreign correspondent at the Newspaper of Record, the Grey Lady, Ole Snooty.
But no, I had to go snatch up a lad mag at my favorite streetwear store and now Journalism’s dead, Truth itself has imploded, and I’ve got leptospirosis from drinking dog piss.
Just to clarify, by the by, here on like paragraph, what, 80?, I intend none of this to imply that Jill Abramson took 74 pages of her book on digital media and, for reasons as occult as they are baffling, decided to skewer an individual she’s never met outside a single phone call, truth be damned! I know the chapter is not truly “about me,” that I just present an exemplary case for examining the larger forces at work in the erosion of Journalistic principles and the deformation of the national press corps into a barefoot huddle of bewildered webcammers. Abramson makes it emphatically clear, wherever she has the chance, that I am by no means responsible for the direction or character of my work, or even its subject matter. At no point do I choose to go on a video shoot; I am always sent on a shoot. I do not pursue my stories; I am assigned them. When something funny happens in a video segment, that’s not me making a joke; no nonono nonononono, Vice found a comedic angle for the piece. Who specifically at Vice? Just Vice. VICE. The whole company, apparently. Except for me.
Being divested of agency for the whole of my 15-year career may be the buzzingest bee in my bonnet, but of all the slights and slurs she levied on me, I don’t think Abramson meant for this one to sting. I just don’t think she got it. Even for members of my own generation, and god-help-me the one below, making sense of Vice from outside the company has proven a herculean effort in non-comprehension. The idea that, at its core, Vice was and is a group of youngish people whose shared goal is documenting things that interest us in a manner that also interests us, satisfies nobody’s imagination. There’s gotta be an agenda, or an angle, or it’s all some advertising scheme — who versus, you know? Who versus? For all the Gawkerites who stuck to the Frat-Bro Libel there were adherents of the opposite extreme who devoutly believed that Vice was a property of Viacom or News Corp and fully staffed by deep-cover right-wing marketing operatives out to depredate youth culture.
We’re either sexist cave-dolts or oblivious shills for some malevolent eminence grise, although every so often a critic will try to thread the needle’s eye and say that we’re actually somehow both. This seems to be Abramson’s take as best I can tell; except I get the sense that she believes the conniving masterminds are also idiots. Everyone but you, eh Jill?
I can’t quite remember whether this little nugget made it into my conversation with her a year ago, but one of my old standbys when arguing with journalistes about institutional/”actual” Journalism is a butchered paraphrase of Werner Herzog’s quote distinguishing between “the accountant’s truth and the artist’s truth.” It is typically met with a derisive snort, and then some variation on “Well, what’s the ‘artist’s’ version of the national debt?” or some other stat. There is no artist’s version of the national debt, of course. Or rather it’s the same as the accountant’s, as it should be for figures, statistics, and all empirically quantifiable data. If you want to tell people what the MTA’s budget is or how many dillybars the DQ dillybarium squirts out every day, your objectively-trained J-school grad is ideally suited for the gig. As is a line graph. To figure out the rest of the world, however; to make sense of the seven-and-a-half billion biographies tangled across the surface of this planet, you have to relinquish your Talosian sense of impartiality and be a fucking person.
A human being is not a datum, nor is their life just an accumulation of individually confirmable facts (and certainly not when 4/5 of said facts are demonstratively incorrect). If you want to tell a person’s story, it’s not enough just to pile up the available bits of information — you have to understand how and why they all fit together and then how to make someone else understand it too. The artist’s truth isn’t opposed to the accountant’s truth. The artist’s truth begins where the accountant’s truth leaves off, taking stock of the emotions and intentions and feelings and vibes that the human brain is the only instrument sensitive enough to pick up. This isn’t just editorial opinion or subjective bullshit or “color” as they write it off in J-School, this is the meat of the human experience.
It’s what separates blue-green from azure, what separates happy crying from sad crying, what separates speed metal from crustpunk, what separates the humor of mid-00s Vice from fucking Maxim.
The fact that there’s no school in which you can pay to learn intuition and how to interact with and understand other people is something I’ve always thought of as “cool” in its own right, even revolutionary for those of us whose parents couldn’t afford the cost of an Ivy League education. But I can definitely see how shitlessly it would scare someone whose whole career and identity have been based on doing everything exactly the way they were taught where they were taught and then coasting on the entitlements reaped therefrom. Shitlessly enough, apparently, to just toss truth entirely out of the equation and let your feelings forge their own version of reality. After all, who needs facts when you’ve got the authority of the New York Times?
Favorite fucking streetwear store. What a louse.
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