It seems to me that we are entering a new phase in our media culture online. It’s post-gossip, post-snark and post-smarm. It is the sanctimony phase.
Maybe it’s an outgrowth of Upworthy and its simple yet holier-than-thou politics. Maybe it’s the natural extension of outrage porn. But you are seeing it quite clearly with the media reaction to the recent trove of leaked celebrity nudes.
There’s no question that these photos constitute a flagrant violation of these women’s (and men’s) privacy. What’s less certain is where blogs like Gawker and Perez Hilton and others get off pretending to be shocked and appalled by it.
These sites–which generally will publish anything for an extra thousand pageviews–are suddenly leading the charge that these hackers are criminals, that the online horde who clicks the photos are perverts, and that justice must be done for the victims. It all may be true–but guess who lost the ability to claim the moral high ground a long time ago?
I would say it was the people who created the market for this kind of trash in the first place. Definitely the people who built huge brands trafficking in it.
Just a few short months ago, Gawker wrapped up a lawsuit in which it had vigorously defended its right to published a private sex tape featuring Hulk Hogan–with commentary that ruthlessly mocked him. Oh and they’ll post the picture from the leak that features a dude, because somehow that’s different. Perez Hilton published upskirt shots of an underage Miley Cyrus. BuzzFeed (BZFD), didn’t you just have to delete 5,000 of your own articles because they didn’t meet your own basic standards?
These people are fucking jackals, make no mistake about it.
The reality is that these sites just got scooped and disrupted by the photo-hosting sites that originally posted the images. Being pissed, being outraged–is just the cleanest and most lucrative angle the reporters could take, particularly in the case of a beloved celebrity like Jennifer Lawrence. In a different news cycle, a different day, a different source, even different women, the same blogs would have gladly published these photos.
How do I know?
It wasn’t: We don’t publish the names of sexual assault victims. It wasn’t: We need three sources to corroborate a claim (or an identity). It wasn’t even: we don’t traffic in stolen information (because we know that’s not true). There was no ethical structure, no guidelines to weigh this decision against.
It was: Oh, after the initial thrill wore off, the people on Twitter seem to be against this–so we are too. It was, let’s publish them and then if people get upset, we’ll side with them and say it was a mistake (as Perez Hilton did and then claim he cares about the victims). It was verso pollice. Let the mob decide what gets published.
And even then, that’s not to say they aren’t going to get dozens of posts out of the whole thing. An astute Deadspin commenter sketched out exactly how a media empire like Gawker will still profit off the story:
Still waiting for the Gizmodo feature on how it happened, the Lifehacker feature on how to make sure it doesn’t happen to us, the Jezebel feature on how our culture allows males to feel that they can invade any women’s privacy, the Gawker feature on how 4chan heard about the leaks, along with the TMZ call to get them (come on how much cash/job do you think Harvey was offering) along with the 4chan culture that lead to this. Also the Jalopnik feature cross posted to io9 about how in the future in self driving cars people won’t be able to get it on just in case someone is watching/hacking the in car camera/is tech. (ed note: one of those posts already happened!)
So while they might not be publishing the photos themselves, celebrity and culture blogs will still directly profit from them, they’ll still create demand and awareness of the photos–but just not link to them in their ickiness. It’s the same old excuse: We didn’t start the rumor but we’ll report about it. How that’s significantly better, I’m not exactly sure.
It’s faux sincerity–bullshit sanctimony from people who on a daily basis make a mockery of humanness, human emotion and the human body. Yeah, the blogger who will write a hit piece with their greedy eyes on a $50 pageview bonus really cares about Kate Upton’s civil rights. Or Michael Brown’s for that matter.
But to an unsuspecting reader it sure sounds like they do. Not to me though, to me it looks like sociopaths putting on a show (that’s what it is in fact). It’s that bloggers have realized that the new new game is to cloy us with notions about dignity, respect and restraint that they not only don’t believe in, but regularly contradict whenever it suits them.
If they are serious, if they do mean what they say, it’s a real easy fix.
Create real standards for cases like this and others that the industry agrees to uphold. An objective, articulated, clear standard that exists in advance. Then shame the sites and your colleagues who break the united front. It’s called professionalization, and it’s what saved journalism the first time.
Putting your finger to the wind and deciding “Ok, this was a crappy summer and normal sane people tired of seeing terrible things on their computer and we all like J-Law a lot, so we won’t post it this time” is not ethics. Deciding to act like you’re better than the story, when you’re really probably pissed that 4chan and Imgur got the photos first is hypocrisy. It’s opportunism. If Jennifer Lawrence had been left out or it had been just a single celebrity (one we like less, for instance), the tenor of the conversation would be very different. After all, Gawker’s own porn site Fleshbot had no qualms about doing it to Scarlett Johansson and god knows who else over the years. (Note: Gawker no longer owns Fleshbot, but did when the blog posted the Scarlett Johansson nudes.)
Yet it happens to a bunch of celebrities at the same time and suddenly they all want “justice” and want self-policing from Reddit and image sites.
But wait, Gawker doesn’t think that “reporters and editors need to think of themselves as bound by an additional, secondary set of ethical restrictions.”
And that’s how you know that all of this is just an act.
Ryan Holiday is the editor at large of Betabeat and the author of The Obstacle is the Way.