Doom comes in cycles here. Right now, everyone is preparing for the end. Resumes are being sent out wildly, clips are being saved, contacts are being pressed for leads; no one is actually working. The Global Financial Times, it seems, is about to fold. Jeremy Black, from the Politics desk, has been tape-recording editorial meetings and forwarding every e-mail from management to his personal account. He plans on writing a book about the company once the end finally does come. There certainly isn’t a shortage of material. In little more than two years, the GF Times has become a textbook example of how not to run a newspaper. Jeremy’s worried he’ll be sued, which is probably true, but I don’t think the parent company (whichever it is) has the resources for any sort of robust legal effort, even with its alleged cult money. Jeremy says I need a backup plan, too, before it’s too late. But I’m not worried. I’ve seen this before – the doom, that is. Everything will be fine. Anyway, I’m too focused on my Syrian Proxy War story. If this really is all coming to an end, that needs to go out ASAP. It’s an important piece, I sincerely believe, and it’s good. I did good journalism, despite all the obstacles that management put forth, and if the paper does come crumbling down, this piece could land me my next job. Even if it doesn’t come crumbling down, this piece could land me another job. And for that reason the story needs to go out before it’s either scooped or before the situation on the ground changes and renders it irrelevant.
Anyone remember Broadcast News? Holly Hunter as Jane Craig, a True Believer in the sacred covenant between Society and Journalism, watching the network news organization she belongs to turn away from investing in serious reporters in favor of Hairdos with great camera personality, from the mission of informing the public to the business of market shares? I haven’t seen the movie in years, but I can still picture her in that auditorium, the thinning audience bored until she shows a video about a 10,000-domino trick that pushed a US trade policy story off the evening lineup. The remnants of the audience cheers for the dominos. “I know, it’s fun,” says Jane. “I know it’s fun. I like fun. It’s just not news.” The last of the audience walks out.
And that was before the Internet.
The narrator of this story is no True Believer. Maybe she (more likely he, but why not live dangerously) once was, but now she’s trying to keep a paycheck, and that means pumping out the kinds of stories that draw massive hits. As she says: “It was hard to write about Syria while generating web traffic…”. To her credit, she’s still trying.
This is one of those stories that’s nearly impossible to read – the paragraphs are pages long, and the stretches about the details of the online news business – “GF Times spams Google, Google catches on and changes up. GF Times constricts while management punishes us – either with mandatory night and weekend shifts, new desk assignments, or hit quotas – Hoa breaks the new algorithm, hits go up again, and then back to the start” – are nearly as incomprehensible (and horrifying) as the details about atrocities in Syria. But guess what: modern life is nearly impossible to read (not to mention pretty horrifying). Just try to figure out who owns Newsweek, if you still remember that Newsweek used to be a solid information-and-analysis journal – and this story is a barely-disguised narration of its purchase by IBT, “an innovative digital media company.” As for the Middle East, the UK’s Financial Times found the perfect way to describe the nonsensical chaos – and that was before ISIS. Um, I mean, ISIL. Whatever.
It’s an impossible story. That’s why it’s perfect – and why it’s crucial.
This narrator shows us exactly the mess of pottage we’ve traded our birthright for. The Fourth Estate – the Free Press – is now about search engine optimization. It’s about finding out what we want to read, and telling us that. What we need to know to make decisions about our lives, our votes, our kids, our beliefs, is just… too hard. Too long to read.
Like the paragraphs in this story.
Jeremy, from the politics desk, has been able to survive the bad times by writing flattering, aggrandizing articles about Ron and me and Paul. To protect his reputation, Jeremy published them under a pseudonym, which no one bothers him about so long as he’s getting hits. The Pauls have a relatively small but cult-like following – to the cheese who (when not stockpiling guns in their doomsday bunkers, no doubt) read and share every article that mentions the libertarian congressman; if it’s favorable, it goes up on RonPaul.com. “Fred Romain,” has three pieces there now. I wonder if he’ll include in his book, because what Jeremy is doing sure as hell isn’t journalism. But one Ron Paul article takes an hour to write and on burdens Jeremy for the rest of the day so he can do something meaningful. During the last Great Google Downgrade, I got lucky twice. First, a lunatic in Belgium attacked a bus stop with a hand grenade, killing two and injuring six. The assailant also blew off his own arm, which lay photogenic lady next to a pommes frites cart. Normally, that’s not a big story, but the attacker had brown skin, so leading headlines with “terrorists?” In them generated a nice amount of traffic. The story was somewhat difficult to follow from New York, but because I was allowed to copy-and-paste the body of my original story and reposted with a new, slightly updated lede – examples: “a third man now is in critical condition after…” or “police are looking for a second suspect in Liege, Belgium, where…” – I was able to pump out stories faster than our competitors and siphon off some extra traffic that way. The man turned out to be a local, and not a terrorist. Just a guy who snapped. It turns out that brown people are actually quite common in Liege, the fact that became another article. The second lucky break was when a Christian pastor was hanged as an apostate in Iran. His name was Youcef Nadarkhani and he led the congregation of 30 from his basement church in Rasht. Iran’s religious police arrested Nadarkhani during the Christmas-night raid. Nine others were arrested but eventually released. The Gilan district court found Nadarkhani guilty of converting Muslim men over the age of 13, a crime under Ayatollah Khomeini’s founding fatwas. Despite international pressure, Tehran went ahead and sentenced him to death, drawing scorn from world leaders and 150,000 unique page views for me, a personal record that was rewarded with a twenty-five dollar gift card to Starbucks from the GF times. That’s what people want to read about. Muslims persecuting Christians. “They don’t want to read about Iranians training Syrian militia in a desert somewhere,” Jeff Polaski, our editor-in-chief, explained to me.
Impossible to read. Admit it, it’s nowhere near as fun as a dress that might be white and gold or blue and black. But there are a couple of key sentences in there – “which no one bothers him about so long as he’s getting hits” and “That’s what people want to read about. Muslims persecuting Christians” – that should scare us to death. Because that’s why we’re reading what we’re reading, and that’s why we see the world the way we do. We get our news from Buzzfeed and Jon Stewart. To be fair, Jon Stewart often hits the nail on the head (don’t miss the 3:25 mark). But he’s lasted 17 years because he surrounds it with goofiness to make it palatable.
Youcef Nadarkhani is a real person, by the way, and he really was imprisoned for three years, released, re-imprisoned, re-released. Who am I talking about, you ask. See?
A quick google of “Daniel Tovrov” turned up some interesting tidbits. Like, he’s in the MFA program at Columbia (or was, I’m guessing, at the time this story was written). Like, this is his first published fiction. Like, it’s not his first published writing – he has plenty of journalism clips on his website, including several news stories on the Middle East for the International Business Times – the same IBT that bought Newsweek. Like I said, barely disguised.
I wish I could get everyone to read this story. But most people will glance at the paragraphs that go on for pages, they’ll see stuff about Syria and some technobabble, they’ll say, “It doesn’t look like something I’d enjoy.” You’re not supposed to enjoy it. You’re supposed to be scared shitless. Or enraged. But what we’re supposed to do about all this, I’m not sure. Resist clickbait? Yeah, like that’s gonna happen. And I’ll admit: I’ve descended into hopelessness. But I’m 60. I’m checking out soon. What about you – is this the world you want to live in, where what you think you know is never challenged by pesky complexity?
The final line I originally wrote for this post was: “Move over, Jonathan Swift and Joseph Heller, there’s a new master satirist in town.” Except this isn’t really satire. And if that doesn’t scare the hell out of you, well, it doesn’t matter, I’m sure tomorrow will bring another blue/black (or gold/white) dress to keep you entertained while someone else decides our lives – and decides who’ll write what to tell us how happy we should be about that.