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Don’t Just Stand There, Say Nice Things to Me

So, apparently you can go to the World Cup in Qatar next month for free. All you have to do is say nice things about the organizers on social media. This may require no small amount of nose-holding given Qatar’s generally abysmal human rights record and specifically atrocious treatment of foreign workers in building the infrastructure necessary to host the planet’s biggest sporting event. But hey, the World Cup is the World Cup! And this year, after a thirty-six-year barren stretch, Canada’s actually going to be there! I’m starting to regret going off social media. Perhaps even I could justify a bit of hypocritical online flattery for a free trip to the desert!

Upon closer inspection, it seems that there’s a bit more required than a few ingratiating comments on Facebook. The Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy (sounds like something from Huxley or Orwell!) has said that supporters that get free airfare must also report “’any offensive, degrading or abusive comments’ by others to the Supreme Committee, preferably with screenshots.” So, to sum up, if you want a free trip to Qatar you not only have to say nice things about the organizers,  you have to report anyone who says bad things. Sounds totally reasonable and not at all shady.

Come to think of it, sounds more or less like our media culture and discursive culture more broadly. Say nice things about my team (my politics, my ideology, etc.), report (and shame and cancel) those who say bad (critical) things. I’ve lost track of the number of people I’ve encountered lately, whether in my everyday life or on podcasts or whatever, who are swearing off the news. The reason? The news isn’t the news anymore. It’s an exercise in brand loyalty and ideological signalling. Conservative media says conservative things. Liberal media says liberal things. You pick your team and you toe the line. And the chasm between people grows ever wider as the hysterical and irrational poles of social media loudly and obediently respond to the algorithmic incentives that reward fear and outrage.

I’m always on the hunt for any signs of humility and humanity out there in this angry and reactionary online world. A mea culpa, an admission of overreach, a bit of restraint instead of the click-baity hot take. I’ll take pretty much anything. This week, it came via a Washington Post article by Erik Wemple who was reflecting on the firing of editor James Bennett from the New York Times two years ago. To make a long story short, Bennett published an editorial by a guy from the wrong team (Republican Senator Tom Cotton) advocating an unpopular idea (bringing in the military to deal with rioters in the combustible spring of 2020). The right team (left-leaning New York Times staff and readers) didn’t like this. And so Bennett was predictably fired.

And now, two years later, Wemple admits that the media silence over this (including his own) was wrong. A liberal democracy can (and should) be able to tolerate differing views in its media. Wemple’s article is worth reading in its entirety, but the long and the short of it is that the reason no one came to Bennett’s defense was because they were afraid of being called out on Twitter for saying nice things about the wrong person (or saying insufficiently negative things about the right person… it’s hard to keep it all straight sometimes). Wemple is blunt in his conclusion:

Our posture was one of cowardice and midcareer risk management. With that, we pile one more regret onto a controversy littered with them.

Well. Perhaps small comfort to James Bennett, but still. How refreshing to see an admission from someone in a major media outlet that they were wrong. And how sobering to see plainly stated what many of us have suspected for some time: major media outlets are fast becoming (have already become?) little more than the equivalent of a high school popularity contest, with the baying extremes of Twitter leading them around by the nose.

This should probably frighten us all more than it does. Reading the news isn’t supposed to be a purity test. We should probably be ok with (expect!) to occasionally encounter a view that doesn’t seamlessly comport with our own in our newspapers. This shouldn’t be some kind of existential threat that sends us careening off into the echo chambers of Twitter to stoke our anger and perform our outrage. We shouldn’t need people to constantly be saying nice things about us (or our views) or nasty things about the views of others to validate our own. Sadly, this seems so often to be the world we live in.

If you’re a fellow Gen-Xer, you may recognize the line that I borrowed for the title of this post. It’s from Matchbox Twenty’s 1996 hit Push. It’s a fairly cringy song lyrically, one that would almost certainly run afoul of the censors today, whether of the #metoo or just generally decent taste variety. At any rate, it’s one of the many earworms that burrowed its way into my brain way back when. One description of the song started out like this:

The song is about an emotionally abusive relationship that [lead singer] Rob Thomas was in…

It probably wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to use the term “emotionally abusive” to describe our general cultural relationship to the media (social or otherwise) and each other these days. Emotional reactivity drives engagement which reliably produces a certain kind of content in response. Round and round the cycle goes. The consumer gets angrier and more self-righteous and fearful; the creators (big media) get ever richer. People grow ever further apart and more suspicious of and hostile toward one another. And the truth lies bleeding in the ditch.

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