Yes, BuzzFeed helped cook up Baked Alaska and the Capitol Invaders but journalism was f*cked long before that

Journalists love dreaming of a golden age that never existed.

The golden age of journalism never existed, just as the golden age of music never did. If you listen to a certain sort of record sniffing collector, music in the 60s/70s/80s/90s (delete as applicable) was the greatest and there was none of this shit that passes for music these days.

Only, a cursory look at any passing repeat of an episode of Top of the Pops from those ‘golden eras’ reveals that for every piece of imperious pop genius or unbreakable rock masterpiece, there were ten other songs that were abject shite and are barely even remembered by the musicians who played them. Chirpy, chirpy, cheep cheep, indeed.

But if musicians and their fans are prone to creating a heavily edited version of history, journalists are far worse. We tend to romanticise both the present day and an Elysian past when hacks were honourable and every piece of news was harder than a submariner’s wang on shore leave. It’s horseshit of course.

From the very first newspapers — which were virtually fact-free scandal sheets — onwards the media has been a filthy melange of the relentlessly factual and the barely plausible. For every Watergate, every Sunday Times Insight team exposing the Thalidomide scandal, there is a Freddie Starr Ate My Hampster, a Gotcha!, a… well… Kelvin Mackenzie’s entire career.

Former BuzzFeed News Editor-in-Chief, Ben Smith — now the New York Times’ media columnist — wrote a we-a culpa (more accurately a nostra culpa) about how the viral success chasing company incubated (at least) two far-right figures. It’s a long but strangely coy article:

He fit in as well as anyone did at our Los Angeles studio, a place full of ambitious misfits with an unusual gift. They knew how to make web videos people wanted to watch.

His real name was Anthime Joseph Gionet, though he preferred others. His value to BuzzFeed was clear: He’d do anything for the Vine, the short video platform that had a brief cultural moment before being crushed by Instagram and Snapchat in 2017.

Gionet is better known by his nom-de-twat Baked Alaska, but that name doesn’t appear once in Smith’s piece. Baked Alaska is a 33-year-old from Anchorage, Alaska who slalomed through the music industry and media before he crashed into his current ‘career’ as a far-right propagandist and violent ‘prankster’.

Before he was employed by BuzzFeed, Alaska worked at Warner Bros. Records and the Warped Tour where his hometown and tendency to be stoned got him his nickname. He washed up at Capitol Records in 2011 and pursued a short-lived rap career of his own taking on a redneck persona. It wasn’t successful and he got heavily involved in the LA party scene, developing serious drug and alcohol problems.

Ben Smith recounts how Alaska came to be employed at BuzzFeed:

He was, in that way, a natural for BuzzFeed when he arrived in the spring of 2015, where I was editor in chief, overseeing the website. Mr. Gionet was hired to run the Vine account for our video operation, and his job mostly consisted of editing down to six seconds the silly, fun videos his colleagues produced. Within months, he took over a BuzzFeed Twitter account, too, drawing on his same intuition for what kind of video people would share.

On Wednesday, Alaska’s “intuition” was demonstrated from within the ransacked Capitol office of Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon. Livestreaming from within the attack on the heart of the US government, one of many extremist Trump supporters in the building, Alaska hooted, “We’ve got over 10,000 people live… let’s go! Hit that follow button — I appreciate you guys.” It was being “extremely online” taken to an absurdly dangerous conclusion:

We’re doing insurrection! Don’t forget to like and subscribe.

Gifted with such a tasty angle on the biggest story of the year so far — fuck, we’re only in week 2 — Smith couldn’t resist recounting his time dealing with Alaska and another far-right figure, Benny Johnson — hired by Smith as “conservative politics writer”, fired for plagiarism, and now heavily involved in the right-wing youth movement Turning Point and advising hardline right-wing politicians on “viral political storytelling”. One of Johnson’s clients, Rep. Lauren Boebert, has got acres of press coverage by declaring that she will bring her handgun to Congress.

In trying to explain how Alaska went from being an employee that former colleagues described as “lonely and desperate to be liked” to an avatar of far-right animus, spraying an unknown substance in people’s faces for YouTube clout and storming the Capitol, Smith leans heavily on a quote from another former BuzzFeed employee:

“His politics have been guided by platform metrics,” reflected Andrew Gauthier, who was a top video producer at BuzzFeed and later worked for Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s presidential campaign.“You always think that evil is going to come from movie villain evil, and then you’re like — oh no, evil can just start with bad jokes and nihilistic behavior that is fueled by positive reinforcement on various platforms.”

That quote along with a blase reflection on viral success from the company’s founder Jonah Peretti (“The story’s not done and there’s an opportunity to fight for a good internet…”) suggest that BuzzFeed’s bosses never took the threat of the far-right harnessing internet culture seriously.

While BuzzFeed has always been far more earnest than the irony dipped pages of Vice — which gave birth to an even bigger far-right monster, Gavin McInnes, a co-founder of Vice magazine who is now better known as the creator of the Proud Boys — it hired characters like Alaska and Johnson because they could “go viral” without exploring their motivations further.

It’s depressing but unsurprising to find someone from the Biden campaign who has such a thin understanding of what evil is and where it can be found. You only think evil is “going to come from movie villain evil” if you are utterly disconnected from the realities of politics and have failed to develop even the most passing familiarity with history. You surely don’t need to have read Hannah Arendt’s ‘Eichmann in Jerusalem’ to be aware of the famous phrase from its sub-title — the banality of evil. Baked Alaska and his friends are unquestionably both banal and evil.

It’s frustrating to see Smith and Peretti watching Baked Alaska bounce around the Capitol, a like-addicted Goebells among a gang of insurrectionists, then shrug and effectively say, “Uh, what happened?” But the notion that BuzzFeed is uniquely responsible for the journalistic climate of the times — for the focus on virality and novelty over depth and nuance — is bollocks.

Jeff Jarvis is a journalism professor at Craig Newmark Journalism School. He’s one of those journalism golden-agers who loves to stroke his beard and mutter about the mess we’re in and had BuzzFeed in his sights yesterday:

“Yes, BuzzFeed was a data-driven newsroom. Yes, newsrooms learned. So did their contributors. And we got what we measured: pure attention, corrupting the mission of journalism, not to listen and serve but to perform… News infected BuzzFeed which became the apotheosis of the attention-based business model of mass media, honed to a data-driven model of attention for attention’s sake.”

While Jarvis turns most of his ire on Rupert Murdoch and his empire, particularly Fox News — correctly in my view — his notion of “the mission of journalism” is idealism built on sand. To reuse the music analogy, while American journalism in the 1970s had the rockstar action of Woodward and Bernstein — Led Zeppelin with notepads — it also had grown of the supermarket tabloids, with hundreds of thousands of people gobbling up the fact-free fodder offered by The National Enquirer.

Ever since the arrival of comment sections, journalists have had to face up to direct responses to their work. It’s been an uncomfortable experience and led to many hacks repeating the phrase “never read the comments” like a mantra. But while comments sections — especially on YouTube — can be some of the most toxic places on the internet they have also forced journalists into a realisation that many more people dislike what they do than they thought in the days when letters to papers could be edited, ignored, or simply discarded without ever being opened.

I think the drab reality of modern journalism — a handful of stars paid handsomely while many staffers are left to pump out content farm crap and most freelancers scrabble in the dirt for a handful of coins flung down by a condescending commissioning editor — has made people in the profession even more likely to look back through the mists to that imagined golden age.

Nobody gets into journalism to write up tweets or refashion press releases so clinging on to the notion that there is a higher ideal is understandable. But the truth is while journalism has always been a mixture of the sacred and the profane, it’s always been the profane part that paid the bills.

Anyone who tells you otherwise is engaged in public relations.

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