Not Even The New York Times Can Escape Old-School Outrage Blogging

Illustration for article titled Not Even The New York Times Can Escape Old-School Outrage Blogging
Photo: Photo by AGUSTIN PAULLIER/AFP via Getty Images (Getty Images)

This past summer The New York Times op-ed section published a piece by Senator Tom Cotton, arguing for the United States government to deploy the military against Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death. The piece led to a dispute among NYT employees, with journalists tweeting about how the piece’s publication put Black journalists in danger—an internal uproar captured in a new New York Magazine piece by Reeves Wiedeman about the paper’s internal disagreements between old-school editors and a new class of journalists who see no problem with accurately labeling Donald Trump’s obvious racism as such in print.

But something that stood out to me in the piece is the nugget about how popular the newspaper’s problem-child Opinion section is. Wiedman writes:

What the audience wants most of all, apparently, is “Opinion.” On a relative basis, the section is the paper’s most widely read: “Opinion” produces roughly 10 percent of the Times’ output while bringing in 20 percent of its page views, according to a person familiar with the numbers. (The Times turned off programmatic advertising on the Cotton op-ed after some employees objected to the paper profiting off the provocation.)


And why is Opinion so popular? Because it often makes people mad. The New York Magazine article notes that a group of data scientists at the Times created a set of algorithms in 2018 that pinpointed what exact words in an article would induce hate in a reader versus what would induce happiness, with articles in the former category being more popular. Similarly, a 2013 study co-authored by writer Jonah Berger analyzing thousands of New York Times articles to see which made the “most e-mailed list” found that “while sadder content is less viral, content that evokes more anxiety or anger is actually more viral.” Ultimately “hate drives readership more than any of us care to admit,” a magazine employee told Wiedman.

Anyone who has worked in digital media for more than a day (and it might only be a day, considering how frequently outlets shutter and layoffs subsume embattled media workers) knows that outrage gets eyeballs. What’s a bit depressing is that no matter how much The New York Times positions itself as a member of the journalistic old-guard, it has not been able to escape an Internet that privileges hate-reading above all else. It’s this same Internet that has given rise to outlets like Thought Catalog, XOJane, and BroBible, old-school blogs who got high on the supply of essays from people ready to write about being happy their friend died and loving their privilege.

The difference, of course, between an outlet like Thought Catalog gleefully posting a rage-inducing op-ed and The New York Times is that one of them is the New York Times, with desks staffed with reputable reporters trying to do their jobs in the face of a presidential administration that degrades and denounces the work of the press at every turn. While editors at the paper may defend the op-ed section’s more harmful, incendiary posts as a product of the paper’s commitment to diverse thought, I suspect they know exactly how much they’re feeding the outrage beast, just like all the other dirtbag content blogs struggling to get clicks.

Pop Culture Reporter, Jezebel

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Whatever hope there was that Trump was some kind of aberration was just dispelled by 70+ million people. Tom Cotton is a rising star in the Republican party, and is seen by many as a likely future candidate for President. The views he expressed may be odious to us and completely at variance with our notions of what it means to live in a (small ‘l’) liberal democracy... but it is more than likely a view held by a sizeable (and frightening) number of people in this country.

Sometimes an opinion is worthy of being published simply because the person issuing the opinion is either so powerful, or poised for power, or speak for so many people, that it is necessarily a matter of public importance to know where their head is at. That op-ed was a dose of reality, not because the representations within were necessarily ‘true’ in the way I think of truth and falsity, or because I share the values that underpin the opinion... but because it soberly put forward an idea that I find frightening, not only because fascism is scary, but also because I realized then that this fascist streak is not a ‘squeaky wheel’ situation, wherein the fascists were just making a lot of noise so it seemed like the sentiment was more popular than it was (like how 10% of Twitter users make 80% of Tweets,) rather, this is just mainstream Republicanism now. As far as I’m concerned, NYT was doing its job—the fact that a Republican goldenboy, and former military officer, thought it would be okay and not politically damaging to him to espouse turning the U.S. military on protesting civilians, was alarming. And if your response to that is “that just means you haven’t been paying attention,” my reply is that it’s easy to claim that you knew all along, because it’s an unfalsifiable claim; if I incorrectly thought the hyper fascist elements were closer to the fringes than the middle of the Republican party, it’s almost certainly the case that others did as well—frankly, I appreciate being put on notice.

When I want an echo chamber, or to feel smug, or to not be challenged, I read Jez or the Root. But when I want to be made aware of important information of which I had not previously been aware, I turn to actual news sources. The fact that, sometimes, newsworthy information inspires outrage (such as an apparently popular and mainstream, albeit fucked up and fascist, sentiment in the Republican party), should not be conflated with the fact that outrage is the raison d’etre and entire business model for certain other outlets.