That time David Edelstein said something dumb

From the AP:

NPR’s “Fresh Air” has parted ways with contributor David Edelstein after the film critic made a joke about the rape scene in “Last Tango in Paris” on his Facebook page following Monday’s death of director Bernardo Bertolucci.

In a statement Tuesday, “Fresh Air” said the post was “offensive and unacceptable” because of what actress Maria Schneider experienced filming the scene. Schneider said in a 2007 interview that the simulated sex scene was unscripted and that she felt bullied by Bertolucci and unsupported by her co-star Marlon Brando. “I was crying real tears,” said Schneider, who died in 2011.

Edelstein later apologized and said he wasn’t aware of Schneider’s remarks. I find that unlikely given that heard about them at the time and I feel much less plugged into the film scene than Edelstein is. Still, even if he hadn’t heard about them, the joke was inarguably in poor taste.

One common mistake I see people make when news like this drops about a public figure is to assume they understand the totality of the circumstances. There are many potential reasons that NPR might want to show Edelstein the door that go beyond this tweet. But the tweet can often be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

Edelstein’s views on cinema have been…pretty interesting in recent days (like when he longed for a time when everything, “even racism,” seemed simpler). But Edelstein has decades of work to stand on. Should one mistake cost him his job?

One thing that has really swung into focus for me recently is what a powerful responsibility it is to be able to express yourself to thousands of people so quickly and easily. Twitter and Facebook make it super easy to dash off a latent thought or an ill-considered jokes, but ultimately, they are public forums. They entice you into thinking you’re speaking to a small group of friends, when in fact, you’re broadcasting for the world to hear.

Ultimately, our words come with stakes attached, even if you write them on your smartphone while half awake in the morning, or after an all-night binge. We should all proceed accordingly.

See also: Terry Rossio and Paul Schrader.

Too viral to check

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On November 16, Thrillist published an article by Kevin Alexander in which he tried to come to terms with his role in the closing of a restaurant named Stanich’s after naming its burger “the best burger in America.” Apparently, Stanich’s couldn’t handle the increased attention and influx of tourists:

For the past year, the story of Stanich’s has haunted me. For most of that time, I’d been away from Thrillist, as I worked on a book that frequently took me to Portland. Each time I was there, my story would somehow find a way into conversation, like the one with my Lyft driver who asked if I liked burgers. Yes, I said tentatively. “Well, we had a great one here,” he said, as we drove over the Burnside Bridge. “But then some asshole from California ruined it.” Or the time, while sitting at the bar at Clyde Common, the bartender came up to me and in a soft, friendly voice inquired if I’d planned on closing any more burger restaurants while I was in town.

This self-reflective deep dive went even more viral than than the initial burger rankings. According to BuzzSumo, this article was shared more than 9K times on Twitter and had over 37K Facebook engagements (compared to less than 1K Twitter shares and 32K FB engagements on the original piece). Self-flagellation in the publishing industry not only makes for compelling reading; it also pays pretty well too.

The headline was exquisite, promising a piece that would not only reveal some insights about the aftermath of being named in these type of listicles, but also serve as an indictment for the viral systems many of us are complicit in every day. I was happy to see Alexander’s piece was creating a lot of soul-searching in the online publishing community. But I had my doubts about the actual premise of the article (much smarter folks like Nate Silver did too). One passage from the piece stood out, in which Alexander describes the events leading up to the restaurant’s closing: “I can say that there were personal problems, the type of serious things that can happen with any family, and would’ve happened regardless of how crowded Stanich’s was, and that real life is always more complicated and messier than we want it to be.”

Now, new reporting has come to light that makes clear Alexander left some major parts out of his original piece. Here’s Matthew Singer, writing for Willamette Week, detailing those personal problems:

On April 18, 2014, Stanich was arrested for choking his then-wife in front of their then-teenage son at their home in Northeast Portland. Documents show his wife, then 57, had been a manager at Stanich’s for 19 years before being diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer. Stanich pleaded no contest to charges of misdemeanor harassment and strangulation, and was sentenced to four years of probation. He was prohibited from owning a gun or contacting his wife. He was required to undergo treatment for his drinking, barred from consuming alcohol and, in a stiff prohibition for a bar owner, prohibited from entering establishments that primarily serve alcohol, except for work. For the past four years, the only bar he was allowed to set foot in was his own.

The information undercuts Alexander’s piece in several important ways. The first is that, obviously, there were probably greater forces at work creating trouble for the restaurant beyond the Thrillist burger ranking. Only Stanich’s family know the real story behind these events, but it’s safe to say that the restaurant could’ve easily shut down even if the Thrillist article had never been written. Right off the bat, the entire premise of Alexander’s piece is shot.

But in a more significant way, the piece also upends the way Alexander positions himself as a commentator on journalistic quality and ethics. Before he wrote about how he helped cause Stanich’s demise, Alexander explains:

[G]ood, sturdy, reliable lists requiring on the ground knowledge and reporting were actually hard/expensive to make, and few places wanted to pay for that sort of reporting, so most lists just ended up plagiarizing off of the few good ones. And, as these lists increased in frequency while simultaneously decreasing in quality, you watched the collective trust in any one list diminish. Comment sections turned cynical, “this is clickbait!” being the most common refrain, then outright ugly and hostile as discourse on the internet has devolved into a garbage fire inside a waste processing plant atop a landfill built on a massive skunk burial ground.

Alexander explicitly positions his own writing as being a force for good in this mixed up, Facebook-algorithm-driven world:

From a content perspective, my final list overachieved. It got the proper number of engagements, and shares, and clicks, and all the other analytics boss folks use in the Billy Beane Moneyball era of journalism, and the video with Steve Stanich joyfully weeping got millions of views and I got to go on podcasts and radio shows and be interviewed by local newspapers. People could disagree with my picks (and they did!), but they couldn’t call what I’d done clickbait. I’d done the work. I’d made a good list.

But with Alexander’s new piece commenting on the matter, he unwittingly created that thing that he sought to avoid: A clickbait piece whose headline couldn’t deliver on the premise, and whose lack of context (conveniently ignored in service of a story that was too viral to check) ended up bringing more attention to Stanich’s problems. It’s a cautionary tale about cautionary tales.

If the narrative feels too convenient to be true, it frequently is.


Some things that might be worth your time:

Defy Media is shutting down

Todd Spangler, writing for Variety:

“Regretfully, Defy Media has ceased operations today,” the company said in a statement released Tuesday evening. “We are extremely proud of what we accomplished here at Defy and in particular want to thank all the employees who worked here. We deeply regret the impact that this has had on them today… Unfortunately, market conditions got in the way of us completing our mission.”

The company at one point reported having nearly 400 employees. Defy did not confirm its current headcount, which has shrunk in recent months as it pared back the business in the hopes of staying afloat.

The company’s in-house studios had produced 75 regularly scheduled shows. It’s not clear what will happen to the Defy brands going forward, but the company indicated it’s seeking buyers or partners for the properties. Defy’s brands, which include Smosh, Smosh Games, Clevver, AWEme, Break and Made Man, have more than 140 million followers across YouTube and social media, according to the company.

I’m not stunned by this development, but I’m saddened by it. I have no idea how well or how poorly Defy was managed (poor management can put any company out of business) but it says something about the industry when even a company that manages some of the internet’s biggest video brands can’t make things work. Basically, the “pivot to video” didn’t work out and we are still in the middle of the fallout from it.

See also: Vice Media on track to reduce its staff by up to 15%.

My 10 favorite longreads of 2017

I didn’t get nearly as much reading done in 2017 as I wanted to — hence why this year’s list is coming out much later than usual. I didn’t even know if it was worth putting together a list, as many of these choices are from the first half of the year, before I got a new full-time job and barely had the time to enjoy longform journalism regularly.

But hey, I’ve been keeping this list running for several years now, and it would be a shame to stop it just for having an off year. So without further ado, here are 10 pieces I read in 2017 that I really appreciated:

My President Was Black – On the verge of the Trump presidency, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ wrote a moving account of the Obama White House, capturing both its redemptive nature and the high price that came with it.

The Republican Waterloo – Healthcare was a hot button issue this year and in this essay, former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum explains why the Republican strategy was always bound to be a losing one.

The Heart of Whiteness – Ijeoma Oluo’s interview with Rachel Dolezal is contentious, uncomfortable, and revealing. It also helps to bring some closure to this crazy saga of the past two years.

The Lost Picture Show: Hollywood Archivists Can’t Escape Obsolescence – One of the side effects of the digital age is the challenge of archiving films. With a frightening, clinical approach, Marty Perlmutter lays out the very real possibility that many of our greatest cultural works are in danger of being lost forever.

The Leftovers: Life, Death, Einstein and Time Travel – There’s been a lot of great writing about The Leftovers, but this piece by Maureen Ryan is my favorite. It really destroyed me. Ryan powerfully relates personal tragedy with how the show captures grief.

The Silence of the Lambs – Kathryn Joyce chronicles a sex scandal in the Protestant church, demonstrating that complicity and cover-ups are not confined to any single religion.

Four Castaways Make a Family – You don’t have to be biologically related to be a family. In this piece, Rene Denfield describes the process of adopting children. And while she makes it sound intensely difficult to love someone that much (especially when they don’t love you back), it’s also clear that sometimes only the hard things are worth doing.

The Two Americans – Sabrina Tavernise writes about the case of Abraham Davis, who helped vandalize a mosque in Fort Smith, Arkansas, then unexpectedly found forgiveness by the people he attacked. Even in the increasingly divided age that we live in, love still trumps hate.

How Uber’s Hard-Charging Corporate Culture Left Employees Drained – Caroline O’Donovan and Priya Anand’s deep dive into Uber’s intense culture asks the question: What is the true cost of unicorn startup valuations, and is it worth it?

Harvey Weinstein Paid Off Sexual Accusers for DecadesHarvey Weinstein’s Accusers Tell Their Stories, and many others  Possibly the most socially consequential stories of the year, Jodi Kantor, Megan Twohey, and Ronan Farrow broke the story on Harvey Weinstein’s years of sexual assaults, and helped create a movement whose impact is still being felt today.

‘Every Frame a Painting’ comes to an end

Tony Zhou and Taylor Ramos, writing about the end of their wildly popular YouTube series Every Frame a Painting:

Everyone who works in filmmaking knows the triangle: Faster, Cheaper, Better. Pick two. A film can be made fast and cheap, but it won’t be good. Or you can make it fast and good, but it won’t be cheap. Or it can be cheap and good, but it won’t happen fast.

Every Frame a Painting was made after we came home from our day jobs and paid our bills. That kept it cheap. We also tried really hard to make it good. Which ultimately meant we had to sacrifice “fast.”The big danger for future video essayists is that large websites have started moving away from the written word and towards video, which is completely unsustainable. Video is just too expensive and time-consuming to make.

The end of an era. Every Frame a Painting was one of the gold standards for video essay channels, being both influential and widely viewed. But there’s something to be said about holding close to one’s principles and going out on top.

This farewell essay brings to light exactly how unsustainable and nonsensical all this media industry talk of “pivoting to video” is. Video production and video editing are costly, time-consuming affairs. User acquisition in today’s saturated environment is intensely challenging. And that’s not even getting to the monetization piece yet! Every Frame a Painting couldn’t figure out a way to make it work that satisfied their creative goals, even with robust Patreon campaign. What hope do people who aren’t insanely talented have?

The other troubling issue this essay highlights is how challenging it is to even make video essays for YouTube these days. Zhou had to reverse engineer the Content ID algorithm, then alter footage (or only show extremely brief clips of it) to avoid getting his work taken down and blocked. As someone who’s had their work taken down due to spurious copyright claims, I know firsthand that publishing video essays on Youtube can be a frustrating experience that privileges the copyright holder in nearly all circumstances.

Basically, it’s hard out there for a video essayist these days.

Pivoting to video isn’t going well

Heidi Moore, writing for CJR:

Many publishers’ pivots to video are ill-considered, and thus they have deployed minimal investment in resources, studio space, equipment, or salaries. This won’t help video grow. Videos that lack personality, style, voice, or visual interest don’t attract many viewers.

The video that does work online—and drives the thirst among publishers—is about food, lifestyle, and animals, according to a study of 100 million Facebook videos. The addictive, bright, fast food-preparation videos done by BuzzFeed’s Tasty are the industry standard. Business Insider also makes snappy, shareable videos that focus heavily on food and lifestyle, and successfully appear on several platforms at once.

When news outlets attempt video, however, it’s just as likely to be a disheveled reporter against an off-white wall, talking at the camera—informative, perhaps, but not well-considered for the medium. The proof that most publishers are getting the pivot to video wrong is how terrible the video user experience is for viewers. If video were comparable to text-based digital journalism, visually most of it is right around the Geocities, circa 1999, with intrusive ads and ugly text.

“Pivoting to video” was never about user needs or desires. It was a desperate ploy to go where the ad money was. For publications like Mic, the pivot is apparently going very poorly.

 

What happened to Mic?

Mic recently announced they’d be doing massive layoffs and restructuring to focus on video. Over at The Outline, Adrianne Jeffries has an extensive piece on where Mic went wrong:

The leadership was excited about elevating underrepresented communities, but employees said that Mic had become a content factory. The site had “no plan” for a Trump win on election night, multiple former employees told me, and improvised by pulling queer people and people of color out of the newsroom, putting them in front of a camera, and having them talk about how they felt. In another instance, a former staffer told me about how Horowitz, who served as editor in chief of the site until mid-2015 and is now editor at large, once interrupted a reporter pitching a video about a woman building rooftop gardens in New Orleans: “‘But, is she black? Is she black?’” the former staffer recalled Horowitz asking, “as if the story would be less impactful had the woman doing the work been white or Hispanic or Martian.” When the site was pushing into original comedy, Altchek told multiple staffers that he wanted to make “the next Chappelle Show, except it’s hosted by a trans woman of color.” Multiple former employees brought up the time Altchek introduced a video about the feminist #FreeTheNipple movement at a large staff gathering with a joke implying that the video still would have been excellent even if it hadn’t included boobs: “Titties aside,” he said, it was a great piece.

The company had a way larger problem than simply its monetization efforts: a management team that was fundamentally out of sync with the culture that was burgeoning at their own company.

The New York Times’ disastrous piece on bubble tea

Earlier today, The New York Times published an article about bubble tea with the following headline:

Why was this article so widely critiqued by Asian folks? Because it describes bubble tea as some kind of exotic, bizarre delicacy that’s only now about to break into the mainstream. In fact, I personally have been drinking bubble tea from urban shops for over a decade.

And beyond the timing of bubble tea’s emergence, any Asian kid who’s ever brought in their lunch to school cafeteria intimately understands what it’s like to have their food described this way. It’s the language of those who fear and don’t understand what’s different. It’s language that tries to separate and divide. Ultimately, it’s language that’s beneath the stature of The New York Times.

As Splinter News points out, the article has been revised multiple times since its publication. The editors removed phrasing that described bubble tea as an “exotic concoction” and something that “washed ashore in the United States a few years back.”

The Times even published a separate mea culpa piece, in which they acknowledge their mistakes:

The reader complaints have merit. In retrospect, we wish we had approached the topic differently (if at all). There may be a story in the expansion of bubble tea businesses in the United States, but there is no denying the drink has been around for quite a while. And we regret the impression left by some of the original language in the article, which we have revised in light of the concerns.

We thank our readers for sharing their views.

I don’t know how many of our problems a diverse newsroom can solve, but I’m pretty sure any Asian editor could’ve singlehandedly prevented this entire backlash.