“It’s my hope that you will see this as a unique property that will quickly become the must-read for anyone interested in the media, the business of it and the personalities behind it.”
So begins the “Note from Dan Abrams,” a kind of preamble to the NBC analyst’s new meta-media site. In a fitting tribute to junk journalism everywhere, the words betray themselves; Abrams hopes “you” will see this as a must-read for “anyone interested in the media,” tacitly acknowledging that whoever you are, dear reader, you are probably not that “anyone.” He knows as well as any other journalist that no one really cares about the business and personalities behind the media — until, of course, they need to find a new job in them. (Below, Abrams in 2006, courtesy of NYTimes/Erik Jacobs).
So it’s appropriate that the site has a job board and a “media influence index,” all the better to help some hapless newspaper pink slips choose where to aim their brown-nosing. But as Abrams’ letter says, he wants the editorial content to be the focus of the site — content he hopes will be a kind of Web version of his old segment on MSNBC, Beat the Press, which he defined in one episode as review of the “absurd and sometimes amusing perils of live TV.” By the standard exhibited in his YouTube clips, Dan Abrams means innuendos, oh-no-she-didn’ts, glib discussions of ethics, and senseless jokes, all courtesy of Dan Abrams. Do we really need a website for this? What does it actually do?
Apparently we need it for pat humor writing. Take the “Cover Wars” feature published last week by the Mediaite staff, in which they grade the month’s lad mag covers (excerpted in the image below). There’s the paragraph on GQ‘s Bruno cover, which — somehow — contains more dashes than periods. It goes on to mis-discribe the Esquire cover reproduced right next to the column, and wonders earnestly, Why does model Bar Refaeli has all those funny words painted on her, and “vut [sic] what does she — or this concept — have to do with Stephen King?” (Hooray! More dashes.) It then faults Maxim for having headlines that “reveal more about the target audience” than, well, something; they don’t bother finishing the comparison. As Abrams said about his MSNBC show “Verdict” in 2008, he and his programming seek to “declare a verdict on everything from politics to law to pop culture.” But making snap judgements on colossal topics like law, politics and pop culture is the absolute last thing we need our media to be doing.
Mediaite also specializes in ethically confusing “sponsored content” columns that decry things like the Twitter generation. “I fear that a generation raised on reflexive self-reflection and schooled in the mantra of continous self-improvement could become addicted to the thrill” of Twitter, says a wordy PR executive in one such editorial. You fear a generation that relies on self-reflection and self-improvement? Really? You know what previous generations relied on to get them through the day? I’ll tell you. It was liquor. Let’s stick with Twitter.
All this brings us to what I’ll call The Daily Show principle: you have to be smarter than the news to do news on the news. On the days that Gawker takes its Adderall, it obeys the principle, to which it owes its success. Other outlets get it right too; The Onion, where I came up, has made television news seem particularly vapid with it’s two-year-old Onion News Network. But without the right satirical horsepower, a media-on-media site can turn into reductive, brain-melting commentary on other people’s writing. That’s the reason you hated high school English, and have to actively suppress vomit when you hear Jay Leno’s jokes. The kind of back-page snark that Mediaite thinks its aspiring is editorial desert; it should really be left for news outlets that allow themselves to indulge only after spending 100 pages a month eating their journalistic vegetables.
But what can we expect from a site that tells us in its preface that “traditional journalism is in decline?” That’s not some kind of prescient industry observation, it’s self-lapping salesmanship. Printed journalism is in decline; as startups like the Huffington Post and ProPublica have shown, the practice of equitably chasing down dirt and dumping it on the reader’s dish is, maybe more than ever, very much in demand.
It’s hard to believe that a bright, otherwise accredited journalist like Dan Abrams would slap his name on such a vacuous enterprise if there weren’t a pretty big upside. He says that he and his staff will monetize the site with something called a “360 approach,” as if any of us were asking — but all the specific examples he mentions (sponsorship, ads, classifieds, events) sound like, well, traditional advertising. The other 180 degrees of monetization for this “property,” as Abrams calls it in his opening note, might simply be punching up Abrams’ cultural relevance. (In a stunning coincidence, his name appears in today’s top headline, seen below.)
That, in turn, would help boost business over at Abrams Research, the ethically dubious contractor that he founded to help companies work their media coverage by hiring actual journalists to consult them. As Gawker said last year, a magazine editor or journalist “should not be getting paid to answer questions about how a publication — like, say, his — might cover something when he may well have to decide how to cover that very thing a short time later.” That kind of dark synergy is what you might call an “absurd peril.”