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The 5 worst media fails of 2018

The 5 worst media fails of 2018
[Photo: Marjory Collins/Library of Congress]

It’s been a banner year for all kinds of fails. Political fails, celebrity fails, business fails, you name it. But the media industry is never one to be outdone. We media people love a good mix of schadenfreude and self-deprecation, and 2018 delivered with some pretty spectacular media fails. And because I am the intrepid reporter I claim to be, I’ve decided to rehash a few. They all involve failing in different ways, and they show just how colorful this year has been. This list is not in any particular order, and surely non-exhaustive. But here you go!

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Mic’s mismanagement

Perhaps the one at the top of all of our minds is the grisly fate of millennial news site Mic.com. After the company went all-in on video–essentially asking Facebook to dictate its future growth–things turned south. Facebook decided the future of the platform wasn’t video, and views and traffic plummeted.

Sadly, this is an all-too-common story. Other companies that experienced a similar fate include Upworthy, Little Things, and Vocativ. But the real fail for Mic was how it handled its closure. One recent morning, the site’s cofounders called everyone into a meeting and told the staff that most everyone was being laid off. Word then got out that this mass firing was due to a deal the cofounders struck with Bustle Digital Group in order to sell the media property.

And so, Mic–a unionized newsroom–was disbanded and sold in a fire sale. It left dozens of employees in a lurch, and allowed the new owners to rehire a new staff sans union. A win for greed, a fail and loss for everyone else.

The Washington Post‘s Bottomless Pinocchio

There’s nothing a venerated media establishment likes to do more than look at an Elected Official and say… “Excuse me!… But!… Sir!” And that’s exactly what the Washington Post did with its “Bottomless Pinocchio” rating. What, you may ask, is a bottomless pinocchio? It’s something the Post’s fact-checker Glenn Kessler introduced to indicate when someone like President Trump repeatedly promulgates an outright lie.

To Kessler, it may have seemed like a fun rhetorical way to combat Trump’s talking points. But to most other people, it seemed like a convenient way to avoid calling a lie a lie.

Harper’s numerous attempts to problematize #MeToo

Earlier this year, news got out that Harper’s magazine was going to publish a controversial story. The story’s thrust wasn’t quite clear, but it seemed that the writer, Katie Roiphe, had discovered the person behind the now-infamous Shitty Media Men List. This person learned she was going be outed when a fact-checker called and told her so. Essentially, it seemed that Roiphe didn’t want to respect this person’s anonymity.

To get ahead of the story, Moira Donegan revealed herself to be the woman behind the list. And Harper’s ended up publishing a story–one that probably had to be revised quite a bit because of Roiphe’s journalistic malfeasance. It ended up being a bland diatribe about the perils of #MeToo going too far. Yawn.

Months later, Harper’s would publish another questionable essay–this time by former WNYC host John Hockenberry, who had previously been let go from his position following rampant sexual harassment revelations. Rather than report–or re-report–what Hockenberry had allgedly done, the magazine published a mealymouthed, several-thousand-word defense of his actions. Whether the intent of both pieces were misguided or meant to stir the outrage machine doesn’t matter; both pieces published in this modern year of 2018 categorically failed.

Bloomberg‘s questionable chip story

This past fall Bloomberg Businessweek published a bombshell story about computer chips and technology giants. The main thrust of the story was that companies–including Apple and Amazon–were using servers that had tiny chips implanted in them by the Chinese government. If true, this would be a huge story. Bloomberg cited multiple anonymous sources, which said that Apple discovered the chips in 2015 and subsequently reported it to the FBI.

Apple, however, categorically denied this claim. The company didn’t tiptoe around the language to massage an explanation, either–it said outright that the Bloomberg report was flat out wrong. Amazon said something similar. The once-hot scoop turned into a they said/they said. Tim Cook even went on the record himself to say that the story was false.

I’ll maintain that it’s possible the story is true! The problem, however, is that beyond the anonymous sources Bloomberg cites, there’s no other evidence backing it up. And all of the companies made stronger denials than we usually see. Intelligence officials have even made statements throwing water on the allegations. With all of this, the public is still left in the dark and simply doesn’t know what to believe, which ultimately undermines the point of such a story.

The New York Times opinion section … all of it

There is no possible way I could recount all the NYT’s op-ed fails in a few paragraphs, but here goes nothing: This section, which supposedly aims to provide diverse opinions about a range of topics, has instead become known for espousing hegemonic perspectives disguised as a devil’s advocate.

There was Bari Weiss’s piece about Aziz Ansari’s questionable sexual conduct, which claimed he was simply guilty “of not being a mind reader.” Weiss wrote another article about the “renegades” in the “intellectual dark web,” which she described as a cabal of thinkers too controversial for the current liberal groupthink, when they were actually just a group of racists and misogynists who believe being criticized is being silenced. Then there was David Brooks’s bizarre piece about how the March For Our Lives anti-gun violence protest reeked of … privilege? And lest we forget Bret Stephens, who wrote both about the “smearing” of Woody Allen and deemed the sexual assault allegations against Brett Kavanaugh “sly moral bullying.”

All of these pieces attempted to provide a Dissenting Opinion–essentially what each author believed the Twitter peanut gallery didn’t want to hear. While they may be right about that, they flagrantly ignored the fact that all of these takes were both extremely boring and representative of the guiding mode of thought. It’s not transgressive to say identity politics–whatever that means–is silencing people. It’s, instead, emboldening a swath of society that has always been in charge, and is only now being asked to explain themselves.

What would be most thought-provoking would be for the op-ed section to feature more people and voices who are strong in numbers but historically marginalized. Like, say, more people of color, LGBTQ folks, and women. Instead, we’re given a predominately white, often male authorship complaining about how their opinions are being silenced in the paper of record.

So there you have it. Overall, quite a year for fumbles and misses. And there are surely more too. But, until next year, let’s hope we can do better and publish more intellectually honest writing and reporting.

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