There’s been a lot of buzz in the media world this week about “The Adults In The Room”, a vicious, often irrational, and tiresomely bloated attack on Deadspin.com’s new ownership and management by Deadspin’s departing editor-in-chief, Megan Greenwell. Ms. Greenwell left the company because she disagreed with the idea that Deadspin, which was originally founded as a sports website, should return to that mission. It’s worth noting that Greenwell waited until she had secured a lucrative new job before writing her farewell, and no wonder; any sane potential employer would be horrified by the idea of a trusted employee using their media platform to lash out like this on their final day.
I’d like to take a minute to consider some of the high (or low) points in Greenwell’s article. Not because I agree or disagree with Deadspin’s new mission — I’ve never read Deadspin and never will, insofar as I have an equal and considerable lack of interest in both left-wing propaganda and sportsball minutiae — but rather because I’m fascinated by the way in which Greenwell rewrites history to suit her (their? I’m not sure on Greenwell’s pronoun of choice) emotions at this particular moment. The piece has a strong whiff of 1984 to it, which concerns me because Greenwell has had, and will continue to have, a position of considerable privilege and power. So let’s start by looking at what she has to say and asking ourselves: Is any of it true?
Greenwell makes what could be a thesis statement early on:
The tragedy of digital media isn’t that it’s run by ruthless, profiteering guys in ill-fitting suits; it’s that the people posing as the experts know less about how to make money than their employees, to whom they won’t listen.
What an odd assertion! Ill-fitting suits. I looked around for a full-body shot of Jim Spanfeller, the CEO of G/O Media, and didn’t find much — but from what I can tell his suits seems to fit just fine, which tends to be the case when you’re a multi-millionaire. Alright. That’s just Greenwell attempting to be unpleasant about the way other people look, which is probably a risky strategy on her part. What about the meat of her assertion — that the employees of Deadspin and similar sites know how to make money?
Deadspin was a Gawker site, and Gawker appeared to know how to make money in the early years of digital gossip media — but that’s like prospecting a new mountain; if you have a big enough stake in the place the gold will just wash towards you. When Gawker defied a court order and refused to take down a Hulk Hogan sex tape, the company was fatally wounded in the ensuing lawsuit. It should be noted that the lawsuit was funded by Peter Thiel, who had been “outed” by a Gawker website and as a result had a profound and lasting animosity for the company. What does Greenwell have to say about that?
Gawker Media is dead, of course. But it’s not dead because it failed; it’s dead because it was murdered by a vindictive billionaire and there existed no legal infrastructure to protect it. When Gawker was murdered in a terrifying blow to freedom of the press, a shocking number of other journalists said the site deserved it:
This is the first sign of Greenwell’s willingness to reshape reality. Gawker harassed a gay man who wanted to keep his lifestyle private, then they humiliated a celebrity who didn’t think a third-party recording of his sexual activity should go public. If Breitbart or Fox had done that, Gawker websites would have called them Nazis — but it’s not homophobic or shaming when the right people do it. It’s no wonder a “shocking number of other journalists”, including your humble author, said the site deserved it.
What those journalists didn’t say, and what they still don’t say, was that Gawker made journalism better through inspiring new publications and through pushing the legacy ones to be more interesting. They don’t say that Gawker unionizing made conditions better across the industry. And they don’t say that the company’s websites were consistently profitable and beloved by readers, that the business model—publish stories that people wanted to read, supported by advertising—worked exactly as it was intended to.
They don’t say that because it isn’t true. Gawker has shown a shocking inability to make money. Under Univision’s ownership, the remaining “Gizmodo Media Group” lost as much as $20 million per year, reducing the value of the sites from the $135 million originally paid to under $50 million. Any time an asset becomes cheap enough, the vulture capitalists get interested, which is what happened.
The question I hear the most about the owners of this company is “Why did they buy a bunch of publications they seem to hate?” I and my colleagues have asked Spanfeller only slightly more diplomatic variants of that question on several occasions. The answer he has given is that the publications didn’t cost him much and that he liked their high traffic numbers. The unstated, fuller version seems to be that he believed he could simply turn up the traffic (and thus turn a profit), as if adjusting a faucet, not by investing in quality journalism but by tricking people into clicking on more pages. While pageviews are no longer seen as a key performance indicator at most digital publications—time spent on the site is increasingly thought to be a more valuable metric—Spanfeller has focused on pageviews above all else.
Emphasis is mine; we’ll return to that in a minute. Let’s start by considering the idea that Greenwell considers that Deadspin, and the other GMG sites, had been “investing in quality journalism”. The vast majority of GMG articles consist of a progressive spin on news researched and reported elsewhere. I took a look at a few weeks’ worth of Deadspin and didn’t see anything original besides the various opinion pieces and advertorials like “The Marriott Bonvoy Boundless Is Our Readers’ Favorite Hotel-Branded Credit Card”. Deadspin is little more than a voracious aggregator of content created elsewhere. I’m not sure what they do counts as “quality journalism”. In fact, most of the independent investigative pieces done by GMG properties over the years amounted to little more than attempts to destroy individual lives — Peter Thiel, Justine Sacco, Michelle Malkin.
If the duty of journalism is to “comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable,” then there is little evidence that GMG did any of the former, and very little of the latter outside a targeted group of victims chosen seemingly at random. It doesn’t matter, because Greenwell eventually gets down to the meat of her complaint: that people have been mean to her.
After I submitted my resignation, explaining that the ongoing undermining from my bosses made it impossible for me to continue to succeed in my job, and that I believed I was putting my staff at risk by staying, the CEO threw a tinier tantrum. When I passed Spanfeller in the office a week after I put in notice, he let out a cruel barking laugh, as if he was disgusted to be in my presence. I said “you can speak to me, you know,” and he responded in a tone familiar to anyone who was ever bullied in middle school. “I don’t want to,” he sneered.
This is a brief window into something I’ve seen again and again in new media: The people who run the place are almost exclusively people who were bullied in their youth by “Chads” and “jocks”. Almost to a man (and woman) they are pathetically eager to turn the tables and become bullies themselves. It’s dudes like this using their media megaphones in the cause of limitless cruelty against anyone who reminds them, however remotely, of their childhood tormentors. They are aided and abetted in this lamentable behavior by a socially progressive cadre of media decision-makers who strongly believe in elevating and promoting people based on their political loyalties rather than their fitness for task. Most of the GMG sites are almost exclusively staffed by new-to-New-Yorkers who have little to no experience with their subjects of coverage but who arrive with impeccable credentials in Twitter goodthink. Ms. Greenwell (she’s married but retains her maiden name) never played a sport at any competitive or notable level, but has she ever even played a sport at all? Didn’t we learn our lesson on this from Howard “I Never Played The Game” Cosell?
It’s obvious, when all is said and done, that Greenwell’s entire diatribe was occasioned by that old standby, the narcissistic injury. She’d been elevated to a senior position and a six-figure salary for no reason that was particularly obvious in her resume and/or work product — and this Spanfeller guy laughs at her! He treats her the same way she was treated in middle school, which is absolutely intolerable because she is in charge now and she should be doing the bullying! Even worse, he can do it with impunity, because he owns the whole operation! It turns out that there’s always a bigger fish out there, even after you’ve been short-roped up to power, and the bigger fish is allowed to laugh at you in the hallway! The worst part is that you know, in your heart of hearts, that the big fish in question actually earned his way to power, while yours was given to you because you were a useful tool for a particular agenda. It’s a combination of impostor syndrome and regurgitated childhood tragedy, played out in the mind of a thirty-five-year-old.
Viewed in this context, Greenwell’s final screed is obvious for what it is: an entire vineyard’s worth of sour grapes. It contains little to no truth and it consists almost entirely of choir-preaching appeals to emotion. The fact that her oh-so-evil CEO allowed it to be published, when he could have squashed it with a single Slack note, underlines his absolute control of the situation while reinforcing the fact that he is, in fact, the adult in the room — and that Greenwell is just a child who kicks her old playpen in futile rage as she is lifted and transferred to a new one.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention one last thing. The competitor to Deadspin being mentioned most often lately is Barstool Sports, a vaguely right-wing (or at least politically agnostic) website which regularly sprinkles their sports content with random bikini shots and anti-government rants the same way Deadspin became obsessed with living in the part of Williamsburg with Puerto Ricans. Deadpin loves to attack Barstool. There’s just one little problem: Barstool users spend almost twice as much time on the site, per visit, as Deadspin users. So by that metric, Barstool is hugely, tremendously, better than Deadspin. How’d they do it? Their leaders are all toxic white men instead of woke women and vibrant progressives. What makes them so much better? When all is said and done, could it just be that they have… adults in the room?