EDITOR’S NOTE: We regret to inform our readers that this article contains some factual errors. It inaccurately referred to ASME awards, instead of ASME finalists. Jessica Hopper is the editorial director of music at MTV News, not Dan Fierman’s deputy. MTV News published several news briefs related to Kanye West’s stated support for Donald Trump, coverage that constitutes more than remaining “mostly silent.”
We contacted MTV News for an interview with Fierman or Hopper several months ago and were rebuffed. But closer to publication, we failed to reach out to them again to respond to specific claims made by this article. This lapse falls short of our reporting standards, and we apologize to our readers and the subjects of the story.
Finally and most importantly, we are aware of the discussions on social media and elsewhere related to the characterization of MTV News writers, and we take seriously the responses to the article as they relate to our work in the future. When we published this article, our intention was to challenge evolving media norms—not to hurt or diminish other journalists. We also asked the writer, Wei Tchou, to respond. She replies:
I’m writing to address several passages of my essay, published last Friday, about MTV News and its writers. My piece characterized the new hires at the company as “a range of high-profile writers who largely fit into one of two categories: alumni of establishment publications (Brian Phillips from Grantland, Jamil Smith from The New Republic, Ana Marie Cox from The New York Times Magazine), and young activist-writers entrenched in identity politics (Ezekiel Kweku, Doreen St. Félix, and Ira Madison III),” and claimed that writers on the site mostly create “superficial riffs on identity politics.” Many commentators found this a reductive and an unfair characterization of the writers in question. I’m afraid they’re right.
My intent in juxtaposing the two groups was to highlight the differences between generations of writers—those who started out before a social-media presence was an important part of a writer’s portfolio, and the younger writers who came after. My references to identity politics were meant to be neutral readings of a portion of the work they do for MTV News. Yet it’s clear that my remarks about the commodification of diversity came across as an attack on the ideal of diversity. That was not my intention, or my belief. And by reducing these writers’ bodies of work to a few statements, my piece diminished the range and value of their writing. I apologize to these and other writers slighted in my piece.
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In the fall of 2015, in an office building in lower Manhattan, Dan Fierman, the newly hired editorial director of MTV News, delivered a scathing PowerPoint presentation to his inherited staff of around 30 editors, writers, and Web producers. It amounted to a lesson in what they were doing wrong, less strategy than ruthless critique. Fierman objected to their limited Web presence (they needed podcasts), their content (they should be “hungry” rather than “thirsty”—an opaque description that a former employee surmised had to do with the distinction between hot takes and long-form prestige journalism), and, lastly, to the staff itself (they needed more “big-name writers”). Somewhere in the middle of his lecture, a curious slide appeared—one presumably intended for his corporate bosses and not his editorial team. It suggested that the brand pare down to essential staff. The obvious questions flashed in the minds of the people in the room: What would happen to the nonessential employees? Which am I?
Meanwhile, most mass-market media coverage hailed Fierman’s hiring as MTV’s attempt to finally take the Internet seriously and, as one observer wrote, to usher in a “return to the glory days of MTV News.” This belief in his capabilities was corroborated by a list of accolades: Fierman had helped to establish Grantland, a critically acclaimed website that covered sports and entertainment, which shut down in October 2015, and earlier enjoyed promising stints at GQ and Entertainment Weekly.
One former MTV staffer remembers what she called one of Fierman’s favorite things to say in the office: “Let’s fuck shit up.” When asked about the editorial strategy behind these vague yet lofty goals, Fierman and his deputy, Jessica Hopper, often emphasized a diversification of platforms, “a much stronger editorial point of view,” and a push toward “leading the conversation.” (MTV News did not respond to repeated queries for comment.) Many observers interpreted these statements as a desire to turn MTV News and its website into the second coming of Grantland, where Fierman was the editorial director. Comparing the two is an odd thought, given that MTV’s long-held target demographic is made up of teenagers—Fierman himself has stated that he’s interested in making MTV “super relevant” again. On the surface, publishing long-form essays that blend narrative reporting and cultural criticism seems more like a way to attract older readers. Then again, that view may not give young men and women enough credit. If Tumblrs created by Janet Mock or the queer-trans-people-of color collective Black Girl Dangerous capture the pulse of a new generation, maybe an MTV News that looks and feels more like Grantland—with its deep analysis and intellectual nuance—isn’t such a bad idea.
Over the course of a single day in January 2016, Fierman laid off about half of the brand’s existing editorial staff. (Nearly all of the others from that cohort either departed or were fired later in the year.) Before then, one employee approached Fierman to ask what she might do to retain her job. “Why would I trust you to report when I could hire Wesley Morris?” she recalls Fierman asking her rhetorically.
A former employee described the pre-Fierman newsroom as a supportive and ambitious environment, but also admitted that it was largely a content farm, chasing quick hits and clickbait: One Direction today, Selena Gomez tomorrow, Taylor Swift always. Yet that same editorial team, let go in one fell swoop, is also the one that increased the website’s traffic to more than 40 million monthly unique visitors in a little under a year, according to MTV itself and the Web analytics company Omniture. Reinventing a failing brand is one thing, but abandoning both a supportive editorial team and a growing, reliable audience is another. Fierman’s tenure will either be seen as an act of great vision or as a cautionary tale. Much has been written about what exactly he’s planning and whether or not it will work; fixating on his strategy alone, though, may be a distraction from all that’s already broken.
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Success can, of course, be measured by different metrics, by different people. Grantland, for example, was hailed as a critical success, but it was never a financial one. In February 2016, ESPN’s public editor reported that the site never made a profit. If what Fierman is after in this new project is critical success, defined by the quality of its writing, then jettisoning the original team might make sense. And, anyway, editorial handoffs are traditionally fraught with this sort of drama—think of Tina Brown taking charge of The New Yorker in 1992, or of Nick Denton at Gawker presiding over a shake-up of the editorial staff, rebranding the site to be “20 percent nicer,” and pivoting to cover politics. (RIP, Gawker.)
Fierman’s new recruits comprised a range of high-profile writers who largely fit into one of two categories: alumni of establishment publications (Brian Phillips from Grantland, Jamil Smith from The New Republic, Ana Marie Cox from The New York Times Magazine), and young activist-writers entrenched in identity politics (Ezekiel Kweku, Doreen St. Félix, and Ira Madison III). While these groups are ostensibly in opposition—the latter often being critical of the former—they do have one thing in common, which makes clearer why Fierman axed the original staff: They possess a reputational legitimacy that the prior staff lacked. Among the more established new hires, this legitimacy is defined concretely by their prestigious résumés, their Ivy League degrees, and their ASME awards. In the younger hires, however, legitimacy amounts to something different and less articulable: a well-oiled personal brand (today’s stand-in for an intellectual perspective) and, especially, a popular Twitter following.
Before the rise of personal-brand politics, legitimacy in journalism was necessarily awarded from the top down: As a writer accrued clips and expanded her network, she pitched increasingly prestigious publications and earned greater recognition. Even if her work was opinionated, her perspective was ultimately shaped, for better or worse, by the publication’s reputation. Institutions, in the end, underpinned a writer’s credibility. Nowadays, however, reputational legitimacy works its way from the bottom up: Writers collect readers, many of whom are drawn in by social media. In the same way that the Golden State Warriors acquired NBA star Kevin Durant to bring new fans to the franchise, media companies—beholden more to clicks than readers—hope that popular writers will bring their online followers along, thus shoring up revenue streams. One other consequence of this inverse relationship is that the burden of credibility falls not on the shoulders of the publications, but on individual writers themselves. On the surface, this seems to offer a more meritocratic world of journalism: It jettisons nepotism for upvotes and allows writers to know exactly what their readers like and what they don’t. In practice, however, it often just rewards how well a writer is able to promote his or her perspective to a specific audience.
If the point of creating and consuming journalism is to enliven the marketplace of ideas, a supply-and-demand structure between audience and writer is directly opposed to that mission. Partitioning opinion by audience not only stifles influence, curiosity, and the kinds of impulses that challenge writers and readers to grow; it also stifles exactly the kind of activism that journalism has historically accomplished in its role as a public good—in order to make your opinion count, you need to sway people who don’t agree with you. This type of narrowcasting is not new: TV and radio stations have done it roughly since the 1960s, and many websites do it now. What’s different, though, about Fierman’s strategy is that by narrowcasting in the way that MTV News has since he took over, he’s perhaps alienated the broad, youthful audience that MTV says it wants, in favor of a smaller audience that bestows more prestige, according to the tastes of a Manhattan media darling.
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The rebirth of MTV, as far as it goes, provides insights into another, related trend across the media landscape. There has been, of late, a public outcry about diversity, and many different types of institutions are responding to it. The research organization VIDA began its annual accounting of gender disparity in newsrooms in 2010, spurring action across media companies to hire women writers. Just last year, major studies from Nieman Reports and the American Society of News Editors, among others, were conducted to investigate the ways in which homogenous hiring affects media coverage. Also last year, a small group of writers and coders launched Writers of Color, a site that aims to “create more visibility for writers of color, ease their access to publications, and build a platform that is both easy for editors to use and accurately represents the writers”—and it seems to be yielding results. At the same time, while publications scramble to respond to the analysis provided by these reports and advocates, concerns about hapless token hiring and lowering the bar of quality just to fulfill an undefined diversity quota loom large.
In an interview with The Huffington Post, Hopper, Fierman’s deputy, said: “The fact that we could have such a young staff, such a diverse staff, and [have] that be considered fundamental to our success here, is [my] editorial dream and my dream of the world.” MTV News, with its focus on the new brand of legitimacy, has indeed successfully built a team of writers who may look diverse. But the hushed, inconvenient reality is that they mostly think and write in accordance with a certain Internet echo chamber.
Staff writer Marcus Patrick Ellsworth, for example, writes the “Social Justice Forecast” each week, a newsletter—often pegged to current events or upcoming holidays—that urges participation in movements, rallies, fund-raisers, and panels. “The faster we all get with the patriarchy-smashing program,” one post concludes, “the sooner we’ll all live in a world where the only limit is a boundless horizon. And whether that means bringing out the sun or calling down a storm, we need you!” What’s coded in this language is an understanding that you, the reader, are already a proponent of the patriarchy-smashing program. The nod is more inside joke than call to action, an exchange that appears intimate but is ultimately hollow: The structures of the patriarchy won’t come crashing down if you attend a lecture, of course, and the reductiveness of this sort of entreaty precludes argument or nuance. That breezy yet urgent tone is pervasive on the site, and reading pieces like “Activism Can Be More Than Just a Hobby or Project” (subhead: “I turned my early activism into my professional destiny”) and “Bella Thorne Proudly Comes Out as Bisexual” (“Not that she owed anyone an explanation, but good for her for speaking up openly and proudly”) are merely easy validations for an audience that is already on board. The columnists aren’t writing to audiences anymore; they are writing for audiences. They aren’t analyzing culture at large; they are staking out positions.
Moreover, as the wall between writers and audiences (and, thus, traffic numbers and advertising rates) has all but collapsed, inevitably, so has the wall between what is personal and what is commodified. As soon as a person performs his or her opinions to a mass audience, those politics are also for sale. Even if the transaction is as innocuous as a tally of stars on a tweet, how sure can a person be that he or she isn’t just exchanging opinions for validation? The problem is exacerbated, of course, when your politics are staked to your identity, and to your salary. If you have, for example, built your career as an Asian-American writer, at what point do you draw the line in a company hiring you—or not—precisely or primarily for that reason? Objectivity—faulty as it is—was once a way of helping to regulate journalistic ethics and legitimate reporting, but the scales have tipped toward a postmodern mode of thinking: Everyone has a perspective, so isn’t it more honest to own up to that fact? One might criticize MTV’s hiring scheme as a suspicious and cynical editorial strategy, but MTV News is just the logical end, however absurd, of this inevitable decline. At MTV News, what passes for journalism, analysis, and music criticism isn’t considered part of the fourth estate or as technical craft, but foremost as product.
What’s most pernicious about diversity’s commodification is that the model, on its surface, appears progressive: more women of color on mastheads, more open-minded coverage of social and political causes. So long as the staff at MTV News is considered to be diverse, does it matter that the pieces are mostly superficial riffs on identity politics? Progress slouches rather than sprints toward a conclusion, after all. But the problem lies not in the vision projected; it’s in who is projecting that vision, and why. Advocacy journalism has always given off an aura of reliability, because the work purports to be in the service of others. As suspicious as that model can sometimes be (think of heart-wrenching documentaries of children in war-torn countries), MTV News has taken the selflessness of the form to its cynical extreme: advocacy journalism in the service of business. The facade of progressiveness works merely as a ploy to convince readers to trust the words on the page, whether it’s Ellsworth’s conspiratorial anti-patriarchal tone or columnist Ira Madison’s recurring call for celebrities and public officials who act out-of-pocket online to delete their accounts. A recent MTV News piece on Macklemore’s new release, responding to Donald Trump’s election is free of any skepticism about the artist’s relative racial and class privilege and appropriation of black culture, glibly concluding that the song is “one that gives fans a comforting nod in a confusing time.” And aside from a short news brief, the website has remained mostly silent on Kanye West’s announcement that he would have voted for Trump, a topic that seems like obvious fodder for the website’s identity-forward writers.
You’re left with a toothless look at the world that MTV News is meant to reflect and interpret, the public-relations gloss refracted rather than chipped away. On the site, the implicit structures of the world are only reiterated when they’re treated as products to be sold rather than as subjects to investigate. And however apparent this contradiction is at MTV News, the problem is endemic across the media industry. Rather than illuminate our society and culture in new ways, the media’s commodification of diversity only reinforces old stereotypes, hardened prejudices, and the terrible belief that we are not united by some universal human condition, but separated by our differences.