Just take the W, grifters
Everyone loves content, I hear. Well, here’s some.
Edited by Sam Thielman
There were plenty of things to argue about after Johnny Depp won his mutual defamation case against his ex-wife, Amber Heard. What does the verdict mean for future domestic abuse allegations? Is it a blow to the First Amendment, or isn’t it? But one take seems indisputable: The biggest winners were the TikTokers, YouTubers, and Instagramers who surged to fame thanks to their coverage of the case.
The Washington Post put it succinctly in its June 2 headline: “Who won the Depp-Heard trial? Content creators that went all-in.” A day later, New York magazine said the same thing in reverse above a Choire Sicha joint: “The Mainstream Media Lost the Depp-Heard Trial. And the lifestyle influencers turned court correspondents won.”
Personally, if multiple national publications were running headlines like, “Who won X? Jonathan M. Katz!” I’d be pretty psyched. But that is not how this emerging media class reacted. Instead, it, and the right-wing media outlets who help promote it, have spent the last few days melting down.
The shitstorm focused mainly on the Post’s piece, bylined by Taylor Lorenz. Lorenz is a columnist covering online culture; she was poached by Bezos Inc. from the New York Times earlier this year. Because her beat involves critical reporting on the Extremely Online, and has investigated a number of prominent right-wing accounts, she has become a lightning rod for attacks on social media. It was unlikely that any piece by that particular reporter about a story that has commanded the attention of legions of Depp stans, “men’s rights activists,” and True Crime devotees would be warmly received.
But the drama really kicked up when two social media pundits who’d received passing mentions in Lorenz’s article noticed a legitimate error. The Post claimed in a parenthetical statement that both “did not respond to requests for comment.” But no one from the Post, it seems, had reached out to either. Making things worse, sometime after the YouTubers tweeted about it, the erroneous sentence was deleted without a note explaining what had happened. A Fox News media reporter got on the case the next day. Apparently after he called the Post appended a formal correction.
This was both an embarrassing mistake and an embarrassing way to handle it. It was also (and I can already sense a screenshot cursor hovering over this paragraph), not a particularly big deal. From a purely journalistic standpoint, the need to get comments from either of the aggrieved vloggers was debatable. They were relatively minor figures in the story, mentioned once each and only in relation to the amount of money each had reportedly made through their avowedly pro-Depp coverage. By contrast, Lorenz interviewed and quoted three “content creators” with much bigger audiences than either of them for the piece.
Moreover, and importantly, Lorenz was not claiming to be doing original reporting on either of the two. She sourced lawyer-influencer Alina “Alyte” Mazeika’s earnings to an article in Business Insider — which the Post linked to and in which Mazeika, the host of “Legal Bytes,” was quoted at length. In reference to the other, a mostly anonymous YouTuber who calls himself That Umbrella Guy (or TUG, for short), she cited earnings estimates from the analytics website Social Blade. He has also stated flat-out: “I don’t talk to the media.”
Would it have been maximally thorough to drop each a note and offer the chance to comment, even if they were almost certain to ignore her message and bitch about the story anyway? Yes. Was it stupid to put a sentence in the piece claiming falsely that they had been given that chance? Obviously. (The Daily Beast’s Lachlan Cartwright reports that the line was inserted by editor David Malitz as the result of a miscommunication between himself and Lorenz.) Did stealth-editing that line turn out to be not only a shady but a dumb thing to do with a story being watched closely by extremely online people motivated to catch out the Washington Post — the newspaper in which Amber Heard published her jury-declared defamatory op-ed in the first place? Ding ding, you get an A+ in Ethics of Internet Journalism.
It’s hilarious to think that those influencers, not to mention the edgelords who swarm in their defense, are hashing out journalistic best practices in some sort of vast online Poynter Institute seminar. These “creators” are, charitably, the new generation of entertainment tabloids, heirs to the tradition of the National Enquirer and the Weekly World News. (The WWN’s editor told the Philadelphia Inquirer two decades ago: “We don’t sit around and make [stories] up … but if we get a story about a guy who thinks he is a vampire, we will take him at his word.”1) Mazeika’s trial coverage included at least one pseudoscientific “body language expert.” In another episode, she and a friend spent hours likening Heard’s testimony to the plot of Gone Girl — a 2014 Ben Affleck film about a woman who frames men for rape and murder in a calculated plot for revenge — while viewers paid to get their questions and comments featured in the chat.
TUG’s entire pseudonymous persona flouts the SPJ Code of Ethics: “Identify sources clearly. The public is entitled to as much information as possible to judge the reliability and motivations of sources.” (Like many on the online right, he regularly accuses anyone who uses an online personality’s real name of doxxing, even when said personality uses their real name constantly in their public work.) He is also a veteran of #ComicsGate, the GamerGate sequel that BuzzFeed described as an “online harassment campaign” in which “trolls use racist, sexist, and sometimes threatening language to intimidate … essentially anyone they believe is advocating for diversity in the [comics] industry” — facts that Lorenz, for what’s it’s worth, did not include in her piece. All of which takes some of the bite out of his claim that he was unjustly “attacked.”
Initially, the vloggers were somewhat muted in their criticism of the “requests for comment” line. TUG in particular seemed to be testing out a few other possible angles of attack. But after the Fox News piece got a reaction from the “other side” — first CNN media reporter Oliver Darcy tweeted about it, then the Post posted a short correction — the vloggers and their allies realized the potency of their charge.
This isn’t a novel tactic either. Any competent PR flack’s first move is to comb a critical article for errors, no matter how insignificant, in hopes of forcing a correction that will cast even the slightest doubt in readers’ minds about the publication’s accuracy and integrity.2 And, as it turns out, digging out irrelevant minutiae and blowing up molehills into mountain ranges is a skill both lawyers and True Crime fans are particularly adept at — it’s what drove much of the public obsession with the Depp-Heard trial (why was a photo of spilled wine entered into evidence twice with two different dates? how big exactly was the poop???) for so long.
Spurred on by the reaction from the Post, the rhetoric ratcheted up. Poynteresque jargon spread among the anime avatars: now Lorenz was a fabulist; she had committed “serious malpractice”; she should be “fired or suspended” immediately. Panicked, the Post’s masthead expanded the correction into a full editor’s note, bolted to the top of the article. It’s a device that heuristically signals to readers that there were severe, compromising flaws of the kind that could invalidate an entire piece — instead of what it was: a piece of erroneous boilerplate that was easily and immediately fixed.
The editor’s note was, predictably, like pouring water on a grease fire. (As if calibrated for maximum shittiness, it contained a new, erroneous implication that Mazeika had been direct messaged via Instagram before the story was first posted — which according to this Lorenz tweet does not seem to have been the case.)
Fox News, the New York Post, the National Review, and the Washington Examiner all rushed out pieces about the “scandal.” (“Democracy Dies At The Hands Of Taylor Lorenz,” the Federalist declared.) Meanwhile, the troll armies upped their demands: More corrections! Lorenz rounded up the highest estimate of TUG’s estimated earnings from $79,100 to $80,000! She said that TUG’s “entire channel is dedicated to pro-Depp content,” when in fact he has occasionally posted non-Depp-trial related videos over the last year!34 She purposefully omitted that Mazeika is also a lawyer! (That charge was made by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ spokeswoman, a dedicated troll and longtime Lorenz opponent who can never resist a good culture flamewar.)
Again, I want to note the theme of the article that is inspiring all of this. The Washington Post told its audience of tens of millions of digital readers that the Depp trial “offered a potential glimpse into the future of media” — one in which “content creators” would “compete more directly with traditional news organizations on coverage.”
The offending paragraph — the one that has resulted once again in a whole segment of the internet braying for Lorenz’s head — was about how successful the “content creators” have been. Even taking TUG and his allies at their word — that it would have been more thorough to include the full range of his estimated earnings, from $4,900 to $79,100 — then the crime here is making him look possibly more successful than he really is.5 Indeed, as of today Social Blade now estimates the creator has brought in as much as $89,800 in the last month. It seems likely that the increase is a result of the publicity boom generated by Lorenz’s piece.
One might accuse the “creators” of ginning up this scandal for more clicks and subscriptions.6 That could be part of it, but I suspect — and this is just my unsourced supposition, I didn’t talk to either of them — that it’s more than that. It isn’t enough to have national media writing about their YouTube channels, and holding them up as an example of “the future of media.” What seems to have offended the vloggers the most, right from the beginning, was not the false “no-comment” boilerplate, but Lorenz’s insinuation that at heart they were doing it all for the money — that they did not believe deep down in Depp’s innocence and Heard’s guilt. It was the Post’s refusal to herald them not just as its competition but its peers, if not its betters. In the end, whether it’s estranged ex-spouses or media rivals, we all just want to be loved.
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This sentence initially had a typo in it: I typed the Weekly World News’ initials as WWW instead of WWN. Freudian slip? In any case … The Racket regrets the error. (Updated 6/9/22 at 1:12 pm ET)
Publicly correcting a mistake should be a sign of integrity precisely because of the reputational cost, but everyone from politicians to your average three-year-old knows how admitting an error actually tends to play out in real life. (See above, lol.)
Some of TUG’s recent output:
His most recent non-explicitly-Depp-related video, 143 videos and over a month ago, was titled: “Jada Pinkett Smith the NEXT Amber Heard?! Will Smith SOUNDS LIKE Depp?!”
A question that could, for what it’s worth, be answered directly by TUG just disclosing his earnings, not that he’s under any obligation to do so.
One might accuse me of writing a whole Substack post about it for the same.