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Apr. 8 2010 — 1:30 pm | 2,446 views | 0 recommendations | 6 comments

Epidemic linkbaiting at ‘The Daily Beast’

Over time, every mass medium evolves a way of reaching the lowest common denominator, its own specially tailored and especially shameless method of squeezing the art until it screams dollar signs. We live in a capitalist world, so it’s not surprising that artists, entertainers, and journalists can’t always pick dignity over paying the rent. Let’s review:

• Television has got its missing white girls, celebrity ‘news’, and overall bleeds = leads philosophy.

• The movie industry could hardly survive without binging on mindless explosions, sequelitis, and formulaic romantic comedies.

• Radio (it’s still a thing, right?) lives and dies by voice-tracking, dayparting, speeding up songs to fit in more ads, and, of course, an unholy arsenal of screeching shock-jocks and apoplectic political gasbags.

• And even the medium associated with the highest of brows, publishing, sustains itself primarily on a program of fad-diet books, pop-science piffle, quickie cash-in bios for the dead celebs and ghost-written claptrap for the dumb and living ones.


Now, the internet is still a toddler compared to the above media, but it’s already developed some tried, true, and slightly short of dignified ways of pulling in pageviews, the metric that eventually makes the money that keeps the whole thing going. Linkbait can be good or bad, and it’s obviously part of life for any company making its living with content on the web. But it’s good to know what the internet equivalent of fishnet stockings and a low-cut blouse are, so you can spot the cheap and easies like an expert.

On the technical end, there’s spamdexing – which I could explain but it would probably put us both to sleep – and on the content end, there are several tactics to lower yourself to snag more eyeballs. There’s celeb gossip (nothing new there), unverified tech rumors, fake-feuding for traffic, and throwing in names that are insanely popular but utterly irrelevant to your post like Justin Bieber, Justin Bieber, or Justin Bieber, for example. And, of course, there’s the list. I’m a big fan of lists, even if especially if they’re silly and useless.

But there’s a limit. And The Daily Beast has not only crossed that limit, they’ve set up shop on the other side and started giving the finger to everyone who ever gave a flip about standards. Their lists are kaleidoscopically stupid; every possible avenue of idiocy is explored. The premises are hopelessly flawed, the criteria are completely meaningless, and the actual content is, well, debatable is the kindest description I can muster. (Flat-out f**ing retarded is the least kind, if you were wondering.)  OK, Tina Brown, you’ve forced me to fight fire with fire, list with list.  Here goes:


10. The 50 Most Stressful Colleges

Random metrics + high interest subject = shamless linkbait.  How good is the engineering program? How much crime is on campus?  What is the acceptance rate?  What do these have to do with each other and how they do prove an amorphous and probably unmeasurable quality like “stress” on campus?  Oh, nevermind all that.  Forward this to aunt Susie – she’s got a kid applying this fall.

9. The Left’s Top 25 Journalists

OK, I won’t bring up that they lump bloggers, journalists, newspaper columnists, and radio talk show hosts all together.  I realize I’m one of the few holdouts who distinguish between commenting on the news and breaking it.  But still, Fred Hiatt is on a list of lefties.  Fred Hiatt, for crisssakes.  At #5.  Worthless.

8. The Endangered Sandwiches List

It’s really just a list of great delis across the U.S., but that wasn’t eye-grabbing enough, so TDB had to come up with a confusing/dopey title and work in some story about how delis are dying because of low margins on brisket,  their association with Jack Abramoff (huh?), and the low-carb craze (four years after Atkins went bankrupt).

7. America’s 25 Craziest Cities

Any commentary on this one would be secondary to just listing their lame criteria: psychiatrists per capita, stress, eccentricity and drinking levels.  What?  But at this point, whatever, fine.  Do your dumb meaningless list, Daily Beast. But c’mon!  You should’ve had a clue something was wrong when Cincinnati, of all places, was number one.  Cincinnati has never been number one in anything, ever, good or bad.  It wouldn’t even crack the top three in a “Lamest Cities in Ohio” list, an admittedly tough contest.

6. A-List Buddhists

Aside from putting Tiger at #1, the list isn’t that bad by Daily Beast standards.  But the tagline, “Hollywood’s Buddha-ful People” is enough to land it in the middle of the Hall of Shame.

5. The Right’s Top 25 Journalists

Again, apart from a laughably broad definition of journalist (Rush Limbaugh?) , it’s a shame to throw respectable people like Caitlin Flanagan and Nick Gillespie in with the likes of Laura Ingraham and Glenn Beck. Also, I have to quote the blurb about Bill O’Reilly:

“O’Reilly, an anchor who has turned blowing hard into an art form (ed. note: no argument here), is reliably—and relentlessly—omniscient (Omniscient?  That’s the word you wanted?)  His paint-by-numbers conservatism can be off-putting even to those who share many of his beliefs, but every now and then he has his finger perfectly on the pulse of the nation. And then he’s unstoppable.”

So, Bill is reliably and relentlessly omniscient, which is good.  It sucks when someone’s erratically all-knowing.  But even with consistently godlike powers, he’s only unstoppable every now and then.  That’s why he’s only at number five on their list.

4. The Elite’s Top 50 Baby Names

The co-founder of something called nameberry.com, “which we like to think of as the high-quality, intelligent source for stylish names”, lays out the Chets,  Tiffanys, and Taylors of tomorrow so that we can preemptively hate their idiot parents.  When Seraphin, Imogen, Phineas, Atticus, and Kai become as common as Brad and Kelly, we’ll know who to kill thank.

3. The Top 25 Centrist Columnists and Commentators

Any list where Joe Scarborough follows Jon Stewart is clearly meaningless.  Evidently, Stewart is on this because made fun of Keith Olbermann one time.  I think they’re confused.  Criticizing people on your own side occasionally doesn’t make you centrist.  It makes you honest.

2. The A-List B-Cups

Somehow dumber than it sounds, it’s an inventory of celebs who’ve gotten breast reductions.  Thank God someone is recording this information for posterity.  It should also be noted that  the definition of A-List is stretched so far that it includes the likes of Soleil Moon Frye and Loni Anderson.  The slideshow contains gems like this from Kelly Osborne: “Perfect boobs is what I want.”  Enlightening.

1. The Top 20 Dog Names of the Future

With the amount of brain cells I lost just reading the title, I can’t possibly risk reading the article.  We have a winner.

Mar. 29 2010 — 3:24 pm | 216 views | 2 recommendations | 4 comments

Is it wrong to engage celebrity culture?

From body image to the body politic, there are few areas of contemporary American life untouched by the tentacles of celebrity culture, the trivial pursuit whose effects are anything but. The nightly news forgoes civic engagement for cynical spectacle, and politicians respond in kind. Witness the Terminator laying waste to the world’s fifth largest economy while Sarah Palin leverages a mere state governorship into the real prize: commentator on Fox News and reality show star. And the young set their ambitions based on what draws the most eyeballs – whether they’re achieving fame or infamy is beside the point. “To be known and despised is better than to not be known at all” is the reigning philosophy.

All of this is well documented and widely deplored. We know the offenders: TMZ, US Weekly, Entertainment Tonight, Perez Hilton, etc. But as much scorn as they deserve – and sure, they deserve a truckload – I’m not interested in their particular crimes. I’m interested in exploring a more collective guilt, a guilt borne even by those who are simply spectators or who spend their time actively tearing apart the star system.

Some of the bloggers and critics I’m talking about are people whose work I’ve long admired and probably at one time or another poorly imitated. But my point still stands: Anyone who consumes this material or who makes a living commenting on stars and their behavior is automatically part of the celebrity machine and is at least partly responsible for the end result. It doesn’t matter whether you’re laughing at the whole enterprise while you’re doing it. It doesn’t matter whether you see your warts and all only coverage as a much-needed corrective to the blemish-free bullshit of the star-making machinery. And it doesn’t matter whether you see yourself as better because you reference Sylvia Plath in your posts instead of just drawing semen on celebrities’ faces. And the reason it doesn’t matter is because, in the end, you’re not a better person than Perez Hilton or someone that works at TMZ or Star magazine. You’re just a smarter one. The person who helps produce US Weekly and the person who buys it to laugh at it and the person from Gawker who makes a living mocking it all contribute to its bottom line.

This is because the celebrity industry isn’t like other industries. The cliché is true: In 99 percent of cases, there really is no such thing as bad publicity. All the blistering takedowns and all the withering quips serve the exact same function that a puff-piece People spread does. It feeds the beast. And the last thing any of us should want to do is feed the beast, because it feeds the worst in us. It’s an awful industry driven by our basest instincts – envy, superficiality, greed and spite – and, perversely, any engagement functions as a sort of endorsement. The only way to win is by ignoring them. Like the classic Simpson’s song goes, “Just Don’t Look”.

Apart from supplying fuel to a machine they claim to hate, there’s also an inherent amount of arrogance and superiority involved in the enterprise of celeb-mocking. Like most sane people, I’m frequently appalled by the behaviors of the rich + famous, but I think it’s helpful to have some perspective. The sudden introduction of immense fame and incredible fortune present the kind of character test I don’t think most people would pass, much as they’d like to think otherwise. The amount of sinless, stone-throwing spectators regarding this or that gaffe, infidelity, or chemically-induced celebrity mishap is far greater than the number of people that wouldn’t fall victim to the same self-inflicted misfortune if they were in the same place. Besides, you get no points for resisting temptations that you aren’t offered.

The giddy thrills of the celebrity merry-go-round may seem like candy, but they’re poison, more or less. They either make us feel bad about ourselves for the wrong reasons – by presenting a fake world free of problems that makes our own lives pale in comparison – or they make us feel good, also for the wrong reasons – because we’re smugly judging public figures that are under pressures that we can’t possibly imagine. And in case you were mistaken, you don’t have a ‘right to know’ the details of a public figure’s life. Presuming you do cheapens the meaning of both ‘right’ and ‘knowledge’. I don’t care if they are a golfer, a singer, or a senator (unless they’re misusing public funds). It’s none of your business.

I say this not as a blameless scold, but as someone who’s been a producer and a consumer of celebrity news product at various times in my life. The former I did as a paycheck and the latter I did out of boredom, but, either way, I regret it – and I don’t think I’m the only that does. It’s unfashionable these days to talk about something being “beneath” us, but if we can’t say this kind of thing is below what we’d like to be, then what are we saving our standards for? And, again, it’s not any better to be a mocker than it is to be a booster. You’re boosting sales, pageviews, and ratings either way. Being draped in irony doesn’t keep you from getting dirty.

The bottom line is we’re better than this, and we have better things to do with our time and talents.  Let’s start acting like it.

Mar. 18 2010 — 11:27 am | 458 views | 2 recommendations | 13 comments

The conservative policy of pettiness

Whenever I go against my better judgment and watch a clip from Glenn Beck’s show, the end result is usually not much more than a severe headache and a wrist sore from constant fist shaking. But his recent unintentionally hilarious hour-long interview with nonconsensual fondler Eric Massa actually provoked some thought from me, though not the kind Beck was intending. The lachrymose host was chomping at the bit to crown Massa a new conservative hero of the first order – the liberal apostate, eager to dish dirt on the perfidy of his previous ideological allies. But sadly, Beck ended up with little more than an hour of lame backpedaling and tickle-fight tales that made him the butt of more jokes than usual. Where did America’s favorite crazy crybaby go wrong?

Now, at least some of the blame for the primetime train wreck can be attributed to Beck’s habit of uncritically embracing every half-baked conspiracy theory that comes down the pike. But the bigger part of it has to do with the host exhibiting a trait common to nearly every conservative on the spectrum these days, whether they’re a fundamentalist railing against the evils of gay marriage or a Cato fellow ranting about the evils of the estate tax. It’s a bug that’s turned into a feature over the years: the kneejerk impulse of conservatives to choose their policy preferences, their rhetoric, and their heroes based on what most pisses off liberals.

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Mar. 8 2010 — 11:57 am | 101 views | 0 recommendations | 1 comment

Highlights for Adults: Faking It


HFA is a feature where I look on my bookshelf, take down one of my excessively highlighted books, and share some passages to see if anyone else thinks it was worth all the yellow/pink/orange/green ink involved.

Episode Three Faking It: The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music by Hugh Barker and Yuval Taylor (2007)

Pop music has always been closely linked with issues of identity and authenticity.  Since it’s most often produced and consumed by the young, this shouldn’t be surprising. After all, growing up is a process of figuring out how you aren’t as much as who you are.  Culture is one way to do that.  And as Pierre Bourdieu spent his life illustrating, culture is much more than a pastime.  It’s a weapon and a uniform as well.  “Taste is first and foremost distaste”, he famously said, and it’s hard to think of a more efficient machine for drawing those early boundaries between oneself and others than music preferences.

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Feb. 26 2010 — 1:19 pm | 654 views | 0 recommendations | 1 comment

Bill Hicks R.I.P.

hicks cig

Comedian Bill Hicks died 16 years ago today at the age of 32. This is my attempt at a tribute.


It’s fitting that my introduction to Bill Hicks came in the form of an angry 300 pound ignorant redneck, the kind of unthinking pitchfork-wielder that was the frequent butt of his jokes. I was working at the [now defunct] Best Buy clone Media Play in the music department, trying to restock the shelves, when a very unhappy housewife finally found an employee to vent her anger on. Her anger was inordinate, her obesity was morbid, and her target – none other than Bill Hick’s final CD Rant in E-Minor and its alleged crimes against all things Christian and decent. We weren’t supposed to give refunds on opened items, but I was willing to risk a write-up rather than face the sick-breathed wrath of this beastly customer for one more millisecond.

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    About Me

    As a young boy growing up in a small rural town in western North Carolina, I had one simple dream: getting the hell out of a small rural town in western North Carolina.

    Kidding, kidding! I love the South. Where else on Earth could produce both Flannery O'Connor and Lil' Wayne?

    But I have always felt the pull of the big city, and the promise of action, adventure and all-night bodegas that come with it. I've lived in San Francisco, LA, and New York, and I've been lucky enough to work as a television editor for such networks as VH1, BET, CMT, Lifetime and The Travel Channel. I enjoy documentaries more than anything, though, and I'm currently doing research for my own: an investigation of that ongoing American obscenity we call the Drug War.

    I'm also a writer forever straddling the line between fiction and nonfiction. Screenplays, skits, polemics, plays, blogs, short stories and personal essays: don't make me pick just one, I love 'em all. On True/Slant you'll find me in scavenger mode, digging up bits of interest from all corners of the internet (it has corners, right?). From politics to pop culture, from the truly idiotic to the truly inspired - it's all grist for the mill.

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