As of August 4, Heat Street, a news outlet featuring some of the web’s most scintillating headlines, like “Daryl Hall to SJW Nutjobs: You’re ‘Out of Touch’ on Cultural Appropriation” and “Social Justice Warriors Are Incensed Over the Existence of Cleavage in ‘Final Fantasy XV,’” will be no more. Late last month the site’s parent company, Dow Jones (a division of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.), gave its 15 employees notice that the year-old culture-war aggregator would cease to exist as its own entity. According to a statement from Dow Jones, Heat Street will be “restructured under the MarketWatch umbrella, with the goal of strengthening cultural, entertainment and gaming coverage.” How Heat Street’s frenzied articles about social justice warriors and speedrunners will enhance coverage of the stock market is unclear, but it’s easy to see why they would want to put their weakest subsidiary out of its misery — the staff was deranged, fact-checking was nonexistent, and the content mostly consisted of embedded tweets and, on good days, reworded news stories. While Heat Street may have served little to no informational purpose as a website, it tells a fascinating story of upheaval in the right-wing media. Let’s reminisce.
From day one of its existence, Heat Street was the clear province of opportunists. It was founded in 2016 by Noah Kotch, a former NBC producer, and Louise Mensch, a onetime romance novelist and MP for the UK’s Conservative Party. This was not Mensch’s first foray into digital media startups — in 2012, she founded “Menshn,” a purported “rival to Twitter” that allowed users to make 180-character posts instead of Twitter’s 140. It closed within eight months. In 2013, she founded “Unfashionista,” a now-defunct fashion website which was literally just a WordPress blog with the default layout. This string of successes evidently impressed Rupert Murdoch, who tapped Mensch and Kotch to run Heat Street as a “punk” answer to his more uptight properties. From its mission statement: “Heat Street is not a safe space. For us, orthodoxy will be unorthodox. The pomposity of self-regarding, self-conscious, self-abusing journalists will be absent from our pages.” (Spoiler: that didn’t happen.)
From day one of its existence, Heat Street was the clear province of opportunists.
Heat Street suffered from the high turnover that is endemic to many poorly managed content outlets. Less than a year after it launched, both Kotch and Mensch had voluntarily moved on. In January 2017, Mensch resigned to focus her attention on Twitter, where she quickly became patient zero for liberal conspiracy theories about Russia, and Kotch left to run the marginally more coherent FoxNews.com last month. The power vacuum created by their hands-off approach and eventual departure left Heat Street in the hands of Ian Miles Cheong, a veteran game journalist with a checkered past.
Previously, Cheong had been editor-in-chief of Gameranx, a third-tier gaming news website that remains active in spite of unbelievably bad web design. (Seriously, look at it.) In 2014, Gameranx was decidedly opposed to the Gamergate movement and published numerous articles about the death threats and harassment experienced by its targets. Cheong himself was one of Gamergate’s most prominent critics, and his strident articles and tweets at the time drew frequent ire from right-wing gamers. He sparred with Milo Yiannopoulos, the unofficial head of the movement, and at one point called him out specifically for mocking trigger warnings. Cheong’s anti-Gamergate advocacy made him one of the most maligned people on the internet. Then, a few months later, Cheong softened his stance. Despite having previously tweeted about Gamergate more than 300 times, he tweeted that it was “a little sad seeing some people just tweet incessantly about how much they hate GamerGate.” His politics moved steadily rightward until they became a mirror image of his old views — where he once accused Yiannopoulos of personally harassing him, he now accused Yiannopoulos’s critics of censorship. This change of heart endeared him to Heat Street’s management, and they hired him in July 2016 as their resident critic of SJWs in the game industry.
Heat Street’s editorial focus was disjointed, reflecting both the mental deficiencies of its staff and the rapidly changing ecosystem of the online right. The house style was in many ways reminiscent of traditional conservative outrage-bait, with gross exaggerations and clickbaity headlines that recalled the Drudge Report and racist-uncle email forwards. But, facing an oversaturation of outlets aimed at the nursing-home set, Heat Street set its sights on a younger and more internet-savvy demographic. But its problems arose when it was time to make content. Its writers, whether through chemical imbalance or conscious mimicry of Breitbart, proved unable to suppress the urge to get mad online. Heat Street’s intended audience — young, irony-fluent reactionaries — typically want to project an image of studied indifference and disdain for tryhards and “moralfags.”
But nearly every Heat Street article crossed the line into irrational, laborious anger. The headlines were stripped of anything resembling nuance and habitually oversold meager and disappointing content, perhaps under the assumption its readers were too dumb to notice. Often, its writers were so desperate to find TRIGGERED SJWS that they mined Twitter or Facebook for a few mildly snarky comments and used these as evidence of mass hysteria. A recent article claimed the upcoming WWII movie Dunkirk “ran afoul of diversity police” because a few random teenagers on Twitter made jokes like “Dunkirk: more proof Hollywood will never run out of movies about white guys doing stuff in WWII.” In March, an article titled “DISGUSTING: Mario Caught Culturally Appropriating in ‘Super Mario Odyssey’” implied a hysterical left-wing backlash to a video of Mario wearing a sombrero, but provided just one example — an alt-right guy who was clearly being sarcastic.
When there were no “triggered” tweets to overreact to in lieu of actual content, Heat Street would simply invent some, as they did in an article titled “Six Christmas Films That Need To Come With Trigger Warnings.” The tongue-in-cheek piece mused that vegans might be offended by National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation because the characters eat turkey and that Clinton voters would need a trigger warning for the brief Donald Trump cameo in Home Alone 2. You tell ‘em! The article encapsulates the Heat Street mentality: Why can’t SJWs stop being so neurotic and just enjoy things, like us, the people who spent Christmas compulsively thinking of reasons why liberal caricatures might hypothetically be offended by it?
Nearly every Heat Street article crossed the line into irrational, laborious anger.
Heat Street’s inability to constrain its emotions also made it particularly susceptible to hoaxes. In May of this year, two authors attempted to recreate the Sokal affair, in which an NYU professor attempted and succeeded in getting a bogus article published in an academic journal, by getting a nonsense article titled “The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct” published. After being turned down by more prestigious publications, they were eventually directed to Cogent Social Sciences, a no-name open-access journal that runs pretty much anything as long as the author pays a fee of $1,350 — a scam, essentially. Heat Street’s reaction was ecstatic: “Professors Pull Off Clever Hoax With ‘Penis Paper’, Expose Liberal Academia as a Sham,” the headline went. Well, not really. The paper’s publication “exposed” academia in the same way that uploading fart noises to SoundCloud would “expose” the music industry — not at all. The goal with coverage like this was to tap into a decades-long backlash to obscurantist critical theory by academics and scientists who consider it insufficiently empirical. By credulously publishing bullshit in an attempt to prove the other guys credulously publish bullshit, Heat Street participated in the difficult work of destroying its own credibility. In stark contrast, the libertarian magazine Reason, which is similarly critical of campus politics, ran the headline “No, ‘The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct’ Hoax Doesn’t Prove Gender Studies Is Garbage.” Interestingly enough, Reason isn’t being shut down at the end of the month.
Heat Street’s confusion over its intended audience also extended to its fanbase among the alt-right. In September 2016, after Hillary Clinton acknowledged the Pepe meme and Trump’s alt-right support in a speech, Cheong published an article titled “No Hillary, Pepe the Frog is Not a Racist Meme.” Five days later, Mensch made a rare Heat Street appearance to publish a (since-deleted) retraction titled “Hillary Clinton Is Absolutely Right, ‘Pepe’ Meme Is Antisemitic — An Apology.” Cheong (possibly begrudgingly) apologized on Twitter, and the audience to which he had been attempting to pander immediately branded him a “cuck” and flooded him with pictures of Pepe in a Nazi uniform. Breitbart, /r/The_Donald, and The Daily Stormer condemned Heat Street in the strongest possible terms. “Heat Street is an abject failure and nobody goes to their website,” said The Daily Stormer in an extended rant about Heat Street’s supposed Jewish origins. Mensch, unperturbed, published a follow-up a week later about how Pepe creator Matt Furie was a supporter of Hillary Clinton. The very first comment on that story: “Heat Street, you do realise Trump supporting, 4chan-browsing alt-righters comprise a big part of your demographic?”
By trying to appeal to every faction of the online right at once using the most barebones content possible, Heat Street spread itself too thin. Fox News-style conservatives liked that it published bullshit stories with attention-grabbing headlines and less than 200 words of body text, but they (and News Corp.) didn’t like the occasional editorial friendliness toward anti-Semitic alt-righters. Trenchcoat-clad libertarian pedants liked that Heat Street went after feminists and game journalists who used logical fallacies, but the rampant hoaxes and clickbait headlines fell short of their intellectual standards. The alt-right liked Heat Street’s opposition to social justice and progressivism in all its forms, but they felt betrayed by its unwillingness to embrace open racism and anti-Semitism. Perhaps with a bit of original reporting and some articles with more than two paragraphs, Heat Street could have built its own native audience. Instead, they were content to remain a gimmicky, low-effort content aggregator to the very end. Heat Street was created to capitalize on a particular moment in online right-wing youth culture, and its demise tells us that moment is over.