Accountability

Sycophantic journalists
and the monsters they love

Fawning profiles legitimize the Trump cabal but tell us nothing insightful about their subjects.
Accountability

Sycophantic journalists and the monsters they love

Fawning profiles legitimize the Trump cabal but tell us nothing insightful about their subjects.

A wise woman once said a good question to ask yourself while reading a news article is “Who is this for?” Two other good questions, which pop into my head whenever I read long-winded profiles of Donald Trump and the people in his orbit, are “Did this need to be written?” and “Did I take anything valuable away from this?” Unsurprisingly, the answer to both questions is often a resounding no.

Time’s latest cover story, for example, is a largely flattering profile of General John Kelly. After a brief tenure as head of the Department of Homeland Security, Kelly was promoted to White House chief of staff last month. Kelly has, according to Time, used his military experience to bring much-needed stability to the “inexplicable daily chaos” of the West Wing, where aides and surrogates are constantly stepping on each other’s toes and vying for Trump’s attention. “He urged his staff to stop the infighting and set their egos and agendas (and any leaking) aside,” wrote Time deputy managing editor Michael Duffy. Kelly’s decision to become chief of staff was more than a career move, Duffy wrote, “it was a call of duty.”

Kelly may have brought a modicum of stability to the White House, but he is also complicit in bringing “inexplicable daily chaos” to the lives of millions of Americans, immigrants in particular. During Kelly’s five months as DHS secretary, immigration arrests increased by 38 percent and Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers were instructed to target “all removable aliens” they encounter, including those without criminal records. Duffy didn’t mention any of this in his 3,000-word profile of Kelly, though he did find time to include an anecdote about Kelly’s teenage antics, which included hitchhiking across the country and riding “an empty boxcar back east before his 16th birthday.” Riveting stuff.

Give Rare Cask

Ultimately, Time’s profile of Kelly is an attempt at humanizing a man who, as the head of U.S. Southern Command, was in charge of Guantánamo Bay for four years and never lost sleep over it. “Kelly won wide praise for his work there, but he drew attention when he criticized President Obama’s decision to open combat posts to women and his decision to close the military prison at Guantánamo Bay,” Duffy wrote, before moving on to more important matters like hitchhiking.

“Early results were mixed, and skeptics are not hard to find,” Duffy wrote of Kelly’s first two weeks in the White House. “But Kelly clearly arrived with a mission: to fix a broken system that the nation and the world depends on every day to keep the ship called Earth in the middle of the channel.”

So who is this for? People who love authority and want to feel a false sense of security, also known as bootlickers. Did this need to be written? Possibly! Kelly wasn’t a well-known figure outside of political and military circles before being chosen to lead DHS, and a well-written profile could have taught readers about one of the many generals Trump has tasked with running the country. But this isn’t a well-written profile — it’s a hagiography.

Unnecessarily credulous profiles aren’t limited to generals and politicians. New York Magazine published a profile of alt-right provocateur Mike Cernovich on Tuesday, in which the magazine’s Washington correspondent Olivia Nuzzi detailed how the Pizzagate truther and pseudo-thought leader began breaking “not-so-fake news.”

Nuzzi devotes half a sentence to Cernovich’s long career as a men’s-rights activist, elides a mention of his book Gorilla Mindset, a self-help tome for beta males, or his involvement in Gamergate, a harassment campaign against women in the video game industry. Before breaking “real news” on Twitter and on his blog, Danger & Play, Cernovich was known as the guy who wrote about how “date rape” is a concept that harms men and published a guide on how to choke women during sex in which he claimed “the number one sexual fantasy [women] have is a rape fantasy.” Somehow, none of this made it into the article, which paints Cernovich as a generally reasonable man.

“He’s distanced himself from Pizzagate, claiming in our discussion that he’s not responsible for how, in his words, ‘that thing went off the rails,’ because ‘I never named a pizza parlor.’” Nuzzi doesn’t mention how, exactly, Pizzagate “went off the rails” (a North Carolina man was arrested last December after he fired an AR-15 inside a Washington, D.C. pizzeria that he believed was the site of an international child trafficking ring). This could be read as a generous attempt to let Cernovich speak for himself — give him a platform, and his craziness will shine through, no context or analysis necessary.

The issue isn’t that Nuzzi gave Cernovich a platform — he’s amassed hundreds of thousands of followers over the years, and clearly has the ear of our demented presidential administration — but that she gave him an unprecedented and undeserved degree of credibility. Cernovich may have developed his own White House sources and begun breaking news, but this isn’t particularly impressive when you consider the fact that he was one of Trump’s most ardent supporters on the alt-right, to the point that Donald Trump Jr. once said Cernovich deserved a Pulitzer Prize.

There’s nothing wrong with showing the human side of a monstrous person, but that is not what these profiles do

This isn’t the first time Nuzzi has written unnecessarily flattering profiles of bad people. Last month, she wrote a lengthy profile of Morning Joe hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski, whose once-friendly relationship with the Trump family began publicly falling apart during the presidential election. In March, she wrote a nearly 8,000-word long profile of Kellyanne Conway, which was full of charming anecdotes about her Secret Service codename (“Blueberry”), the number of times Conway has given vaginal birth (four), and what happened when Nuzzi and Conway got dinner together (Conway thought a large scallion was a piece of asparagus, and then ate it), but contained very little substance.

Nuzzi took to Twitter to defend herself from criticisms of “humaniz[ing]” Conway. “Guess what? People are complicated!” she tweeted. “Lots of things can be true at once. Someone can do something awful & be funny, have bad beliefs & be compelling. Reality isn’t black & white.”

There’s nothing wrong with showing the human side of a monstrous person — much like good people, bad people can still occasionally be kind, funny, and interesting, and any good writer would highlight that — but in these articles, Nuzzi did more than humanize her subjects. She turned Conway’s role as the public face of a proto-fascist administration into an afterthought. The word “blueberry” appears 13 times in Nuzzi’s profile of Conway; the word “immigration” appears only twice, even though she’s a spokesperson for the most nativist administration in recent history. One could argue that everyone knows about Trump’s anti-immigrant policies while few people know that Conway was crowned Miss New Jersey Blueberry Princess in 1984, but honestly, who cares? Nuzzi’s profile of Conway isn’t about much of anything, aside from how much fun she had hanging out with Kellyanne Conway.

In profiling Conway, Nuzzi began, perhaps unwittingly, by buying into the story the Trump administration wants people to hear. “In her capacity as Trump’s spokeswoman, Conway has said many incorrect things,” Nuzzi generously writes at one point, never daring to say that Conway’s job is to lie to the public on a near-constant basis and delegitimize the press. “‘Two plus two is four. Three plus one is four. Partly cloudy, partly sunny. Glass half full, glass half empty. Those are alternative facts,’” Nuzzi quotes Conway as saying. (The words “lie” and “lying” appear a grand total of zero times in the piece.)

Who are these profiles for? I would conclude that they’re for people who have so little at stake politically that they’re comfortable treating an administration that jeopardizes the lives of millions of people like a zany episode of House of Cards. Did I learn anything valuable from these pieces of journalism? Only that high-profile magazines often use their connections to write unnecessary vanity projects instead of anything remotely meaningful, and we’re all worse off because of it.

Leah Letter

The ‘Spotlight’ problem

Things about journalists are mainly for journalists.
Read More

Want something different?