The work of polemicists like Sarah Jeong, recently hired to The New York Times editorial board, is to make arguments in public space.
Polemicists can be insufferable. They get to be gadflies and think themselves Socratic. They’re belligerent. They have a reputation for laziness and Twitter addiction; they often shun shoe leather. Many beat reporters and enterprise teams believe, with some justification, that writers of editorials do nothing but steal their hard-won discoveries and grandly opine about them from their sofas.
But polemic, as a form, is far older than reporting. And today, polemicists—writers of op-eds, analysis, criticism—are subject to the same rules of accuracy, logic, and copyediting that bind everyone in traditional media. They must show extensive familiarity with arguments that contradict their own. Their arguments have to track. Their facts have to be right. If they make mistakes, they have to issue corrections. And they can’t advocate for violence, insurrection, sedition.
Virginia Heffernan (@page88) is an Ideas contributor at WIRED and the author of Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art. She is also a cohost of Trumpcast, an op-ed columnist at the Los Angeles Times, and a frequent contributor to Politico.
At the same time, polemicists have significant freedoms that reporters don’t. They get to use wilder and more openly rhetorical language. Their work is served hot; they don’t pretend to icy objectivity. They are also expected to—and, by nature, inclined to—enter the BDSM fray of internet quarrels, where the language gets even wilder. Still, corrections and even retractions are expected after missteps.
In this way, Alex Jones, the self-styled performance artist who was recently banned from platforms like Facebook and iTunes, and Sean Hannity, the headliner showman of Fox News, are not polemicists. Their work is not to build stimulating and internally consistent arguments; it’s to create ideological psychodrama. Solecisms are standard. Hannity and Jones lean on rhetorical figures made famous by illuminati-phobes and Triumph the Insult Comic Dog. Devices of persuasion for Jones and Hannity include mostly top-of-lungs emphasis, and not infrequently growling and howling.
But Jeong, as well as flash-point journalists like Quinn Norton, Kevin Williamson, and Joy Reid, are special-forces polemicists at the height of their powers, with track records of compelling, high-spirited, and original arguments. They write like fiends; they render high-handed verdicts; they crack jokes; they broach dicey topics; they close cases; they can be just; they can be mean. They also wear their subject position as a badge of honor. Jeong is a progressive and a feminist. Norton is an anarchist. Williamson is a conservative. Reid is a Democrat.
What’s been weird this year is that all four of these writers have found their careers in jeopardy after they popped off on the internet in exactly the pushy, discourteous, and impolitic style that made their names. Over the past 15 years, it turns out, Reid blogged some cruel stuff about LGBTQ people. Kevin Williamson tweeted cruel stuff about women who have abortions. Quinn Norton professed her affection for a Neo-Nazi. And, as was revealed last week, Sarah Jeong slagged off white people in a string of sardonic tweets.
And each spent time in the stockades. Norton was hired and fired from The New York Times on a single day in February. Williamson was fired from The Atlantic in April. Reid kept her job at MSNBC, but came in for internal criticism, and had an award revoked. Jeong, well, we’ll see—as of this writing, people on Twitter are still gunning for her firing from the Times. (In an inevitable subplot, Andrew Sullivan, the conservative commentator at New York magazine, acted wounded at Jeong’s searing critique of white people as goblins; people then called for his firing.)
Tediously, the opposition to them has divided along party lines. Liberals pushed to save Reid and are pushing to save Jeong. Conservatives supported Williamson. Quinn Norton, whom I worked with at The Message, didn’t have many defenders, but not because what she did was uniquely terrible; instead, she’s a brilliant enigma, and no one knows what to do with an anarchist who fluently speaks the language of the dark internet, where many of us still can’t tell hate speech from hello.
The hazing these writers get doesn’t seem to express specific misgivings about their work. How many of Jeong’s critics have even read her groundbreaking 2015 book The Internet of Garbage about cybercrime and online bullying? Or Williamson’s 2015 Case Against Trump?
Instead, the online spasms about these four seems to reflect anxiety, when American political discourse is undisciplined and often infantile, about the role of the professional polemicist more generally.
It’s important to see that where reporters aim to keep cool heads, polemicists fail at their jobs when they lapse from passion and eccentricity. They are paid to wear their bias, as the critic Emily Nussbaum once put it, like “a Celtic arm tattoo.”
Getting to agitate for your perspective may sound like fun, and it can be, but it’s a high-wire act. You make enemies; you lose friends; colleagues who do straight reporting look askance at your showboating or tone deafness. Finally, of course, you get trolled. Often for weeks. You’re disgusting and brain-damaged and ancient and I will kill your kids. That can really take the life out of you.
But it’s the job. For years I was a critic at The New York Times; the executive editor at the time welcomed me with extortion: Keep my voice, or else. All the winds of heaven and earth at the Times would conspire to knock that voice out of me, he said, but I must never let it go. In practice, that meant insisting on my prerogative to stake out-there claims with the skeptical copy desk, and sitting for lectures from my immediate supervisors, who risked embarrassment in their sections whenever I went too far.
Still, being boring was, professionally, much riskier; it was the firing offense, and the top boss would not tolerate it. We heard cautionary tales of critics and op-ed writers whose columns had turned stale or redundant or moribund. They were quarantined, and pushed out. If the role of the enterprise team at a newspaper is to get scoops, and the role of beat reporters to be first and best to the news, the role of opinion writers is to provoke discussion. This is how the various teams win esteem and prizes, and how the reputations—and fortunes—of newspapers are made and lost. My first boss in journalism, Jacob Weisberg at Slate, wanted a flood of responses—ad hominem, sexist, nitpicky, whatever— to every column I wrote; the comments section at Slate was then called the Fray. It was supposed to get rough. You were doing something very, very wrong if the comments were all amens.
When my originality flagged at the Times, and all I wanted to say about a sitcom was “this is pretty good,” I’d curse the imperative to be unboring and to meekly submit to my next beating in the Twitter coliseum. Liz Phair crossed my mind: “They wonder just how wild I would be/As they egg me on and keep me mad/They play me like a pitbull in a basement.”
Polemicists like Frank Rich (“the Butcher of Broadway”) and Dale Peck (known for “hatchet jobs”) used to be known for their brutal takedowns, which sent their targets into tailspins—and earned them widespread wrath from everyone but their pleased employers. Yes, media organizations like the clicks, but that’s a new metric for success. Historically, critics and opinion writers exerted pressure on received wisdom and dominant thought, inviting readers to match wits with them on the most pressing subjects of the day. Can white people be the objects of racism? Could abortion be seen as capital crime? Unchallenging polemics are like easy crossword puzzles; they fail to satisfy the expectations they set up.
So what about the performative bigotry that Jeong, Norton, Williamson, and Reid showed online in posts that they have—for what it’s worth—since modified, extenuated or even retracted? It’s simple: you’re firing all the goddamn time, there are going to be plenty of misfires.
Journalists should, like everyone else, be fired for labor-law breaches, including the Title VII violations committed by many of the #MeToo perps. They should be fired for intellectual crimes including plagiarism, wrongful appropriation, “dateline toe-touching,” and of course inventing stories in the manner of disgraced entertainer Alex Jones, or fallen journalists like Stephen Glass, Janet Cooke, Jonah Lehrer and Jayson Blair. They should be fired for the serious offense of passing off client-work—marketing, PR, advertising or propaganda campaigns—as journalism. They should be fired for conflicts of interests, as Jay Solomon was, and for piping propaganda from their sources, a Judith Miller was.
But fire journalists for acting drunk on Twitter? No—online pop-offs are an occupational hazard for authors of polemics, that strange breed. They’re pitbulls on highwires, and every stumble represents the job at its most reckless. But it’s still the job.
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