Megaphone Guy & The Deadly Snark

Nick Sylvester



The Braindead Megaphone by George Saunders
Riverhead Trade, September 2007
272 pages

The Gawker Guide to Conquering All Media
by Gawker Media [Bridie Clark and Chelsea Peretti]
Atria, October 2007
192 pages

The media, nobody is surprised or should be, has a lot of opinions about the media. The thing is in disrepair, they agree on that, and you can imagine the cogent pitch letters born of this alarm. Big Reason #1: News is business. Business means staying in business, making a product people want. It means information masquerading as entertainment, then entertainment masquerading as information. It means that it’s become pretty tough to tell the difference between CNN reporting nonstop on Anna Nicole Smith and SNL parodying CNN reporting nonstop on Anna Nicole Smith. It means we all know exactly who Kato Kaelin is. Big Reason #2: News is a human business. Human business means bureaucracy––employees subject to personal incompatibilities, power structures, favors, favoritism, backknives, distance from the final product and (following from that) feelings of ineffectuality––anything really that suggests their news gig is not an objective one at all, not beholden to meritocracy but to (subjective) personal politicking.

So why these two books. Why a satirist’s when there are your Gitlins and Jenkins and McChesneys kicking it for serious. Why an Internet Media LLC’s when said Internet Media LLC all but came out and admitted the book was a cynical cash-in a la all other blog-turned-print efforts––when, in an 11/1 post titled "Metaschadenfreude: Website Vindicated As Its Publishing Brand Extension Tanks," the managing editor of this Internet Media LLC’s namesake site shouted "we told you so!" at his Crosby St. bosses when the book reported poor sales, this guy really anxious apparently to distance his writers from this turd of a book they didn’t even write. Bonus why: Why run the risk of comparing George Saunders, established author and MacArthur genius, to Bridie Clark, an ex-publishing assistant who wrote one of those thinly-veiled memoir-fictions about her totally villainous boss (not that I’m hating), or to Chelsea Peretti, a foulmouthed cryptoracist downtown comic who, if NYO’s Ben Westhoff is to be believed, now trades primarily in cryptomisogyny. Double bonus why: Why assume either author (Saunders, Clark/Peretti) set out to slay here?

I don’t think I have to defend my interest in Saunders. The guy can write. Even when I disliked some of his short stories in CivilWarLand In Bad Decline for their copout last-paragraph moralizing, I still scribbled sentences of his into my notebook, slaved over his syntax and joke construction, marveled at his economy. The guy can write and he seems to have things he cares about. I cannot say that about many authors. The Braindead Megaphone is a nonfiction collection, so I tend to swallow the moralizing since that’s the mode some of these essays take. Elsewhere he’s pitch-perfect. In particular I like his essays on Dubai ("The New Mecca") and border control ("The Great Divider") and that New Buddha kid ("Buddha Boy") because Saunders refuses to uncomplicate matters. He recounts all details regardless of their incongruities, leaves those dissonances intact. Constantly he spurns agenda. At worst, Saunders’s agenda is to avoid or at least be aware of all possible agendas. Maybe this is some form of writerly insider baseball, but whatever, I tend to get a lot from it.

Saunders’s media criticism for the most part is implicit both in what and how he writes, though he’s explicit in the first essay, "The Braindead Megaphone." It’s a recapitulation of Big Reasons #1 and #2 but sharper and funnier and, typical of Saunders, free of jargon. (He talks often of people confusing the map for the continents, the abstraction for the reality, yet he never brings up Borges or Baudrillard because he knows we don’t know how to pronounce either.) First Saunders asks us to imagine a room with a bunch of intelligent people having conversations––then to imagine a man coming into the room, shouting into a megaphone. Megaphone Guy’s topic, one among many, suddenly becomes The Topic. "His rhetoric becomes the central rhetoric because of its unavoidability." By virtue of his dominance, Megaphone Guy splits the room into MG vs. Everyone Else, shifts all conversation into whether or not Everyone Else agrees with Megaphone Guy, influences the room’s thoughts and diction, dumbs everything down. From there Saunders connects the dots from the metaphor to the particulars of mass media: the news anchors operating on a 24-hour cycle, the ratings pressure and the need to provide content even on so-called slow news days, the insidious way news outfits commodify simple human behaviors like shopping at malls during the holidays and turn it into a breaking story, "Malls Tend To Get Busier At Christmas!" He doesn’t cast blame so much as illuminate the problem, which is to say he’s quick to forgive your young liberal arts types stuck in the middle of it all:

There’s no conspiracy at work, I don’t think, no ill will, no leering Men Behind the Curtain: just a bunch of people from good universities, living out the dream, cringing a little at the dog-crap story even as they ensure it goes out on time, with excellent production values.

How does such a harmful product emanate from such talented people? I’d imagine it has to do with the will to survive: each small piece of the machine doing what he or she must to avoid going home to Toledo, tail-between-legs, within the extant constraints of time and profitability, each deferring his or her ‘real’ work until such time as he or she accumulates his or her nut and can head for the hills, or get a job that lets them honor their hearts.

With their complicity, Saunders’ Megaphone Guys become one Beast-like Megaphonic presence:

the composite of the hundreds of voices we hear each day that come to us from people we don’t know, via high-tech sources, it’s clear that a significant and ascendant component of that voice has become bottom-dwelling, shrill, incurious, ranting, and agenda-driven. It strives to antagonize us, make us feel anxious, ineffective, and alone; convince us that the world is full of enemies and of people stupider and less agreeable than ourselves; dedicated to the idea that outside the sphere of our immediate experience, the world works in a different, more hostile, less knowable manner.

Examples abound. Fair and balanced Fox News is a frequent target, though the trickle down is just as culpable, the local newspapers reporting on the pumpkin fair, the blog world falling over itself to have not the best opinion about Britney Spears’s VMA appearance, just the first one. I find this essay difficult to read without wondering how I’m at fault here though maybe that’s the point. Ever humble, Saunders doesn’t demand a revolution from us, just that we have "awareness of the Megaphonic tendency, and discussion of same." The rest of Braindead finds him in variously successful states of money-where-your-mouth-is. You’d be hard-pressed to find an essayist so simultaneously cynical and optimistic.

As for Gawker Media LLC: It is a successful internet operation, fifteen blogs and some of them the world’s most widely read, all owned by a British man named Nick Denton. I never met him, but saw him on a couch once when I met former Gawker managing editor Lockhart Steele at Gawker HQ to discuss work opportunities. Their flagship site is "the source for daily Manhattan media news and gossip," something like the New York Observer’s or WWD’s original print insider media sections but faster-paced and (as a complete outsider) less compromised content-wise. After four years and some guard change moved into breathy Enquirer-like celebrity stalker territory too, first with people they themselves made into mini-icons (e.g. Blackface Jesus), then with actual celebrities, the kind you’d see on Entertainment Tonight. There was a time when’s flip sarcasm was kind of new and funny; branded now as "snark", the style has since lost its charm, though it’s admirable they’ve stuck by it. At their best editors illuminate Media-Is-Whack fundamental reasons #1 and #2, putting real names to mere abstractions, doublechecking shifty facts, generally keeping Manhattan media on its toes, denying these gatekeepers impunity. At their worst they are lazy, jealous hate-mongers, serving up twelve-plus posts each even on those slow news days, seeking not the truth but the most provocative angle, commodifying simple human behaviors like getting drunk at college and transmogrifying it into panis et circenses for the embittered personal assistant set––at their worst they become exactly what they set out to criticize.

That’s background for the website. From what I understand though only one actual editor, Emily Gould, contributed to The Gawker Guide To Conquering All Media, a hodgepodge of satirical media-themed pieces. Producer Gaby Darbyshire brought in the aforementioned Peretti/Clark duo as head writers, and there are contributions from their friends: SNL’s Fred Armisen, Colbert Report writer Laura Krafft, The State’s Michael Showalter stand out.’s editors probably wouldn’t have had the time to put together any book, doubtful with the schedule they keep it seems. Still I wonder to what extent this book was a real thorn for them. The book-writers do not go out of their way to distinguish themselves from the website-writers. For Amazon’s purposes, the book is written by Gawker Media; neither Clark nor Peretti are drawing that much attention to themselves as head writers, so maybe this is just a contractual thing, or like television writing. Nobody is taking ownership though, and it’s not difficult to see why: The Gawker Guide is conflicted, unfunny, outdated, under-researched, without a sense of purpose or point.

What’s worse though is how much scorn the book harbors for its reader. From the first lines––

Power. Prestige. Respect. Money. Influence. You’ve got some but you want more, much more. You sell books, appear in magazines, own buildings, sponsor awards, chair committees, and dictate the Top Ten of everything that matters (movies, restaurants, models), but it’s not enough…

––the message of this book seems to be: You should be embarrassed for reading this book. That would be OK if another message of this book was "this book was not meant for you," but it’s not. Clark and Peretti can’t decide who it’s for or what it’s about. On the hardcover is a mosaic of celebrity headshots: Madonna, Lindsay Lohan, Howard Stern, Bill Clinton, Jesus of Nazareth, Simon Cowell, Bill Gates, the Pope. Celebrities, since most their stock is directly related to how well they navigate the media, seem to be the tongue-in-cheek target audience for the Guide. But really, except for the TV/Film chapter way back in the book though, which features "Posing Styles for the Paparazzi," a "Film Actress To-Do List," and Armisen’s strike-ready piece on what TV producers do exactly (wait for it: they do nothing), the content has nothing to do with how or why one goes about fabricating and maintaining celebrity status.

No, the rest of the book seems meant for those apparently horrible human beings preoccupied with becoming one of the king-making media elite––moving up from Editorial Assistant to Assistant Editor to Jann Wenner. This is niche humor, tied to a specific audience (publishing industry cogs) in a specific place (Manhattan), Gawker’s core readership and buttered bread. A book like this could have worked, so what bothers me is that it doesn’t. Big Reason #2 from above is Clark and Peretti’s comedy trough. There are people running the media, and these people are susceptible to less-than-meritocratic inclinations––that’s about as deep as they choose to go, as if this isn’t just like any other American workplace, just like any other organization at all really with some gunners and anything-it-takes social climbers. "Cancel that visit to your grandmother––she isn’t that sick, and she’s not a key priority. Ixnay on the iptray to the countryside with a group of your closest friends––you know your career can’t wait. Ever. And that everything else can. Forever," is a good idea of what to expect stylistically: pig latin jokes, slams (I guess) on niche magazine circulations, misguided or at best clichéd sendups of people both richer and more successful than you, whoever you are.

Which is to say Clark and Peretti spend 173 pages rehashing insider publishing stereotypes which insiders are well past enjoying, but which outsiders have no entry point into anyway. Maybe this is why the book only sold 242 copies. On "Spreading Gay Rumors," Clark and Peretti advise: "It’s important to appeal to gays because lots of them work at CAA. It’s crucial to hint that you are attracted to them." Except I can hear my gay friends now. "What’s CAA?" they ask. So I tell them. "OK cool, but what’s this I hear about a Box?" they persist, earnest and confused, before returning to whatever stereotypically gay things they do when they’re not asking me questions about the media. Maybe this is what interests Clark and Peretti, and you can’t fault either of them in this gig for sticking to what they know. Except then there’s a whole chapter about radio. Howard Stern is an ugly man! Midgets and lesbians appear on his show constantly! Rush Limbaugh shouts! Radio is irrelevant! Both Stern and Limbaugh have said sharper, funnier things about both themselves and their medium. You finish the radio chapter and you wonder whether Clark and Peretti ever listened to talk radio or just read about it on the internet.

Have Clark and Peretti even read There is a section on the Internet, where they define the different sorts of blogs one might find there. Among them is "The Deadly Snark":

Often writing in the royal "we" and armed with only bravery and delightfully sardonic wit, the Deadly Snark is not afraid to launch a full-on preemptive assault on everything our culture holds dear––even if it means upsetting a few Dave Matthews fans. Only under the preternatural scrutiny of this blogger are we able to peel away the veil of the superficial and see that Paris Hilton is indeed a "skank," or that Jennifer Lopez could also answer to the name "J-Ho," or that, despite every bit of evidence to the contrary, Jared Leto is a "douche." Some might accuse these bloggers of enjoying a parasitic relationship with pop culture, mercilessly chipping away at those whose successes and charisma far outweigh their own, while hiding safely in the shadows of the blogosphere. But there is no doubt that the Snark would gladly repeat all of his comments verbatim, directly to the faces of his celebrity targets, if only those celebrities would extend an invite to just one of their parties. Even as a +1 or something. But until the invitation comes, our poor, beleaguered pop culture desperately asks: Is there anything this snarky blogger truly enjoys? And the answer echoes back with a haunting: "Whatevs."

The masquerade is up, Halloween is over. This is a thinly-veiled, half-hearted, ostensibly tongue-in-cheek description of––sure. But that’s not even the masquerade I’m talking about. Clark and Peretti fundamentally misunderstand the voice they’re writing in. The Gawker namesake, the only thing this book ever had going for it, the book authors reduce to an entity people turn to because, without Gawker’s help, they would never know Paris Hilton is a skank, think of that J-Ho pun on their own, or even begin to think of calling a celebrity a douchebag. These tasks require a thing called "preternatural scrutiny." Oh, and Gawker writers are just trying to get invited to the party. Gawker Guide has reduced its own namesake to the level of those two kid paparazzi in LA the Times reported on a few months ago:

I’m going to let this go as far as it takes me,” said Blaine, fidgeting with his V800. “I want to be friends with the celebrities more than take photos of them. I kind of wish I was going to the parties with them.

Granted who knows who wrote what. Up until a few months ago, was entirely anonymous, so were a few of the other Gawker Media properties, and when faced with taking responsibility for their posts, editors must have reveled in passing the buck. "I just want to tell you I didn’t write that about you," she said. "It was the other guy." Sometimes you’ll get "I told him not to"––such is the genius of a two-writer system, in this book peppered also with several anonymous contributions. No one takes responsibility because no one has to. Nemo nos impune lacessit.

I spent some time looking at the quote on the back of this book, The Guide‘s only praise, fictitiously from Julius Caesar. "I came I saw I conquered. With this book, I could’ve done it quicker." I wonder whether Clark and Peretti know where that quote comes from. I wonder what they imagine Caesar was thinking when he said this, and to whom. I wonder if they know that Caesar was at serious odds with the Senate at that point, 47 BCE, that he had just blazed through Pharnaces’s army in five short days, that his three-word message was a brag, sure, but a warning to the senate too, as in I’m the imperator, back the hell off. If they were ever to stumble on this paragraph, I wonder whether Clark and Peretti’s first thought would be "he just looked it up on Wikipedia," or "maybe he actually knows this stuff," or "so what if we don’t know this, over time it’s come to mean whatever you need it to mean," or even "what’s next, is he going to correct us for using ‘quicker’ instead of ‘more quickly’?" I wonder because I have a good sense of what an actual Gawker writer would have done, but have no idea what to expect from two people who are pretending to be Gawker writers. Hate-mongering is already a difficult gig––just ask Jessica Coen or Emily Gould––difficult and conflicted and emotionally taxing to internalize the voice of the warped, wounded liberal arts-educated editorial assistant type who’s convinced he’s been cosmically wronged by the secret society of Manhattan’s rich and wealthy, who’s aggravated he didn’t get the shot he deserved. But masquerading as a masquerading hate-monger… where to begin? Saunders again:

How does such a harmful product emanate from such talented people? I’d imagine it has to do with the will to survive: each small piece of the machine doing what he or she must to avoid going home to Toledo, tail-between-legs, within the extant constraints of time and profitability, each deferring his or her ‘real’ work until such time as he or she accumulates his or her nut and can head for the hills, or get a job that lets them honor their hearts.

Maybe this was just a misfire, significant of nada, The Gawker Guide. At the end people got paid, Daniel Greenberg got his fifteen, Simon & Schuster took a hit but what publisher doesn’t. addressed the book’s failure then went back to business as usual––one post I read today "poked fun" at NYU students committing suicide. Except it’s increasingly difficult to talk of business as usual in Gawker’s case. They’re no longer just watchdogs. They’re major content providers. They’ve started putting author bylines on almost all posts. They produce video segments. They just produced a book––or better, a book was produced on their behalf. The last four years employees at other major media outlets have come to them with gripes about bosses and working conditions and bouts of conscience; now Gawker employees themselves head to other major media outlets with theirs. Transitioning into more straight-up gossip territory, they’re not as afraid to chase that dog-crap story all sixteen different ways, especially now that it looks like their boss might only pay them based on post popularity––like their boss might rather just let the commenters gossip amongst themselves, determine their own content, shape the site themselves, become a BBS with ads. May they honor their hearts.