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Gawking Ourselves to Death

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Until a few weeks ago, I'd never paid much attention to Gawker. I had a vague sense that they were a gossip website that had something to do with New York. Then my editor sent me a link to a post they wrote about me. As it turned out, they'd been talking shit about me for a while.

No surprise there.

What surprised me was that my editor seemed positively thrilled at the idea that I'd made Gawker's hit list. Apparently, being loathed electronically is the surest sign you've arrived.

But I didn't really get why my editor was so excited until I read this piece in New York Magazine (by Vanessa Grigoriadis) which thoughtfully describes how Gawker has tapped into the "rage of the creative underclass" within the small, aggrieved universe of New York City literati.

Perhaps because I don't live in that universe, Gawker strikes me as something a bit less class-conscious. It's basically the Fox News of the publishing world. It feeds off the same rage and envy as Bill O'Reilly and company. Granted, Gawker hate has that sophisticated Manhattan patina of snark. But it's the same slithery pitch to people's worst instincts. It's driven by the same compulsion as the GOP: the need to shame others, rather than facing up to your own shame.

I am not suggesting that Gawker has any political agenda. On the contrary, it's an entirely amoral zone. The only law that guides Gawker is the Law of Stimulation. In this sense, the site is really only an exaggeration of the mainstream media's prevailing modus operandi -- and a more forthright one at that.

They don't pretend to care about "objectivity" or even accuracy for that matter. For supporting evidence, check out this mind-boggling clip from a CNN interview with Gawker editor Emily Gould, about the site's popular Gawker Stalker feature, in which she declares, "Everyone who reads it knows that it isn't checked at all ... I mean do you read US Weekly and expect that everything in it is true, or Star?"

As Gould herself notes in the Grigoriadis piece, every day her email in-box is overrun by the "id" of New York publishing. Her job, as she sees it, is merely to channel that id.

The payoff for Gawker bloggers is that they gain enough notoriety to land jobs within the media empires they claim to despise. This is the same essential career path as Sean Hannity (or, for that matter, Senator Joseph McCarthy). If you hate with enough charm and eloquence and conviction, you'll wind up a star.

As Gould herself helpfully observes for Grigoriadis: "At the end of the day, your ideas in a book have less impact than if you had summed them up in two paragraphs on the most widely read blog at the most-read time of the day, so why'd you spend two years on it? But there's other ways to get noticed than the Internet, right? ... There's always TV."

This is how pundits are born and bred.

I do get why my editor (or other publishing wage slaves) are addicted to Gawker. But it's also hard to believe that they can't see the ways in which the site is exploiting their desperation. Gawker readers remind me of all those aggrieved citizens who continue to fall for the GOP's hate campaigns -- and to vote against their own economic interests.

Because in the end Gawker isn't about the world of publishing. The folks there don't care about books. They merely enjoy bullying authors from time to time. Nor do they really care about deflating celebrity culture, as they love to claim. In fact, their site owes its existence to the twisted psychology of celebrity worship.

If Gawker's seductive virulence were just a "New York thing" or a "publishing thing" it wouldn't matter that much. But ultimately, the site represents something broader: it's a flagrant symptom of the culture of grievance that has overtaken our national discourse.

By appealing to our most childish impulses -- and with the cowardly consent of the left -- the right-wing of this country has managed to Gawk the political discourse.

This is why matters of policy go uncovered, while gossip and gaffes and cleavage and haircuts and (most of all) emotionally convincing ad hominems determine the outcome of elections.

If this country ever hopes to rouse itself from the moral torpor marked by the Bush years, we are going to have to end our addiction to Gawking, and face up to the common crises of state.

Steve Almond's new essay collection is (Not That You Asked)