The target demographic: white males, Rust Belt, fifty-plus. We came in early; I saw the sunrise every morning. We worked in New York City, but I don’t think a single coworker lived there. They commuted from Long Island and Jersey and Philly, daily, to be in the office. I lived alone in Brooklyn and it was a straight shot on the M to Bryant Park. I could see the lawn and the library from my desk—the gold and yellow and green filtered light. I went home in the afternoon and got ready for bed before my friends clocked off, so I drank alone. I wasn’t alienated from the labor; the labor alienated me from everything else.
We made up the New York office of a conservative media company based in the South. In hindsight, the politics seem both hyper-specific and nebulous; the one constant is that they orbited around white-hot outrage and fear. This was not obvious to me when I replied to the “Digital Reporter” listing. I’d been in the business for a few years by then, writing candidly about art and music and related topics, and my track record wasn’t hard to come by: it would have been clear to anyone checking that I stood on the liberal side of things. But the earnest man conducting my interview assured me that my politics had nothing to do with the scope of the work I’d be doing. For the most part, he was correct. We’re all actors on the internet, right?
“Fuck it,” I said to myself, “You’ll have a job writing news.” Which is not to be confused with breaking news (getting a tip, making the wire) or reporting news (collecting a first-hand account) or making news happen (punching someone at a wedding). I was writing the news, over and over and over again. Some people call this aggregating or blogging; I called it a job. My necessary skillset was narrow.
The War on Christmas was a big topic around the office. When the shooting at Sandy Hook happened, the answer was “more guns.” These were positions I was not used to hearing directly. Not that I hadn’t worked at news organizations with conservatives before. This was just so clear cut, and an orthodoxy: To assign pitched outrage to mundane news items for the sake of clicks. That was the job: to trawl Twitter, and the rest of the internet, for conspiracy and evidence of liberal malice. Then, to repackage these stories or posts or memes for the target demo. This is a common job description for a certain large—and largely invisible—class of web writer. And it is tedious, mind-numbing work.
“Your career will be over,” my friend Sam told me. I considered this as my unemployment shrank.
At that point, it seemed pretty much over anyway. But no matter: My request for a pseudonym, which I did not expected to be granted, was. This was a staggering development. The speed at which the “yes” came back was unnerving, as if such requests were common. Sam and I conferred for a good hour before he drummed up a loose and purposefully Arabic-sounding anagram of my name. The next email came back even quicker than the first: “Are you an embed from Gawker?” Not that I hadn’t considered, before signing on, that I could spill the company’s secrets to the liberal media. It’s just that, it turns out, there weren’t really any secrets to spill. One time I found a couple massive portraits of Ronald Reagan in a coat closet. Otherwise, everything you needed to know was right there on the page.
“That name is too hard to catalog in the CMS,” my editor eventually wrote back. I settled on the alias “William Dennings” and, at one point, tried to link my author profile to a stranger’s corresponding Facebook page. The guy in the picture wore a mustache and a cowboy hat.
I identified with the few other writers and producers on a pretty basic level: we were just trying to make a buck. On other, much more significant levels, I felt totally alone. Ruth seemed idealistic and “liked boys.” David was an energetic old tabloid reporter who always wore jeans. Steven had a family and a bit of a lisp. Joshua, who sat next to me, had been in the battle of Fallujah and ran a small publication from South Jersey focusing on animal rights issues. He had decency and kindness and heart. He was trying to lose weight after a few slack newlywed years. Eventually, he and my editor would get into a contest over who could shed more pounds. I’d be fired before seeing the outcome.
None of these people were essentially bad. And as far as I could tell, none of them were really ideologues. I seemed to be the only one constantly defending my politics, forcing myself to be the odd man out at after-work drinks or one remarkably boozy company lunch somewhere on Park Avenue South. Otherwise, I absconded to my hideout in Brooklyn, dreading the next day, passing out before the sun went down just so I could wake before it came back up.
Was anyone stopping us from celebrating Christmas? What was the lawsuit against the CEO of Papa John’s Pizza all about? How many headlines could we get off of Lena Dunham’s haircut? What was it like to share a trailer at the RNC with Sean Hannity? In the world I wanted to live in, in the New York I’d envisioned for myself years before, the answer to all these questions was another question: “Who gives a shit?” That was the problem: getting myself interested in this news was the real work. The rest was a form letter. My attention wandered. I sought out stranger and stranger news. My friends made Tweets specific to my stories so I could put them into posts. If I wasn’t working through lunch, I’d sit in the park and watch porn on my phone and occasionally crank one out in the office bathroom. I spent afternoons tailoring my OKCupid page. I used the copier for “an art project.” I lost my RFID keycard. I made stupid mistakes. I came in later and later and sometimes not at all.
Every morning, I’d get a runsheet of stories my editor would have liked to see covered. I didn’t have to accomplish them (I rarely did as time went on) but it was the closest thing we had to direct guidance. Eventually I was given a story about a very young person in a Western state who identified as transgender. This elementary schooler wanted to use the girls’ bathroom and this caused a stir all over conservative media. I got it into my head that I could do something about this. I wrote the article sympathetic to the child in what I’m sure was a crusade of bombast. The next day, I must have been late. My editor called and the sun was up and I was still in bed. He sounded genuinely pained. “Today,” he said, “we’ve had to make the hard decision to let you go. I don’t know what’s gotten into you. You’re trending sideways.” Then he said bye and hung up.
Trending sideways. Media theorists tell us again and again that we seek out news that harmonizes with our own views. We want reinforcement of our biases. The confusion over “what is news” is a consumer malady insomuch as the mediamakers can twist it: outrage, distrust, confusion, misinformation, conspiracy. Any media professional knows what spin is, and we’re all guilty of it to different degrees. But here, I made myself the twisted one, my perspective of the conservative world so flawed that I refused to believe in anything other than an idyll, a world where journalism always changes things for the greater good. It just didn’t exist. And it doesn’t.
More simply, I couldn’t do the work. I failed. A byline is not just a byline; it’s the signatory on a contract of truth. Then, totally alone, I no longer trusted myself. I knew I wasn’t me. If we already know what we’re reading, we’d better at least know who we’re not.