The most striking thing about this week’s BuzzFeed flap—in which the site was criticized for deleting two published stories, about a Dove ad and the game Monopoly, with insufficient explanation—was not that BuzzFeed removed posts (it’s done that before) or that the posts in question were negative commentary about prominent BuzzFeed advertisers (though that was dismaying). It was the excuse that BuzzFeed Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith initially used to explain his site’s actions. The problem with the Dove post was not its subject or its slant, he suggested in a tweet Thursday evening, but that it was a “hot take.”
It was a canny defense, because the hot take is currently the most unfashionable thing in journalism. In media circles, the phrase has become a commonplace putdown. The term take rose to prominence when John Herrman of the Awl wrote a characteristically perceptive analysis last September of the economic pressures on Internet writers to produce instant “takes”—quick responses, often glib opinions—about any event that occurs. In an online journalism environment where social media drives a lot of traffic, and thus revenue, Herrman explained, these swift, provocative, and socially shareable reaction posts can be good for the bottom line. (He was writing in the wake of the leak of a cache of photos of nude celebrities, which launched a thousand takes.) Gawker veteran Alex Pareene then chimed in on the Dish to lament the trend. And though neither essay had used the word hot, the hot take had for several years been a derided form in sports media, usually connoting a blowhard ranting about some personnel decision or play call gone wrong. It quickly became voguish to dismiss various types of writing online as hot takes, and a journalistic slur took on new meaning and currency.
It’s handy to have a vocabulary with which to critique dumb journalism. We journalists are a self-policing guild, so it’s good to identify and discourage work that stinks. And in the early days (here I’m talking about, I think, October), dismissing something as a hot take did carry a certain frisson. It suggested a knowing understanding of the mechanics that underlie modern journalism, an insider exasperation at the influence that social traffic-drivers like Facebook can exert on editorial decision-making. When a stupid story appeared, deriding it as a hot take was an easy eye-roll for the Twitter set.
But since then we’ve experienced “take” creep. The definition has expanded. What first meant a moronic gloss of opinion, slapped carelessly on cheap news aggregation to make it more shareable came to mean any opinion writing, argument, or analysis, or really, any piece of journalism I don’t like. I’ve seen straight tech reviews described as takes. I’ve seen multi-thousand-word argued essays ridiculed as takes. And now I’ve seen a pretty reasonable piece of ad criticism dismissed as a hot take—a take so hot it was not just dumb and disposable but worthy of retraction—by Ben Smith, a journalist I like and respect. (This was a nice piece of rhetorical jiujitsu on his part, since Gawker, which has published admirably aggressive BuzzFeed watchdoggery, has also been wryly anti-take.)
There are two problems with the rise of “take” as the going journalistic smear. The first is that it’s a fundamentally nihilist critique. When you dismiss something as a take, you dismiss it as not worth reading. The term presumes that the story was written not for intelligent human readers, but in a cynical play to provoke the emotions that drive Facebook sharing, and that as a result it’s undeserving of your attention. If you bother to read and consider and interact with the take, you’re a dupe, the term suggests. Better to give an exhausted shrug at the noise of the Internet and move on to the next thing. So the insult short-circuits debate and discussion. It gives people a way to dismiss any argument or story they don’t want to reckon with in a manner that’s as glib and facile as the takes they supposedly revile.
The second problem is that dismissing the take sometimes becomes a way to dismiss all opinion, analysis, and commentary. Since I am the editor of a website that specializes in opinion, analysis, and commentary, this is a bummer for me! But it’s also a very strange response to the modern media landscape. The Internet has made a wealth of information and a wealth of commentary about that information available to readers. Because the quantity of that information is so overwhelmingly vast, readers are more reliant than ever on commentators who can analyze and interpret it, making arguments about what matters, how to understand it, and what it all means. Some of that commentary is vapid. But that fact doesn’t eliminate the need for commentary that’s not.
Producing commentary that is insightful and valuable and delightful is—as my colleagues here at Slate can attest—both fun and difficult. Slate is not immune to the economic pressures Herrman described, and I’m sure some readers of this story will have fun pointing out instances where we’ve fallen short of the mark. But the challenge is a glorious one: to come up with useful ways to understand the world, and to convey those to readers in a way they’ll find engaging. Sometimes you can produce something really smart really fast because you’ve been reporting on and thinking about the matter for years. Sometimes you mull it over for a few hours or days because you want to do a little research and cogitation. Sometimes you discover a whole new way of seeing things. A fresh take, even.
Of course, BuzzFeed is not a site that’s known primarily for opinion and commentary, although it has published some good work in this vein over the years. And if Ben Smith wants to build a BuzzFeed that is free of opinion writing—one that, as the memo that BuzzFeed Life editors circulated about the decision to pull the Dove post put it, eschews “personal opinion” using “our own voices”—he is well within his rights.
But let’s not allow Smith’s use of the term hot take to dull our thinking about this incident. It does seem odd, given how many opinionated posts about commercial brands remain on BuzzFeed, and given that the site’s ethics guide says posts should “never be deleted for reasons related to their content,” and given that retraction is a journalistic move so grave and abhorrent to editors that it took Rolling Stone more than four months to mothball its tattered UVA rape piece, that BuzzFeed chose these particular opinion posts as the urgent occasions on which to begin its march away from Hot Take town.
This afternoon the site reinstated both of the disappeared posts. Smith also tweeted an internal email in which he declared unequivocally that advertiser pressure was not responsible for the deletion of the two posts. He said he’d been mulling “the place of personal opinion pieces on our site” and promised staff an “ongoing conversation” on the matter. Here’s my two cents: BuzzFeed has assembled a smart and talented team of reporters, writers, and thinkers. The world will give them much to consider. Let them have takes.