Several times a day—oh hell, a dozen times a day—I click my way to Gawker and Wonkette for a couple of minutes of reading that usually elicit more guilt than pleasure. If you've yet to visit these blogs, imagine them as the twin offspring of a date-rape incident between Drudge Report and the original Spy magazine. (I'll leave it to your imagination who jumped whom.) Gawker collects links to the day's news and gossip about publishing, New York celebrity culture, advertising, the Paris Hilton video, the art world, public sightings of movie stars and rockers, and adds a signature cutting remark to tie things up. Wonkette performs a similar service for the news and gossip from Washington, although sexing up news from think tanks and politics, and reporting sightings of Mark Shields in blog form is by far the harder assignment.
I have no personal beef with either site. Each has treated me and my columns with exceptional generosity, which gives me, a conflicted fan, additional latitude in criticizing these two sites. I also count Wonkette's proprietress, Ana Marie Cox, as a friend—at least as of this writing. But after several weeks of consuming every cartoon obscenity, bludgeoning wisecrack, and meta-knowing, callow riposte served on these two blogs, I've been asking myself: Are these blogs a part of the better world we hope to leave to our sons and daughters?
Well, yes, if we intend for our children to grow strong from sucking bile instead of milk.
As one who was raised on a diet of habaneros and razor blades, I'm really in no position to judge Gawker and Wonkette with a Hilton Krameresque aesthetic. Any assessment of the sites should first commend the entrepreneur behind them, publisher Nick Denton, for bringing commerce and innovation to the blogosphere. (Denton is also behind Gizmodoand Fleshbot.) Next, you'd have to salute Gawker, edited by Choire Sicha, and Wonkette for their abundant wit, for the remarkable job they do in aggregating the important and the trivial, and for the way they help me keep up with what my media friends are doing. At least a couple of times a week, Gawker and Wonkette publish items (e.g., Gawker on Condé Nast rebranding or Wonkette's "Trippi Bounced in Favor of Bigger Losers") that cause me to shout aloud, "I was going to think of that!"
Then why do Gawker and Wonkette leave me sick at heart?
Because despite the demonstrable talent that goes into both sites, they insist on handing out rote poundings to their subjects with a monotonous sadism that makes few distinctions among worthy and unworthy targets. (The sites remind me of the TV channel depicted in George Lucas' THX 1138, whichshowed nothing but one man beating another. Great concept. Boring television.) I know Wonkette's palette contains more colors than just dull irony, that her enthusiasm for penis jokes cannot be as great as her blog suggests, and that she doesn't think the world is populated only by midgets. So why does she write this way? Are Ben "Boston's Bitch" Affleck, Paris Hilton, and Ethan Hawke all so contemptible that they deserve such ruthless Gawker scrutiny?
Now, where I came from, if you intend to kill the puppy for fun, you must first make friends with it for a few days so there's a whiff of surprise when the slaughter arrives. Not so with Gawker and Wonkette. They're so fixated on the hunting of the snark that they're prepared to flame everybody to a crisp. Don't believe me? Try reading several weeks worth of Gawkers in one sitting. Founding Gawker editor Elizabeth Spiers delighted in the journalistic nihilism of her blog last May, telling Warren St. John of the New York Times that "Gawker is devoted exclusively to frivolity and excess" and celebrates "the complete, total, and wholly unapologetic embrace of decadence." Likewise, Wonkette told the Baltimore Sun last month, "I write and speak faster than I think and I often get people in trouble."
It's telling to compare Gawker and Wonkette to their cultural antecedent, which, of course, is Spy magazine. In its late '80s heyday, run by Kurt Andersen and Graydon Carter, Spy speared many of the same phonies and celebrities and morons that Gawker and Wonkette dice daily (torturing Condé Nast never goes out of style). But at the time its satire and irony were rare in the media. Today, with The Daily Show, David Letterman, Bill Maher, Dennis Miller, Keith Olbermann, et al., choking the airwaves, snark and smirk are the default mode. Spy also knew how to sustain an idea for thousands of words, while Gawker and Wonkette rarely invest more than a paragraph or two.
To make the comparison fair, one must point out that Gawker and Wonkette produce copy hourly, not monthly; that they're generally written by one person on a tiny budget and not produced by a team of professional editors, reporters, and artists; and that the Gawker/Wonkette design is to conquer the blogosphere, not recapitulate the journalistic values of a dead magazine. We needn't pine for Spy, but that shouldn't prevent us from noticing how much the currency it minted has been debased.
Jack Kerouac was famous for saying the first idea is the best idea, a notion that drives today's individualistic blogosphere. Indeed, for the rare journalistic genius out there, the first idea (or the cruelest idea) can often be the best idea. But the lesser breed of writer needs to consider his thoughts and rub and polish his brain against that of others in a collegial setting—to rewrite Montaigne—and produce something more valuable, more lasting, more better. I wish Gawker and Wonkette could be persuaded to slow down and think, to shoot for a less reflexive and more nuanced approach to people and ideas on occasion, to express a genuine enthusiasm from time to time, or at least bounce their manic energy off of somebody before posting. Their awesome productivity might suffer but they could still baste and barbecue most of the sacred cows that deserve it.
Until that day arrives, treat both blogs as you would a loaded staple gun. Instruments of fun, but best used with caution.