Dan Abrams just launched Mediaite, "the website of and about the media," inviting a million cheap shots. The site name sounds vaguely medicinal, like something you'd give to a toddler suffering diarrhea, or like a down-market competitor to Marmite and Vegemite. Alternatively, it reads like a typo, daring the reader to pronounce it.
This morning, after Howard Kurtz's write-up in the Washington Post and Web-wide publicity attracted thousands to the site, its servers overloaded on the requests. My browser either spun in place or coughed up a page at a time after a long wait. Because I didn't have a good chance to assess the whole package, I won't pass judgment. Mediaite is obviously still in beta, and that's where my review will stay until its developers slay, grill, and eat all the beasts raising hell in the server shack.
But one page loaded reliably for me—the note from founder Abrams, in which he calls Mediaite "the manifestation of a vision I have had for many years" and an extension of the "Beat the Press" segment he created for the cable network MSNBC. Those MSNBC segments had "some fun with media hypocrisy, gaffes, and self-righteousness," Abrams writes, and some of that sensibility will live on at Mediaite.
But now that the site, whose "tone and direction" Abrams helped create, is up, he declares that he's going to retreat to the position of publisher.
"I will continue to help guide and manage the business side of the site, but the editorial decisions will be left entirely to the editorial staff," Abrams writes.
This statement combines media hypocrisy, a gaffe, a bit of self-righteousness, and a dollop of stupidity all in one short sentence. The "un-interfering publisher" is one of journalism's great myths. Every publisher who has the power to hire and fire makes his wishes known, either overtly or covertly. When his signals are ignored or disobeyed, the promised editorial independence always vanishes. Always. Mediaite will be no exception.
Abrams—not much of a wordsmith if this note is an example—completely misunderstands what a smart journalist wants from his publisher. He wants a publisher who pays well and encourages the sort of chance-taking that produces excellent work. He wants a publisher who may wince but neverretaliate when the reporter inflicts editorial pain on one of the publisher's friends or sacred cows. He wants a publisher who suffers silently in his office when a good story runs off advertisers or potential advertisers. And unless the publisher writes well, the smart journalist wants the publisher to stick to business—Abrams, according to his note, intends to write opinion columns for Mediaite.
Abrams writes that he's divorced himself from actually editing his vision because he wants it "to be viewed as objective—tough and opinionated—but not the Dan Abrams Post." But if it's a "manifestation of a vision" and, as Kurtz reports, he's funding the five-person operation out of his own pocket, how can it not be the Dan Abrams Post?
Kurtz gently explores the hypocrisy, gaffes, and self-righteousness behind Abrams' Mediaite. As most media watchers and all readers of Abrams' founder's note know, he has a second budding business, something called Abrams Research, which hires journalists to help Fortune 1,000 firms solve their media problems. At the same time, Abrams will continue as chief legal analyst for NBC. Kurtz does a double take, then a triple take. The Abrams arrangements seem almost as bad to me as a newspaper publisher charging lobbyists big bucks to have dinner at her home so they can listen to off-the-record conversations between the publisher's reporters and administration officials.
Abrams' reaction to his critics? From the Kurtz piece: "It does seem I'm being held to a higher standard than anyone else in the history of the consulting world. That's okay. ... What some of the purists say is that if you're engaged in journalism at all, you should not be able to work with business, ever." [Ellipsis in the original.]
No, Dan, what the purists are saying is pick your business and stick to it, or, if you can't do that, build effective firewalls between your enterprises. If you insist on straddling both worlds, please prune your media garden of its most noxious conflict-of-interest weeds. 1) Make the Abrams Research client list public so readers could determine whether you're pulling punches or delivering them in their favor. 2) If Mediaite is going to cover NBC, it should start an "NBC Watch" column to prove that your current employers aren't getting a free ride. And 3) to demonstrate the editorial independence you've extended to your staff, let's see Mediaite editors help make your vision come true by loudly spiking your column from time to time.
It hurts when the competition stomps on your first issue. Here's Salon's Gary Kamiya getting medieval on Slate'sdebut in the summer of 1996. Send Vegemite recipes via e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org, or, if you haven't the stomach, taste the yeasty output of my Twitter feed. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)