Anatomy of a Screw-Up

How multiple outlets blew the story of the "Shitty Media Men" creator’s outing

The story of the “Shitty Media Men” document – specifically, the threat of the doxxing of its creator by Harper’s magazine and (hashtag problematic) writer Katie Roiphe, and the preemptive self-outing of creator Moira Donegan in a confessional essay at The Cut – is a fascinating and complicated one, delving into complex issues of harassment, accusation, reporting, and the place of print journalism in the era of swift social media. I am not the writer to tell that story; it’s told well here, or here, or (best of all) by Ms. Donegan herself. But within that big, tricky narrative is another side story that’s worth considering (though definitely secondarily): of how several online publications shit the bed at a key moment in this media whirlwind.

So let’s walk back. It’s the morning of Wednesday, January 10, a day that will culminate in the publication of Donegan’s piece at The Cut. But early in the day, there were still very real fears that Harper’s and Roiphe were going to out her against her will. The night before, Full Frontal with Samantha Bee producer Ana Breton floated a modest proposal:

So throughout the day, other women in media began to do just that, each claiming authorship of the SMM list, a kind of online “I am Spartacus” movement:

Late in the day, another voice chimed in:

Lexi Alexander is a big presence on Twitter, an action filmmaker and television director who mostly uses her platform to talk about sexism in those industries. By the end of the day, Junkee had written about the “confessions”; so did Huffington Post. And then it got really insane.

Within an hour of each other, the feminist site Hello Giggles and the entertainment industry blog Deadline each ran articles taking Alexander’s solidarity tweet at face value, and announcing that she had, in fact, outed herself as the creator of the Shitty Media Men document:

Neither site apparently paused to consider how Alexander, a Los Angeles-based filmmaker with no ties of note to the New York media world, would have had the information necessary to start the document, or the resources to circulate it. They clearly had not been following the story, nor did they bother to do even the cursory glance that would have revealed writing about it elsewhere. They saw someone say something on Twitter, wrote it up, and pressed publish.

And then, even more unsettlingly, other, reputable outlets – including The AV Club, The Wrap, and Think Progress – ran it too.

Even after Donegan’s piece was published, there was… confusion. The AV Club originally amended its piece with a bizarre “update” that contended, “It’s not clear what to make of these competing claims; whether both Alexander and Donegan created or contributed to the list, or if one is possibly attempting to shield the other.” No, by then it was pretty clear!

To their credit, the adults apparently arrived at some point thereafter (feel free to insert your own gif of Troy from Community returning to the blazing apartment with the pizzas), and they eventually ran a proper correction, which leads off the current version of the story on their site.

Deadline, on the other hand, defended rather than correcting, only allowing in their own Wednesday night update that “maybe it’s Moira Donegan,” and insisting, “Based on Alexander’s long outspoken battle against harassment and more in the industry, it was a plausible declaration that Deadline reported.”

But that last word, you see, is the tricky one. Deadline didn’t report anything; they transcribed something they saw on Twitter, about a story they clearly knew nothing about, without bothering to confirm the information with Alexander herself, or anyone else. (If it’s on Twitter, it must be true, right? I saw it on the Gorilla Channel.) And because Deadline frequently – and loudly, and proudly – gets scoops and breaks news and plasters “Exclusive,” other outlets pick up what they run, and run it themselves.

Had the Donegan revelation not arrived in this same digital tornado, it’s hard to guess how many more entertainment outlets would have run the Alexander item unchallenged – or, as Alexander herself noted later, “a whole bunch of people, people who should really know better, thought it was completely believable that I have the scoop on who the scumbags are in New York based media outlets. ??????”

But it speaks to something that’s broken in online journalism, which is so often not journalism at all, but aggregation. And, to be clear, we’re guilty of this ourselves, on a semi-daily basis; we often end up posting a news item because it’s on THR, or a trailer because it’s on /Film, or a music video that showed up on Pitchfork. (And making mistakes! I’m sure there will be another embarrassing one soon!) When you’re a #content creator, it’s about volume and speed, and it’s been that way for a long time, and will probably continue to be.

But when the stakes are this high, and the story is this important, that model isn’t acceptable. And if you’re not read in on a story like this, you shouldn’t be writing about it. But if you do anyway, and you blow the story, don’t obfuscate, don’t get defensive, don’t take it as an opportunity to litigate the enigmatic nature of the truth or whatever, and certainly don’t insist that your boneheaded assumptions were, in fact, logical. Just own up to the error, and do better next time.

Then again, maybe that should be Harper’s takeaway from the entire story.