The mainstream media have still not learned the lessons of Gamergate

TECHNOLOGY

This week the New York Times published a five-years-later retrospective on Gamergate and its aftereffects, which is chilling and illuminating, and you should go read it. It makes an excellent case — several excellent written cases, actually — that “everything is Gamergate,” that it and its hate-screeching online mobs were the prototype for all the culture and media wars since and to come.

Sadly, the lesson expounded herein by the NYT is one which they — and other media — do not yet seem to have actually learned themselves.

Let’s look at another piece which called Gamergate a template for cultural warfare, using the media as a battleground. This one was written back in 2014, by one Kyle Walker, in Deadspin, and its scathing, take-no-prisoners real-time analysis was downright prophetic. A few of its most important passages:

Gamergate is […] a relatively small and very loud group of video game enthusiasts who claim that their goal is to audit ethics in the gaming-industrial complex and who are instead defined by the campaigns of criminal harassment that some of them have carried out against several women […] What’s made it effective, though, is that it’s exploited the same basic loophole in the system that generations of social reactionaries have: the press’s genuine and deep-seated belief that you gotta hear both sides … that anyone more respectable than, say, an avowed neo-Nazi is operating in something like good faith

It is now clear to us all that that last statement is no longer correct … in that it is far too optimistic. Two years ago, the NYT made it apparent that they are in fact willing to assume “an avowed neo-Nazi is operating in something like good faith,” when they published a piece about “the Nazi sympathizer next door,” one variously called “chummy” (Quartz), “sympathetic” (Business Insider), and “normalizing” (NYT readers themselves, among many others.)

Back to Wagner in Deadspin:

The demands for journalistic integrity coming from Gamergate have nothing at all to do with the systemic corruption of the gaming media … The claims from what we like to call the “bias journalisms” school of media criticism aren’t meant to express anything in particular, or even, perhaps, to be taken seriously; they’re meant to work the referees, to get them looking over their shoulders, to soften them up in the hopes that a particular grievance, whatever its merits, might get a better hearing next time around.

How does it play out? Like this: Earlier this month, the New York Times covered Intel’s capitulation in the face of a coordinated Gamergate campaign, called “Operation Disrespectful Nod.”

Here’s that NYT piece from five years ago. It, in turn, begins:

For a little more than a month, a firestorm over sexism and journalistic ethics has roiled the video game community, culminating in an orchestrated campaign to pressure companies into pulling their advertisements from game sites.

That campaign won a big victory in recent days with a decision by Intel, the chip maker, to pull ads from Gamasutra, a site for game developers.

Intel’s decision added to a controversy that has focused attention on the treatment of women in the games business and the power of online mobs. The debate intensified in August, partly because of the online posts of a spurned ex-boyfriend of a female game developer.

Wagner’s inescapable conclusion:

The story continued in this vein—cautious, assiduously neutral, lobotomized […] Both sides were heard. And thus did Leigh Alexander’s commentary on the pluralism of gaming today get equal time with a campaign bent on silencing her. …Make it a story about an oppressive and hypocritical media conspiracy, and all of a sudden you have a cause, a side in a “debate.”

Gamergate, like so many bad-faith movements since, followed a variant of the “motte and bailey” strategy, which is

when you make a bold, controversial statement. Then when somebody challenges you, you claim you were just making an obvious, uncontroversial statement, so you are clearly right and they are silly for challenging you. Then when the argument is over you go back to making the bold, controversial statement.

Here, the motte is an ugly or vile cause — in Gamergate’s case, vicious misogyny — and the bailey is an entirely different purported argument — for Gamergate, “it’s about ethics in games journalism.” They work the latter argument for credibility, but entirely in bad faith, because it is tacitly understood, both internally and externally, albeit in a quasi-deniable way, that what they actually care about is their ugly cause.

This has become the playbook for so many modern disputes, because it continues to be a thoroughly effective way to manipulate the mainstream media. Arguments about purported “grievance politics,” or “the decline of America sanctioned by the elites,” or a manufactured, fictionalimmigration crisis,” all continue to be treated by the media as legitimate grievances, and/or good-faith disputes, rather than a thin pretext for bald-faced racism and xenophobia.

Every so often the motte is accidentally revealed, as when the head of the USCIS said, just this week, that the famous poem which adorns the Statue of Liberty referred to “people coming from Europe.” But in general the pretense of the bailey is upheld.

Let me reiterate: the pretense. These are arguments knowingly made in bad faith. What’s more, the actual cause soon becomes apparent to those who investigate the subject with open and searching minds. Good journalists should not be willing accept such distorted pretenses at face value, nor assume good faith without evidence. The NYT clearly made that mistake, fell into that trap, with Gamergate five years ago. As Wagner put it then,

What we have in Gamergate is a glimpse of how these skirmishes will unfold in the future—all the rhetorical weaponry and siegecraft of an internet comment section brought to bear on our culture, not just at the fringes but at the center.

How right he was. And yet it is all too apparent that, in the heart and at the heights of the New York Times, nothing of significance has been learned. How else to explain how, five years after Gamergate, and two years after “readers accuse(d) us of normalizing a Nazi sympathizer,” the NYT continues to treat exactly the same kind of bad-faith arguments as if they are meaningful, important, and valid? Most visibly with its most recent headline debacle, but that is only the tip of the wilfuly ignorant iceberg.

In the aftermath of that headline incident, Dean Baquet, its executive editor, told CNN a remarkable thing: “Our role is not to be the leader of the resistance.” In other words, the publisher of this excellent recent Gamergate exegesis has learned nothing from it.

The NYT’s role should be to lead a resistance — not necessarily against any individual political party or figure, but a resistance of critical thinking, and searching analysis, against deceptive motte-and-bailey arguments. But they don’t seem willing to recognize that they are being manipulated by such bad-faith movements, much less accept that one of them has grown to occupy much of America’s political landscape. One wonders when the Gray Lady will finally open her eyes.

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