The Rise of Outrage Journalism

The Rise of Outrage Journalism
Illustration by author / Image: Julian Assange 

The state of journalism is grim – and the pandemic has only accelerated its demise.

As I write this, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange continues to languish in Belmarsh, a high-security prison in London, where he has been held since 2019.

In the latest of the years-long legal battle, Assange’s team filed an appeal to Britain’s supreme court, challenging the court’s recent decision to extradite Assange to the United States. Apparently, the appeals court felt they were “satisfied” with the diplomatic assurances offered by the US government should he be extradited to the US.

It’s an unsurprising decision considering the UK and the US have been working in lockstep to undermine the legal process and put away Assange for life. Throughout the entire legal process, both legal entities flouted due process, manipulated evidence, and violated Assange’s basic rights, like secretly taping Assange’s meetings with his attorneys. It was also revealed that the CIA plotted to kidnap and assassinate Assange back in 2017. But this hardly registered as a cause for concern to the UK appeals court.

The way the investigation has been conducted illuminates how the establishment handles dissidents like Assange, including the very judges responsible for determining his fate. The US and the UK both surreptitiously apply extrajudicial measures while outwardly presenting the appearance of following a legal process of a trial they know is a sham.

In 2010, Wikileaks published thousands of classified files and diplomatic cables detailing political corruption, evidence for war crimes, torture, and the true atrocities of US foreign policy. As punishment for exposing these crimes, the global elite unanimously denounced Assange as a traitor – including self-styled independent publications that claim to prioritize fearless investigative journalism except where it matters most.

While some dedicated journalists have devoted much of their time reporting on Assange’s case, on the whole, the corporate media has been silent. The establishment has dutifully ignored all reporting on Assange, erasing him from existence. All major media outlets have been overt in their desire to punish Assange by whatever means necessary, despite claiming to be non-partisan. Ironic considering the same journalists profited off of Assange’s intel, and proudly collected journalism awards and elevated their status as a result. As much as they wish to ignore Assange’s case, their careers – and the very foundation of journalism – will be directly impacted by it.

Equally as devastating is the reaction of the general public. For a society that is hell bent on outrage, there is very little outrage over Assange’s treatment.

Instead, people of all political stripes submit grievances over minor offences committed by everyday people. And this is what constitutes journalism today.

Amid the pandemic, there’s been a growing number of commentators and media personalities that devote all their time to reacting to these minor offences. The Libs of Tik Tok Twitter account is one such example. At almost half a million followers, the account exists purely to foment division among everyday people. The anonymous woman running the account describes herself as an ‘independent journalist’ (her bio reads: “independent journalist bringing you the news from tik tok.”) – an interesting choice of words considering the extent of her journalism is recycling other people’s content (often not giving content creators’ credit), and reposting video clips from TikTok and other social media outlets. This account used to call out ‘woke’-ism (it should be noted that at this time, the account holder never claimed to be a journalist), but it has since devolved into outright mockery of anyone who lives a somewhat alternative lifestyle, like women who, God forbid, choose not to shave their body hair.

In one reposted video, a visibly mentally unstable man is seen stealing alcohol from a store. That’s it. That's the video. Still, someone took the time to record this man for all the world to gawk at, and later Libs of Tik Tok reposted it – to prove what exactly, that part remains unclear – to an uncharitable audience who somehow attribute the man's struggles to a rise in 'leftism,' an amorphous shape-shifting ideology that means whatever they need to it to mean at any given moment.

While we’re busy gawking at those clearly struggling, the establishment is cashing in on this very division we ourselves gleefully contribute to. The pandemic has been a blessing for the dying legacy media; the billionaire class has seen their fortunes hit record highs; politicians exploited their positions to profit off the pandemic, and here we are making a mockery out of a clearly unwell man who is the symptom – not the cause – of an exploitative, sick society.

Despite this, Libs of Tik Tok followers continue to grow as she rides the wave of niche internet fame, now conducting interviews with major media outlets. A journalist by name perhaps, but not by practice.

But this account is not entirely to blame – it has an ever-growing audience ready with pitchforks to mock and cancel those whose lifestyles and beliefs don’t align with theirs, including well-known commentators who claim to be all about ‘building bridges’ while simultaneously churning out low-brow reaction videos for quick clicks and follows.

Some of the account’s devout followers wonder aloud why the account hasn’t yet been suspended. If I could venture a guess as to why it would be that it doesn’t pose a threat to the establishment.

Quite the opposite. The Libs of Tik Tok account serves to foment more division among the general populace. The woman behind the account, whether she realizes it or not, is an unwitting participant in this division. Why would the dominant class shut that down? Divide and conquer serves the elite quite well, particularly in today’s outrage culture.

This is journalism today.

Truth tellers like Assange aren’t considered journalists at all, while the above account is. For the third consecutive year, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a press freedom organization, excluded Assange from the Jailed Journalist Index, an index that lists jailed journalists around the world. When Assange was excluded in earlier years, the organization’s deputy executive director defended the decision citing a pitiful excuse: “After extensive research and consideration, CPJ chose not to list Assange as a journalist, in part because his role has just as often been as a source and because WikiLeaks does not generally perform as a news outlet with an editorial process.” (Emphasis mine)

Meanwhile, accounts like Libs of Tik Tok, are freely able to describe themselves as journalists, and are not only unquestioned, but revered.

Then you have a class of journalists who built a career off of grifting: they brand themselves as independent (but often built up their careers working for legacy media), and heterodox (despite firmly toeing the line on most mainstream ideas, and only hold slightly-alt views whenever it suits their brand). They recycle other people’s ideas and cover trending Twitter topics because they can’t be bothered to carve out and develop their own interests.

Bari Weiss is one such journalist. Weiss’s career has been a series of gimmicks, but we are the suckers for celebrating it. As one Twitter user put it, “Bari Weiss and friends have to be some of the griftiest grifters who ever grifted.”

And Weiss, too, unlike Assange, gets rewarded for her journalism, having recently won the Daniel Pearl Award for Courage and Integrity in Journalism. Apparently, the courageous element of her award refers to when she preemptively cancelled herself. While she was never actually silenced, Weiss hijacked a trend so that she could strategically brand herself as one of the ‘cancelled' – which proved to be a career-boosting move.

At the LA Press Club event where Weiss was rewarded, Judea Pearl, father of Daniel Pearl, remarked Weiss’s story as "an indictment of the journalism profession itself, the herd-following culture that chokes newsrooms, editorial meetings, your cafeterias and other gossip rooms." But Weiss once worked in these newsrooms and still believes in legacy media (so long as it doesn't threaten her own views). Weiss, too, possesses a fairly mainstream (i.e. 'herd-following') set of beliefs – she is pro-capitalist, pro-Israel, and is often described as a centrist. She complains about suppression of speech while actively trying to silence anyone who dares critique her own speech. Her loyal supporters, of which she has many, point out that her views are not welcome in corporate media, even though she often conducts interviews with the corporate media and has easy access to influential public figures like Mark Cuban and Kim Kardashian. To me, this career trajectory does not look like someone who has been silenced, or even someone who has shown courage in the face of adversity. Certainly when you put her alongside American journalist Daniel Pearl who was kidnapped and decapitated in Pakistan, and Julian Assange who was imprisoned and tortured by the US and the UK, Weiss's journalism pales in comparison. Weiss's claim to fame was strategically cancelling herself from one of the most reputable newsrooms in the world to later starting a Substack in which she makes more than she ever did at The New York Times. One does not look like the others.

Something is very wrong with this picture when someone like this is rewarded, while dissidents like Assange are punished and disposed of, left to rot in prison for exposing heinous crimes perpetrated by the global elite.

Since we are in a new year, perhaps it’s time to reflect on what journalism is, or rather, what constitutes good journalism?

There are some principles that characterize it, like an obligation to serve as a watchdog over the powerful few; an allegiance to truth; and a loyalty to citizens. Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel outlined these principles in The Elements of Journalism, a required read for aspiring journalists.

Few journalists apply these principles in practice. Many journalists today not only ignore them, but they do the exact opposite.

These journalists have devolved into exposing the destitute, not the powerful few. Nobody but the establishment benefits from that. The outrage mob – no matter whose ‘side’ it’s on – needs bottom-of-the-barrel content to fuel it. The vacuous mob depends on tweets, short videos, and out-of-context one-liners to create one-dimensional beings ripe for the mocking. Journalism has devolved into content curation, not creation. The most popular outlets today are run by talking heads who serve purely to react to content. Grifters are finding relatively quick success by using this method – and in the pandemic when many people are seeking companionship, this gimmick works very well.

This is why notable figures like Assange hardly capture the public eye. I suspect if you had Assange create a react channel on YouTube (which would be an utter tragedy), he would no doubt develop a devoted fanbase.

The attack on Assange is a direct attack on press freedom, speech, and democracy itself. Assange willingly risked it all by exposing the elite, paid-for politicians, and corrupt states led by leaders who collude with special interests that do not serve the people they are supposed to represent.

While the establishment should share the blame for deliberately misleading the audience, concealing critical information, and contributing to the divide, this type of content also wouldn’t exist if there wasn’t a demand for it. This is the junk food content consumers crave. We don’t want to read investigative journalism, or read long-form content. In this we only have ourselves to blame.

We are ravenous for junk food journalism, but it rots our brains and turns us into rabid zombies. It appeals to our emotions – we want to feel outraged so we can elevate our own social status and signal to others that we are in their in-group. It’s hard to imagine a time where we can read an article and not feel outraged immediately afterwards, but this is how it used to be. We’ve become too comfortable in the rage after-taste. But it’s important for our relationships – and for society – that we come to a place where feeling outrage isn’t the desired goal. We’re only doing ourselves – and each other – a disservice if we continue to elevate outrage journalists who serve to divide while ignoring those who rightly expose the powerful few.