Bullies Are Never The Adults In The Room: The Fall of Deadspin

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Recently, a “private equity firm” (read: rich guys with money) bought most of the Gizmodo Media Group. That company includes several sites which aren’t hugely read, and several that are — such as The Onion, Jezebel, The Root, and Deadspin.

I assume everyone knows what The Onion is. Jezebel is a feminist website. The Root is an online magazine co-founded by Henry Louis Gates Jr, which focuses on African-American politics and culture. (It’s often surprisingly funny, even when dealing with instances of dumb racism that infuriate the writers.) Deadspin is about sports, so I’ve cited it often in my baseball-related writing.

History of Deadspin

The thing about Deadspin is that it was founded primarily for writers to make snarky remarks criticizing the fawning coverage of successful teams and athletes often featured on ESPN.

Over the years, it maintained the snarky tone but branched out to include skeezy team owners and politicians (and even annoying holiday catalogs) among its targets. The great Neil deMause, our nation’s top writer on terrible taxpayer-funded stadium deals, often wrote there.

Drew Magary, a former commenter on the site, eventually became an editor. He made the absolutely true observation that when readers say “just stick to sports” they don’t really mean it. What they mean is “don’t cover sports with” things some readers don’t want to know about, such as players who make statements against racism or war or shabby college athletic pay. (They’re fine with F-15s flying over the Super Bowl, and stories of players who saved kittens.)

Deadspin would cover “edgy” political sports stories, usually with a left-of-center attitude, and made quite a bit of money doing so.

The Beginning of the End

Enter the new owners — a group of old men who’d run almost every publication they’d ever been in charge of into the ground. (Well, except Forbes. Rich people will always like their Forbes.)

They started off by hiring their buddies, ignoring internal candidates, and several female staff complained about a particularly rude, dismissive tone. The first thing they did was tell all the writers they were expected to generate Moar Page Views[1], which is the besetting nightmare of anyone who puts thought and energy into their writing (yes, even jokes about sports take thought and energy).

Then they made it clear that this political nonsense was going to stop. Deadspin was going to be a series of click-through articles with virtually no content to distract readers beyond increasingly loud, pushy ads. The staff, naturally, fought back on this, arguing that the site was successful precisely because it drew an audience bored by what most dumb sports sites were churning out.

That’s when heads began to roll. First, Megan Greenwell, the editor-in-chief, left. Next, the deputy editor was fired, after refusing to “stick to sports.” One day later, in a truly brilliant move, the senior writers all posted non-sports, fully political articles each tagged “stick to sports” — then quit. Drew Magary quit the following day (the site’s masthead still features a direct link to his archived articles).

What you’re left with as a company might very well remain profitable, but it’s no longer any place anybody wants to work.

Jerk Boss Behavior

Similar complaints about editorial interference and overbearing new management prickiness have been made by editorial and writing staff at all of Gizmodo Media’s other websites, although none with an exodus so large as Deadspin‘s. Some former writers have noted, correctly, that this is exactly normal when private equity firms take over, well, anything (be it a successful website or struggling retail company).

But the most fascinating observation came from Deadspin‘s first high-profile escapee, aforementioned editor-in-chief Megan Greenwell, in her essay called “The Adults In The Room”:

The beginning of the end of my time here came when Spanfeller, my boss’s boss, threw a tantrum in an email to the entire company over a story our staff was reporting on his hiring practices, management style, and threats to editorial independence. He accused us of biased journalism based on the fact that we had sent an early draft to our media lawyer, which is standard journalistic practice. He accused me and a 26-year-old reporter who works for me — a wildly talented reporter who has as much integrity as anyone I’ve ever worked with — of trying to “shame and discredit others in our community” by reporting a story. When another colleague suggested in an all-staff meeting that his email was itself an attempt to publicly shame and discredit his employees, he doubled down, saying he is a transparent guy who says what he thinks…

After I submitted my resignation, explaining that the ongoing undermining from my bosses made it impossible for me to continue to succeed in my job, and that I believed I was putting my staff at risk by staying, the CEO threw a tinier tantrum. When I passed Spanfeller in the office a week after I put in notice, he let out a cruel barking laugh, as if he was disgusted to be in my presence. I said “you can speak to me, you know,” and he responded in a tone familiar to anyone who was ever bullied in middle school. “I don’t want to,” he sneered.

Greenwell’s point, of course, was that this sort of management style is common among those who consider themselves to be the hard-nosed realists, the grownups, the adults in the room. And that as a result, it drives talented people away. What you’re left with as a company might very well remain profitable, but it’s no longer any place anybody wants to work. (Sociopathic environments like Enron and the Trump White House have shown a spectacular propensity to ruin all they touch.)

That office interaction she describes also reminds me of a line from the show Deadwood: “Can’t shut up. Every bully I’ve ever met can’t shut his fuckin’ mouth.”[2]

Why Can’t Bullies Ever Shut Up?

The bully, by definition, always has to have the last word. Because anything else means admitting, or at least allowing others to believe, that you realize your behavior was wrong.

Now, are bullies the only ones who do this? Heavens, no. We’ve all done it in arguments with romantic partners, family members, online commenters, insurance company phone reps, whatever, when we felt we were in the right. Most of us, though, will eventually realize we’ve taken an argument too far and agree to disagree, retire to separate corners, drop the argument altogether — apologize if we really feel crummy about the whole thing.

A true bully will always have the last word. Even if they apologized before, they’ll nurture and nourish their interior anger at having had to do so, and take the first opportunity to resume the argument (if not with the individual in question, then anyone who seems an appropriate abuse double).

A true bully never really regrets behaving the way they do; they consider it their right as the more powerful person.

Most of the writers who quit are enormously talented and probably will have no difficulties finding new employment.

Why Are Many People In Power Some Degree Of Bully?

Orwell once stated that every bully is also a coward. I’m sure there is some truth to this. Any child services professional knows that bullies are often children who come from abusive homes. So do behavioral psychologists who study serial killers. That sort of bully might have a twisted manifestation of the impostor syndrome, where someone who has power over others constantly fears being found out as a fraud.

Some bullies, however, show no signs of ever having been mistreated in their lives. And that’s the kind I think those new Gizmodo Media owners are. They don’t fear being exposed for the frauds, or jerks, that they are. In fact, they assume such a thing will never happen. Not to them.

Power corrupts, as the saying goes, and if that’s not innate to human behavior it is certainly innate to our current form of capitalism. Everyone under capitalism is ranked by their status, in ways both big (investment portfolio size) and small (an office worker at an ad firm is considered “cooler” than a garbage hauler who makes more money).

A great many people who demean others because they have a higher status under capitalism are Orwellian coward-bullies; they’ll be rank suck-ups to those above them and full-on buttholes to anyone beneath. (As another saying goes, “shit rolls downhill.”)

Not the ones at our very top, though. Not the ones who know that no decision they make will ever harm their lives in any serious way. The super-rich almost never become poor — and only go to jail when they present a problem to the other super-rich. Since they have no need to fear any repercussions for their actions, why not be a rude jerk “who says what he thinks,” if you like? If it makes you feel really, really badass.

The Ultimate Fate Of Deadspin

Most of the writers who quit are enormously talented and probably will have no difficulties finding new employment. Craig Calcaterra at NBC Sports’s Hardball Talk does something very similar with his sportswriting. There’s lots of places a clever writer can go if they don’t want to write sports on the internet anymore. (One does need a solid resume for this, however.)

Could the site itself come back in some sort of different form? Ari Paul at Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR) thinks there may be, if writers band together to form some kind of employee-owned website. Paul admits such a venture would require considerable risk with very little early reward, yet suggests that “for independent media to survive… we’re at a breaking point, so it’s necessary.”

How about the site itself? No doubt it will continue in some sort of fashion, as it currently does, but I suspect it will never draw such a loyal following again. Especially not if the new owners continue amping up intrusive ad placements. Fans of witty sports/politics coverage can find other places to go, especially on podcasts and the like.

My guess is Deadspin‘s most consistent readers — you know, the ones advertisers like best — will drift away if they already haven’t fled in disgust. (God help these new owners if they push The Root‘s staff into mass escapage.)

Will it hurt the private equity investors at all? They might make less profit than they expected, but they’ll be fine. Even if they do take a loss, they’ll certainly blame someone besides themselves. Not every spoiled brat grows up to be a bully, but every rich bully is a spoiled brat.


[1] “Moar” is apparently who high young-people spell “more” online. Who am I to stand in the way? -FM

[2] The full quote is, “Can’t shut up! Every bully I ever met can’t shut his fuckin’ mouth. Except when he’s afraid.” It is said by Seth Bullock to George Heart in the final film.

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