Politics & Media

Andrew Sullivan (In His Own Mind) Transforms the Media

It will be more like Andrew Sullivan.

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It's been a year since Andrew Sullivan took his website The Dish independent—which means that he's fundraising to finance his second year. In his pitch, he frames his continued success not just in personal terms, but as an exciting experiment in independent journalism, with wide-ranging consequences, or at least possibilities, for the future of media.  He writes:

Ask yourself what you think the Dish has been worth to you last year and throw in some more if you can. The more you give us, the more we can do. And we’ll keep the promise we made to you this time last year and have kept: maximal transparency and accountability. Think of it not just as a way to keep the Dish alive but as a way also to prove that transparent, reader-supported journalism can survive in an era of listicles, sponsored content, algorithms and endless slideshows. We believe it can; and we hope over this past year we’ve proved it.

Sullivan is providing a hard-nosed alternative to the corrupt, shallow, money-grubbing-and-yet-bankrupt practices of mainstream journalism. Contribute to him and save our culture.

Obviously, fundraising appeals are always going to be fulsome, and lord knows that Sullivan's marketing campaign isn't nearly as wretched as that of my local Public Radio station. Still, I think his logic is somewhat flawed. The success of the Dish, so far, is not a sign that "transparent, reader-supported journalism can survive." It's a sign that Andrew Sullivan is really popular. After all, while it may have expanded its staff, the Dish doesn't have a team of foreign correspondents, or for that matter, a team of national correspondents. It's not The New York Times or Talking Points Memo. Most of its content isn't reported. It collects links, collates reader comments, and provides personal analysis by Andrew Sullivan. In the course of his pitch, Sullivan touts Deep Dish, a project for long-form stories. The first piece produced by Deep Dish? An e-book length collection of Sullivan's blogging on the Iraq War. If The Dish embodies a principle of journalism or media, that principle can be summed up in two words: "Andrew Sullivan."

I rather like Andrew Sullivan. I don't read the Dish as often as I used to, but I still think its proprietor is an engaging writer. I'm happy for the website to continue. I just don't think that its ability to stay alive has much to do with transparent, independent journalism—at least, not as those terms are usually used. Sullivan's success isn't about the Internet empowering the scrappy underdog and eschewing listicles. Rather, it's about the Internet allowing celebrities to leverage their celebrity in new ways. Sullivan doesn't need listicles and gimmicks because he is, in effect, at this point, a gimmick himself.

And how did he get to be famous enough to be his own draw? Sullivan might say he did it through hard work and talent, which is true in part. And, sure, there was some of that. But there was also luck and, that trump card, institutional connections.

Sullivan's stature as a blogger was built on the audience and platform he gained as editor of The New Republic, and he's written for numerous established publications, from The New York Times Magazine to The Atlantic. He's not a scrappy insurgent; he's a long-time establishment media guy who eventually became famous enough to turn his successful brand into a business plan.

Which is cool for him. But in his fundraising pitch, he suggests that this is generalizable; that somehow his personal celebrity is a model for others in journalism. Which is unlikely. Celebrity’s a limited commodity—there can only be so many most famous people in the world. Beyoncé can release an album with no advance publicity and have it be even more of a meme than it would have been otherwise. But that doesn't mean that say, Valerie June should surprise release her next album and expect to suddenly be a superstar.

The Internet makes it easier for famous people to convert their fame directly to cash. The Dish certainly demonstrates that. Does it mean that people are suddenly going to pay to subscribe to journalism in general rather than to Andrew Sullivan in particular? Or does it just mean that famous people, whatever their other skills, tend to be gifted in the arts of hype and self-promotion?

—Follow Noah Berlatsky on Twitter: @hoodedu   

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