Jul 31, 2008, 05:24AM

Writing & Responsibility

The recent Jezebel controversy shows the extent to which Internet writers are held responsible for their words and actions.

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I am fortunate to have a forum where I can offer my thoughts and ideas for public consumption, although that privilege comes with sometimes daunting consequences. The joy of seeing one's words in print is almost always accompanied by the fear that they will not be well received. It's a heady feeling waiting for my work to be posted on Splice, but the hours that follow, during which I carefully read the responses that begin cropping up soon afterwards, inspire much nail-biting and brow-furrowing.

There are perks, though: with the privilege of writing and the fear of being read, comes an unusual sense of power. For my friends, I am now the go-to girl whenever they have something that needs to be written about—an anecdote, a social or political issue, or a particularly offensive product like the ones I sometimes write about on my blog. One of the phrases I now hear most from my friends is, "You should really write about this…" Another common one is, "Don't piss her off, or you'll wind up in her next column." Yes, there is a sense of power that comes with having my writing published, but there is also an intimidating sense of responsibility for my own words and views.

That sense of responsibility is two-fold. Not long ago, two of the writers of Jezebel.com, a feminist-oriented website that runs stories on "celebrity, sex and fashion, without airbrushing," were interviewed on a TV show called Thinking & Drinking. The show, as its name suggests, encourages its guests to imbibe while they discuss a variety of matters and, during their interview, Tracie Egan and Moe Tkacik of Jezebel, quite inebriated, made some glib and imprudent comments about rape, sex and feminism. To call the interview "poorly received" would not begin to describe the uproar it caused. In the following days, a discussion arose about what it means to be a public figure and whether being a published writer who espouses a point of view or a set of ideas makes you a role model. Does writing about a set of ideas obligate you to live your personal life in accordance with them? Should you be excused if every now and then, you say or do something, which contradicts the ideas you've set down in writing? On this issue, I sided with Jessica Valenti, one of my favorite young feminist authors, who commented in the aftermath of that disastrous interview that, "by writing for a large audience, you are making yourself a public figure—and sometimes a role model."

I write for a varied audience. Does that make me a role model? Is being a role model something we have to willingly take on, or does it, as Valenti believes, happen without our consent, simply as a result of our public exposure? When people take my words to heart, which is the goal, am I in some way responsible for their newly formed or newly influenced beliefs? If so, am I also responsible for how they might behave based on those beliefs? And if writing for an audience automatically makes me a role model, what responsibilities do I have? These are questions that all writers must think carefully about.

And it's not just for our readers’ sake that we need to be careful about what we write; it's for our own good too. When a simple Google search can bring up everything you've ever published online, you need to choose your ideas and words very carefully. Employers, detractors and anyone else with a computer can access every word you've ever written in a under a heartbeat, even years after the fact. The result is that today, the chances of eating your words are higher than ever. While a lot of us dread the day that one piece, written in haste or in anger, will embarrass us or prevent us from getting hired, our integrity and reputations are also at stake.

We've all written things we know we will one day regret; that day might even be tomorrow. But perhaps there's hope for us as we begin to fill, whether by choice or otherwise, our important and intimidating positions as role models. After all, some of the best role models are the ones who made mistakes, who ate their words, and who emerged older, wiser, tougher and still admirable.

  • These are points very well-taken (I hadn't heard about the Jezebel thing, either), and things I worry about as a writer for ST, too. The challenge is to balance being mindful with having the courage to enter into a critical debate with our culture, even if it might piss people off. Not to sound hackneyed, but I think the key is civility. And probably being sober when one writes or speaks on camera.

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  • I think part of the problem is the ever-increasing focus on a personal writing style. Maybe the technology is responsible, or maybe it's just an evolution of culture, or maybe (and this is what I think is most likely) the emphasis on immediacy and output in modern writing makes it harder to invest the time for well-researched and depersonalized journalism. Regardless, columns and online writing never seem to let you forget the writer's personality. The basic structure isn't "Here Is An Issue" anymore, it's "Here Is What I Think About An Issue." The pronoun "I" is ever-present, and the more writers write about themselves the more often they're going to be caught in these kinds of contradictions.

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  • No imbedded link/video or transcript of the interview? Honestly, the only person I know who can pull off imbibing on TV is Anthony Bourdain. Also, DD, I don't think the "I" is the issue in this situation; it's about a particular proponent of a particular set of beliefs undermining said beliefs with asinine, college-style drunkenness and innappropriate remarks. It's more a disservice to the FIELD rather than the person. When all is said and done, very few of us writers will have had any effect on the bigger picture, but in aligning yourself with ideologies you are inheriting a particular, if vague decorum. And that, to be, trumps the overall notion of writer as role model (though there certainly exceptions)—it's the idea that ultimately carries the weight.

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  • UPDATE: Link now embedded. Thanks to ASKlein and his vigorous defense of ultramodern digital standards.

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  • Isn't it like knowingly walking into a trap when you are asked to "think and drink." How completely hypocritical and ridiculous. That's like having a show called "drinking and driving" where you invite guests to do just that and then controversy arises because of an "unforeseen" collision. The uproar, it seems to me, should give attention to the whole concept of the show, not an incident that came out of it. I am so tired of media... I have to stop paying attention.

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  • Oh, I don't know. Christopher Hitchens can pull it off.

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  • What I'll say is that when you have less time for due diligence when it comes to facts, research, interviews, etc, a writer ends up relying a lot more on their worldview, their "ideology" if you want to call it that, their Unique and Intelligent Perspective. Because ultimately every writer has to implicitly answer the question "Why should anyone read this?" And sites like those in the Gawker universe don't really answer that question with "We provide thoroughly researched, fact-checked information and breaking news." They answer it with gossip and snarky commentary on information from other sources, basically a perspective/ideology instead of journalism.

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  • @Deities: maybe I'm wrong but it seems like Splice Today focuses more on a "column" writing style than true journalism. There's nothing wrong with that, it is just different and, I think you are right, reflects a growing trend or change in our culture. That being said, unless Chloe's getting completely hammered before she writes her columns, I'm not sure that the Jezebel example is a worthy one. That whole "scandal" seemed to have more to do with taking responsibility for what you say when drunk (role models don't drink!!!--think of the children!) than what you say in writing.

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  • A cautionary tale warning us all to drink alone from now on.

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