The rise of the personal-public beef

“Personal, and typically IRL, disagreements will find new life online in 2015. Writers will call bullshit on other writers, pointing fingers, responding with substance and heart.”

It’s no secret: There’s a common and widespread problem in media — the profusion of white, mostly male, voices. But take a quick survey of the web in 2014 and a very clear interest in conversations around race, gender, and sexuality and in feminist perspectives becomes evident. This year, websites like Vox, The New York Times, Vogue, and BuzzFeed joined the discussion with journalistic bombast: intellectualizing terms like “basic,” reporting on the unrest in Ferguson, covering our (apparently new, but not really new) obsession with big butts, and weighing in on powerful woman showrunners in Hollywood.

jason-parhamAt times, reading about these and other topics felt incredibly voyeuristic. Most lacked cultural ownership. That’s not to say “black topics” or “Latino topics” or “women topics” don’t deserve interrogation from outside voices, but there’s real substantive value when said stories are filtered through, say, the gaze of a black reporter or a Latina writer who is grounded in the story.

I was taught that journalism should never be personal — that a reporter should always be objective. But that’s a lie. The best stories are personal. This is why the public dispute between The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates and New York’s Jonathan Chait was the most exciting and surprising thing to happen to the internet in 2014. It was also a sign of things to come.

But let’s back up. The Great Public Intellectual Deathmatch of 2014 began when Coates wrote “The Secret Lives of Inner-City Black Males,” a moving and clear-eyed dispatch about Paul Ryan’s remarks on personal responsibility among men in America’s “urban” centers. Chait responded in kind, writing: “[U]ltimately, Coates is circling back to an argument that prevailed among liberals in the 1970s and 1980s, and which Democrats abandoned, correctly.” Then Coates responded to Chait’s response. Then Chait responded again. And so on for the better part of March. At one point in the discussion, Coates fires: “It’s good to debate a writer of such clarity — even when that clarity has failed him.”

The debate quickly became personal. Coates was writing from experience. Chait, who’d done his research, was mostly speaking as an outsider. The spirited back-and-forth recalled the mid-1990s beef between the Notorious B.I.G. and 2Pac — but for a new generation of nerds. (I’ll let you decide who Coates and Chait are in that analogy.)

The debate — all held online, for anyone to see — remains one of the best exchanges surrounding American racism, black pathology, and personal responsibility in the last decade. But the Coates–Chait battle royal also points to a trend that, I think, will present itself with increasing frequency next year: personal-public beef. Personal, and typically IRL, disagreements will find new life online in 2015. Writers will call bullshit on other writers, pointing fingers, responding with substance and heart. Traditional media companies will no longer subtly hint at terrible content published on competing websites — instead taking the writer and website to task. There’s a surplus of clutter on the Internet these days: poorly reported articles, thinkpieces lacking thought, and crappy, unimaginative lists. So in a way, personal-public beefs will help cleanse the web of noise.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not campaigning for overly hostile journalism or opinion-writing, but instead a healthy and diligent exchange of ideas. Take a stance. Make your case. Just be ready to hold your ground.

Jason Parham is a senior editor at Gawker.