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Episode LXV: "Murder is bad; adults are generally more qualified for jobs than babies"

Published 5/30/17
In this installment, I speak with Joanna Rothkopf. Topics include Jezebel, the Jez style, irreverence, celebs, funny Republicans and the lack thereof & more.

 Credit: Victor Jeffreys

Credit: Victor Jeffreys

Today I'm with Joanna Rothkopf, the managing editor at Jezebel, a site that I frequent multiple times a day, and which brands itself as "Celebrity, Sex, Fashion for Women. Without Airbrushing." I once read Gawker religiously and felt bereft when it was left to dust in the Hulk Hogan-Peter Thiel fiasco (what a world we live in), and then a friend told me Jezebel had inherited some of its writers and, in some way, its voice. As a satellite of Gawker, Jezebel's tagline felt more accurate, but now that it's replaced Gawker's bookmark on the browsers of many, it feels a bit narrow. Or maybe the millennial urban colloquial that sites likes Gawker and Jezebel so masterfully capture (and influence) has veered more toward something that could be called 'for women, without airbrushing'. The site is addicting because it covers crucial issues with this very 'real' vernacular, meaning: this is how people actually talk to each other. 

The topics of your most recent articles illustrate the diversity of Jezebel's reporting: the GOP health care plan, an article titled "Have You Thought About a Baseball Cap for Summer?" (which is what is sounds, and includes the following paragraph: "It’s like a freaking umbrella for your face! And what’s more, you don’t even have to hold onto a pole."), Melania, an interview with Elizabeth Warren, and a scandal involving "an exclusive corporate feminism club".

Before we jump into all this, let me ask: what was your path into the position of Jezebel's managing editor, and what exactly does the managing editor do?

I don't know how much detail you want regarding my path, but basically, I always loved Jezebel. I wrote a "women's interest" column for my college newspaper called "That Thing Down There," where I was intentionally copying Jez style. After I graduated, I had a few jobs and then went to Columbia for my MA in, if you can even believe, Science and Health Journalism.

After that I was hired to be an environment/sustainability writer at Salon, but became more of a generalist. After awhile there, I left my salary/benefits to become a part time contributor at Jezebel, and I was very lucky to be hired full time pretty quickly.

Oh, and what does a managing editor do . . . It's the managing editor's job to make sure the site is running on a daily basis—edit the blogs, run the calendar, administrative stuff like that. I also edit features and write and co-host a podcast called Big Time Dicks.

For the layman, and also for the person who reads Jezebel obsessively but still couldn't put it into words, what exactly is the "Jez style"?

All of our writers have their own distinct, hilarious voices—but I think in general we make an effort to cut the bullshit. Jez doesn't pander to its readers. We aren't afraid to be funny or stupid or disrespectful when it's deserved.

How much of your popularity do you think is based on that last note—the irreverence? In some ways, I think the style is tabloids for a higher socioeconomic class than tabloids were originally meant for.

I don't know how to say whether our popularity is based on one factor or another, but I do know that when Jez started 10 years ago, it was the only website that was writing in this specific kind of casual, filthy way. I think we still take a similar tone, with great essays and reporting and blogs. During the election, especially, I think it was nice to be able to write and talk about politics in a way that wasn't always so straight and serious, especially given how upsetting the news was every day. And during the Trump presidency too, obviously.

I see you there. As things get (uniformly, surreally) worse, I find myself wanting to hear that news through Jezebel and sites like it. Traditional journalism (I'm thinking of the New York Times and the Washington Post) feels at once overly liberal (blowing up an everyday Trump misstep) and protective (dryly reporting on the GOP health care bill, and what it actually means to real people). The same sort of colloquial language I read in Jezebel is mirrored in some weird way on the right too, with Breitbart and the like. Do you think there's been a shift in recent years (and in recent months especially) in the tone people want to receive their news through?

Well, yeah, it's definitely a weird time in media. I think every kind of (responsible) publication serves a purpose—we need hard news reporting from places like the AP and the Times, obviously, but we also need places like Jezebel, which has never pretended not to have a perspective.

The thing that gets trickier, and I think what you were kind of alluding to, is when these traditionally hard news publications try to get in the irreverence game, and then people are like, "Aren't you supposed to be objective and humorless?" But what we're seeing is that it's becoming impossible not to have every article contextualized with, "Here's all the times Trump has lied; here are all the investigations he's connected to; here are all the tweets he's tweeted." At what point are you allowed to say, "This is a bad dude?"

And I think one of the reasons Jezebel is able to do that seamlessly, is that its tone is and always has been asking for eyeballs, and clicks—it's unrepentantly sensationalist, I think. But when a more traditional publication so obviously needs clicks (its business model relies on that), and it goes for that, it pulls it away from its supposed principles, of objectivism and balance. I want to know if you think there's such a thing as a truly balanced publication, and what the closest thing we have to that is.

First of all, I wouldn't say that Jezebel is unrepentantly sensationalist! 

But I think that the word "balance" is a little bit of a misnomer because it implies giving two opposing viewpoints equal weight, which you shouldn't do if one of the viewpoints is dumb and wrong. I think the Times has recently fallen for this fake goal of balance, when they hired Bret Stephens on their opinion page and let him publish that op-ed that basically argued we need to calm down about climate change. That is not a take that deserves an equal voice in the pages of a national publication, because it's a bad take. 

In terms of objectivity, there are a bunch of places that do great work. The AP, the Times, the Post, the LA Times. Local papers are often doing the best reporting in their communities. And at places like Jezebel, when we're reporting on stories, we're also always working to be objective—being objective doesn't mean not having values (i.e. murder is bad; adults are generally more qualified for jobs than babies). It means making sure facts are driving your narrative. 

What's amazing to me and also not amazing at all, is that a site with Jezebel's tone will and probably always will be liberal. There are funny conservatives (I'm sure, someone must have proof somewhere), but the right certainly has a way of failing at comedy when they do try. Do you agree? If so, why do you think a Jezebel couldn't exist on the right? Do you have anyone on staff who would consider themselves conservative? 

If you find a funny Republican, let me know. A driving force of humor is punching up—in class, or privilege or whatever. If you're a political party that represents the interest of rich, white, bigoted people, there's not really anywhere to punch but down? I also don't think sarcasm is a trait typically associated with conservatism—it's more straight, earnest, moralizing.

And I don't want to speak for my coworkers, but I think a major thing that binds Jez writers together is the belief that women should control their own bodies. If you don't believe that I'm not sure why you would want to work here!

If Hillary had won, and the democrats controlled both houses, and institutions like Planned Parenthood were safe, and lawmaking bodies also believed that women should control their own bodies, how do you think Jezebel's coverage would shift? Do you think your readership would change?

That's a nice fantasy.

Yeah.

This question feels a little bit like it's hinting at, "If it didn't suck to be a woman, would Jezebel still have a place in media?" And my answer to that is that it's never stopped men.

But more literally, if those things were true, I don't think the condition of being a woman and/or person of color would become a privileged position overnight. Very far from that. There will always be plenty of assholes to report on. 

That's fair, and I appreciate you taking the sugar-coating off my question. On that note, of there always being assholes to report on, a big part of Jezebel's coverage is celebrities. A lot of it is positive, and a lot of is negative, and all of it is unrepentantly (still not the right word?) indulgent. It feels like the principle is that, if someone is famous, they've given up all rights to a private life.

Well that's kind of getting into Hogan/Gawker territory, which I don't really want to touch, because I never worked at Gawker. Basically, though, part of what Jez does is write about, and often poke fun at, celebrity culture, and all that goes with it. In my experience at Jez, the staff has always had a high standard of what gets written about and reported on and why. 

We're nearing time, and so I'll send you out with a softball. How do you see Jezebel changing in the upcoming years?

That's more of a question for our excellent EIC Emma Carmichael who I would follow off of a cliff but I think it's safe to assume we'll keep working on doing funnier blogs and deeper reporting. We launched two podcasts, Dirtcast (celebrity culture) and Big Time Dicks (politics) a few months ago, and have a great video team, so you'll see more of that kind of thing too. 

Thanks so much for your time and words Joanna.

No, thank you!