On Toxic Media
Nikki Finke and the perversion of journalism.
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1. Speak Ill of the Dead
Last week Nikki Finke died. You wouldn’t know her unless you followed the business of Hollywood over the last 20 years, but she was kind of a big deal. It’s not a great parallel, but you might think of her as the Matt Drudge of entertainment journalism: An outsider who crashed the party and became a force of nature, changing the way her business functioned.
People often used the word “brash” to describe Finke. “Brash” is a euphemism, a term meant to obscure, rather than reveal. In Finke’s case, what it meant was that she was toxic. Both as a person and as a practitioner of her profession. I wouldn’t take the time to speak ill of the recently departed except that Finke was bad for journalism and we ought to hold her to account instead of smearing the lens with vasoline and pretending she was merely a “character,” a benign figure in the culture.
There are two pieces about Fink worth reading.
The first is from Richard Rushfield at the Ankler:
Her second great insight in gathering these micro-scoops was that they didn't have to be right; they just had to keep coming. If they were wrong, you'd correct it later. Or not, who would remember after all? Or care that some story from three weeks ago they couldn't even remember didn't pan out?
Her third great insight was that you could be wrong 10,000 times a day, but you can never be boring . . . And the two things could go together, because in the pursuit of micro-scoops you flay alive those who didn't give them to you. . . .
She lied about things small — she would tweak weekend box office numbers to punish people who hadn't bought ads; changing time stamps to make it look like she broke a story — and things enormous.
All the talk today about her as a trailblazer — she knocked down some walls in journalism, basically to a faster, more opinionated newsroom, but the other thing her that she really really REALLY hated was any woman who was successful in Hollywood: female journalists but also female executives in the business.
Rushfield has the receipts. You should give it a read.
Then there’s Puck’s Matthew Belloni:
Everyone in Hollywood who was active during Finke’s reign—and it was a reign; she dominated the landscape from 2006 to 2013 in a way that is difficult to explain to those who didn’t experience it—has a Nikki story, and most of them are awful. She was awful. Screaming threats. 3 a.m. phone calls. Outright blackmail. I’m all for being super-aggressive on a story—but she’d try to destroy lives, to get agents and assistants fired if they wouldn’t do her bidding. She’d torment publicists with email subject lines like “today’s the day I ruin your career.” She once attempted to sabotage the book deal of a rival journalist I know, just because. . . .
Nobody does anything in Hollywood unless they’re afraid, she once told me. There’s an element of truth to that, and good journalists know how to exploit that fear, but Nikki took it to a destructive and selfish end.
We all loved to read when she went after someone, but Nikki once told me in blunt terms that she occasionally wrote horrible things she knew to be untrue about people in order to get them to play ball with her in the future. That’s pretty much the definition of libel, but to her it was just a casual Hollywood power play . . .
Nikki was a terrorist. A journalistic terrorist, sure, yet a terrorist nonetheless. She presented herself as a no-bullshit reporter who kept the Hollywood moguls honest, yet she perverted the profession by blackmailing sources, often targeting the weak, and weaponizing the internet to push her bile directly into our inboxes.
Read the whole thing. And now let me tell you why you should care. Even if you’ve never heard of Nikki Finke and don’t give a fig about the entertainment industry.
There’s one passage in Rushfield’s piece which strikes me as totally and completely incorrect:
This is the story of a very troubled writer who used the megaphone of “journalism” to work out her insecurities and issues in a hellstorm of performative rage, all while hiding — ailing, agoraphobic, sick — behind an online persona. An OG troll. And this is the story of the industry that enabled that, elevated it and created a monster in its own image. I’d argue no other “real” industry would ever have given such a person oxygen.
Wrong. Wrong, wrongity-wrong.
Alex Jones. Emerald Robinson. Mollie Hemingway. Julie Kelly. Steve Bannon. DC McAllister. Ben Domenech. Jesse Kelly.
The entire conservative media ecosystem is stuffed full of people who are very much like Nikki Finke. (Albeit—with the exception of Jones—somewhat less successful.)
Some of these people are liars. Others are fabulists. All of them intuited that setting yourself on fire, in public, in the name of “journalism,” was a fast-track to relevance. Because once people are paying attention to you, they stop keeping track of why they’re paying attention. Fame has an absolute value sign around it.
Nikki Finke decided to do journalism the way Hollywood executives did business. No rules. No accountability. No imperative except to be the one to die with the most toys.
This decision, however, meant that she wasn’t actually a journalist. She something else. Something neither here nor there. Something, to be honest, quite grotesque. Because it was dishonest.
The studio executive is a shark and never pretends to be anything else.
Finke was a shark who insisted—over and over and over—that she was Bambi.
There’s been a lot of this in political journalism over the last decade or two. This predates Trump and goes back, at least, to the advent of the internet. And maybe to the intrusion of TV on political life.
You have lying, climbing politicians willing to do anything for power. That’s a constant.
But then, suddenly, we had lying, climbing journalists willing to do anything for power. Willing—openly—to play by the same set of rules as the political actors, while cloaking themselves in “journalism.”
As I said: grotesque. Or maybe that word isn’t strong enough.
Because it turns out that journalism—like democracy and the Constitution and the rule of law—is basically run on the honor system. And once the toxic people figure that out, there’s no going back.
2. The Ruck
Paul Szoldra writes about war with China:
IF YOU’RE A CASUAL OBSERVER of headlines, “Xi’s looming third term in China raises threat of war over Taiwan” or “No Need to Blow Up TSMC in China War, Taiwan Security Chief Says” may give you the sense that as one deadly and destructive war rages in Ukraine, the world is about to have another in the Taiwan Strait.
It’s not. Defending the island democracy of 23 million in Taiwan is certainly on the mind of national security leaders today, but if another war truly were on the horizon, various economic and military factors would indicate Beijing planned to attack across the roughly 100-mile-wide strait. Yet we’re not currently seeing those signs . . .
So, what are the indicators and how do we know what they are? Thank retired CIA analyst John Culver for answering both questions in this sober and insightful analysis. The 35-year intel veteran notes the warning signs of a full-scale invasion or naval blockade to cut off western support and concludes that if “China decides to fight a war of choice over Taiwan, strategic surprise would be a casualty of the sheer scale of the undertaking.”
Read the whole thing. Szoldra breaks down the indicators into long-term (1 to 2 years out from an invasion) and medium-term (3 to 6 months out). The entire thing is worth your time.
3. Elon Musk’s Worst-Case Scenario
It’s too good to happen, but William Cohan runs through a scenario in which vulture capital could make Musk’s post-Twitter life very uncomfortable:
Elon is past the point of good choices, while his banks, led by Morgan Stanley and Bank of America, are presumably rueing the day they ever got involved in this disaster of a deal. . . .
Obviously, the original sin of the deal stems from Elon’s decision to pay $44 billion for Twitter, or 44x for Twitter’s approximately $1 billion in EBITDA. . . .
With a lower coupon on the debt, the banks will have to discount it dramatically to get it out the door—I’m hearing estimates of a 50 percent discount these days from my Wall Street banker friends—and eat something like a $6 billion loss on a $13 billion loan. Yikes.
But it only gets worse. What if the banks are able to sell the debt at 50 cents on the dollar? What kind of people on Wall Street buy debt at such a large discount? Why, our old friends at places like Apollo Global Management, Jeffrey Gundlach’s DoubleLine, and other loan-to-own debt vultures. . . .
If the debt falls into the hands of distressed debt buyers, then Elon and his equity partners have a whole new set of problems. Investors who pay 50 cents on the dollar for debt are entitled to 100 cents on the dollar. If they aren’t paid 100 cents on the dollar, or if an interest payment is missed, or if there is any other kind of payment or technical default, then the distressed debt investor may be entitled to accelerate the payment on the entire debt or to foreclose on their security—the assets of Twitter. In other words, any slip up on the payment front and Twitter’s creditors—not Elon Musk—will be the ones calling the shots at Twitter and controlling the company. They can put Twitter into an involuntary bankruptcy. And guess what? They will not hesitate to do so because that’s what distressed investors do. . . .
Again, following the logic here, if the Twitter debt is worth only 50 cents on the dollar at the moment . . . then the Twitter equity underneath that debt—the $31 billion—is technically worthless already, even before the deal closes. . . . Right now, the market is telling Elon’s Wall Street banks that Twitter is actually worth around $7 billion, or 7x EBITDA, not the 44x EBITDA that he agreed to pay, since it’s at that price that the banks can sell the Twitter bank debt and it’s at that price that the buyers of the bank debt will buy it. . . .
Barring some miracle turnaround plan for Twitter conceived of by the supreme ubermensch himself, he and his fellow investors are likely to lose pretty much every one of the $31 billion in equity they have yet to invest in this ill-conceived lunacy of a deal. It’s going to be quite a show.
Read the whole thing and dream of the awesome power of karma.
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