CULTURE NOVEMBER 19, 2013
In a recent Times op-ed, Bill Keller, making the case for 2013 as the golden age of news, offered a casual account of his daily media intake. It started ordinarily enough: a little NPR at the gym, some Wall Street Journal and FT, a glance at The Guardian and the BBC website and the AP mobile app. But then it kept going. The Atlantic and Foreign Affairs and a few Foreign Policy bloggers. Al Jazeera English. A feed of an independent Moscow radio station. A “feisty news website” from South Africa. The Twitter stream #Turkey, followed by a jaunt over to Youtube to prowl for new videos of European officials ranting about U.S. spying. Then came the kicker: a visit to onlinenewspapers.com, a lightly curated cornucopia that links to literally thousands of newspapers and magazines.
It is hard to believe that a person could pursue such a daily newsgathering regimen and still have time to shower and feed himself, let alone write regular op-eds for the paper of record. But if today is the golden age of news, it is also the golden age of the “media diet,” in which bold-faced names of the culturesphere catalog their reading habits for public consumption. First formalized by the Atlantic Wire in 2010, the feature has since cropped up in countless other incarnations—from a flood of personal blogs and Tumblrs to magazine items like AdWeek’s “Information Diet,” which interviews Hollywood B-listers about their favored modes of news acquisition. (John Stamos reports: “It used to be newspapers; now it’s the computer.”) On the Atlantic’s relaunched “Wire” site, there’s an entire subsection labeled “MEDIA DIET,” with the latest displayed prominently on the homepage—from comedian Rob Delaney, who cited his preferred venues for keeping up to date on the Affordable Care Act.
The media diet, of course, is a creature of—and an intended guide through—the ever-intensifying anxiety over the endless streams of content in our inboxes and Twitter feeds. Last year Clay Johnson—co-founder of Blue State Digital, the firm behind Obama’s 2008 campaign—even published a book called The Information Diet: A Case for Conspicuous Consumption, which purports to show readers “how to thrive in this information glut” and includes chapter titles like “We Are What We Seek.” Divulging your media diet is the more elite equivalent of sharing a Granta link on Twitter to demonstrate your obscure and fashionable tastes. And it’s easy to see why the media loves a media diet: it stokes industry vanity, it smacks of insideriness, it reflects assorted journo-rivalries and feuds.
In some ways, of course, the cultural obsession with media diets is as old as the media. In the 1976 book Blood and Money, author Thomas Thompson succinctly establishes one character’s self-regard by writing: “‘I only read The New York Times, she said a little grandly.” But one only need glance at some recent media diets to see the wild new frontier we have reached in publication-branded image management. If the media diet was originally designed to be at least partly instructional, a kind of roadmap through the hellscape of online news, it quickly morphed into something more insidious.
The very first media diets posted to the Atlantic Wire in 2010 came from Atlantic staffers: Marc Ambinder, Jeffrey Goldberg, Ta-Nehisi Coates. Three years later these posts already feel charmingly quaint. (“I just ordered a Kindle,” Ambinder announced.) And in the beginning they also had the ring of simple truthfulness, less clouded by the pressures of digital self-presentation. “I’ll check on updates at the Times and the Post online,” Coates said. “I generally scan the papers.” Compare this to the 2012 report from Vice columnist Kate Carraway: “I consistently buy The New Yorker; The Atlantic; Harper’s; Vanity Fair; Interview; British and American Vogue; the British, American and Canadian editions of ELLE; Flare; Fashion; Glamour; New York Magazine, Los Angeles magazine, and Toronto Life; BookForum.” To read the past few years’ worth of media diets is to witness the inexorable slide into greater and greater delusion in our virtual self-depictions. “I think I said I read The Atlantic,” Awl editor Choire Sicha told me about his 2011 media diet. “I don’t really read The Atlantic.”
Media diets tend to fall somewhere between two camps: There’s the Brian Stelter school of warp-speed omnivorous robot information ingestion and the Malcolm Gladwell school of eccentric anachronism. (Reached for comment, Stelter said that CNN has asked him to put the kibosh on interviews until he starts his new gig, but on the subject of media diets, he added: “I like the topic.”) Stelter’s daily news intake basically involves unhinging his jaw and consuming the entire internet: “Between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m., I start opening what ends up being dozens of browser tabs,” etc etc. Gladwell, meanwhile, makes a virtue of abstaining from the racket: “I subscribe to one person’s Twitter feed: my friend Jacob’s,” he wrote in 2011. Reading a Stelter media diet is in equal parts aspirational and stressful, akin to observing a model of perfect efficiency and up-to-the-minute news literacy. Gladwell’s has the opposite effect: in its confident leisureliness it reassures you that your own metabolism is just fast enough.
The feature has done so well, said Atlantic Wire editor Gabriel Snyder, that editors have kicked around the idea of an open source media diet that allows anyone to contribute. Traffic-wise, “they’re not cat videos,” Snyder explained—Aaron Sorkin’s media diet currently has upwards of 57,500 views—but they consistently engage an audience and have become one of the Wire’s defining franchises. After all, they’re designed to capitalize on exactly the kinds of “technomedia insecurities,” as Snyder puts it, that leave journalists constantly wondering, in the endless slog of filtering and curating, just how much they’re missing. Interviews are usually conducted over the phone, Snyder said, but he added: “I feel a little uncomfortable talking about our strategy, because it has become incredibly imitated.”
There is perhaps no clearer evidence of the media diet’s cultural creep than Ad Week’s Information Diet, which targets not newshounds but semi-celebrities with no particular claim to expertise on the subject of reading. Emma Bazilian, who conducts most of the Information Diet interviews, bemoaned the redundancy of her task. “Everybody watches ‘Breaking Bad,’” she told me. “There was a joke in the office for awhile that people in the art department were getting sick of putting a picture of The New York Times in very single Information Diet. Then there are actors who throw out lofty names like the Economist and Forbes, and you’re like, really?” But Bazilian sees a bright side: “I think if we were interviewing more media people instead of celebrities,” she said, "the info diets would be even more preposterous.”
It should be said that these things are not always a festival of ego-indulgence. Some are quite charming and self-aware, a kind of anti-media diet for the media dieting set. Grantland’s Rembert Browne, whose own Diet for the Atlantic Wire included accounts of stealing the print edition of the Times from his neighbors, was initially wary of the project. “Sometimes these things can be such a put-on: oh, I have a million magazines to read by 9am,” he told me. So he took the opposite tack. “[Sometimes] I wake up at 9:30 a.m, putz around my apartment for an hour, and then consider leaving at 11 a.m.,” his post proclaimed.
Like a celebrity profile written by the celebrity himself, the media diet’s appeal is in part its illusion of intimacy, the fantasy of access to a private routine. As former Atlantic Wire senior writer Jen Doll, who compiled more than a dozen media diets over the course of her time at the Wire, put it: “If you were like, hey Brian Stelter, what do you do in the bedroom? he would never tell you, but if you are asking about how he interacts with media, you learn these really fascinating details that aren’t gross.”
There’s also a back-pat aspect to the exercise, which makes an ideal forum for clubby industry shout-outs. “When Gladwell said that he reads The Awl, I was literally like: tee hee!” Sicha recalled. Emma Carmichael, editor of The Hairpin, used her media diet to take inventory of her influences: to name just a few, Hamilton Nolan, Tom Scocca, Caity Weaver, Maria Bustillos, Jim Behrle, Nitsuh Abebe, Jon Caramanica, Carrie Battan, Frannie Kelley, Molly Lambert, Charles Pierce, and Julianne Shephard. (“Names I was dropping,” Carmichael told me.)
Such is the modern media diet: it enshrines the lamest aspects of our media culture—the status anxiety, the horseracing, the elaborate charade of virtual self-promotion. But still, somehow even the most bogus, bloated diets are fairly irresistible as entertainment. “Sure, it can feel like a kind of media bragging, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing,” Doll said. “The question becomes: even if it is a brag, why is it a brag? What does that teach me about this person’s life?” The answer might be: nothing. But clearly that won't stop the media from judging all the things you read.