The Opportunity Costs of Covering Joy Reid

For 12 days, the media has obsessed over a controversy about an MSNBC host out of all proportion to the story's importance.

Colin Young-Wolff / Invision / AP

Roughly two weeks ago, a Twitter user with fewer than 1,700 followers began publishing screen grabs of anti-gay posts from a defunct blog once written by Joy Reid, who hosts a weekend morning show on a cable-news network. Like the vast majority of Americans, I’d never watched the show AM Joy on MSNBC—I do not typically enjoy cable-news channels, or for that matter, the morning.

But despite having zero interest in what the host wrote years ago; or whether she was hacked, as she claimed, or lying, or deluding herself; or whether her show would stay on or be suspended or get canceled, I couldn’t escape the story.

I tried, reader.

No matter how it turned out, I could see no greater purpose that it would serve, no insight it would clarify, no ill it would vanquish, no good it would advance. So I ignored two staff articles and two wire stories in The New York Times, at least 8 items in The Washington Post, multiple CNN stories, at least 5 Fox News items, a Tucker Carlson segment, two USA Today stories, two items in New York, three at The Daily Beast, multiple items at Breitbart, a Rush Limbaugh segment, an article here in The Atlantic, coverage in numerous other outlets, and several futilities1 of social-media debates.

Then, 12 days in, national news stories were still being published! Defeated, I decided to probe the why of it all. Was any larger purpose served by all the coverage? If not, is there an identifiable way in which the press should change its approach?

On reading the coverage, I gleaned insights from a few stories. I grant that few were indefensible. And I understand how structural features of the news ecosystem fueled the story. For example, coverage by one news outlet spawns coverage by others that don’t want to get beat; once any outlet covers a story, it is more likely to publish more stories, in part to update its audience on new information; and while commentators have a responsibility to direct people to what is important, part of the job is also conceding that one often cannot control what’s in the news, or what folks seize upon and cause to trend on social-media sites—but that even too-popular stories can offer opportunities to make tangential points of importance that readers will be unusually primed to ponder.


So it isn’t that I find fault with all the journalists who published on Joy Reid.

What’s more, I share many of the underlying concerns that sparked some of the coverage. I oppose homophobic stereotypes. I agree people should not claim hackers are responsible for their words and that public dishonesty is a transgression in journalism. I think there is a role for journalists to hold members of their own profession accountable. And I agree with those who insist that if a conservative were in Reid’s place, there would be furious calls on the left for her termination. (I am a consistent critic of such calls regardless of which tribe is involved.)

But even grasping many of the factors that fueled coverage and sympathizing with folks who reacted to some of them does not change my overall assessment.

Coverage decisions are judgment calls.

And in my judgment, the scarce time, attention, and resources spent on this matter far exceeded anything that could be plausibly justified as serving the public interest. Neither gays nor lesbians nor the trans community is better off for the exercise of resurfacing of old, forgotten blog posts that even their author now disavows. Probing the dubious hacking story got the public closer to the truth—but a relatively useless truth that is neither pertinent to any of Reid’s actual journalism nor civically useful to the public nor likely to advance the overall cause of greater journalistic honesty or accuracy in any future way that I can see.

Most damning of all are the opportunity costs.

A cable morning-show host’s old blog posts, and her explanations of those posts, no matter how dubious, were just not among the most consequential or important LGBT stories, or media stories, or ideological-bias stories of the last fortnight, let alone the most important national or business or general-interest stories.

In the United States, “gay panic” is still being successfully used as a defense against homicide; legislation concerning so-called gay-conversion therapies is being debated in multiple states, with plausible arguments for and against imposing legal restrictions; anti-gay hate crimes are still happening; and countless families are trying to figure out how to support and educate kids who think they might be trans. Internationally, dozens of countries still violently repress homosexuality.

In media, local newspapers are shrinking and dying across the United States, an unprecedented experiment that threatens to drastically reduce civic information and dramatically increase corruption in local, regional, and state governments. Hugely influential commentators are operating on YouTube and through podcasts, reaching many more people than Joy Reid while remaining largely invisible to many mainstream media professionals, though not to their audiences.

The media ought to contain multitudes, so despite all the stories that I regard as much more important than this controversy, I would not fault an individual journalist for writing about it if they believed that they had particular value to add, or a unique interest in it, or if they judged it as unusually important.

What I object to is the matter rising to the status of a major story in multiple national outlets for days on end, despite its relative lack of bearing on anything beyond itself, in a nation with hundreds of stories that would’ve better served the public interest in its place. In my estimation, that outcome wasn’t mostly the result of judgments that differed from mine. It was due mostly to sometimes perverse features of the news ecosystem and to the following biases:

  • Social media is rooted in callout culture and biased toward the implicit proposition that social justice is best advanced through such callouts (despite an utter dearth of evidence for that proposition). And mainstream journalism is biased toward whatever controversy is being aired on Twitter, as if it reflects what is controversial or relevant to America, when it often represents a tiny, privileged, unrepresentative slice of the country, but one where journalists spend time, and where publications can be effectively pressured. The ability of Twitter to exert outsized influence on journalistic institutions—to incentivize stories crafted to please or to avoid displeasing its denizens—threatens the ability of publications to resonate and thrive in a larger culture with different norms and expectations.
  • Relative to the general population, folks who work in nonbroadcast journalism systematically inflate the importance of cable news and its personalities, needlessly and perversely boosting their prominence in civic life, despite the inferiorities of their medium. In this way, what Reid did or did not say in long-since-deleted blog posts made more news than anything, say, Joe Rogan or Maribel Wadsworth has said or done all year.
  • News has a bias toward what is new—a hugely important story will be published and drop out of the headlines in a day or two, so long as nothing new emerges, even as a story that everyone agrees to be relatively unimportant keeps resurfacing, time and again, when there is new information to add, even if it only advances the story in the most incremental way.

Once a story breaks, especially a story involving any kind of celebrity, no matter how minor, the press and social media alike can seize on it and follow it to its conclusion, for days or even weeks, without ever reassessing whether momentum is leading everyone astray, and displacing matters of much greater importance. As penance for my part in exacerbating the phenomenon about which I am complaining, I have just donated 125 nets to the Against Malaria Foundation.

  1. A futility is the collective noun for a Twitter or Facebook debate.