The Argument Economy

'Hot takes' can light the world on fire—and also prevent people from seeing things as they are.

Nick Reynoza/AP

Earlier this month, following news that Joni Mitchell had collapsed and been hospitalized, Time magazine published, on its website, a lengthy appreciation of the legendary singer-songwriter. The piece, headlined "This Is Why Joni Mitchell Is Your Favorite Musician’s Favorite Musician," reads as an obituary in every way but the most fundamental: Mitchell remains, fortunately, very much alive. So Time's story about her began like this:

Music fans around the world steeled themselves for tragedy on the evening of March 31 when Joni Mitchell was hospitalized after being found unconscious in her Los Angeles home. Recent updates indicate that Mitchell is doing well and recovering—a tweet from her official account sent early Wednesday morning placed her in intensive care, but “awake and in good spirits”— but still, it provides an opportunity to reflect on the sheer weight of Mitchell’s discography and the breadth of her influence, the tendrils of which snake through the last 40 years of popular music.

But still, it provides an opportunity... Which reveals a lot about how the media works right now. It is produced, these days, largely on and for the Internet, influenced in ways both major and petty by the forces of Facebook and Google. Journalists joke about the digital maw as a great, heaving beast: something that must be fed, something that both generates and feasts upon delicious, nourishing #content—Seymour’s carnivorous plant, basically, only hungrier and slimier and, quite often, angrier.

I mention this whole thing not to pick on Time and its fauxbituary, but to point out the confluence of pressures that are exerting themselves on journalism right now. There's all the classic stuff—the marriage of reporting and opinion, the balance of quality and timeliness—but a new one has to do with attention dynamics that are unique to the digital sphere. As far as the Internet is concerned, the tastiest content of all, the content that gets top play in Facebook's and Google's algorithms, is the content that is timely—the stuff that is, somehow, pegged to the news of the world. A big news event, The Awl's John Hermann noted last year, "generates an enormous surplus of attention, much more than news can meet." News organizations have an interest in converting that attention into commercial gain ... while also serving the purposes of information and conversation that journalism, ideally, embraces.

One strategy for that was made clear when Joni Mitchell emerged, from the hospital, perfectly fine: Time published a take. Which is sometimes clarified as a “smart take,” but is much more commonly known as a “hot take,” and also as, even more pejoratively, a “piping hot take.” Definitions of the take, as a journalistic form, vary widely—the term can be used neutrally—but many of them involve some side-eye. Some generally-agreed-upon characteristics: The take is usually argumentative. It is often alarmist. It is almost always pegged to a big news story that everyone—or a vocal chunk of everyone—is talking about. It takes advantage of the attention that has coalesced around a particular event—be it leaked celebrity photos (privacy! the digital panopticon! sexism!) or the announcement of a new wearable technology (privacy! intimacy! commercialized jerkiness!) or the confirmation of another Clinton candidacy (dynasty! ageism! sexism!), or the hospitalization-if-not-death of Joni Mitchell—and exploits that event on the grounds of a Greater Message.

Takes can be, despite the bad branding they've endured of late, wonderful things. Takes, in many ways, guide this magazine, because takes are rooted in ideas, and ideas can propel us forward and change the world. “The Internet has made a wealth of information and a wealth of commentary about that information available to readers,” Slate’s Julia Turner noted. “Because the quantity of that information is so overwhelmingly vast, readers are more reliant than ever on commentators who can analyze and interpret it, making arguments about what matters, how to understand it, and what it all means. Some of that commentary is vapid. But that fact doesn’t eliminate the need for commentary that’s not.”

The take, as a form, found itself the subject of some takes this weekend after Ben Smith, the editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed, sent a memo to staff explaining the un-publishing of an opinion piece on its Life vertical—explaining on Twitter that BuzzFeed would be “trying not to do hot takes.” Though he later retracted that stance, his anti-take statement was still, the take economy being what it is, widely discussed among journalists and beyond.

What the conversation revealed was how embedded the take has become in the systems and assumptions of digital news. The story that extrudes an idea from the news and re-molds it into an argument—ripe for discussion on Facebook and other social media—is so common that it barely feels like a form worthy of categorizing. The pressures that encourage takes—the churn of #content, the demands of timeliness, the commoditization of news—are ones we’re all navigating, together. Some journalists are accustomed to publishing stories that are concerned as much with existing—that is to say, taking up space on the Internet, buffering ad inventories, providing URLs that put news outlets in conversation with Google and Facebook’s hungry robots—as with persuading. And whose raison d’être is pretty much, if we're being honest about it, just être.

Usually, this is fine. (Again: takes —> ideas —> progress!) Where things go awry, though, is when the writing of a take provides an excuse to privilege ideas over facts. Time's "Mitchell didn't die, but no problem, we'll publish an obit anyway." The rush of commentary about the Germanwings tragedy before its fuller story is revealed. Passionate arguments about just-breaking stories—the details of which we don't yet, by definition, know—on cable news and their websites. The rise of the phrase "if true"—as if the truth is a mere inconvenience that shouldn't be allowed to interrupt a good argument. Et cetera. The “prototype hot take,” Today in Tabs’ Rusty Foster told The New Republic’s Elspeth Reeve, is when, after news breaks, “somebody will rush out an opinion piece a couple hours later that comes to some really grand conclusions based on this one thing that happened that maybe we don't even have all the facts about yet.”

Indeed. You sometimes get the feeling, reading the hottest of takes, that the author has been waiting—for days, for weeks, for months, maybe for years—to make his or her point. The argument is fully formed; it's the facts that have some catching up to do. Ideas, like everything else, work best with a news peg.

For the most part, that's fine. The problem comes, though, when the take in question only tenuously marries the ideas of a piece of news with the facts of it. It's one thing to disaggregate the story from the ideas it contains, pulling apart the threads and re-weaving them into an argument; it's another thing, though, to privilege ideas over the facts themselves.

This is perhaps why many journalists have a fraught relationship with the take (and the hot take, the piping-hot take, and their ilk). “In the U.S. press," the NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen told me in an email, "there is a single source of virtue. The mythical term for it is 'shoe leather reporting.' There can never be enough of it. Only good derives from it. Anything that eclipses it is bad. Anything that eludes it is suspect. Anything that permits more of it is holy."

The take, generally speaking, represents an inversion of that dogma. At its best, that leads to persuasion and progress and a robust economy of ideas. At its worst, though, the take hews to the belief that facts can be, in their way, subservient to broader ideas—that information shouldn't get in the way of a good story. There's another word for that: propaganda.