“There is only one mob in human history,” the author Peter Quinn once observed. In Elias Canetti’s exhaustive 1960 taxonomy of the forms this mob will take, Crowds and Power, Canetti places no special emphasis on the one that is perhaps most familiar to us today: the “baiting crowd.” This is the mob that forms in the pursuit of a social reversal. It seeks to take the mighty down to size.
By Canetti’s day, that mob had evolved from the crowd that gathers for a public execution into the newspaper reader who pores over the gruesome details of one. The medium changes, but human nature doesn’t. And if Canetti had anticipated Twitter, he might have foreseen the modern iteration of the baiting crowd: the outrage mob.
Though it is engaged in the modestly more civilized pursuit of careers rather than scalps, the mob retains its essential characteristics. It assembles rapidly, must continually expand or be perceived as expanding, and it must have direction. “[T]he more distant the goal, the better the prospect of its permanence,” Canetti wrote. But in indulging a collective persecution complex, the mob sows the seeds of its own disjunction. “An attack from outside can only strengthen the crowd,” he assayed, “an attack from within, on the other hand, is really dangerous.” Today, the New York Times verges on striking just such a blow against the online outrage mobs to which it has catered.
A tone of righteous grievance characterizes the Times’s dispatch chronicling the efforts of Republican political operatives working to discredit the journalists on the president’s behalf. A network of agents is reportedly combing through decades of public writings and social-media posts with the aim of delegitimizing reporters who publish information critical of the president. Though the Times fumed over how the damaging material this group has published was “stripped of context or presented in misleading ways,” it also conceded that these tactics were pioneered and perfected by the left-wing mercenaries at Media Matters for America.
New York Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger’s fury over the effort to “intimidate journalists from doing their job” was palpable. “The Times will not be intimidated or silenced,” he declared. The pure, uncut cynicism on display in this denunciation of the tactics used effectively against conservatives for years is so potent that you should probably avoid it if you’re taking blood thinners. But the revelation from the publisher of the Times that there is something unfair in the effort to render inconvenient facts scandalous and their messengers toxic is, nonetheless, welcome.
And yet, the Times, CNN, and other targeted media outlets do not seem to have fully internalized the scope of the mission on which they’re embarking. They are careful to frame their objections to this practice as though they were being imposed on them from the top-down, attacking the president for conscripting his allies into this sordid undertaking. But that is not how this works. When MMFA or a Republican operative uncovers an ugly sentiment expressed by one of its targets, they do not quietly appeal to the institution that employs them for redress. They incite the crowd and enlist the public to demand satisfaction.
As the Times knows better than most, a statistically insignificant number of social-media users can feel like the crushing tide of insurmountable public opinion when mobilized in pursuit of the same objective. When advice columnist E. Jean Carroll published a book alleging that the president raped her, the Times treated the claim as skeptically as it would any other unsubstantiated allegation of criminal violence while seeking outside sources to corroborate her story. But among the perpetually indignant, for whom journalistic best practices are unequal to the daily crisis, such prudence was indistinguishable from cowardice. Executive Editor Dean Baquet dutifully supplicated. “We were overly cautious,” he confessed.
In the wake of a weekend of gun violence including one racially motivated incident, a report on Trump’s scripted speech addressing the twin atrocities was headlined, “Trump Urges Unity vs. Racism.” Though literally accurate, a stampede of Twitter accounts raged at the paper’s failure to contextualize Trump’s remarks and remind readers of his penchant for racial antagonism (a tough thing for a headline to accomplish). Though Baquet acknowledged that “we were getting killed on social media,” he insisted that the scramble to scuttle the original headline preceded the online backlash.
The paper’s deputy Washington editor, Jonathan Weisman, was “criticized as racist on Twitter,” according to the New York Times, after he tweeted that Democratic members of Congress representing urban districts in the Deep South and Midwest are not necessarily representative of their regions as a whole. This and other “serious lapses in judgment” led to his demotion.
And yet, the Times is capable of the institutional fortitude necessary to withstand the ephemeral demands of the outrage mob—particularly when that mob is positioned on the right of the political spectrum. Editorial board member Sarah Jeong was discovered to have attacked “white people” as “groveling goblins” and “dogs”—comments the paper dismissed as nothing more than “old tweets.” The outrage passed, and Jeong has proven herself a competent reporter and editor. This resolution wasn’t simply a function of the fact that this paper’s audience both expect and reward its leftward lean. A Wall Street Journal study of the effect of online outrage mobs largely concluded that persecution requires a measure of complicity from the persecuted. “For all the noise, mass-market brands rarely see outrage turn into lasting reputational damage or sales slumps,” the Journal revealed.
The institutions that are responsive to these baiting crowds are the sources of their authority, not the crowds themselves. Perhaps inadvertently, the Times has raised a valuable question: What if we simply ignored them? It sounds like a noble and auspicious experiment. Or, it would be if the Times was serious.