Martin Derbyshire and Journalistic Nihilism in the Information Era

It was early last week that former PokerNews writer Martin Derbyshire tweeted a final apology and announced that he would no longer be writing for the site. His dismissal came following a debate-style article he co-authored about professional poker as a career. According to the PokerNews editorial staff, the assignment was to argue for and against the viability of becoming a poker professional in the current state of the industry. Instead, Derbyshire chose to argue against the ethics of that choice, making some strongly-worded generalizations about the character of those who would attempt it in the process.

Although not all PokerNews readers are themselves professionals, or even winning poker players, most can probably be assumed to admire professionals and perhaps aspire to the career themselves. The backlash was therefore immediate, and the piece was swiftly pulled. Derbyshire tweeted a brief and not entirely convincing apology asking people to leave him alone and “focus on positivity.” The following day, PokerNews Chief Creative Officer Matthew Parvis posted an open letter to the poker community explaining what the article was supposed to be about, that it had been published unedited by accident, and that there would be accountability. Early last week, Derbyshire tweeted another, longer – but ultimately self-pitying – apology, including the news that he would no longer be writing for PokerNews.

Some of my peers at other sites, like Lee Davy at CalvinAyre and James Guill at PokerUpdate have expressed their opinions on and worries about Derbyshire’s firing. Having had words with Derbyshire about a previous piece of his, not long before the one which ended his career, I was not going to opine myself as I don’t want to be guilty of kicking a man while he’s down. However, Davy had missed some of the larger context behind the story – he said so himself in response to a comment I made on his piece – and I feel strongly that we do have to get the big picture in order to take the right lessons away from this unfortunate series of events.

“He went too far”

This is the starting point for most opinions I’ve read about Derbyshire and the article in question. That by painting the entire world of poker professionals with a broad brush while using terms like “lazy” and “self-deception,” he’d crossed some invisible line between acceptable criticism and simply insulting his readership.

Considering the article in a vacuum, fears of censorship (or self-censorship) such as those expressed by Davy in his piece are understandable. We do not want to live in a world where journalists have to bite their tongues and fret about exactly what percentage of their readership they dare offend, or how many angry tweets it would take for their editors to show them the door.

As Guill points out, this already happens to some extent. Most media outlets have an editorial slant one way or another. This was true even in the newspaper-era paradigm of readers as customers and words as product, but is even more blatant and unavoidable now that readers are the product, advertisers and sponsors are the customer, and words are simply bait, or a necessary step in the manufacturing of page views. Providing information which is beneficial for a general readership is no longer as important from a business perspective as catering to and retaining a specific audience.

But whether we fault Derbyshire for writing the piece, or the PokerNews editorial staff for allowing it to be published, if this really were just an isolated case of bad judgment, then he absolutely should not have been fired and we should not be harsh on the higher-ups at PokerNews either.

However, taking that view is akin to staring at a puddle on the floor while ignoring the rain outside, the gaping hole in the roof, and the ceiling which is liable to cave in at any moment.

Derbyshire’s glass house

Derbyshire’s problems with the poker community – especially the poker Twitter community – did not start and probably have not ended with the article in question. Rather, they’ve been chronic and getting worse for quite some time. From my point of view, it seems fairly apparent that they stem from his questionable decision to choose controversy-seeking as his direction as a writer, while being in possession of one of the thinnest skins I’ve seen in the industry.

Either would be fine on its own. There’s nothing inherently wrong with specializing in hot takes as a means of getting attention in this social media-fueled world. There’s also nothing wrong with having a dislike for conflict and sticking to straight news stories or feel-good pieces. But if you’re going to choose provocation as a career path, it stands to reason that you should have a plan in mind for dealing with those people you’ve provoked.

At first, Derbyshire’s issues were with specific people who’d criticized his articles in the past. He’d first react defensively, then usually make a weak apology and perhaps adjust some of his wording, and finally claim victimhood status for himself because he felt he’d made amends but others weren’t so quick to let the issue drop. His resentment would then surface a month or two later when he’d find some excuse to insert some jab at his critics in a subsequent opinion piece. Those people would react, as would their friends, and so the List of People Martin Derbyshire Does Not Like One Bit would grow, and with it the number of call-outs in his subsequent work.

So, the piece that got Derbyshire fired was just the endpoint of a snowball that had been rolling downhill for months, and at an ever-increasing clip. The opinion he wrote was not cause for dismissal, but a long history of alienating ever-larger swathes of the site’s readership surely was. But Derbyshire himself is just one casualty of a civil war of sorts, in an industry that has lost its way. I’m not talking about poker here, but rather journalism.

Journalistic ethics in the clickbait era

Derbyshire’s sacking comes at an interesting point in time, one at which the media as a collective consciousness is doing a lot of navel gazing. We’ve just seen a US election which, regardless of its outcome, was always destined to go down in future history books as – not to put too fine a point on it – a clusterfuck of unprecedented proportions. Anyone who’s shot a passing glance at my Twitter knows how I feel about the outcome, but the truth is that even if Clinton had won, the damage to the credibility of American democracy was already done, and the media shoulders a huge amount of the blame.

On the one hand, we had a corporate mainstream media unabashedly rooting for the status quo and losing credibility with the dissatisfied masses because of it, even if it did for the most part avoid any gross distortions of the truth. On the other, we had an alternative media that, rather than seeking to restore public faith in journalism, has by and large elected to leverage people’s lack thereof for short-term profit.

Much has been made of the role of “fake news” in electing Donald Trump, and whether it should more properly be described as propaganda. The truth is, however – and you can hear it from the horse’s mouth – that many of the worst, most deliberate liars weren’t hoping or expecting for him to win; they simply designed fake stories so as to get the most social media traction among the most gullible segment of users, because that was an easy way to make money. To hear them tell it, that those stories were then cited as factual by Trump’s campaign and sites like Breitbart was an unintended consequence… but one that should have been pretty foreseeable, if one was inclined to take responsibility for one’s words and actions.

Although we don’t talk politics much, poker news sites are definitely a part of this alternative media. The internet is the modern-day equivalent of the Wild West, and we all get to choose which colour hats we’re going to wear. If Derbyshire’s article is the puddle on the floor, and clickbait-oriented media operations are the leak in the roof, then a global public that has ceased to believe in the idea of truth, or that anyone is interested in telling it… that’s the ceiling that’s about to cave in on all our heads.

A journalist’s responsibility is sincerity

I’ve argued in the past that the idea of an unbiased media is an absurdity. It’s a lie concocted and perpetrated by virtually every outlet in an effort to discredit competitors as “biased,” while flattering its own readership by telling them that they’re smart enough to recognize objectivity when they see it.

There’s a big difference, however, between being biased and lying. Lying isn’t simply making statements which are false; everyone is guilty of that sometimes, by accident, regardless of how committed or not we are to the truth. Rather, lying is the act of making statements which do not reflect one’s own understanding of the world, and that applies as much to one’s subjective opinions as it does to the facts. Expressing an opinion you don’t really hold because you think it’s what people want to hear – or because you want to provoke them – is lying, every bit as much as asserting facts which you know to be disprovable.

I have no idea why, exactly, Martin Derbyshire was fired by PokerNews. It could have been that they felt some line had been crossed, or had grown tired of taking his side every time he put his foot in it, or perhaps it was as cynical as that his pieces were no longer generating traffic in proportion to the outrage produced. If it were me, however, the actual fireable offence was the very thing he offered as an excuse in his apology: That he doesn’t really believe all these things he’s said about people, or about poker players in general. He points out that he’s also written more positive pieces, as if that makes it any better, but that the negative ones get more traffic. That doesn’t make it better, it makes it worse.

No one is unbiased. That can’t be said enough. Every word you read is written by a human (for the time being, anyway) and whether we’re talking about a Wikipedia entry, a New York Times investigative piece, or something explicitly labeled as an op-ed, the writer’s personal worldview is going to creep in. We can’t expect our news to be unbiased.

However, if we don’t hold journalists to sincerity, we’ve got nothing. There wasn’t any bathwater in the first place, but that doesn’t mean we should throw the baby out. To me journalistic responsibility means first and foremost to be sincere at all times. To tell the truth as one understands it, to be equivocal when genuinely unsure, and not to argue a case that one does not genuinely want to persuade the reader of, except when making it clear that one is paraphrasing the opinions of others for balance.

Taking ownership of your words

A good rule of thumb for gauging a writer’s sincerity is this: When pressed, will the person provide additional arguments to support their piece? If they do decide to make changes or issue a retraction, do they provide reasons and acknowledge fault? Much of the continued resentment surrounding Derbyshire stems from belief that his disdain for poker professionals was genuine and his retraction was not, but I’m not so sure. I have no idea what he believes, because he never really stood by anything he wrote for PokerNews, nor explained himself when backing down. But for him to have written the things he did, then to say he didn’t really mean it by way of apology does make him a liar, one way or the other.

Lest I be accused of picking on Derbyshire unfairly, let me say that he’s far from the only writer taking that tack. It’s become standard in the modern climate of clickbait, false equivalence and the outrage-apology dance which results from internet “call out” culture. It’s so commonplace, in fact, to see someone make an outrageous claim and then immediately back away from it under fire, that it’s easy to get the impression that no one in media even believes their own bullshit anymore.

So, if Marty’s a puddle, and views-oriented editorial leadership is the leak, and public loss of faith is the collapsing ceiling… this, then, is the rainstorm outside: A basic lack of respect on the part of many writers for their own profession. Our job is to put ideas into the world. If we don’t believe the ideas we’re putting forth, is there even a point? I would argue there is not.

Believe your own bullshit. If you’re a writer, write what you mean and mean what you write. If you’re a site owner or editor, don’t ask your writers to make a case they don’t believe in: Assign someone else, skip the topic, or make difference of opinion a part of the brand. Most of all, if you’re a reader, hold writers accountable for the words they put out in the world. Do not accept “I didn’t really mean it” as an excuse.

No one, in any capacity, should be willing to treat nihilism as an acceptable journalistic stance.

Alex Weldon (@benefactumgames) is a freelance writer, game designer and semipro poker player from Montreal, Quebec, Canada.

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