life in pixels

The Rise of Busybody Journalism

Photo: Mike Kemp/In Pictures via Getty Images

On Thursday, The Wall Street Journal published a YouTube video in op-ed form. I call it a YouTube video not because it’s a literal video — that might have been better — because its concept is immediately familiar to anyone who’s tumbled down a right-wing YouTube rabbit hole. “This summer, I found myself heading back to the U.K. as it was plunging into a debate over Islamic dress,” journalist Andy Ngo explains. “I wanted to cut past the polemics and experience London’s Muslim communities for myself.” He spends a couple of days wandering around neighborhoods in London with large Muslim populations, observing “hundreds of residents busy preparing for the Eid al-Adha holiday” and “girls in hijabs gathered around tables to paint henna designs on their hands.” He concludes that London, a city of 9 million people and a $600 billion economy in which he appears to have spent about five days, is an example of “failed multiculturalism.”

The Journal column, at least, has a sober title (“A Visit to Islamic England”); on YouTube, it would have been called “MY JOURNEY INTO LONDON’S NO-GO ZONES,” where it would have turned up in search next to livestreaming journalist Tim Pool’s 2017 videos “INSIDE A ‘NO GO ZONE’ IN MALMO, SWEDEN” and “GETTING ‘ESCORTED’ OUT OF THE ‘NO GO ZONE’” and right-wing agitator Lauren Southern’s “Thrown Out Of Sydney No Go Zone.” The premise of this emerging genre is simple: A vlogger visits a neighborhood with a large Muslim immigrant community, ostensibly to see for themselves an area they’ve heard is too dangerous for even police to visit. The vlogger establishes that their presence in the neighborhood is unwanted — in Pool’s case because he was filming men who didn’t want to be filmed; in Southern’s because she was standing outside of a mosque “criticizing Islam” — and leaves. A video of the experience is uploaded to YouTube, the phrase “no-go zone” featured prominently in the title.

Where did this kind of journalism come from? How did it get so popular? A generous genealogy of this emerging school might trace its techniques back to the 19th-century muckrakers who went where middle-class society refused to go — it’s not impossible to imagine a millennial Jacob Riis re-titling How the Other Half Lives “INSIDE A ‘NO-GO ZONE’ IN NEW YORK CITY” — but it reminds me less of McClure’s Magazine than of local TV news, and even more than that of quasi-journalistic enterprises like Cops and its direct predecessor, Geraldo Rivera’s infamous live-broadcast “War on Drugs” specials. In each case, the outcome is less the kind of clarity or edification you associate with good journalism than the heightened anxiety and fear you associate with a good crime drama.

That sensationalism goes part of the way toward explaining its popularity. These new reporters also manage to heighten the drama by implying that powerful institutional forces are hiding the truth from you. The unspoken premise of Ngo’s op-ed, like Pool and Southern’s videos, is that the mainstream media isn’t telling you the real story — it’s too biased, incomplete, “heated,” or otherwise compromised, and only the lone journalists can “cut past the polemics.” (This is a natural fit for YouTube, whose most successful political commentators peddle an essentially Gnostic worldview: There is a great truth being hidden from the people, and this guy wearing a beanie can give you the hidden teachings necessary to uncover it.) The quest for truth is not a bad starting point for investigation, but in practice, on YouTube, it becomes at best a kind of busybody officiousness masquerading as journalism, the gesture of people so confused that they cannot assess multiple competing claims until they “see for themselves.” At worst, as in the case of Southern, it’s a cynical ploy to muddy waters, to introduce a “debate” — and, consequently and conveniently, “another side” — which until recently didn’t actually exist.

But really, what vloggers like Pool and Southern offer over Cops is something that resembles a social relationship. YouTube’s star system has been built on a particularly intimate parasociality: Viewers maintain often intense, but almost entirely one-sided, relationships with the vloggers who record and publish their lives. Tim Pool may not be your actual friend, but he can feel like a friend, and watching his videos can feel like spending time with a friend. “The media,” meanwhile — didn’t they fail to predict Trump? Who are you going to trust, when it comes to shaping your worldview?

Given this, it’s not surprising to find Ngo’s column among the op-eds, always the most parasocial of the newspaper sections. (What is a regular beloved newspaper columnist if not a YouTube star without a channel?) The first person of Ngo’s piece attempts — like a YouTuber’s “Hey guys!” — to establish the kind of trustworthiness that his readers might have difficulty finding in the more institutional writing of the Journal’s reported news. The flip side of this sociability is that outside of the descriptions of his day-to-day activity in London, there are not many facts — certainly very few of the kind that might provide a broader perspective on the question of multiculturalism’s success or failure. What is more important is what Ngo saw, and what is most important is how he felt.

It’s in this focus on the individual reporter’s feelings, I think, that the new busybody journalism distinguishes itself. The experiential journalism that precedes it may be formally similar, but it was almost always rendered in the context of larger institutions — magazines like McClure’s, or later Rolling Stone or Mother Jones or even Vice — that could provide editorial support. Busybody journalism of the kind performed by Pool and Southern positions itself entirely against journalistic institutions, which it regards as hopelessly corrupt, and in giving up on those institutions gives up on their backstops and strictures — processes, like, for example, fact-checking. There’s an appealing democratic character to the shift from well-capitalized magazines and newspapers to scrappy individual “citizen journalists,” but the value of an institution is that it can “see” in ways that individuals can’t — that is, with the input and involvement of multiple stakeholders, and bringing to bear the resources necessary to establish facts across large populations. Strip away that apparatus and all you’re left with is individual feeling. What matters in “see for myself” reporting isn’t the kinds of numbers that only institutions can count — rates or population statistics, say — but the kinds of sentiments that only individuals can feel — fear at the approach of a woman in a hijab, or anger at the sight of a Pakistani flag. As one approach, it can help paint a fuller picture of the world than dry statistical recitation would. But as the sole tactic of a journalist, it’s a rhetorical dead end.

The Rise of Busybody Journalism