I’m disposed to think the worst of Bryan Goldberg, the callow publishing quasi-tycoon who became rich by convincing unpaid workers to flood the internet with low-quality search-engine-optimized sports content and then by convincing wealthy people to buy his content-flooding operation for millions and millions of dollars, and who now owns, among other things, the name and archives of Gawker. The fact that Goldberg ended up as the owner of Gawker, after the megalomaniac billionaire Peter Thiel destroyed the original site through a secret campaign of malicious litigation, was almost too grotesque to even be insulting to those of us who’d worked there; it was one more cartoon parable for our cartoon world, where morons are the winners and the winners take all.
I said something along those lines to a reporter from Bloomberg Businessweek, for a profile of Goldberg that ran earlier this month. It was a pretty good profile, I thought, opening with a devastating little anecdote about how, after he’d announced the launch of his women’s site, Bustle, in the most ham-fisted and sexist way imaginable, Goldberg had neatly and completely bought off one of his leading ostensibly feminist critics, Rachel Sklar, through an escalating program of consulting fees, flattery, and equity in his company. Who needs brains when you’ve got shamelessness, and, better yet, an eye for other people’s shamelessness?
So it was a little confusing to read, in the Columbia Journalism Review, the accusation that Businessweek had “normalized” Goldberg. “The normalization of Bryan Goldberg” was the headline, even, on a piece, by Lyz Lenz, dedicated to the premise that Goldberg is worse than he is usually understood to be, and that, after early embarrassments including a humiliating New Yorker profile, he has manipulated the media into giving him favorable coverage that he doesn’t deserve.
I ought to have been the target audience for this argument. But the more I read, the more befuddling the piece became. Goldberg, Lenz wrote, “is a volatile personality”:
In my case, after I reached out to him in January, he called me relentlessly, while I was having a late dinner with friends, while traveling, and on spring break with my children. Once he called me three times in a row, while I was on the phone with another source for a different story. When I called back, he was furtive. He wanted to set the record straight about a story in the news, he just didn’t want to do it on the record.
Already, we live in a time when the subjects of stories have learned to bend publicity their way by denouncing the basic act of reporting—someone getting in touch with you or the people you know, to ask questions—as stalking or harassment. Now the Columbia Journalism Review was publishing the complaint that a source had…tried to call a reporter back, multiple times, when that reporter wasn’t answering calls?
Maybe Goldberg was a huge jerk about it! But as described, he was acting like any source who didn’t want a negative piece written about him. Pushing back in an off-the-record call is the most ordinary thing a big-shot media person does, to try to deal with an adversarial reporter. Lenz went on to describe an episode where Goldberg tried to use her Venmo transaction history to show that she’d once bought a drink for someone who was later one of her sources, to accuse her of lacking objectivity—a creepy maneuver, but not even in the 10th percentile of sinister behavior practiced by, say, the Fox News PR shop. Compared to Harvey Weinstein’s reported tactic of hiring ex-Mossad agents to run an international dirty-tricks campaign against journalists who were covering him (or Peter Thiel’s pretextual lawsuit campaign against Gawker), it seemed almost charmingly low-key.
Again and again, even as it said bad things about Goldberg, the piece seemed to miss its own point. This how it wound up the case against him:
While Goldberg has grown more media savvy since the New Yorker profile—Businessweek is a case in point—his base instincts haven’t changed. He shouts. He spins. He just does it all on background now. The allure that comes off so fetchingly in a business profile is a lot less alluring when it comes to his treatment of employees. The personal volatility isn’t charming, it’s a liability. But it’s a lesson media, and America, never seems to learn until it’s too late. And we aren’t learning it. Goldberg’s attempts to buy up legitimacy are working. Press coverage now skews towards forgetting, too willing to give credit to Goldberg for an empire built almost entirely on the backs of women. Recent articles from AdWeek and the Hollywood Reporter crown Goldberg the hero conqueror, rather than the problematic colonizer.
If nobody learns a lesson, how is it a lesson? The realms of is and ought, of descriptive and normative arguments, were collapsing into each other with the power of nuclear fusion. Bryan Goldberg yells at people, spins reporters, takes credit for other people’s work, runs a boorish workplace, and has made a fortune publishing dumb crap. In other words, he’s a successful media entrepreneur, on the traditional model. Everyone else may have been busy imagining a future when talentless, mouth-breathing men no longer rose to the top, but Goldberg was busy rising to the top.
On Monday, Ross Levinsohn reappeared as the CEO of the new ownership company of Sports Illustrated.