When Did Journalism Become So Humiliating?

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BLOW HARDS: BuzzFeed’s exploding watermelon video attracted nearly a million viewers. The impact on U.S. gross domestic product has not been calculated.

All stunts and no brains!

BY Zach Schonfeld

On June 15, 2015, Brendan Klinkenberg ate a burrito. It was a breakfast burrito packed with eggs, bacon, avocado, beans and cheese. Several hours later, he ate a burrito for lunch. For dinner, a carnitas burrito. Klinkenberg repeated the diet—skipping breakfast—the following day. And the next day, and the day after that.

After a hellish week, Klinkenberg wrote a BuzzFeed article titled “I Ate Nothing but Burritos for a Week.”

“It was a mistake,” Klinkenberg says now of his burrito cleanse. “You shouldn’t eat only burritos for a week.” The idea was pitched to him by an editor, and Klinkenberg happily consented. The headline was guaranteed to garner attention. BuzzFeed would pay for the burritos. That’s a week of free meals. Why not? “I thought it was kind of a silly idea and I’d just do it and be done with it,” he adds. “But it was pretty bad. You just feel like garbage.” In his write-up, he declared it “the dumbest thing I’ve ever done.”

Other journalists have done far worse.

“I’ve smoked coffee grounds, ate gourmet dog food, got drunk off a humidifier full of vodka and most recently tried to get drunk off a few gallons of Kombucha,” says Jules Suzdaltsev, a writer who has taken stunt journalism to its logical extremes.
A decade ago, stunts like this might have been fodder for Fear Factor or Jackass. Today, the Jackasses are likely to be professional journalists.

When did journalism become so humiliating?

I Came to Work Wearing Only Underwear
Immersive journalism is not new. In 1887, the reporter Nellie Bly feigned insanity in order to be committed to a New York City insane asylum. Her stay resulted in a landmark undercover account of appalling conditions at the Women’s Lunatic Asylum. Eighty-odd years later, Hunter S. Thompson wrote a manic first-person account of the 1970 Kentucky Derby, which more or less invented the genre now known as gonzo journalism. His work brought madcap (and drugged) self-immersion to the forefront of American journalism.

“What’s happened now,” says Duy Linh Tu, a professor at the Columbia School of Journalism, “is there’s been an escalation in the types of stuff [writers will] do.” Stunt journalism is pretty easy to define: It’s any article wherein a writer becomes a guinea pig, attempting some masochistic or outrageous challenge attempting to prove a point or provide a compelling or horrifying firsthand account. But it’s not so easy to trace its history. Nobody can really tell you when stunt journalism evolved into today’s more sensationalist form, so let’s just go with May 2007. (That was the month Vice magazine had an intern performing indecent acts in the office which impacted the employees’ hygine.)

There are basically four categories of stunt journalism—sex, food, body horror and fashion/beauty. The Vice intern’s dirty deed done dirt cheap ticks at least four of those boxes. Nine years later, the stomach-churning story has been largely scrubbed from the internet, but the try-anything ethos has blossomed into a cottage industry.

“A lot of young journalists…are doing these things for very, very little pay,” says Lauren Larson, an editorial assistant at GQ who in February wrote a list of Free Stunt-Journalism Ideas for Aspiring Writers. “Sometimes it’s really funny, and sometimes it’s really, really stupid.”

Larson’s piece envisions a future overrun by “a bunch of J-school grads in adult diapers, eating burritos.” It’s not so far off. Then there is the live-like-a-celebrity genre: One writer lived like Khloé Kardashian for a week; another lived like Marilyn Monroe. The Cut published “My Week Living Like Shailene Woodley,” and The Tab posted “I Lived Like Donald Trump for a Week.” (How?) “You can interview people or do a bunch of research on a particular topic,” says Brooke Shunatona, an editor with Cosmopolitan who lived like Kylie Jenner for a week, “but you don’t actually really know or understand until you’ve done it yourself.”

The stunt piece headline is nearly always a first-person, declarative statement. I Let My Boyfriend Dress Me for a Week. (I Fertilized My Salad With Period Blood.) I Came to Work Wearing Only Underwear (and This Is What Happened). I Tried to Eat Hot Dogs Competitively and Nearly Died. I Read and Replied to Every PR Email I Received for a Week.

I wrote the last one, by the way.

Super Size Us
The stunt piece might be understood as a distant cousin of the personal essay, the confessional form that now commands great power and even greater traffic on sites like Thought Catalog and xoJane. It’s similarly intimate, except the pain flows out of a careerist strategy that’s familiar to a post-Revenant, frostbitten Leonardo DiCaprio: “How much bodily and emotional harm am I willing to do to myself for the sake of my career?”

They contain traces of the personal essay, but the tone is different. The personal essay searches inward, mining personal experiences for content; stunt journalism pushes outward, creating experiences from scratch. It’s a neat trick: You’re no longer required to have an interesting life in order to write about yourself.

If the modern stunt essay has a film antecedent, it’s Super Size Me, Morgan Spurlock’s 2004 documentary chronicling his attempt to eat nothing but McDonald’s food for 30 days. However jokey it seemed, the stunt served the public interest in clear ways: Spurlock drew national attention to the obesity epidemic, and McDonald’s discontinued its Super Size option shortly after the film premiered.

Less journalistic value is accomplished by ingesting nothing but alcohol for a week. Tu, the journalism professor, wonders whether the term “stunt journalism” is a misnomer. “I don’t think all of this is journalism,” he says. “I’m not making a quality judgment. It’s all content…. [But] you won’t be able to build a long-term journalistic organization pulling these stunts.”

You might envision stunt journalism as a giant spectrum, with “newsworthy” on one end and “existentially pointless” on the other. In the former category, you’ll find Mother Jones’s powerful recent dive into life as a prison guard or Motherboard’s Soylent investigation, “How I Ate No Food for 30 Days.”

At Columbia, Tu isn’t teaching his journalism students how to dress like Disney princesses. “We don’t talk about it,” he says. “Not because we don’t think it’s something our students would ever be exposed to or lean towards. We just have other fish to fry.” That said, his students “might go to a place like Vice or BuzzFeed or any of these online platforms that get very loosy-goosey with what’s allowable,” Tu adds. “Maybe we should address it more.”

The Thirst for Content
Super Size Me proved prophetic in subject as well as style: Stunt journalism frequently involves fast food and extreme diets. A few months after the burrito piece, Cosmopolitan published “I Only Ate Pizza for a Week and I Lost 5 Pounds.” Another reporter tried eating nothing but Chick-fil-A for 30 days, while a BuzzFeed contributor tasted 12 brands of cat food. Sometimes the fast food industry’s concoctions are so ghastly that merely sampling the latest item on the menu passes for a stunt. In 2015, Time, Fox News, The Washington Post, USA Today, Time Out and Newsweek all made a big show of tasting Pizza Hut’s “hot dog-crusted pizza” monstrosity. (One wonders if the foods are created to solicit exactly this kind of coverage for free advertising.) In other cases, the food is pretty much incidental: Dan Ozzi, an editor at Noisey, recently spent 12 hours in Taco Bell on 4/20—the ultimate cannabis holiday. He describes the stunt as “really isolating and boring.”

“There’s a thirst for content,” says Ozzi. “I realize that I’m insulting myself by saying this, but it also says a lot about journalism that it’s a very me-focused thing: ‘Oh, I did this. I went out and did this stupid thing.’ It is very focused on the writer, because digital media makes it so that online popularity is the new form of currency.”

Especially now that content creators are stunting not just behind the laptop but in front of the camera too. BuzzFeed Video is owed some credit—or blame—for the shift. BuzzFeed’s “Try Guys” (a team of guys who, well, “try” things) have racked up millions of views exploring zany, gender-bending antics on camera: trying cosplay, trying on wedding dresses, simulating the feel of going into labor. More than shock value, these videos make a desperate bid for relatability, the secret ingredient for converting mundane subject matter into viral manna. Look! they scream. These men are discovering how gross it is to change a diaper!

Many of the stunts amount to a kind of superficial tourism of gender, class or race. BuzzFeed’s diary of a flannel-wearing dude wearing makeup for a week (which has well over a million views), for example, presents something that women do daily just long enough to produce viral content but not seriously enough to produce much insight. Writing for Gawker, Leah Finnegan likened the piece to John Howard Griffin’s book Black Like Me, deriding it as “stuntertainment at its worst: doing something a large swath of the population does every day as if it’s a remarkable act.”

In recent months, the advent of Facebook Live has both bolstered and redefined stunt journalism. When BuzzFeed got nearly a million viewers to watch two guys in smocks explode a watermelon on Facebook Live, the landmark antic spawned dozens of “future of media” blog posts and nearly as many copycat stunts. A week later, Mic, a prominent BuzzFeed competitor, broadcast its staffers donning lab coats and blowing things up in real time, to significantly less fanfare.

Meanwhile, a Washington Post columnist ate his words on camera, swallowing a “newspaper ceviche” with graceful composure, while the New York Post had its staffers attempt to eat 3 pounds of artisanal cheese on Live.

This is a journalistic cliché—don’t look for a story, be the story—funneled through new-media channels. It’s not the recklessness that’s new (war reporters have long put themselves at risk) but the humiliation. The stunt craze is liable to change how would-be journalists go about breaking into the industry. Or maybe it already has.

“Whenever kids ask me how to get into writing, I’m always just like, ‘You know how to get into writing? Go mess up your life really bad,’” Ozzi says. “Go do something really stupid. And then write about it. That’s where good stories come from.”

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