After the Daily Caller came under fire for publishing a story about potential Kentucky Senate Ashley Judd, Alex Pappas, a politics reporter for that site, tweeted: “Our entertainment writers write stories to entertain people. That’s all. Hilarious how you try to analyze those.” It’s a classic attempt to evade responsibility for media sexism by pleading pranksterism, but it raises a question that might be even more difficult for the Caller to answer. Calling your coverage entertainment doesn’t actually mean it’s entertaining. And Pappas’s claim seems like bald-faced dishonesty about the Caller’s actual intentions, given how in-line the publication’s coverage of Judd is with larger political attacks against her.
If you accept Pappas’ argument and analyze the Daily Caller’s Entertainment section as entertainment, it’s pretty thin gruel. Slower than gossip sites like TMZ or Perez Hilton, leavened by a lower cute-animal-slideshow density (and without the substantive content that’s subsidized by it) of Buzzfeed, without either the bravado of Maxim or the suavity of Esquire when it comes to objectifying actresses, and minus even the reviews and Q&As that makes a site like Big Hollywood a window into actual right-wing thought about culture, the Daily Caller imitates many outlets, but masters no one else’s approach, and has no original schtick of its own to offer. It’s desultory clickbait dedicated to concern-trolling figures like Morrissey, Bono, Lindsay Lohan and to appease the family values folks, clucking at Kim Kardashian and Kanye West for sexy photo shoots. There’s good, valid, thoughtful cultural analysis to be done from the right, but that the Caller itself thinks its purpose in entertainment writing is merely to generate clicks and cheap chuckles, rather than expose itself to serious engagement by publishing serious writing, is revealing. I’m sure this might be financially profitable—though the amount of AP filler in the section calls that into question. But profits and quality are not the same. And the revelation that Ashley Judd has taken off her clothes would be horribly mundane entertainment journalism even if there wasn’t the possibility that she might run for Senate in Kentucky.
But the tittering assertion that the Caller’s stories about Judd’s entertainment career are just for Monday afternoon giggles is an idea belied by the Daily Caller’s very site structure, which is using stories about the fact that she’s done on-screen nudity and dated Michael Bolton to drive coverage to more substantive—though I hesitate to dignify it with that term—reporting about Judd’s political positioning for a potential race. And the act of covering Judd as entertainment, particularly when you’re not actually reporting developing news about her acting career, but digging up old tidbits from her life, is in and of itself a canny political act. The clear line of attack on Judd is that she’s a celebrity, a station in American life that is meant to indicate you’re unserious—and it’s an idea John McCain tried to use against Barack Obama in 2008 too, even though Obama doesn’t have a SAG card:
Writing about her having been naked on film is an attempt to suggest that she’s done things that make it impermissible for her to appear in public life, even as my podcast partner Asawin Suebsaeng points out, former public officials like Scott Brown, Jesse Ventura, and Arnold Swarzenegger all stripped for the camera at some point and appear not to have had their abilities to campaign or to govern with a modicum of competence irreparably damaged as a result. And the Caller’s ludicrous Judd pieces are of a part of a larger trend chronicled by Sarah Jaffe in the Columbia Journalism Review that push women in public life and women’s issues to the style section rather than covering them with the respect and serious tone that placement in the news well commands.
The Daily Caller’s always wanted respect when it suits them to get access to White House press conferences or for news stories to be taken seriously, but the publication has a tendency to evade responsibility when answering questions and criticism would become inconvenient. I’ll accept Pappas’ explanation of the publication’s Judd coverage when he’s ready to concede that the rest of the publication, with its focus on style over substance, is a poorly-executed amusement, too.