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Matt Welch Posted June 21, 2001
Suck.com: From Oasis to Mirage

Top 10 reasons why the suspended daily set the standard for media criticism
By Matt Welch, OJR Staff Writer and Columnist

Print version


Matt Welch:
08/01       Media Criticism Gone Horribly Wrong
07/01       The Webbys' Ode to San Francisco
06/01       Suck.com: From Oasis to Mirage
05/01       The Web's Most Curious Man
03/01       Off-Campus Speech v. School Safety
At the end of the day, there really is no accounting for taste, especially when it comes to something as random as reading habits.

For those of you who never liked or even read Suck, there will be no lecture here about the error of your ways. In fact, for nearly two years, I was one of you -- I mean, "Suck?" You can't get more annoyingly mid-'90s-slacker than that. A bunch of overhyped post-ironists sitting in some SOMA warehouse, typing snarkier-than-thou odes to their own pop-culture tastes under irritatingly obscure pseudonyms like "BarTel D'Arcy" and "Mr. Mxyzptlk"? None for me, thanks.

This column is for anyone who ever felt anything like that, or otherwise deprived themselves these past five years of reading some of the best media criticism anywhere. When the Suck kids were at the top of their game, no publication rivalled their entertaining mix of uncommonly elegant writing, laugh-out-loud humor, and (believe it or not) refreshing lack of cynicism. On a good day, it was like watching the love-child of Spy Magazine and New Journalism godfather A.J. Liebling come of age in a forgotten closet of Wired Digital.

In the last six months especially, as the Suck budget vanished before our very eyes, editor Tim Cavanaugh and cartoonist Terry Colon pulled off one of the most thrilling high-wire publishing acts in recent memory, filling Suck's one-a-weekday newshole with unreasonably thoughtful and hilarious essays, cartoons, and (when the tank was empty) absurdist advice columns that somehow avoided feeling desperate or rushed.

But don't take my word for it -- see for yourself. While the site takes an unpaid summer vacation, here are my top 10 reasons, with excerpts to support them, why Suck was such a damned good online journalism site, in every sense of the phrase.

1) Because of its Clear Vision Inside the (Burst) Bubble

At the very least, you would expect a nearly six-year-old online publication in San Francisco to be sophisticated in its commentary on the Internet Economy and how it's covered. And you would be right.

During the frantic media gang-tackle of the dot-com bust these past 12 months, Suck has been one of the only contrarian voices, challenging the conventional wisdom's flabby logic while stubbornly highlighting the positive side of an overwhelmingly negative story.

Take Cavanaugh's April 24 defense of the reviled banner ad:

Through the fog of crushing depression and cheap booze that constitutes any discussion of webvertising, one piece of fake erudition is always sure to come up: "Banner ads? Those things only get, like, point-five percent clickthrough!" The argument over low clickthrough raises an old question: What is the clickthrough rate for a billboard? For a radio jingle? How about a TV commercial? Or the one form of advertising that the banner most resembles - an eighth-page ad in a magazine? The decline of banners is a classic example of people not so much refusing to accept bad news as refusing to accept its implications. If the first direct measurement of consumer response to advertising yields results this poor, can't we just as easily conclude advertising itself doesn't work? [...]

We must still consider that this industry-wide low rate of user participation is just that - an industry-wide rate. It counts both the occasional well-conceived and well executed ad, and the millions upon millions of dead impressions out there, the ad campaigns that run on years past their prime, the piss-poor banners whose only attraction is a forlorn "Click here," the whole mass of dead ads that generate zero clickthrough, and will never make it into the Banner Ad Museum, and lay like a flaming sack of poop on the doorstep of the future. In fact, the field of successful banner campaigns is a substantial and encouraging one. ... That the banner is now declared dead ... is just more proof that the Web's preferred means of exchanging ideas is through hyperventilation, screeching and hooting.

As if to prove that final point about hooting, this column was attacked and grossly mischaracterized by one of the Bay Area's only other prominent banner-boosters -- the usually careful Iconocast. "Suck.com says we're all a bunch of 'pompous blowhards' for continuing to support something that 'doesn't work,'" the Net advertising e-mail newsletter wrote, under the headline "Suck.com Gives Banners the Finger." Iconocast Editor Michael Tchong added salt to the friendly-fire wound with an editor's note that observed: "The strange part is that both Suck.com and its accompanying Plastic discussion site are ad-supported. As Russell Lynes once said, 'Cynicism is the intellectual cripple's substitute for intelligence.'"

After failing to persuade the Iconocast to rephrase, Cavanaugh subjected Tchong to one of Suck's characteristic (see below) put-downs: "Hell, Michael, we're all having a bad year. Low ad clickthrough rates are a big enough problem; do we have to add poor reading comprehension skills into the mix?"

Suck's lonely but interesting position as referee of the media pile-on has produced some excellent and unique takes on much-noted New Media set pieces such as Startup.com and Rebecca Solnit's San Francisco-gentrification lament Hollow City.

The real issue for the anti-dot-com movement has always been one of style. "It's impossible to move here and just invent yourself anymore," Solnit opined in [a] Feed interview. Oh yeah? Tell it to the dot-coms, who invented themselves with a vengeance during what anybody with any common sense knew would be a brief window of opportunity. Tech industry losers got a chance to start fun if ill-considered companies. Washed up hacks jump-started stalled journalism careers. Coffee bar waitresses jumped into high-paying jobs with inflated titles. It was an inspiring story in many ways, but the main players committed the sin of being people whose taste (or lack thereof) Solnit and her bohemian cadre happened not to share. It's telling that Solnit's critics have condemned her for not being bohemian enough: In a characteristic letter to In These Times, one naysayer boasted that he was down withmural artists, not the fancy-schmancy types Solnit favors. (Keepin' it real is, alas, a job that never ends.)

In the end, it's the bohemians who insist on dining on a monocrop, on deciding what constitutes a genuine urban way of life, and ultimately on resisting the flux that created their own lifestyle and will eventually sweep it away. Recognizing that your moment may be over is one of the hardest tasks of growing up, or at least growing old, but it's not the kind of revelation that makes for good public policy. There's something childish in thinking the personal is always political.

In publicly recognizing that its own moment may be over -- even while producing daily gems -- the publication associated with smarm occasionally veered toward the downright poignant.

It was a wild ride, and now it's over. The spectacle of an industry in full retreat might be good for a few chortles, but it's the kind of laughter you try to choke back at a funeral. We remember the whole story; we know it was a golden age; and we know better than to join in the exultation of dot-com backlashers, old economy scolds, or now-jobless economic nafs still excited over the prospect that San Francisco housing rates might fall. Because no matter how low prices go, they'll never reach the strike price of $0.00 we all enjoyed for a brief moment in history. Mourn the Web Gold Rush now. We shall not see its like again.

2) For its Love of Old-School Newspapering

As acerbic as it could be, Suck exhibited a generous Liebling-like sympathy for media oddballs and obscure topics only a lifelong newspaper junkie could love. Contributors were never shy about ladling out praise, whether it be to the almost recently shuttered Weblog Tomalak's Realm, recently deceased cartoonist Henry Boltinoff, or OJR's very own not-yet-deceased Ken Layne.

You can detect William Randolph Hearst's DNA in Suck's unyellowing back issues, what with columnists named Ambrose Beers, usage (and appreciation) of comic art rivalled only by The New Yorker (more on that below), and a kind of palpable glee when tangling with accomplished publishing eccentrics such as Warren Hinckle. Even a casual diss of celebrity-journalist weblogs might contain newspaper-appreciation nuggets like this:

The journalistic celeblog has its roots in fertile soil - the hallowed tradition of "Nobody asked me, but..." columns that newspaper hacks have for decades used to fill space with short-paragraph rambles on the folly of Liberals, the folly of Conservatives, or the folly of the guy who invented the shrink wrap on compact disks. The beauty of this short form (the most debased example of which can be seen every Thursday at Suck) is that it allows the writer to avoid the work of staying on topic for any length of time. Thus a columnist can switch from "Kudos to new Attorney General John Ashcroft" to "Let's hear it for the Chunky bar!" in the space of only three dots.

Perhaps the best way this sense of delight took shape was in Suck's own vigorous investigations of the most arcane of topics. Cavanaugh's fascination with the various right-wing cults surrounding the Virgin Mary, for instance, led to one of the more astonishing pieces of journalism you'll read this year: a somehow relevant 7,000-word examination of an 84-year-old Mary sighting 5,500 miles away.

To understand the miracle of Our Lady of Fatima, and how it affects you and your family, you must first consider one central fact of 20th Century history: Over the course of several months in 1917, the Virgin Mary appeared to three children in a Portuguese pasture, steeled them in the principles of anti-communism, and revealed three prophecies that would prove crucial in bringing down the (then-unbuilt) Iron Curtain.

This obsession hit further paydirt when it was revealed that accused FBI turncoat Robert Hanssen belonged to an anti-communist Mary-worshipping sect called Opus Dei (also home to FBI Director Louis Freeh and Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia), leading to a perceptive column about how "If there's one secret closely guarded by all secret societies, it's that there's always less there than meets the eye."

It is hard to conceive of another publication that would devote considerable energy and space to interviewing a pimp about media bias, exploring the nuances of critic Walter Benjamin, and extolling the mixed virtues of Jerry Lewis again and again. But there is a distinguishable thread here -- allegiance with engaging characters who refuse to fit neatly into Manhattan-mandated subsets of capital-C culture.

Or as Greg Beato ("St. Huck") wrote two years ago about the New York media elitists who selected the Top 100 Works of Journalism in the United States in the 20th Century:

Their high-minded version [is] of journalism not as it is, but as they wish it were - journalism with nary a Matt Drudge or Rupert Murdoch or Walter Winchell or Bernarr MacFadden soiling its history. After all, it's not as if it were only the denizens of The New Yorker, Esquire, The New York Times, and a few other officiously sanctioned media outlets who had a lock on stylistic virtuosity, reportage, and formal innovation.

3) For its Media Correctives

Dismissive media complainers (including, of course, Suck) have rightly criticized online publications for offering little more than passive reaction to other people's reporting. But Suck's passive reaction always ranked among the genre's best.

Typically, the correctives would come as one chunk of the weekly Hit & Run feature, or in a paragraph or two of a column about some other topic, as in Beato's Top 100 essay:

The notes regarding James Agee's and Walker Evans' Let Us Now Praise Famous Men fail to mention that this work had a rather delayed impact according to the usual cycles of journalism: Written in 1936, it didn't actually see print until 1941 and then sold only 1,025 copies, until a new edition in 1960 introduced it to a more receptive audience of Agee-esque children of privilege, looking to slum nobly with the poor folk of the Deep South. And then there's [NYU Journalism Chairman Mitchell] Stephens' terse assessment of Liebling's The Wayward Pressman. "He did it first and probably best," Stephens exclaims, a statement that demands at least a little elucidation given that the Wayward Press column from which Liebling's collection was drawn had been a feature of the New Yorker long before Liebling started contributing to it.

But Suck also indulged in column-length deconstructions of single articles, the best of which include an August 1998 scorcher by Chris Bray ("Ambrose Beers") that persuasively discredits a Columbia Journalism Review article about whether the New York Times helped prevent the U.S. from apprehending Cambodian dictator Pol Pot before he died. Two months earlier, Bray also performed a useful thwacking on a "casually dismissive, smarmily amused, and terribly, massively misinformed" profile of Jerry Brown by The New Yorker's Joe Klein, who Bray found guilty of asserting that, "In 1992, [Brown] pestered Bill Clinton for a time as the avatar of the reactionary left."

Brown beat Clinton in New Hampshire, taking second in the primary behind Paul Tsongas -- a performance that would be repeated, very soon after, in Maine, where 30 percent of Democratic voters backed Tsongas, 29 percent backed Brown, and Clinton limped in with the also-rans. A few days more, and police officers are forced to close streets in Colorado as massive crowds turn out to watch Brown speak; the Moonbeam candidate wins the primary in the generally conservative, highly rural state. Then he wins the Democratic caucuses in Nevada, and other candidates begin to drop out of the race, including Tsongas. A few days after Tsongas quits, Brown takes another primary, in Connecticut.

Satisfying as those essays could be, Suck was often at its naughty best when taking down a colleague with a cruel one-liner.

4) For the Catty Put-Downs

Even in Suck's June 8 gone-fishing note (presented in the form of a fake Q&A with dismayed readers), the editors couldn't resist taking cheap shots galore at their least-favorite media celebrities.

Q. Because without Suck, who will challenge America's foulest blowhards? Without Suck you've got a whole country of people who think loathsome drizzlerods like Maureen Dowd are incredibly daring and insightful and self-infatuated lardasses like Thomas L. Friedman are shrewd commentators on the world scene. Without Suck who's going to challenge the sad little weasels with nothing going for them? Without Suck it's just grinning idiots all the way down, Steve Martin humor columns, asswipe behind-the-scenes specials about the making of Tomb Raider.

Friedman has long been a favorite Suck target, as in this column about the WTO riots in Seattle:

"Is there anything more ridiculous in the news today than the protests against the World Trade Organization?," The New York Times' distressingly buoyant Thomas L. Friedman sputtered on Wednesday. "I doubt it." If the puffy globalist had done a cursory check for more ridiculous wire stories of the day, he would have found, among other items, these tidbits: 1) the arrest of a Nashville man who robbed a bank using a hot dog; 2) a lawsuit by Rutgers University basketball players forced to run naked laps as punishment for missed free throws; and 3) the heartwarming story of a salamander's cross-country Christmas. Small wonder that Friedman's dedication to hornbook platitudes concerning Lexuses and olive trees caused him to miss the anti-trade backlash brewing in his own country

But the best of the bitch-slaps were often the briefest. For instance, on Dave Eggers:

These days, when the model for youngish, hearth-throbby men of letters is a preening, long-winded Little Lord Fauntleroy given to publishing 10,000-word screeds against reporters who fail to kiss his ass enthusiastically enough - well, we just wonder what kind of message it's sending to the children.

David Denby:

Our beloved antihero David Denby reads the entrails in a recent New Yorker review, and the result is rich, somewhat like reading a review of a western by a man who has never heard the terms "cowboy" or "Indian."

And The New Yorker's correction of the infamous "My Fake Job" story.

Characteristically, editor David Remnick managed to turn his confession into another opportunity to kiss his own ass, downplaying the screwups and highlighting the magazine's superhuman scrupulousness.

5) For Being the Anti-New Yorker

Let's face it: Suck has always been the online equivalent of The New Yorker: erudite, self-regarding, compulsively star-humping, appealing to just about anybody except that legendary cadre of little old ladies in Dubuque. Yet somehow, while the besieged behemoth of 43rd Street continues to generate buzz and career-making book deals, we remain typecast as the Tim Kazurinskys of the Web, preening to be noticed by a publishing elite that considers us about as noteworthy as Zwieback.

Thus begins one of the most satisfying hoaxes ever to soothe the battered ego of the modern freelance writer. One nameless Suck contributor, distraught at the form-letter rejections that came after every submission to the New Yorker's Shouts & Murmurs humor section, finally got fed up and sent his latest funny under the e-mail address "bruce_mccall@cheerful.com," to see if the exact same piece would fare better under the name of one of the magazine's regulars.

Sure enough, we can now close the book on everyone's worst suspicion about the New York publishing scene: It's the byline, stupid. ... [The piece] received not the usual terse and tardy thanks-but-no-thanks but a speedy, gushing acceptance from Shouts and Murmurs editor Susan Morrison.

The piece was withdrawn before further incident. Suck knows its place in the publishing pecking order all too well, and self-mockery notwithstanding, the tension between craving acceptance and nurturing scorn is an extremely productive conflict, at least for Suck readers.

Some of its most inspired moments, for example, have come when poking fun at The New Yorker's legendary pretensiousness. The brilliant weekly cartoon writer Heather Havrilesky ("Polly Esther") and her cohort Terry Colon created an entire sub-category of the sport by taking the magazine's more breathless sentences -- i.e., "For Disney, the future has nothing to do with techno terrorism, the colonization of Uranus, or the cloning of a newt" -- out of context, and then spinning elaborate illustrated yarns. Memorable targets have included Malcolm Gladwell (twice), Daphne Merkin, Nathan Myhrvold and then-outgoing editor Tina Brown.

The Cavanaugh/Colon "Occasional Paris Correspondent" piece -- tweaking the New Yorker's Adam Gopnik and other fancy-mag interpreters of French life -- is one of those rare laugh-on-the-10th-read columns.

March 3
Entering a Metro station near Pigalle, Suck's Paris commentator takes note of the sign "Poussez" on the station door, and the term doubles him over with mirth. "That's right!" he exclaims, "Because the French really are a bunch of Poossays!" None of the Parisians in the station join in his convulsive giggling, which leads him to pen his first essay, "Quelle Blague?", investigating the subtly stubborn yet very French way that Parisians approach comedy. Total: 25,000 words.

Colon is clearly a New Yorker aficionado, as evidenced by this spot-on cartoon parody he and Beato put together in December 1999. One of his most spectacular works was a comic-strip odyssey he and Cavanaugh riffed in response to news about The New Yorker and The Nation each hosting meet-the-talent luxury cruises.

As much as the West Coast upstarts may dream of working for The New Yorker, Suck rarely misses an opportunity to punish the magazine's fish-out-of-water tech coverage (Cavanaugh's Denby dish from November is particularly rich), its Manhattan-centric viewpoint, and self-entitled sense of greatness.

6) For Fresh Takes on Tired Topics

Nobody wants to read, let alone write, yet another column about whatever horse is currently being beaten to death in the news. With a daily deadline and a dwindling staff, the temptations must have been great ... and yet somehow Suck managed to have original and interesting things to say about Elian Gonzales, the Florida post-election crisis and even that fake Weblog gal who didn't die the other week.

My favorite of this species was Cavanaugh's perfectly pitched analysis of David Horowitz' ballyhooed stunt of baiting campus protesters by buying anti-slavery-reparations ads in college papers across the U.S.

One thing you can say for David Horowitz: After almost 40 years of work as a political journalist, after a career in activism dating back to the civil rights struggle, after courting both Black Panther and Gopac tiger, after a miraculous conversion from the radical left to the woolly right, after writing books and columns beyond number, he is now capable of outwitting a bunch of college students.

7), 8), 9), 10) For the Writing, the Cartoons, the Humor, and the Inventive Ways to Tell Stories

If you aren't persuaded about these by now, you probably won't be. Thanks for trying.

This hasn't been anything like a fair representation of the average Suck reading experience. I only started checking the thing regularly about 18 months ago, I spent 80% of the '90s off-line, and I do not relate easily to the folks on Suck's letters page. There are surely many people who swear more strongly by the work of such back-in-the-day Suck kids as Joey Anuff, Carl Steadman and Ana Marie Cox.

But for my dollar, this was one of the only publications anywhere that flirted frequently with greatness. I think history will judge the following exchange -- a May 13, 1999 Q&A between Tim Cavanaugh and Suck's "sometime spiritual mentor" Kurt Andersen -- as one of those classic, two-ships-passing in-the-night encounters. Read this, and tell me: Which career would you rather follow, and which man would you rather work for, the Q or the A?

Q: Enough about you; let's talk about Suck. We still have a substantial readership, but let's face it: We have no buzz at all anymore. How do we get media big shots talking about us again?

A: You simply have to obsess about media big shots. I'd recommend you give up on the more expansive essays on modern life and just focus on those few individuals, who in turn will suddenly realize that you're very hot! A good chunk of media heat comes from the same thousand people reading about themselves, and that's probably the only shot you have.


 
And yet, Suck did focus on the above-referenced "thousand people." Inthe end even that wasn't enough to sustain them. Or was it? Tell us in the OJR Forums.

 


Matt Welch Matt Welch is an OJR Staff Writer and Columnist. His work is archived at mattwelch.com.


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