There were times in 2016 when I was staring mindlessly at my Twitter feed and a tweet by Ross Douthat, the conservative-in-residence of the New York Times op-ed page, would materialize on the screen. Not just any Douthat tweet—I don’t follow Ross Douthat—but an old Douthat tweet, an infamous Douthat tweet, a tweet of particular notoriety and tragicomic hubris:
The entire commentariat is going to feel a little silly when Marco Rubio wins every Republican primary.— Ross Douthat (@DouthatNYT) September 25, 2015
If you also like to stare at Twitter every day until your eyes glaze over, chances are you saw it, too. It is one of those tweets that has taken on a life of its own, the way Olympic-level bad tweets sometimes do. When this particular bad tweet appeared upon my screen in 2016, it was usually being retweeted mockingly on the evening of some caucus or primary, as Donald Trump continued his inexorable rise and Marco Rubio continued his relentless slide into late night punchline territory.
Sometimes the tweet would appear in other comedic contexts. It’s very easy to parody the syntax of this tweet—say, by replacing it with a deliberately ridiculous prediction:
The entire commentariat is going to feel a little silly when Ralph Nader wins every electoral vote— Bosh Junting (@josh_b42) December 17, 2016
Or by combining it with a funny hashtag:
#ThingsIYellWhenICum The entire commentariat is going to feel a little silly when Marco Rubio wins every Republican primary.— nuanced opinion guy (@charles_kinbote) May 16, 2016
Or by tweeting the exact wording of the original tweet hours before an emotionally volatile reality TV star became the president-elect of the United States.
The entire commentariat is going to feel a little silly when Marco Rubio wins every Republican primary.— Aaron Bady (@zunguzungu) November 8, 2016
The tweet has had an astounding shelf life. I can’t recite lines from Paradise Lost. I could not name more than a few elements from the periodic table from memory. But I can still recite this more-than-a-year-old bad tweet verbatim. (I am fun at parties.)
At best, it’s just a dopey prediction—we’ve all made some of those. At worst, it’s an enduring avatar of the cartoonish arrogance and mass-scale humiliation that overtook the pundit class in 2016. It’s a microcosm of the biggest media trend of the year: total humiliation.
It was not just Douthat. For lots of high-profile media personalities, from Nate Silver to Nick Denton, 2016 dealt an enormous reckoning. Michael Moore made some startling predictions, but few other liberal commentators saw what was happening. Much of the pundit industrial complex spent the calendar year standing athwart history, yelling “It can’t happen here” or “Trump is going to pivot any day now.” Clinton lost. Pundits ate crow, took the L—choose your preferred cliché. One columnist ate his newspaper column, as he had promised to do if Trump became the GOP nominee. Some who got it wrong showed a capacity for self-reflection. Others, like Kevin Drum of Mother Jones, doubled down on their myopic pontificating or continued howling into their social media echo chamber of choice.
It was the year we realized that a lot of Very Important People who get paid a lot of money to know about U.S. politics have little more insight to dispense than the cab drivers they quote in their columns. Granted, plenty of normal people were wrong, too. But their faulty predictions weren’t recorded in national newspapers. Pundits who look back on their work might find a 16-month archive of headlines like “Dear Media, Stop Freaking Out About Donald Trump’s Polls.”
For Trump fans, it is thrillingly apt that the candidate whose rise to power blindsided the media is the same candidate who staked his entire campaign on bald contempt for journalists. Trump’s bone-deep loathing of the “dishonest media” might be his only coherent ideology. The president-elect routinely denounces the “failing” New York Times or CNN on Twitter and occasionally humiliates individual journalists by name. (In November, he retweeted a 16-year-old calling a reporter “pathetic.”) His most unhinged fans—self-described “deplorables”—harass and intimidate journalists as though they were getting paid for it. (If you’d like to meet these people, glance at @Newsweek’s Twitter mentions as soon as this article gets tweeted out, assuming they’re not all busy investigating a pizzeria for sex crimes.)
Trump’s own appetite for humiliating others is legendary. (See: the president-elect’s dinner with Mitt Romney.) During that fall of 2015, one of the more disturbing moments in Trump’s primary rise was a clip of him mocking Serge Kovaleski, an investigative reporter who has the chronic joint condition arthrogryposis. Trump appeared to be mimicking the disabled reporter by flailing his hands around wildly.
Video of this moment has been replayed again and again, usually in the service of what it says about our president-elect: that he is a cruel or shameless buffoon, driven by petty and vindictive whims. Less often is the clip revisited as a symbol of Trump’s broader hostility toward the media, which he antagonizes endlessly with schoolyard bully tactics. Later, on the campaign trail, Trump openly mused about loosening libel laws in order to sue journalists who report unflatteringly on him. “A Trump presidency would represent a threat to press freedom in the United States,” the Committee to Protect Journalists warned in mid-October. One month later, Trump strode into the White House to meet for the first time with the 44th president, whose own aggressive war on whistle-blowers could enable Trump’s vindictive actions toward journalists.
Humiliation came in other forms in 2016, too. The newspaper and digital media industries continued to flail without a stable business model. Hundreds if not thousands of reporters lost their jobs. Mashable, The Associated Press, The Guardian, The Huffington Post and Fusion all laid off journalists en masse—as did IBT, Newsweek’s parent company. (Getting fired is humiliating enough, but finding out you’ve been fired because your Slack log-in isn’t working is a nifty little bonus. Such is the modern termination.) Al Jazeera America shuttered. The Wall Street Journal pressured its employees to consider taking a buyout. Even the New York Times, which emerged during the final weeks of the campaign as an emblem of aggressive reporting on Trump’s taxes and alleged assaults, was vulnerable to pressure to downsize. Meanwhile, some outlets aggressively expanded into video and Facebook Live, granting reporters an opportunity to humiliate themselves willingly on camera, whether by eating a newspaper or blowing up watermelons. Stunt journalism—with self-degrading headlines like “I Let My Boyfriend Dress Me For a Week”—has become a pervasive genre of digital media.
Yet during the summer, many of these fleeting media stories were overshadowed by the slow-motion collapse of Nick Denton’s Gawker Media. In March, Gawker lost its $100 million sex tape lawsuit against Hulk Hogan. In August, Gawker.com shuttered for good. Denton was photographed leaving the courtroom as his gossip empire fell to a mustached 63-year-old wrestler. Here was a media entrepreneur who built his website on fearlessly embarrassing powerful figures being headlocked into revenge by one of those figures: Peter Thiel, a notable Silicon Valley Trump ally, who bankrolled the lawsuit.
I’d like to tell you that 2017 will be better—that everything will be OK for the media, that news organizations will stop hemorrhaging reporters and resources, that journalism will prevail over fascism. I'd love to tell you that the entire commentariat is going to feel a little silly for fretting over the threatened state of a free press under Trump. But why would you believe me?