The debauched future of Philly journalism?

Philadel­phia Week­ly insults writ­ers, read­ers, and peo­ple with men­tal illness

5 minute read
BSR does not endorse this language. (Photo by Alaina Johns.)
BSR does not endorse this language. (Photo by Alaina Johns.)

Have you ever seen a person in a straitjacket? Like the one in the illustration in this week’s Philly Weekly, calling for new writers under the headline “Wanted: Headcases with a laptop”?

I’ve seen someone in a straitjacket. That was in 2014. One minute we were both in line for breakfast, chatting quietly with the other patients. Then he became agitated. He began to strike out and yell.

Within a few seconds, a small crowd of nurses and orderlies descended and grasped the man’s arms and legs, forcing his torso into a thick white jacket that buckled his arms down around his body. They strapped him onto a stretcher while he screamed. The silent medical armada wheeled him toward the locked double doors. Breakfast resumed.

Why am I telling you this? It’s so you know why I find Philly Weekly’s cover story deplorable—not only as a professional Philadelphia journalist and editor, but as a person who has been hospitalized with the symptoms of a serious mood disorder.

A basic grasp of English

“Voices in your head,” the cover reads in red letters. “Are you psycho enough to write for PW?”

A December 12, 2019 editorial by PW editor-in-chief Kerith Gabriel headlined “The missive” explains that PW’s publisher called a big meeting while Gabriel was on vacation and declared that the newspaper will no longer “bang the same drum as the rest of the media horde.” (The other line on the front page, which says “We’d still totally smash Madonna — even at 61” shows that PW has no plans to stop banging the tired drums of sexism and ageism.)

Gabriel’s mea culpa follows, in which he admits to running recycled press releases, stale news angles, and mediocre pitches that served advertisers, not readers. The page couldn’t have felt colder and greasier if I had wrapped yesterday’s pizza in it.

The editor voices PW’s new direction: “Don’t pitch us a story on the PPA doing something shady, we all know the PPA is crooked and shady, pitch us the story of the shady PPA official caught with his neighbor’s wife.”

PW is recovering its alt roots, so “pitch us stories about Satanists, sex workers, and scumbags. If it’s good and you have a basic grasp of the English language we’ll consider it.”

Welcome to the new PW

The cover story itself (actually nothing more than a call for amateur contributors) begins, “Want to write about debauchery, scandal and outcasts? Welcome to PW.”

The onslaught continues: “We are looking for fresh, provocative and inspiring voices who also happen to be a little bit crazy.” If you’re a “sex addict,” the PW staff suggest, you could attend the clubs of your choice, write about them anonymously, and return to your day job.

How much lower could we go? (Photo by Alaina Johns.)
How much lower could we go? (Photo by Alaina Johns.)

It’s also fine if you’re not a writer, PW writes. They just want to hear “whatever twisted and depraved thoughts and actions motivate you to get out of bed every day.” The piece alludes to writers earning cash ($100 to $200, a colleague who recently pitched the paper tells me) and “your chance to be famous. Or infamous.”

We can’t believe what we’re seeing

This text is accompanied by a full-body graphic of a man in a straitjacket, his hair standing on end, his features glaring in grotesque horror (an 1838 engraving by French doctor Auguste Ambroise Tardieu).

I honestly cannot believe what I’m seeing,” PW veteran Liz Spikol wrote on Twitter this week about the story. “I’m ashamed to ever have been associated with the paper by the same name. My whole career at [PW] was devoted to fighting against this kind of discriminatory language. Very upsetting.” As a journalist, Spikol’s honest and sensitive explorations of mental health continue to this day.

PW knows their exploitation of mental illness is gross, but they don’t care. On Monday, their Instagram story noted “a few of you were offended” and offered a textbook non-apology: “Please know that there was never an intention to offend anyone.”

What you’ll find, and what you won’t

At Broad Street Review, just like any other media outlet, we have a front-row seat to the slings and arrows of 21st-century journalism and publishing. Just like PW, we’re looking for fresh voices and compelling perspectives. Alongside our crew of top-line professional freelance journalists, we actively mentor diverse writers who have yet to build a body of bylines but have something important to say.

Here’s what you won’t find at BSR: terms such as “psycho,” “headcases,” “addict,” and “crazy” bandied around to add zest to a lazy, slimy publishing manifesto at the cost of people living with mental illness—and you won’t find the implication that a touch of mental illness and a computer are all you need to be a writer. There are many takes on why people shouldn’t be objectified and stereotyped by attributing their creative powers to mental illness—I love Hannah Gadsby’s words on Van Gogh in her breakthrough 2018 Netflix special Nanette.

At BSR, you won’t find anonymous writers with no professional cred. We won’t be referencing sex workers in the same breath as “scumbags.” You also won’t find writers spinning a sleazy yarn for the sake of a few minutes of fame, or a business department that knocks the editorial team sideways, leaving them to salt their own wounds in public alongside crass calls for non-stories such as the marital problems of city workers.

It’s an insult to people with mental illness. It’s an insult to journalism and the professionals who keep it alive. And it’s an insult to readers.

Want more? Find BSR associate editor Kyle V. Hiller's latest take on responsibility here.

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