The Daily Beast’s Tone-Deaf ‘Smartest Cities’ List: Is This the Future of Online Journalism?

My hometown, Fresno, was in the news twice over the past few weeks. In two very different ways.

First, there’s “Tent City USA,” a heartbreaking, enthralling story in the latest issue of GQ, about the encampment of homeless gathered in downtown Fresno. George Saunders’ description of its residents is a must-read for anyone – not just those people, like myself, who grew up in Fresno and hold it dear to our hearts. For anyone seeking an emotionally resonant depiction of a recession-battered city and its homeless population, this is it.

Despite Conde Nast’s recent troubles (including the shuttering of Gourmet and Cookie), one hopes the company will continue to put its resources toward this kind of thoughtful, top-flight journalism.

The GQ piece also offers up a stark juxtaposition to something entirely different that was published about Fresno last week.

It was a slideshow.

To be specific: It was a list of the smartest (and, alternately, “dumbest”) cities in America, as decided on and published by staff of The Daily Beast. In it, Fresno — a city coping with 15.3 percent unemployment, recovering from a housing bust, and dealing with farmers who’ve had no water, among other, myriad problems — is ranked at the very bottom, #56 out of 56.

With its photo gallery, The Daily Beast, once hailed by its founder, former New Yorker editor Tina Brown, as a “smart, well-written and upscale” alternative to the rest of the Internet, has offered up one of the most tone-deaf features in recent history.

I’m from Fresno, but across the web, you’ll read stories from many other people, in many other cities, debating these rankings, as if the Daily Beast’s criteria on intelligence were based on anything remotely academic. But I’m not here to debate whether the selection process was fair (it wasn’t), I’m here to ask whether it was right to do it at all.

(Nevermind that Ms. Brown and her staff published this as a slideshow – that most cynical of pageview-baiting formats – even though they’re not even running actual advertisements.)

I’d personally like to know why Tina Brown found it necessary to kick a city like Fresno while it’s down. Or Las Vegas. Or Louisville. Or Memphis. Or any of the other cities in the bottom 25. No doubt Ms. Brown will respond that she’s merely doing her job as a good editor – being “provocative” and “starting conversations,” but I think good editors actually do what GQ just did. Tell great stories, surprise us, and make us feel something emotional and real. I hope, one day, more online-only publications will be capable of producing these kinds of stories, rather than another mindless, cynical slideshow.

In the meantime: Tina, it’s time for a make-good. Put Barry Diller’s money to good use. You and your editorial staff should get in a van and go on an American road trip. See these cities, and find out why things are the way they are.

In Fresno, a good place to start might be Tent City. Maybe you can ask them how they got so dumb.

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