Alec Baldwin saw red after reading a Daily Mail story accusing his wife of tweeting banal sentiments during the memorial service for James Gandolfini (both Baldwin and his wife Hilaria were attending the service).
The story about his wife's inappropriate tweets is wrong (and has been taken down by a paper never known for its dedication to fact). But Baldwin has created a Twitter controversy of his own by lashing out in homophobic and violent fashion at the journalist behind the Mail story. Among other insults, Baldwin called George Stark a "toxic little queen" and a "little bitch" (see right).
As he has done after past imbroglios, Baldwin has apologized, suspended his Twitter account, and declared that "No, good God no" he will never, ever rejoin the service.
Look past Baldwin's Irish temper and understandable anger in defending his wife, though, and there's a real lesson about the power of new media for all of us, whether you're Hosni Mubarrak or Amanda Bynes or Glenn Greenwald or someone posting random shit you find funny or important.
In an interview with Gothamist, the talented actor and annoying loudmouth inadvertently lays bare the real online dynamic behind his anger—and it has less to do with factually incorrect journalism than you might think.
Baldwin's core issue with new media—he slags Tumblr, Vine, MySpace, Facebook, and more—is that they level kings and queens and even celebrities into a mosh pit of direct, unmediated exchange that is hard as hell to control. It turns out that there's really no red carpet or champagne room when it comes to the way that stars (read: world leaders, sitcom heroes, famous authors, former child actors, you name it) are treated.
In the Q&A, Baldwin says,
Twitter began for me as a way to bypass the mainstream media and talk directly to my audience and say, "hey here's a show I'm doing, here's something I'm doing."… But I realized it's something I'm not really… it certainly isn't worth the trouble. Rosie O'Donnell is on my podcast this week, and she said that she's getting off of Twitter, and I said "God, I was thinking the same thing." I said "you just end up absorbing so much hatred." You get these body blows of all this hatred from people who… their profiles are almost identical, like "tea party mom, I love my job, I love my kids, I love my country #millitary #guns" and there's a screaming eagle in the background of their profile, grasping some arrows and tanks rolling in the background and they all want to tell me how much they can't stand my politics. And I go, "OK." What kills me is these are people who want to put me out of business, so to speak, as fast as they possibly can, but they don't want to put BP out of business, who turned the Gulf of Mexico into a cesspool….
Baldwin sputters that the very tools he can use to bypass "the mainstream media and talk directly" to his audience also empowers all those dim people out there in the dark. What's more, his followers have minds of their own. They may enjoy his turns in Glenngarry Glenn Ross and 30 Rock and guest-hosting on Turner Classic Movies but not really find his views on fracking to be worth a damn. It's a real kick in the pants for a celebrity to be reduced to asking, "Do you think I'm really changing anybody's mind?"
Twitter and Tumblr and Vine and Instagram and Facebook and Myspace, all these things are social media tools that we were all told we had to have, and what we're realizing is that no you don't! No you don't. All this energy goes into these things, and for what? If I serve on Twitter as an aggregator, if I take a piece off the internet and say "read this piece from The New York Times about fracking, read this article on Slate about fracking, or Mother Jones" or wherever it might be, it doesn't matter what the venue is, The Washington Post, anything, if I aggregate that material a la Huffington Post and I shoot that out to the people, do you think I'm really changing anybody's mind?
Remember the good old days, not just when there were only three national TV networks and one or two national newspapers, but when Hollywood studios could virtually completely control the image surrounding their contract players like halos on a saint's shoulders? Those days are over, Baby Jane.
Today, the whole goddamned world is Grub Street and everybody, it seems, owns a printing press. So woe is Alec Baldwin:
We live in a world where there's no journalism anymore. I mean trained, I don't expect everybody writing for Gothamist or The New York Times…even The New York Times I don't expect those people to all be coming out of Columbia per se, but I expect them to make some attempt to get it right, which you can almost never count on anymore.
Of particular interest is his reaction to Andrew Sullivan's response, who, unlike establishment gay groups, is rightly bothered by Baldwin's immediate slide into fag-bashing rhetoric. As one of the best-known early adopters of new media and an outspoken advocate for gay rights, Sullivan offers an especially compelling point of view on the whole matter.
Reading Baldwin's comments, I'm struck by how his comments strongly vindicate what we've been stressing at Reason since the dawn of the Internet Age: that the audience has a mind of its own that it's always been dying to express. What's different now is that we can. Baldwin's complaint that "there's no journalism anymore" (except for the people he likes) and his attack on "tea party moms" who thrill to see the Gulf of Mexico foam with oil are best understood as howls of rage from the ancien regime as new-media sans-culottes storm the gates of privilege and power. Being in charge—of government, of media, of art, of business, of religion— just ain't what it used to be. Bummer.
Given his temperament and the massive amount of abuse he seems to have taken, Baldwin's probably right to vacate Twitter and other forums that allow direct, unmediated access to him. That's his right to exercise. But among the costs he and other powerful people—pols, pashas, pundits, etc.—will bear is lack of engagement with exactly where the world is literally and figuratively trending.
Alec Baldwin, it was nice knowing you.