The Journalist and the Twitterer
By Wendy Gillis
Some celebrities sue when they get bad press. This week, M.I.A. opted for 140-character revenge.
Taking issue with her profile in the recent issue of the New York Times magazine, the rapper tweeted writer Lynn Hirschberg's telephone number to her over 110,000 followers (on her open profile, of course). According to Huffington Post, Hirschberg's phone was ringing off the hook.
The fuss was over the writer's willingness to question whether M.I.A.'s radical politics are anything more than ill-informed publicity stunts. The Sri-Lankan-born singer is famous for speaking her mind on and off the concert stage. She has supported the Tamil Tigers, the militant separatist organization known for its use of terror tactics. Her lyrics, such as those in her hit Paper Planes, are purposefully shocking and provocative, encouraging violence and theft. And her latest video for her song Born Free is a nine-minute exercise in gratuitous killing, so violent it has been banned on YouTube.
From the beginning, it's obvious Hirschberg's article is not going to involve unquestioning adulation. The journalist writes that M.I.A. is like a trained politician, staying on message: "It's hard to know if she believes anything she says or if she knows that a loud noise will always attract a crowd." She points out inconsistencies in M.I.A.'s story about whether her father worked for the Sri Lankan government, and calls her out on delivering her son in a hospital after claiming she was going to have him at home because she wanted to "embrace the pain, embrace the struggle."
But rather than coming off as an all-out attack on the singer, Hirschberg's article is well-researched, in-depth and evidently reflective of what she saw. It's clear that over the course of numerous interviews she repeatedly questioned the artist on the intentions of her various political statements.
It's therefore fairly surprising that M.I.A. didn't see this article, aptly titled M.I.A.'s Agitprop Pop, coming. It's not like the celebrity is untrained in the ways of the media -- she's been the focus of untold articles since she rose to fame in 2004.
But then again, this may be an example of how easily the journalist-source relationship can get confused in profiles such as this. When journalists spend so much time with their subjects, it's hard not to establish some type of camaraderie beyond the professional interaction. The article informs us that the journalist spent time with M.I.A. in both Los Angeles and in London, and it's possible that the two developed a rapport throughout that period.
Though M.I.A.'s supposed press betrayal pales in comparison, I couldn't help but be reminded of Janet Malcolm's The Journalist and The Murder, and how she describes the complicated relationship that arose between convicted murderer Jeffrey MacDonald and journalist Joe McGinness. Despite developing a strong friendship throughout the research process that involved McGinness telling MacDonald he believed he was innocent, McGinness published Fatal Vision, which detailed MacDonald's guilt.
I don't imagine M.I.A. thought Hirschberg was her best friend. But perhaps the singer forgot that the journalist was ultimately there for a story, and that she herself was first and foremost a subject. This might offer a small understanding of why she childishly sought Twitter retaliation on Thursday.
Or maybe it simply demonstrates that M.I.A. is precisely as Hirschberg says: a reactionary provocateur.
Wendy Gillis is a student in Ryerson University's master of journalism program and will be an intern in the Toronto Star newsroom this summer. Follow her on Twitter at @wendygillis.
Photo credit: "M.I.A." By Louis Beche on Flickr.