As defined by Merriam-Webster, a hot take is an “analysis of a recent news event that doesn’t offer much in the way of deep reflection.” The New Republic points out that hot takes are disproportionately dished out by older, male media figures. This inequity is a problem in of itself, a problem that deserves attention.
However, the effects of the hot take machine are even more problematic. In fact, certain characteristics of the hot take phenomenon are dangerous for our democracy.
Privilege, power, and prestige make it so that the aforementioned older, male writers need not offer interesting or unique analyses in order to maintain their role as influencers in the media sphere. Unfortunately, these influential hot takes can also be subtly used as weapons against or in support of specific candidates.
The media attention on the 2020 election has intensified far earlier than in previous races — the Iowa caucuses are still a year away. But the unprecedented earliness and intensity of the coverage has not led to better or more interesting commentary from the producers of these so-called hot takes. Nor has the intensity of the 2020 coverage prevented or weakened the phenomenon of weaponized hot takes.
For example, one of the more vapid 2020 takes running rampant through the media is a call for people to reject personality politics and prefer a so-called “real” or “substantive” politics. This utter hatred of lionizing political figures has primarily centered on one 2020 candidate: former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke.
Criticisms of the Texan are funnily wide ranging, from assertions that the rising star is too socialist to arguments that he is not socialist enough. After taking contrasting shots at the congressman, many of the publications frame their criticisms of Beto or other similar candidates as the aforementioned broader criticism: a criticism born out of a distaste for any politics based on personality.
The easiest route to dismantle the legitimacy of these arguments is to point out the publications’ hypocrisy. This task is not too difficult; Jacobin and many similar leftist publications write as many glowing pieces about Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as the conservative National Review writes about Ronald Reagan or William F. Buckley.
One could assume that hypocritical hot takes criticizing a candidate or a trend could be just that; an article lacking adherence to the greater context of a specific publication. And no doubt, many hot takes have been written against a candidate not to achieve any end or goal other than making a rhetorical point.
However, certain exceptions stand out. As The Atlantic reports, there was — for lack of a better word — collusion between a popular opinion writer and Senator Bernie Sanders’ campaign. As a writer for The Guardian, David Sirota savagely dismissed the legitimacy of other 2020 Democrats, like Beto. At the same time, however, he was covertly working for the Sanders campaign.
The overwhelming majority of writers in the opinion media sphere do not secretly harbor employment or obvious predilections for specific presidential candidates. However, by centering their hot takes on select campaigns, writers criticize others with a pen as powerful as a sword. Since these writers are taken seriously, they can drastically alter the electoral chances of presidential candidates.
The solution to this problem is not readily apparent.
Perhaps disclosing, in some way, which presidential candidates are preferred by the writer of an opinion or hot take about the election could help filter biases. In this imaginary world, audiences could read opinion pieces and see how writers’ biases to different candidates impact the “take” or angle of a piece. The shock of the David Sirota revelation would have been lessened had his Bernie bias been stated in his byline.
The idea of preference disclosure is not too foreign. Or, rather, it is foreign but could be imported; news organizations in the United Kingdom such as The Guardian or The Daily Mail have a distinct bias of which readers are aware by implicit or, more often, explicit disclosure. The particular arguments within their opinion columns are still taken seriously — precisely because the biases are accounted for by readers.
American readers are capable of performing a similar filtering. For example, if I told you — after this article that mentions Senator Bernie Sanders and former Congressman Beto O’Rourke — that my favorite candidate at the moment was South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, it would make clear that my favorite candidate has little to gain from my observation about the weaponization of hot takes.
Of course, merely disclosing a writer’s preferred candidates would not fully prevent bad-faith or weaponized hot takes. Motivations are difficult to determine and disclosure of preference would not adequately prevent all of the problems with this phenomenon.
And successfully advocating for industry-wide changes is difficult. Rarely will significant reform take place, nor will it likely take place before the next election. So, what are we to do if there is a rapidly-worsening problem in a crucial industry just as the country teeters toward the most important election of our lifetimes — a problem with no readily-apparent solution?
I don’t know. I guess we could read and write our own hot takes about the issue.