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The Age of Mutual Assured Cancellation

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The Age of Mutual Assured Cancellation

Journalists should reconsider their embrace of character assassination. October 13, 2019
The Social Order
Arts and Culture

A modest proposal for my fellow journalists: Could we declare a bipartisan amnesty for the stupid things people did in high school and college—or at least stop pretending that these things have any relevance in judging a middle-aged adult’s professional competence?

I realize that this suggestion will trouble the many liberal journalists who have worked diligently to reveal what might or might not have happened at a party at Yale that might or might not have been attended by Brett Kavanaugh during his freshman year. (The definitive conclusion from thousands of hours of investigative reporting: people at the party were really drunk.) Nor will it appeal to the conservatives now savoring the seemingly endless series of photos of a young Justin Trudeau in blackface. (The Babylon Bee, a news-satire site, delivered the coup de grace: “Rare Photo Surfaces of Trudeau Not in Blackface.”)

I also realize that it’s futile to appeal to my colleagues’ sense of perspective or feelings of compassion. These qualities have always been in short supply in our profession, and they’re rarer than ever in the age of “cancel culture.” We can convince ourselves that anything is newsworthy if it embarrasses the other side and generates enough clicks. Exactly how many beers did Kavanaugh drink in high school? A nation’s fate is at stake! Precisely how many parties in the early 1990s did Trudeau attend in blackface? The public has a right to know!

But now journalists have a selfish reason to behave decently: mutual assured cancellation, a strategic doctrine that has emerged from the recent media furor involving Carson King, a security guard in Iowa. He’d become a media sensation after holding up a sign on ESPN’s College GameDay asking people to send him money so that he could buy Busch Light beer. As the money rolled in, he decided to redirect it from beer to charity, raising more than $1 million for a children’s hospital. Anheuser-Busch kicked in money and planned to include him in a marketing campaign.

It should have been a feel-good story, but then a Des Moines Register reporter unearthed a couple of racist jokes that King had tweeted seven years earlier, when he was 16. The Register’s editors decided that this information needed to be included in the article. Meantime, just before the story ran, Anheuser-Busch independently found out about the tweets and announced that it would honor its donation pledge but sever all ties with King. Just like that, King was demoted from philanthropist to pariah.

King dutifully issued groveling apologies for his teenage sins—the ritual act of contrition for the newly canceled—but then the story took another turn. Newspaper readers and beer drinkers rose to his defense. Other businesses stepped up to contribute money to the cause. The organizers of an Oktoberfest celebration in Iowa declared that they would stop serving Busch Light. In a letter posted to a local news site, WeAreIowa.com, Eric Dolash, the father of a girl who had been treated at the children’s hospital, declared that he would no longer read the Register or drink Busch Light. “You cut ties with a man with objectively superb values whose coat tails you rode in a marketing flurry,” he told Anheuser-Busch, and added ominously, “It must have been an exhausting effort to review all social media posts of your entire workforce, knowing you certainly wouldn’t associate them with your brand for any past mistakes.”

The Register was besieged by readers outraged at its treatment of King, and they didn’t just write letters to the editor. They retaliated by studying the social-media history of Aaron Calvin, the reporter who had written the article—and who’d made a few offensive posts of his own, before joining the paper. The saga was nicely summed up and given a label by a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, Balaji S. Srnivasan, who tweeted:

1) Man goes viral

2) Man uses attention to raise ~$1M for charity

3) Journalist finds old posts to attack him for clicks

4) Man apologizes

5) Journalist's old posts now surface

6) Journalist is now getting canceled

Mutually assured cancellation.

As a form of deterrence, mutual assured cancellation—let’s call it MAC—should not be underestimated. After all, the Cold War nuclear strategy of mutual assured destruction (MAD) produced one of the most peaceful eras in human history. But if the response by Carol Hunter, the Register’s executive editor, is any indication, journalists still haven’t adjusted to the MAC era. The sensible strategy for the editor would have been to deescalate: apologize to King, make a penitential donation to the hospital, and vow to stop punishing people for youthful mistakes irrelevant to what they’re doing today. Instead, Hunter wrote two columns defending the editors’ decision and primly announced that her reporter had been fired for his past sins.

It doesn’t seem to have occurred to Hunter that she and the rest of the paper’s management are now prime targets for cancellation themselves. Perhaps they’ve been more careful in their tweets than King or Calvin, but did none of them ever do anything stupid? By their standards, anything from high school onward is fair game. And judging by the reactions of many mainstream journalists, an evidence-free accusation based on a distant memory from an anonymous accuser is damning, as long as it seems “credible.”

Journalists in the MAC era should review the seminal text of character assassination, Rules for Radicals, Saul Alinsky’s 1971 book. Liberals eagerly employed his strategies against their political enemies, particularly rule number 5 (“Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon”) and number 13 (“Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.”) The tactic proved so effective that the standards for smearing got lower and lower. It didn’t matter how long ago the offense had taken place, whether it had anything to do with the person’s job, or whether it hadn’t even been considered wrong at the time. So long as journalists had a monopoly on public shaming, they were happy to judge yesterday’s behavior by today’s standards.

Now that social media has ended that monopoly, non-journalists can pass judgment, too, and they’re following Alinksy’s rule number 4: “Make the enemy live up to its own book of rules.” Journalists would be wise to rewrite these rules, and to remember the adage about people in glass houses. In the age of MAC, everyone has stones.

Photo: zhuyufang/iStock

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