Culture Friday: Gotcha journalism and clickbait

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Friday, the 27th of September, 2019. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: And I’m Megan Basham. It’s Culture Friday. 

Lately, several people have made headlines for things they tweeted while still minors. 

This week, a young man named Carson King experienced the whiplash of the social media age first hand. First, he was dubbed a hero for raising more than a million dollars for a children’s hospital. But then he got a call from a reporter asking about some tweets he’d written eight years before. When he was 16 years old. Anheuser Busch cancelled their plans to partner with King, despite the fact that they advertise on Comedy Central, the network King was apparently quoting in those old tweets. 

King then held a news conference apologizing.

Listen to part of that conference:

KING: I am so embarrassed and stunned to reflect on what I thought was funny when I was a 16 year old kid. And I want to sincerely apologize. Obviously, I’ve made mistakes in my past. Everyone has. 

I don’t want you know what I did when I was 16 to take away from the fact that you know we’re over $1.14 million dollars for the Children’s Hospital.

John Stonestreet is here from the Colson Center for Christian Worldview to talk about all this. 

John, I know we’ve touched on this subject before, but it seems like maybe we’re reaching a tipping point on it. The reaction of the general public was mostly outrage—at the reporter. And the newspaper that published the story.

Now, depending on the circumstances, I might say it’s proper for a journalist to talk about old tweets in a profile piece of a public figure—but when these things were said by a minor, shouldn’t there be a new calculus? Especially when it could possibly ruin someone’s career or in this case put an end to a very good thing this young man was doing?

JOHN STONESTREET, GUEST: This underscores something that we’ve seen in journalism for a long time, unfortunately. Except for WORLD, of course, which is kind of the gotcha journalism. And the thing is that social media makes possible some of humanity’s kind of basest tendencies. What would we say if we could get away with it? What would we say if we felt like we could be anonymous? That’s kind of the inherent test of character. And so at one level Twitter is revealing a lot of our character flaws. And that includes for teenagers, right? Teenagers who don’t have a governor. Teenagers who don’t have a fully developed neural pathway between cause and effect. And so it’s revealing some of that about all of us. But it’s also enabling us to do the sort of journalism that isn’t really about the news. I mean, how did this help anything? How did this advance the cause of justice even a little bit?

Gotcha journalism is a journalism that has lost its purpose and so now it’s clickbait. It’s about the number of eyeballs. But it’s worse than that, which is Twitter then invites journalists to start evaluating people’s motives. Something that they can’t know. And to retrofit and superimpose politically incorrect ideologies on people that are easy targets.

BASHAM: Well, the newspaper in this case, it was the Des Moines Iowa Register couldn’t have been super happy about the turn this took. I mean, it was kind of worthy of an O. Henry tale. Because then some other Twitter users picked up the fact the reporter has also used some really inappropriate things—and not so long ago. And the paper says it’s now investigating their own reporter. So, I mean, I heard one pundit sort of cleverly refer to it as “mutually assured cancellation.”

And then this unspooled even further this week, this little simple story. Because then after Anheuser Busch decided to cancel their campaign with King, other companies stepped in. Geneseo Brewing company says it appreciates King’s growth as a person. So they’re releasing a product with him. A local ice cream vendor and a coffee company also stepped in. And Make-A-Wish Iowa encouraged him to further fundraising with the hashtag #StandWithCarson. 

So it did kind of feel to me like this week, when you suddenly saw the corporate world going, yeah, enough. We’re now going to make the PR stand of being against cancel culture. 

So is this indicating that we’re finally getting some sanity on this?

STONESTREET: Yeah, I think we’ll see that happening across the board. I think we’re seeing female track athletes saying enough. I think we’re seeing victims of woke capitalism saying that’s enough. And even, I think, there’s a lot of people just sitting it out, just choosing to sit this one out. And I hope that’s the case increasingly. So, I hope that there’s a reaction to this. But, honestly, the reaction that needs to happen is the reaction of millions and millions of users that no longer hit the headlines of articles like this. So it’s going to require a rehabituation of how we engage these stories as consumers.

BASHAM: And maybe returning to gossip being a sin.

STONESTREET: Well, you know, hey, that’s a remarkable idea.

REICHARD: This next topic relates in some ways. “Barbie gets woke.” That was an actual headline this week after toy maker Mattel launched something it calls “Creatable World” doll kits, transgender dolls. Mattel claims it lets children play with them quote “free of labels.” 

The company says it worked with all kinds of people—doctors, parents, kids—to create this kit.  The dolls have a range of androgynous outfits and different hairstyles to choose from. The dolls themselves look gender neutral. 

John, how should parents talk to their children about this?

STONESTREET: Well, first, a prediction which is the boys are going to take these dolls and turn them into super heroes and the girls are going to take these dolls and turn them into moms and dads who run families. So, that’s my prediction of how this will happen. Here’s one of the observations my co-author Brett Kunkle and I made in our book A Practical Guide to Culture. And the power of culture is not where it’s the loudest. Not where there’s protesters on signs or parades, the strength of the gay rights movement wasn’t parades that violated our imaginations and violated our innocence, it was basically characters on television shows and sitcoms that were normal. And culture’s most powerful where it makes things seem the most normal. 

And I think the wrong approach to this would be parents just kind of saying, oh, they’re not going to notice or buying it hoping they don’t notice or anything like that. Yeah, sit this one out. Talk about it. But don’t let it be normal. And I think not only when it comes to this particular new line of toys but almost anytime we see this stuff, which is increasingly in commercials, television shows, and so on, to stop and articulate that it’s not normal. And we want to have that conversation because when something is portrayed as normal, that’s when our thinking is really changed by it. And we need to have what Nancy Pearcy called a baloney detector so that we know when something is portrayed as normal and shouldn’t be.

REICHARD: Maybe it’s because of my coverage of the transgender case coming before the Supreme Court, but I’ve wondered about something I wanted to ask you having to do with fashion. Our Founding Fathers wore silk stockings, frilly blouses, and high heels. When I was a little girl, the school required me to wear a dress even in the dead of winter. Both of those style requirements changed with time. And here we are today with androgyny and transgender ideology about fashion. How might you distinguish what’s God honoring and what is not?

STONESTREET: [Laughter] Well, that’s an easy one. Thanks. I mean, you’re asking me to bring in my strong expertise in the arena of fashion. One of the problems that Christians have had is when we try to find this clear line that we draw through the middle of it. And one of the things that you recognize in your question is that things like fashion and trends and roles change culture to culture when it comes to men and women. What doesn’t change is our God-given creational design and the God-given creational purpose. And you’re like, man, that’s a hard question to ask about a t-shirt. Well, it is. But I think when it comes to the fashion choices, the toy choices, the activity choices, that’s a legitimate question.

So, my perspective on this is that we have got to do a better job not just saying ‘boys do this and girls don’t do that.’ But saying ‘here’s what boys and girls were created by God for. This is what they’re designed for. This is what their God-given biological anatomies, reproductive organs, you know, chromosomes and features are for. ‘And then it’ll make it a lot easier for us to get to the “do” part.

BASHAM: John Stonestreet is president of The Colson Center for Christian Worldview. Thanks again, John!

STONESTREET: Thank you both. 


WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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