BROOKE GLADSTONE When online trolls target old media, young journalists tend to be easier prey.
JANINE ZACHARIA The first thing Emily said to me, after they fired her, was "I feel like nobody has my back."
BROOKE GLADSTONE From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. Also, this week, there's either an epidemic of cancel culture or an epidemic of whining about cancel culture, depending on who you ask.
MICHAEL HOBBES What are the statistics indicating that speech is less free now than it used to be? We're in like a free speech Xanadu.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Plus tracing the origins of our term du jour: cancelation. As so often the case, it originates on black Twitter.
CLYDE MCGRADY It was mostly used to express disgust or disdain for some celebrity who did something like, you know, like eh, I'm done with this person. I don't deal with them, they're cancelled.
BROOKE GLADSTONE It's all coming up after this.
BROOKE GLADSTONE From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. The Associated Press turned 175 this year. To call the AP a news organization is an understatement. It's our industry's beating heart. Pumping high quality information from across the world to cell phones, local newspapers, radio stations, Facebook feeds. Its ever-evolving stylebook has shaped the lexicon and grammar of journalism. But when news broke last month that the AP had fired a rookie reporter named Emily Wilder, the institution found itself at odds with media critics, right wing trolls and elements of its own newsroom. Then, on May 27th, On the Media's executive producer, Katya Rogers received a voicemail from an employee at the Associated Press who asked us to examine the debate around objectivity there. We asked our reporter Micah Loewinger to look into it.
MICAH LOEWINGER By the time I started digging into all this, Emily Wilder was tired of talking to the press, and I really don't blame her. In just a week, she'd gone from an unknown 22-year-old entry level staffer to a cautionary tale about online expression and a target of right wing media. Since she wasn't talking, I called up someone who had witnessed her story up close.
JANINE ZACHARIA She took my class and, you know, crushed it. She was an amazing student.
MICAH LOEWINGER Janine Zacharia taught Emily Journalism at Stanford University. She also served as the Jerusalem bureau chief for The Washington Post.
JANINE ZACHARIA She wanted to study with me, in particular, given my background, which was as a longtime correspondent covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
MICAH LOEWINGER Emily had gone to an Orthodox Jewish high school in Phoenix, but became known at Stanford not as a Zionist, but as a vocal advocate for Palestinian rights. Enough so that a paper trail emerged online.
JANINE ZACHARIA But to be frank with you, I didn't see it as relevant because – look at her reporting skills. She broke two stories of national import as an intern, one about a Trump supporter who died of COVID and his daughter, who expressed this message of outrage about it. And another about COVID testing wait times in a poor area of – I think it was Phoenix – that got featured on Rachel Maddow.
MICAH LOEWINGER Her journalism caught the eye of the AP, which hired her on May 3rd as a news associate. But her past as an activist caught the eye of the Stanford College Republicans Club, which posted on Twitter screenshots of protests she'd attended and things she'd written in college. Like the times she referred to "naked mole rat looking billionaire Sheldon Adelson" and "little turd Ben Shapiro." The thread started to get attention on May 17th.
EMILY WILDER I began to receive a lot of pretty heinous harassment. [END CLIP]
Speaker 5 That's Emily on Democracy Now!
EMILY WILDER Prominent Republicans on the internet began to lambast me, including Senator Tom Cotton and Ben Shapiro. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER Then, the Washington Free Beacon ran a story with the headline “AP Hires Anti-Israel Activist as News Associate.” After that, a story from Fox.
EMILY WILDER I was reassured during this time by my editors that I would not face repercussions for my past activism, and that they just wanted to support me while I was facing the smear campaign. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER Meanwhile, a group of senior managers at the AP came to a unanimous decision.
MICAH LOEWINGER Less than 48 hours after the Stanford College Republicans began to post about me, I was fired. The reason given was a supposed social media violation. Sometime after I joined AP on May 3rd. [END CLIP]
JANINE ZACHARIA They abandoned her, when she was on staff, to an online mob.
MICAH LOEWINGER Janine Zacharia.
JANINE ZACHARIA The first thing Emily said to me after they fired her, and we were sitting there in shock, was “I feel like nobody has my back.”
MICAH LOEWINGER Even though the timing suggested that she got fired for old posts brought to light by this bad faith mob, the AP says its action was prompted by ten recent posts that showed too much bias about an important political issue, but it wouldn't tell me which posts crossed the line. Of the 16 tweets on her profile during her 3 week stint at the company, most were retweets and there was really just one that stood out to me. "Objectivity," she wrote, "feels fickle when the basic terms we use to report news implicitly stake a claim. Using ‘Israel,’ but never ‘Palestine,’ or ‘war’ but not ‘siege and occupation,’ are political choices. Yet media make those exact choices all the time without being flagged as biased."
BILL KELLER That one post of hers felt to me like part of a larger debate we're having about what we call things. Hardly a fireable offense.
MICAH LOEWINGER That's Bill Keller, former executive editor for The New York Times and a founder of the Marshall Project. He's pretty familiar with this debate around objectivity or whatever you want to call it.
BILL KELLER I tend to avoid the word ‘objectivity’ just because it has a kind of chiseled in stone, absolute truth quality to it. I'd rather talk about being impartial or being fair. I think what we're talking about is how you establish the trust of readers, which is, after all, what we sell.
MICAH LOEWINGER A growing chorus of journalists, many of them people of color, say there's no such thing as objectivity, that journalists can still be fair and accurate without pretending they don't have opinions or a sense of what's right and wrong.
BILL KELLER I do think when you announce what you believe about something, there's at least a subconscious tendency to cherry pick your facts to support the point of view you've expressed publicly, whereas keeping it to yourself has the virtue of not being embarrassed if the facts go against you. But if you go by the polls that question what people think of the media, impartiality hasn't exactly won the day.
MICAH LOEWINGER Wherever you land on this debate, the fact is the AP has a strict doctrine of impartiality, and maybe that's worked. People seem to like their journalism. Surveys find that news consumers consider the outlet to be among the most credible. But at what cost? According to over 100 staffers who organized last month, Emily's case demonstrated that the AP had put neutrality above the safety and well-being of its workers. In an open letter, they wrote, “It has left our colleagues – particularly emerging journalists – wondering how we treat our own, what culture we embrace and what values we truly espouse as a company.” After the letter, the managing editors held a series of company wide meetings to answer questions and explain their decision. There was a lot of frustration at the meetings that I heard. Again, the editors wouldn't say exactly which of Emily's tweets had violated their social media policy. The anonymous staffer who gave us the Zoom recordings told me that this lack of clarity suggested that Emily was really fired for her past activism. And if it was the activism that got her fired, would that create a new precedent?
JANINE ZACHARIA Can you imagine the can of worms that opens?
MICAH LOEWINGER Janine Zacharia.
JANINE ZACHARIA Then they've got to look at everybody. Lots of students went to Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020. Then say they decided, you know what, I want to be a journalist. Is that going to become part of the vetting process for working at the AP? Were you involved in any documented activism? And I don't think that journalists should be tweeting everything that they think and feel. I am for more stringent rules on social media, right? What I'm not for is selective application of those rules in the face of a right-wing mob coming after a young staffer.
MICAH LOEWINGER When I asked the Associated Press whether the decision was the result of a bad faith campaign, they simply said "no," and encouraged me to look at what editor Brian Carovillano said to Brian Stelter last weekend on CNN.
BRIAN CAROVILLANO Anyone who thinks that the AP would be cowed by the College Republicans does not know very much about the AP. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER Janine Zacharia, who's actually studied this phenomenon, isn't buying that.
JANINE ZACHARIA I have been part of a working group on information warfare, disinformation at Stanford.
MICAH LOEWINGER Around the beginning of the pandemic, she co-authored a report to help news organizations avoid falling prey to the most common and harmful tricks. Then she explained those guidelines to a bunch of news organizations, including the AP.
JANINE ZACHARIA What was clear is that they hadn't digested sort of the macro lessons from our playbook, which was namely: remember that journalists are a targeted adversary and see yourself this way when digesting disinformation.
MICAH LOEWINGER Another important guideline: focus on the why, as much as the what.
JANINE ZACHARIA If the AP managers had focused on why are the Stanford College Republicans posting this Twitter thread, why are right wing media amplifying it, then they would have had a better outcome and they wouldn't have had this blow up in their face.
MICAH LOEWINGER Which leads to a third point from Janine's playbook. Beware of campaigns to redirect your attention from one newsworthy event to another. In this case, look at when the Stanford College Republicans thread got picked up.
JANINE ZACHARIA Just a few days earlier, the IDF, the Israeli military, had bombed the building where the AP was headquartered.
NEWS REPORT Al-Jazeera Gaza journalist Safwat al-Kahlout, was live on air as he watched his workplace of 11 years vanish in front of him.
JANINE ZACHARIA And people that were looking to justify that strike were pointing to the Israeli assertion that in that same 12 story building was a Hamas office. This is not a good look for Israel, right? This is like an office, and it had an American newsroom in it. When Israel has the capability to monitor all the top Hamas officials electronically, like they haven't really explained it. So if you're trying to defend the strike and then along comes this Twitter thread, that they hire someone that was an anti-Israel activist as she's being described, right? Sure you throw that in the mix of your defense. Now, it's all about this young woman in Arizona.
MICAH LOEWINGER What happened to Emily Wilder and the AP is neither new nor unique. Just look back to 2013 during GamerGate, when trolls began employing a tactic from Internet forums called brigading. By coordinating their attacks against female writers who spoke out about misogyny in the video game industry, the harassers could seize the narrative, silence their targets and appear larger and louder than reality.
AARON CALVIN This is just going to keep happening because it works.
MICAH LOEWINGER That's Aaron Calvin, a former trending news reporter for the Des Moines Register. He lost his job after a right wing mob dug up some of his old tweets in 2019.
AARON CALVIN When I began covering a young Iowan named Carson King, who achieved viral popularity by holding up a sign on ESPN.
NEWS REPORT Carson King, a 24-year-old from Iowa, held up a sign looking for some money for beer. You see it right there. And he added his Venmo account, which was genius.
NEWS REPORT Donations started rolling in and King decided to give them to the children's hospital. Busch Beer and Venmo soon agreed to match the donations. So far, more than 1.3 million dollars has been raised. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER What a story! Aaron drove out to meet Carson, they got along, Aaron writes a glowing profile for the Register – except for one bit at the very end of the piece.
AARON CALVIN An editor requested that I do a background check which involved searching his old tweets, and I found some racist or like off-color jokes when he was in high school and I ended up talking to him about this, and it ended up being a very small part of the profile and he apologized, and it was not an indictment of him in any way.
MICAH LOEWINGER Then Anheuser-Busch came out saying they would still donate the money to charity, but without any association to Carson. That's when the mob homed in on Aaron.
AARON CALVIN People started publishing screenshots of old tweets of mine. I tweeted a Kanye West lyric and quoted it, but it included the N-word. You know, I was 17 then, and I thought it was OK to write that word at the time if it was a quote.
MICAH LOEWINGER There was also a tweet in which you made some joke about same sex marriage. You wrote, "Now that gay marriage is legal, I'm totally going to marry a horse."
AARON CALVIN Yeah. I mean, a lot of the things that people yelled at me about were jokes that were meant to be ironic but taken fully out of context. People don't remember anymore now that people did compare gay marriage to something as ridiculous as that.
MICAH LOEWINGER Within a matter of days, the story of an evil, hypocritical journalist had crystallized across the web.
AARON CALVIN I saw these accusations against me moving up the ladder of right wing media from this digital periphery to Tucker Carlson.
TUCKER CARLSON The Des Moines Register decided that this kid had to be destroyed. So they dispatched a reporter called Aaron Calvin and he published a profile of King that highlighted the two ancient tweets. Then he went to Anheuser-Busch to tattle on King. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER After the Tucker piece, Carol Hunter, executive editor for the Des Moines Register, penned an article with the headline, "We hear you. You're angry. Here's what we're going to do about it." Gannett, the Register's parent company, told Aaron he could no longer work at the paper.
AARON CALVIN And essentially, I'd been thrown under the bus by this paper. What I would have wanted from my employer is to have the opportunity to represent myself and for them to judge me based upon the work I was doing, which no one had any problem with before that moment.
MICAH LOEWINGER The Des Moines Register and Gannett did not respond to our request for comment. Two years after that debacle, Aaron found work as a reporter at a newspaper in Vermont. He told me he hasn't really been keen to discuss the story publicly but felt moved in part when he saw the same pattern play out with Emily Wilder.
AARON CALVIN It was an early warning sign of a growing strategy employed by different right-wing groups. It allows these groups to use the stated objectivity of media organizations like Gannett, or the Associated Press as a cudgel against them, essentially. Saying that you're employing a human being who has at one time maybe expressed a point of view, and we think this is a violation of your own professed beliefs.
MICAH LOEWINGER But there is another way. Case in point, how NBC News responded to a Tucker Carlson smear campaign against their reporter Brandy Zadrozny.
TUCKER CARLSON Brandy Zadrozny, is a “reporter” with NBC News. By her description, her job is seeking out personally identifying information about anonymous Trump supporters online, some of them, and revealing their true identity. Why would they be going after anonymous Twitter users?
GUEST It's a great question. It really is disgusting. It's disgraceful, even by modern journalist standards. I'd love for NBC to comment on this. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER Even as the mob came after her and NBC, the organization quickly responded with a statement saying they stood behind Brandy and her reporting, and eventually the mob dissipated. Should the AP have done the same for Emily Wilder? I put that question to Bill Keller.
MICAH LOEWINGER By taking that defense, you are making a political stance about some cynical aspects of the GOP. And I just have a hard time seeing a news organization like the AP that doesn't want to seem biased on anything, learning to strengthen that muscle.
BILL KELLER I agree with that. Let me give you another bit of case history. Back when I was executive editor, I think this is 10 or 11 years ago, Ethan Bronner was the Times Jerusalem bureau chief. An online news organization published an attack on him because he's married to an Israeli and has a son, 20 years old, who, because he had dual citizenship, opted to join the Israeli Defense Force. A lot of people, including our own in-house ombudsmen, said that the appearance of a potential bias in his coverage was so great that he should be reassigned. I opted not to do that because he had put in many years of incredibly scrupulous and insightful coverage, and fair minded coverage, of the Middle East.
MICAH LOEWINGER What do you think was the ultimate effect of that decision?
BILL KELLER The ultimate effect was we took a lot of flak and readers got a very high caliber of coverage.
MICAH LOEWINGER This is what happens when two contending parties play by completely different rules. In this case modern right-wing media strategists and a nonprofit news organization, more than a century old. Traditions that require the appearance of spotless objectivity don't work in an age when one's past is never past. That's why legacy media outlets need new rules. And I'm not exactly sure what they should be. But if they don't better reflect the reality we live in, the next generation of journalists will have to look somewhere else if they want to survive. For On the Media, I'm Micah Loewinger.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You could see the campaign against Wilder is just another skirmish in a long game to cancel the entire enterprise of journalism. Certainly, that was the last president's plan and of well-heeled think tanks dating back to the Nixon administration. But is cancelation the best word to describe what goes on when animus is supercharged on social media? Coming up, that's the question of this hour. This is On the Media.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. After she was fired by the AP, Emily Wilder gave an interview to the press. "I was just canceled," she told the online California publication SF Gate. Wilder noted the irony of her so-called cancelation launched by a conservative student group at her alma mater, given that it's usually Republicans stoking fear about cancel culture.
NEWS REPORT Don't think this cancel culture won't come for you too. It won't just focus on conservatives and Republicans. It'll come for all of us. That's how bad this cancel culture mindset is. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE They tell us not even the dead are immune.
NEWS REPORT This cancel culture media on the left is going too far. Abe Lincoln, George Washington – these people are heroes. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Apparently, animals aren't safe either. Last month, after a Kentucky Derby winning horse failed a drug test, his trainer offered an explanation.
BOB BAFFERT It was like a cancel culture kind of a thing. So they're reviewing it. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE In order to grasp the amorphous meaning of cancel culture and its rising social currency, we’ll first turn to its precursor – political correctness. In a recent episode of the podcast You're Wrong About, co-host Michael Hobbes tracked its earliest usage.
MICHAEL HOBBES The first reference I could find to it was actually in China under Mao. It was talking about how the press wasn't politically correct. It actually started out as a term that liberals would kind of apply to people to their left. It was a way within left wing movement organizing of saying you're trying to impose this standard of purity,
BROOKE GLADSTONE But then you also have the Rush Limbaugh usage, right?
MICHAEL HOBBES Yeah. I mean, Rush Limbaugh did something in the late eighties that was actually very innovative. He started doing segments on his show that were basically the dumb liberal of the week.
RUSH LIMBAUGH Hempstead, Texas, and the cheerleader controversy rages on. The school district down there is very much concerned, ladies and gentlemen, of lawsuits by the NOW gang and a bunch of others, if they ban pregnant girls from being cheerleaders. And I'm thinking about this issue, we're going to have pregnant cheerleaders? You're going to have the football team break the huddle and the cheerleaders break water. [END CLIP]
MICHAEL HOBBES It was this way of finding these anecdotes that all illustrated the same concept, right? That there were these oversensitive preening liberals that were going to freak out if you did anything that even remotely offended them. And it was just a new outrage every single day. And that approach has really taken over the right-wing media ever since.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But now the term political correctness seems to have become a little shopworn. Cancel culture seems to have replaced it.
MICHAEL HOBBES The tropes of political correctness have come back in word-for-word, exactly the same form. The same sort of use of anecdote over statistics, the same slippery slope arguments, the same moral panic. Right? That any time minorities, gay people, black people, trans people start to become more visible in the culture, there is this explosion of anxiety that casts them as much more powerful than they are and much more threatening than they are. That, you know, if we start using the pronouns that trans people want, soon, we won't even have a concept of gender anymore, right? You have to project into these absurd dystopian scenarios to find a reason to be concerned about these extremely reasonable asks. It's the same arguments that we've had really throughout time that society should not change.
BROOKE GLADSTONE There's a database about so-called cancel culture.
MICHAEL HOBBES I've been totally obsessed with this thing called the Canceled People Database, which is exactly what it sounds like. It's basically a crowdsourced effort to identify every single case of people who have been, quote unquote, “canceled.” There's extremely famous people on there and then there's normal workers, but then there's like professors who were fired after a student filed a complaint, a normal thing that happens at universities. There's a guy on there who was beheaded after he showed some cartoons of Muhammad to his class, he's in France. There's also one of the Real Housewives of Orange County who lost a beverage endorsement when she tweeted some sort of COVID truther stuff. To me, it's this perfect example of one of the ways that moral panics function in society is they lump together all of these events that really have nothing to do with each other.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You find that mostly these stories aren't even true.
MICHAEL HOBBES Yes. One of the cases on the canceled people database is a guy named Matthew Halls, an orchestra conductor who was fired from the Oregon Bach Festival. And if you read the description on the Canceled People Database, it says that the reason he was fired is because he was chatting to a black friend – he's British – and he affected, I guess, an offensive sounding Southern accent as a joke, and a white woman overheard them and complained, and then he got fired. His black friend has said, “I wasn't offended by this, it was totally fine,” and yet he gets fired anyway. You know, this story spent months bouncing around the internet, you can still find all kinds of stories about it. A couple of months after this, The Oregonian gets the documents in which the University of Oregon describes why he was fired, and it turns out that there were 4 complaints of sexism against him. You know, there's something like 200 people on the Canceled People Database. And I can't go through and debunk all of them because we would be here all day, but a lot of the ones that I have looked into, as soon as you do any kind of good faith inquiry into what actually happened with this person, they're always much more complicated than they seem at first. I think a good example is something that came out a couple of days ago, that Princeton is no longer going to require classics majors to learn Greek and Latin. And this is, of course, something that came up word for word in the political correctness panic. There was a lot of panic around, you know, they're not teaching Shakespeare to kids anymore. This turned out not to be true. There was actually more.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Shakespeare is taught more than any American author. But in the case of Princeton, since that came up recently –
MICHAEL HOBBES Mhm?
BROOKE GLADSTONE The major that they're choosing is a classics major. No Latin or Greek?
MICHAEL HOBBES Those courses will still be offered. Anybody who wants to learn Greek and Latin can still learn them, but the school stopped making that a requirement because a lot of wealthy kids go to prep high schools that teach Greek and Latin to them, and so in an effort to sort of level the playing field, we're no longer going to require that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I don't really buy that, though. You could say that, you know, kids that go to science high schools would have an advance on a single variable calculus or something like that. I mean, you could apply that anywhere.
MICHAEL HOBBES I mean, I suppose. But I object to the idea that one department's major requirements are a news story in the first place. Schools change their major requirements over time. They change with shifting ideology. They change with different department heads. The only way to really get worked up about something like this is to see it as a symbolic assault, right? It's an assault on Western culture or something. A lot of these things, you know, you're scrolling through this database and you're like, why do I know about this? What are anecdotes for in journalism? It's not necessarily a matter of whether or not they are true. It's a matter of whether or not they matter. I think it's fascinating that we're in the middle of a nationwide debate over free speech when you could very easily make the case that speech has never been freer. There were times in America where you could be fired for being gay, you could be fired for being atheist. You could be fired for flirting with any kind of socialist ideas. The idea that we are now entering a uniquely censorious time? We're in, like, a free speech Xanadu.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But you're not saying that every invocation of cancel culture is misapplied, are you?
MICHAEL HOBBES I don't know of a single case of a quote unquote “cancelation” where that word adds rather than subtracts to the meaning. If we want to talk about somebody like J.K. Rowling, it's much more accurate to just say that she was widely criticized for her political views. And, you know, if we're talking about statues being removed from a square, we can just say removed. It's also not clear to me that you can cancel a historical figure. I just don't see any reason for lumping all of these things together other than to whip up a purported national crisis that just isn't there. I don't know that there's an actual case of somebody who's truly canceled except for somebody like Harvey Weinstein or Bill Cosby. I don't think you want to put those in the cancel culture bucket, man.
BROOKE GLADSTONE In that case, the preferred word is probably...Convicted.
MICHAEL HOBBES Convicted of rape. Maybe we don't need to put that together with somebody who loses a beverage endorsement. But I do think that there's something interesting here, because I think one of the most moral panic-ish elements of this is this systematic conflation of public figures and private individuals. You will find people making arguments that there's this slippery slope that it's like today it's J.K. Rowling, and tomorrow it could be you. And I think that it's really worth separating these two things out. J.K. Rowling has 14 million Twitter followers. The vast majority of people on Twitter have fewer than 100, and there's no evidence that normal ordinary workers are being fired due to social media posts.
BROOKE GLADSTONE The Central Park dog walker who threatened a bird watcher with the police. That's Amy Cooper. And Rachel Dolezal?
MICHAEL HOBBES Yes. She was an NAACP chapter head in Spokane, Washington.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Who turned out not to be black after all.
MICHAEL HOBBES Yes. Both of those cases were massive and these firestorms were so huge that these people eventually lost their jobs and really became almost kind of like national public figures due to this. There's a limit to how many of those kinds of cases can happen per year. So the idea that this is happening on any kind of scale, that there's this iceberg of people who are saying, I stand with J.K. Rowling and then they're losing their jobs —
BROOKE GLADSTONE You don't think there are that many firings per se, right?
MICHAEL HOBBES I think it's a very small number. I often make the comparison to the stranger danger panic of the 1980s and 1990s, where, you know, the numbers at the time that went around were like, you know, 1.2 million kids go missing every year – that would have been something like seven percent of all children in the United States. Years later, we get the real numbers and it's around 115, not a hundred fifteen thousand, 115. And that panic got us more mass incarceration, it got us the sex offender registry. It got us, you know, kids that don't walk or bike to school anymore. It had all these really negative consequences. But there were 115 kids a year that really did get kidnapped by strangers and a lot of them were killed. Those cases are real, and that pain is real. And I think that we have to take seriously the fact that there are real cases of unfair, ridiculous firing. But I also think it's very important to sort of let some of the air out of this balloon and talk about what are the actual threats to workers in America. For most workers, it's not that their social media posts are going to be seen by their boss, right? It's going to be that they are laid off because there's a giant pandemic or they're going to be five minutes late to a meeting and get fired for it. So as soon as you start breaking cancel culture into its constituent parts, all of these things, the narrative just completely evaporates. There's nothing there.
BROOKE GLADSTONE In your podcast episode on political correctness, which clearly had a big impact on me, you said, “I think we overestimate the danger of social change and underestimate the backlash to social change.”
MICHAEL HOBBES Yes. The political correctness panic of the 1990s produced a nationwide systematic wave of Republicans defunding higher education. It built this idea that universities are these left-wing indoctrination factories, and it pushed conservatives further away from the institutions of knowledge production. We're still seeing the ripples of that now. And with this cancel culture stuff, we're seeing state legislatures going after the 1619 Project. They're trying to ban whatever critical race theory is in schools, their state legislatures that are banning, quote unquote, “divisive concepts” in classrooms so broadly defined that you basically couldn't teach anything anymore.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Is that an exaggeration?
MICHAEL HOBBES No. I mean, some of these laws, like I've read these laws, they're unbelievably broad. They could apply to almost anything. And again, we have this massive moral panic based on a couple of college kids in Portland disinviting a speaker from campus or something. We're meant to really freak out about these isolated, very low stakes anecdotes. And then we have state legislatures passing laws that will restrict the kinds of ideas that kids are exposed to in classrooms. And that somehow doesn't matter. This, again, is the pattern that we've seen so many times. Panics get whipped up over anecdote after anecdote after anecdote and then real systemic attempts to do exactly the thing that the moral panic is about — free speech, right? — We have all these attempts now to restrict free speech and no outcry from the people who are telling us that everybody's being fired for talking in a Zoom meeting or whatever.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Thank you very much.
MICHAEL HOBBES Thanks for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Michael Hobbes is co-host of the podcast You're Wrong About and also Maintenance Phase.
Coming up: the roots of the modern usage of cancelation dates back to the days of disco. This is On the Media.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. Michael Hobbes makes a convincing argument that when you look under the hood of cancel culture, the term disintegrates into a flurry of disparate examples. Among the hodgepodge of endorsements lost and Substacks made, and egos bruised, is there any dispositive evidence that cancel culture really exists? At the moment, it depends on who you ask. Erec Smith thinks it does. An associate professor of rhetoric and composition at the York College of Pennsylvania, he believes cancel culture does describe a pervasive, dangerous cultural phenomenon. And it describes what happened to him.
EREC SMITH Well, the keynote address at the 2009 Conference on College Composition and Communication was all about teaching standard English to students of color, and the inherent racism therein. So, I criticized it on a listserv, saying this isn't really getting us anywhere. And here's the thing, I'm not the biggest champion of standard English. It's not an egregious sin to end a sentence in a preposition anymore. That is a thing of the past. But I am a big fan of giving students the tools that they will need in civic and professional context. And I think this idea that doing so is inherently racist is dangerous. And as a black person, it angers me. I've been accused of trying to placate white people. I'm not trying to have black students be as empowered as possible and not so fragile that they feel oppressed because they have to write “isn't” instead of “ain't.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE I read your response and it seemed a perfectly reasonable dissent. I also read one of the responses that was very stinging, and other people agreeing with that response. And then I read a few people saying, now, wait a minute here we can have discussion, and rather than just call it out, shouldn't there be a better formulated response to your response? How many people actually wrote?
EREC SMITH Let's say a dozen.
BROOKE GLADSTONE OK.
EREC SMITH And that doesn't count the storm that was happening simultaneously on Twitter to what I said. There is a lot of misrepresentation, if not all-out lies...
BROOKE GLADSTONE From students and colleagues, or mostly colleagues?
EREC SMITH Students and colleagues. In fact, I was accused of “going after graduate students,” quote unquote. What happened was I was scrolling through Twitter, as one does, and I saw many people slandering me. I guess it's technically libel. But I said, hey, that's not true. And I tried to defend myself and that was rendered as going after graduate students.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Have you gotten into Twitter fights before?
EREC SMITH No, not before this one.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Because that is how they go.
EREC SMITH Well, here's the thing. I wouldn't have done this if I didn't think I was talking to mature academics. I was certain that we could have a civil and intelligent conversation. And I was wrong. I wasn't talking to academics, I was talking to middle school mean girls.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So earlier in this hour, I spoke to somebody who's very critical of this whole cancel culture idea. And he says cancelation is a word that never really contributes to the conversation. Instead, you could say someone was fired or someone was criticized. That to elevate this to a trend, creates a sense of moral panic when there is no cause for one.
EREC SMITH I guess if you're somebody like me who studies language and persuasion, it presents differently. It's a phenomenon to me. Something that is very telling about contemporary America. The idea that if you don't like something, the best tactic is to degrade the person who said it. To not only silence them, to show others this is what happens when you cross us.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Well, what happened to you? What professional consequences did you experience?
EREC SMITH At the time of my attempted cancelation, I was writing a book where it was about the teaching of writing the meaning behind standardized English. After this incident, however, I realized that I have to write about these trends in academia. About the idea that everything is about power dynamics, the idea that everyone is reduced to being a body and not an individual. And I decided to revamp the book, I added chapters, I revised substantially other chapters. I wouldn't recommend doing that with three months left to the deadline – that took its toll on my psyche, but it was worth it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So, you didn't lose tenure, you're still able to publish and teach. You've said the experience has made you more outspoken.
EREC SMITH Yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And created a book that is perhaps more relevant to this moment. You got slammed, but you're functioning in the world. And in some ways you're participating in the mainstream discussion now.
EREC SMITH Yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE How is that ultimately a bad thing? Especially since the number of teachers and professors and academics who are actually fired because of mobs on social platforms is vanishingly small?
EREC SMITH I speak up because I can. What I'm saying is something that many people agree with but aren't able to talk about. So, I'm not doing this woe is me thing. What I am doing is trying to address what I see as a problem in my field. There was a time in academia, and that time was like 6 years ago where, you know, if you criticize somebody's work, you're criticizing somebody’s work, not that person. That is gone, and when we can't have academic discourse, we are no longer academics.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But even given all of that, what I see is this cancel culture notion, lumping things from criticism to murder into the same basket and then proclaiming it a threat to the American way of life. That is why I resist this phrase.
EREC SMITH I guess if I were to somehow justify the term, I would cite the idea of free speech and people silencing themselves on purpose, right?
BROOKE GLADSTONE But it can be argued that this is the freest time for speech that we've ever had.
EREC SMITH Yeah.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So it's just different things that are at this moment, particularly explosive.
EREC SMITH I would agree with that. My main issue is just the lack of academic discourse. We can't ask questions anymore. It's called trolling now. If you ask a question after a panel presentation at a conference, for example, anything other than some variation of “how can I be more like you” is seen as threatening. It's not academia anymore. It's more like a church. You can't stand up in church and say, "Uh pastor, I don't agree with your interpretation of John 3:16."
EREC SMITH That's frowned upon, to say the least. Now, academia is like that. Becoming like that anyway. I think it's detrimental to the very people it's trying to help, specifically black and indigenous people of color. The concept of anti-racist pedagogy is fine. I like that. I think I do it. But when it becomes this infantilization of students of color, I don't like that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I'm not arguing against agitating for all ideas to be heard. I'm arguing against the notion of a cancel culture. That is the thing that concerns me as somebody who looks at how the national narrative shapes and reshapes itself.
EREC SMITH Call it what you want. The label is less important than the actuality of it, what it implies about our ability to communicate as a society. Those are my issues. I'm focused on academia.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Thank you very much.
EREC SMITH Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Erec Smith is an associate professor of rhetoric and composition at the York College of Pennsylvania.
So, quote, "cancel culture" now possesses a fantastically murky definition on and offline, but its predecessors, the phrases call-out culture and being canceled have long been well defined terms within the black community. In fact, that's what started to bother Washington Post features writer Clyde McGrady. Many words leak from black culture into the mainstream, but what he saw with cancelation was a phrase being turned on its creator. So he decided to go back to the beginning, and what he found wasn't political hyperbole or social anxiety or cultural reckoning. Instead, just a man. Music impresario Nile Rodgers and a bad date and some disco.
CLYDE MCGRADY He was out on a date with a woman who is being a bit rude to the people at the club where they were. There were some people sitting down at a table that he wanted and she said, you know, "why don't you make these people get up?" And he's a guy with pretty humble beginnings. So he was a bit put off by that and he is like, you know, "that's not how I roll." Sometime later, he's also obsessed with television. He says it's on 24/7 at his house. So he is sitting around thinking about this date and then the lyrics start coming to him "... unsuccessful television shows tend to be canceled." That's the language TV executives use, like we're canceling the show, it's over. So that was the context in which he writes the song, "Your Love is Cancelled."
[CHORUS OF "YOUR LOVE IS CANCELLED" PLAYS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE You say that it wasn't until a while later, like in the 90s, when Barry Michael Cooper, who was a journalist at the time, had been hired to rewrite the screenplay for this gangster classic New Jack City. And it comes up again?
CLYDE MCGRADY I asked Barry Michael Cooper, you know, where did you come up with the line canceled from? And he was like, well, when I was writing the screenplay, I had this playlist, the soundtrack, playing the background to help with his writing process. And one of the songs was "Your Love is Cancelled." He used it in this pivotal scene, the main character, who, as Cooper describes him, is a malignant narcissist drug dealer named Nino Brown, played by Wesley Snipes. He uses this child as a human shield during a shootout. And later on, he goes back to his place and his girlfriend is so distraught and he throws her against the table and he pours champagne on her and he says...
NINO BROWN Cancel that b-----, I'll buy another. [END CLIP]
CLYDE MCGRADY Cancel that B-word. Barry Michael Cooper really wanted to get at what the drug era had done. And so that scene really brings it home, and it becomes this iconic line. Rappers used it. Like 50 Cent used it in a line. Lil Wayne used it in a line. When it makes the jump in the social media age is in the show Love and Hip Hop. And a producer who is getting into an argument with his girlfriend says “you're canceled,” and it kinda takes off on black Twitter.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But you said in the piece that the word canceled at that point was used mostly as a joke.
CLYDE MCGRADY Right, right. It was mostly used to express disgust or disdain for some celebrity who did something that you didn't like. You know, like I'm done with this person. I don't deal with them, they're canceled. And it wasn't necessarily a call for any more serious action than just publicly announcing your own personal preferences.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Your own personal preferences? When did it start transforming into a word with more serious implications?
CLYDE MCGRADY I'm thinking about the Mute R Kelly movement, which had been building and building and building for so long after all these allegations of sexual misconduct and inappropriate sexual behavior towards minors. Once these allegations hit television, you see this really concerted effort to boycott R Kelly. To encourage artists that have worked with him to no longer work with him. To encourage radio stations not to play his music. To encourage people not to play his music. Then, of course, you have #metoo, and this is when it really takes off. All of a sudden people start speaking out publicly because maybe they don't feel empowered through the regular channels. So, they take to social media, right? So I'd say around 2018, 2019, this is when it really, really starts to bubble up into the consciousness.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So what's the difference between calling out somebody and canceling them? Could you give me an example?
CLYDE MCGRADY Right, Justin Timberlake, who has been accused of culturally appropriating black music for his own gain and profit, he was also involved in the 2005 Super Bowl infamous wardrobe malfunction incident with Janet Jackson. And the way he handled that did not sit well with a lot of people. A lot of people, particularly black people, felt that Justin Timberlake kind of hung her out to dry. And also, he dissed Prince.
BROOKE GLADSTONE He dissed Prince?
CLYDE MCGRADY Yes, he did.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But the thing is, is that Justin Timberlake is a good example of the difference between call-out culture and canceling because people weren't saying time to boycott.
CLYDE MCGRADY Right. They weren't calling his record label saying, you know, you should drop Justin Timberlake or telling DJs not to play his music or anything like that. They were just like I'm done with this dude. He has committed one too many transgressions, I'm through. And that was that, like Justin Timberlake still doing fine and still releasing music.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Can we talk about the appropriation of words that began in the black community and then migrated to the white community? You wrote that not only have these words been appropriated from black culture, but they've been weaponized to sneer at the values of many young black liberals.
CLYDE MCGRADY Yes, which is an ironic twist because usually black slang is appropriated for its proximity to cool, because historically what young black people have done in America is considered cool. And in order to be cool, a lot of white kids will adopt that same language.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You observed that the word cool itself emerged from black culture, and you quote James Baldwin, who wrote in 1969, "I do not know what white Americans would sound like if there had never been any black people in the United States, but they would not sound the way that they sound." But you also mention words like lit and bae, and on fleek that have come into popular vocabulary and then seemingly left. Do you think the phrase cancel culture is here to stay or will it just get folded into the history of the American lexicon?
CLYDE MCGRADY I put this story out and some people pointed out that politically correct had a similar trajectory. You know, it started as an in-joke among the left and then all of a sudden it grew and grew and then was used unironically. And then it was used to deride the things that they stood for.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And hence, you have Bill Maher's show, Politically Incorrect.
CLYDE MCGRADY Yeah. So maybe, you know, there will be a show called Cancel Culture, but it's about 50 years later and we're still saying politically correct. So, who knows how long –
BROOKE GLADSTONE Well, some of us are saying that.
CLYDE MCGRADY Right, right. I mean, who knows? We may still be saying cancel culture. As long as it is politically useful to do so, I think it will be around.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Thank you so much.
CLYDE MCGRADY Thank you so much for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Clyde McGrady is a features writer for The Washington Post with a focus on race and identity.
And that's the show. On the Media is produced by Leah Feder, Micah Loewinger, Jon Hanrahan, Eloise Blondiau, Rebecca Clark-Callender and Molly Schwartz. Xandra Ellin writes our unique newsletter. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson, our engineer this week was Adriene Lilly.
Katya Rogers is our executive producer. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
One last thing. You heard the name Jon Hanrahan on the credits, as you have for years. He started out really young and he still is. He's a champ, always on the ready, a peerless colleague, a fancy hand with the mixer, a musician, a great heart. Unfortunately for us, one who has moved way out of town and wants to explore new avenues. We will miss him a lot. We already do.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. 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 New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.