BOB GARFIELD: This is On The Media, I'm Bob Garfield. The MAGA teen's debacle last weekend demonstrated how vulnerable the press are to myriad social and political forces. In the MAGA affair says tech writer Charlie Warzel, 'we should especially not forget the intervention of right-wing operatives. Warzel, who was between jobs at his alma mater BuzzFeed and his future gig at the New York Times, watched from home tracking the various meta narratives as the story blew up. Charlie, welcome back to the show.
CHARLIE WARZEL: Thank you for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: I want to begin on the second day of the uproar when the media seemed to pretty suddenly reverse direction. How did that come to pass?
CHARLIE WARZEL: This was the result of a whole bunch of videos that emerged showing different angles as sort of had a Zapruder film effect of showing that there was more than in the initial video had shown. And the publication Reason picked this up and started putting this narrative together that there was more than meets the eye to this encounter.
BOB GARFIELD: And you said, as a consequence, some respectable journalists fell for bad faith arguments. Now, I read that Reason an article by Robby Soave–who could be described as a contrarian provocateur–but I think he was the only writer I read on the subject all week long who actually fessed up to having no idea what was in those kids heads. That it was a stretch to impute racial hate or malice. Bad faith?
CHARLIE WARZEL: I don't think that the Reason article is written in bad faith. I think there is an element of delighting in the fact of seeing this new narrative that sort of showed the mainstream press as being maybe over reactive. But I think that the bad faith narrative was surfaced, sort of, at the same time by a lot of right wing provocateurs and members of what I call the pro-Trump media. And I believe that these individuals saw an example of perhaps the press overreacting and used it to launch almost an equal and opposite campaign to bully and harass journalists into stating that they had made a huge mistake and to sort of illustrate the fact that the mainstream media has no credibility.
BOB GARFIELD: It was the Fox’s, the Breitbart, the Gateway Pundit’s, the Mike Cernoviche’s who went off on the whole enemy of the people, fake news thing. And you believe this goaded people into rethinking their positions or was it just the fact of the new video and the new angles?
CHARLIE WARZEL: I think that there was an overcorrection from a lot of members of the media and the sort of apologies for maybe, you know, getting the context wrong initially by mainstream journalists is then manipulated into the mainstream media apologizes for victimizing these young children who didn't deserve anything–for ruining their lives. That was sort of the narrative that was being put forward all across the far-right corners of the Internet–the online provocateurs and the message boards and the fever swamps. And it kind of you know trickles down to the bigger mass communication platforms to Fox News to Breitbart. As journalists in the mainstream media, we have to be very careful about the way that we portray and even correct ourselves. I thought there wasn't a lot of nuance in the way people corrected, you know, they said, 'I was, I was wrong. I mischaracterize the situation completely.' And I didn't see a lot of, you know, 'we still need to be talking about these issues of white privilege and bigotry and, you know, polarization.' I didn't really see that. Instead, I heard, 'I made a mistake, I wish I could take the whole thing back.' And I think it's important to have the nuance but not completely capitulate.
BOB GARFIELD: What you're just saying perplexed me that, well never mind the details, you know, the facts may be a little murky, but the larger story is undeniable. So why be distracted by what the kids did or did not do. Can't we just focus on the racism that so infects our society. Is that the right take?
CHARLIE WARZEL: Well, I certainly think it's what complicates all of this right? There were a lot of people who said, 'we should take a lot more time before we share something that outrages us. We need to step back take a breather.' I agree with that to some point, but these other angles of the video didn't emerge until, in some cases, a day later. If someone sees something that is a perceived injustice and there's video evidence of it, as journalists we have a real balance to strike I think. Because we shouldn't wait for 24 hours and ignore an important story. It's all about walking that line.
BOB GARFIELD: And I guess at some point it ceases to be about even the truth behind the events it becomes just the latest battle in the culture wars, which raises the question of really how important was it in my filter bubble? It was all consuming. You know, my Twitter blew up, as I'm sure did yours, but is this story itself worthy of the attention that, in our circles, was paid to it?
CHARLIE WARZEL: That feels like almost an unanswerable question in the sense that these things all become important because a lot of people decide that they're important in the moment. In the aftermath to this, we're seeing a lot of people talk about how journalists use Twitter and the bubble focus that we all have being inside there. I think one of the fallouts of that is we all log on every day and, especially in the Trump era, we're sort of creating a narrative together. We're all living history and writing it as we go. And I think one side effect of all of that is we tend to see moments, even if they're somewhat small, as indicative of the bigger story–as a big chapter in this meaty story. And I think sometimes we do blow it up out of proportion and then that becomes a story in itself and it just sort of feeds itself.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, I mentioned in the introduction that you are at the moment between gigs. You've recently left BuzzFeed and you're joining the New York Times op-ed page, so as a consequence you didn't actually have to report on this thing. How do you have and would you have screwed it up?
CHARLIE WARZEL: I was someone who initially, I didn't add any commentary to it, but on Saturday morning when that video first showed up I felt a pang of outrage like so many people and I hit the retweet button. Had I been at a outlet, I would have felt a lot of pressure to weigh in. I'm thankful that I didn't have to weigh in on this particularly. The only ways that I have talked about this are in a Twitter thread which I thought about for a long time and actually wrote the thread out over a series of days which is kind of unusual. And then things like this, talking in an audio medium, because I think that that actually gives you the ability to have nuance. You can hear in, my voice, that I'm struggling with some of these questions that, you know, there's no definitive voice of God projection in that. That's really helpful in contentious and murky and treacherous situations like this.
BOB GARFIELD: Yeah so would you have failed?
CHARLIE WARZEL: If an editor of any kind had put a gun to my head and said we need something in the next two hours. This event is, you know, blowing up. There's a incredibly high chance that I would have written something that I would have regretted.
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BOB GARFIELD: Charlie, I really appreciate it. Thank you.
CHARLIE WARZEL: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Charlie Warzel, ex of BuzzFeed, is soon to be a writer at large for The New York Times opinion page.