This week on John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight, the show took up the issue of public shaming, a topic for which author Jon Ronson has a lot of knowledge. Here, however, Oliver seeks to find the line between productive public shaming like that of Tucker Carlson and public shaming designed purely to humiliate private citizens.
It’s an important piece, especially for entertainment reporters and sites like our own. Public shaming can be hugely beneficial where it concerns holding people like Tucker Carlson or Jeanine Pirro or Fox News or even Beto O’Rourke accountable for their statements (and bless you, O’Rourke, but there are only so many times you can call out your own white privilege while also benefiting from it). It gets much dicier, however, when you’re dealing with private citizens, and in the age of social media, there’s no shortage of private citizens who give us fodder for which to shame publicly.
Do we take it up, or let it lie? At the very least, I think it’s something all newsrooms (or Slack channels) should discuss before we decide to run a particular hit piece. I think Oliver is right in his piece about, for instance, Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman being public figures and therefore eligible for public shaming, but the line has to be drawn at the kids, unless one of those kids is a public figure herself (here, Olivia Jade). But even in that case, the window for public shaming should be limited. It’s also important to understand all of the facts, especially with private citizens, otherwise, you end up with a story like the one about The Worst Aunt Ever, who was shamed for suing her nephew for hugging her, although few outlets picked up on the fact that she had to name someone in the suit to collect from her home insurance policy and that her nephew and his family approved of it.
Monica Lewinsky figures heavily in the piece, and she gives a lengthy (and fantastic) interview at the end of it. Every late night show was complicit in that shit show, even John Oliver, and while most have evolved to the point that they understand why it was wrong, Oliver does take issue with Jay Leno, who has not expressed any regret for the way he relentlessly attacked Lewinsky (“Oh, the places you can go f*ck yourself, Jay Leno.”)
The line where it gets blurry for me may be what felt like an unintentional series of public shamings we — and the Internet, at large — foisted upon white women who called the police on black people (often children). There was a period where there were a lot of hashtags and Beckys on social media. Those shamings were largely directed at private citizens, but I also feel like those private citizens were necessary sacrificial lambs to call out that particular insidious practice. Did the woman who called the police on a black schoolkid because his backpack touched her backside need to have her life ruined? I mean … I dunno. I’m a petty and vindictive person when it comes to social injustices, but I also doubt that her life was truly affected very much. She was subjected to three days of public humiliation, and she apologized, and now no one remembers her name. I think that’s a suitable punishment, right?
At any rate, I think it’s important for entertainment reporters to at least ask ourselves what are we doing here? Do we know the whole story? Are we shaming someone for the sole purpose of generating clicks? Or are we trying to hold a person or practice accountable? Is there a net social good here? There has to be a line between justifiably dragging Dean Cain and ruining the life of someone like Justine Sacco.
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