The Media Failed in its Coverage of the PewDiePie Controversy

In my short time in this line of work, I’ve found that far too many people insert personal opinions into news coverage, and even more hide behind the shield of an “editorial” or “op-ed” label to do so with the belief that this is grants them the protection of saying whatever they please, free of consequence. “It’s just my opinion,” people will say. “It’s even labeled as such.” But the truth is, we all have a platform. Even in matters where you are sharing your opinion, it’s just as important to back that opinion up with something of substance in order to make an intelligent argument. Most people don’t care about your opinion – they care about the process that led you to that opinion. Every hot take you think you’re presenting has already been made dozens of times on Twitter under the popular hashtag of the day. It’s how you present it that matters. The only thing you’ll achieve by throwing out unsubstantiated opinions is limiting your audience. You’ll attract those who agree with you, alienate those who don’t, and do absolutely nothing to sway the undecided many in the middle.

Even enthusiast press has responsibilities. It is our responsibility to report on news, not to create it. But, more importantly than that, it is our responsibility to be fair while doing so.

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Earlier this week, both Disney and Google made the decision to sever ties with popular YouTube personality Felix “PewDiePie” Kjellberg due to content in several of his videos. Scare PewDiePie, a collaboration between Disney’s Maker Studios and The Walking Dead parent company Skybound Entertainment, was canceled. The decision came after The Wall Street Journal reached out to Disney about several of PewDiePie’s videos. In fact, that is the first thing you’ll read in the article after the headline: “Move came after the Journal asked about videos in which he included anti-Semitic jokes or Nazi imagery.”

I take no issue with the decision that Disney and Google made. They are businesses, and the people working there have every right to do what they feel is best for their businesses. Both businesses have the right to determine who they wish to partner with, support, or offer their services to. In fact, I don’t take any issue with The Wall Street Journal seeking out comments from them. The videos were public, the platform was public, and the partnership was public. While I may personally feel that a number of examples provided were misrepresented, this isn’t a hit piece on The Wall Street Journal. This is my personal condemnation of everything that followed.

I’m not going to stand here and tell you that the things PewDiePie said were offensive. I’m also not going to stand here and tell you that they weren’t. Offense is an individual response based on a variety of different factors, including upbringing, lived experiences, and overall state of mind, and you are all intelligent enough to determine your own feelings without having some random ginger on a gaming website tell you why you’re right or wrong.

What I am going to tell you is that the media has failed you.

“YouTube’s Monster: PewDiePie and His Populist Revolt.”
“Trump and PewDiePie are Using the Same Playbook.”
“When did fascism become so cool? PewDiePie’s antics are the thin end of the wedge.”
“Is YouTube sensation PewDiePie really a Nazi? His intentions matter less than his effect.”
“PewDiePie’s Fall Shows the Limits of ‘LOL JK.'”

These are some of the headlines that have surfaced this past week, both following The Wall Street Journal’s report and following PewDiePie’s response to the controversy. These are headlines designed specifically to evoke an emotional response prior to reading any of the words included. And they all say, basically, the same exact things. They say that he has made anti-semitic jokes. Some will say that racist groups support him, so that must mean what he said was racist. They tell you how much he makes, and what he makes it for. Some tell you he’s worth condemning. And they tell you that the other shoe is currently dropping. They’re provocative, and they’re happening from the gaming press all the way up the ladder. They’re also contributing to a culture of headline academics who consume information based off what is planted in their heads by 10-word headlines, devoid of context, and designed to compel as many clicks as possible by whatever means necessary.

We love ourselves a good controversy, and more than anything else, we love the smell of blood in the water. PewDiePie is not a defenseless nobody, he’s a successful, controversial content creator who makes more in one year than I could ever dream of seeing in a single lifetime. That’s made him, in the eyes of many, fair game. Except it isn’t really “fair,” is it?

One example provided was a December 8th video, in which PewDiePie talked about the ways he had been portrayed in the media, including claims that he is racist. “It will get them clicks. And who cares? Who cares if there’s a real person behind it, right?” The video is entitled “I’m Racist?” featured the YouTube star reading comments and headlines written about him. At the end, the video briefly cut to black and then showed PewDiePie dressing in a military uniform and watching a Hitler video. The media description: that he “watched a Hitler video in a brown military uniform to conclude a Dec. 8 video,” with no mention of what the 12 minute video leading up to that point was about. Was it a joke? Obviously. Was it stupid? No doubt. Do I blame Disney for not wanting to be associated with that? Hell no. But the media isn’t a business partner. And we certainly don’t have the right to omit important context in order to paint the picture we want painted.

Another example simply stated that he “posted swastikas drawn by his fans on Oct. 15.” In that video, entitled “Stop Doing This,” he was looking at various fan creations and commenting on them. These included several swastikas – and PewDiePie appeared to be laughing but somewhat frustrated by the appearance of the swastikas. “Do you know how many f*cking hoops we have to go through to make sure the game won’t be censored because people will make sh*t like this?” he said of one of the fan-made swastika creations. “Oh for f*ck’s sake,” he said of another one before quickly passing over it. With all due respect, while “posted swastikas drawn by his fans” isn’t exactly a lie, it is far from the truth. “100% of People Who Drink Water Will Die” is also a fact, although that statement is presented in a way to make you assume water is the cause of death, not that all of us will die anyway, regardless of water consumption.

The truth is, we are the old media. Attempting to give a black and white, written account of any of these videos proves challenging, as they are lengthy videos and conveying tone while simply quoting is nearly impossible. And yes, there were plenty of dumb, immature things – jokes or not – that PewDiePie did say and do in his videos. However, it’s our responsibility to share news, or even form opinions, based on all available information, not based on seven seconds of carefully selected questionable content at the expense of everything that led to it.

There’s this idea that attacking an individual’s character is more than acceptable – it’s justified – once it’s been determined that that person is of questionable character based on minimal information often removed from context in order to maximize the shock factor at a glance. There are even some who believe it’s their responsibility to do so, given their platforms. So they boot up their computers and type away, offering superficial opinions on the character of a person they’ll likely never meet. Most won’t reach out for a comment. If they do and the person doesn’t respond, they’ll attack. If the person does respond, they’ll attack the response. Because the truth is, people have made up their minds before receiving all of the information and are unlikely to be swayed.

But is that really what we want our mark on the world to be? Dedicating a full week to deciding something about someone based on a handful of out-of-context snippets? I’m by no means a fan of PewDiePie’s – he’s sort of the slapstick comedy of YouTube, good for a few laughs but relatively short on the substance that would keep me interested. But you know what? It works for him. I’m sorry if I don’t see that as a good enough excuse for those of us in the media to throw our collective integrity in the garbage for a few easy clicks.

Oh wait, no I’m not.

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