Who's worse: ESPN's Britt McHenry, or us?

ESPN reporter rant Britt McHenry orig_00001713
ESPN reporter rant Britt McHenry orig_00001713

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    ESPN reporter berates tow company clerk

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ESPN reporter berates tow company clerk 01:24

Story highlights

  • Video shows ESPN reporter Britt McHenry berating and belittling a tow company worker
  • Drexler: She was wrong to act that way, but aren't we too quick to judge without seeing full video?

Peggy Drexler is the author of "Our Fathers, Ourselves: Daughters, Fathers, and the Changing American Family" and "Raising Boys Without Men." She is an assistant professor of psychology at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City and a former gender scholar at Stanford University. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.

(CNN)ESPN's Britt McHenry this week found herself in the news, rather than reporting on it, after a video surfaced showing her berating and belittling an employee of a tow company in Arlington, Virginia. Among the highlights, as caught on tape and eventually uploaded to LiveLeak: "I'm on television and you're in a f**king trailer, honey," and "I wouldn't work at a scumbag place like this. Makes my skin crawl even being here." And, finally, "Lose some weight, baby girl."

It's pretty cringe-worthy stuff that seems difficult, if not impossible, to defend. McHenry quickly issued an apology, blaming the incident on a moment of intense frustration but admitting her mistake and accepting responsibility.
It was, however, too late: the #firebrittmchenry hashtag was already trending on Twitter, where she was called everything from classist, class-less, and "ugly on the inside" to a "sad, self-hating coward." ESPN, meanwhile, announced that McHenry would be suspended for a week.
    Peggy Drexler
    Certainly McHenry should have known better than to have used such words, even if that's what she was thinking, least of all because in our YouTube age, such missteps always come to light. But while McHenry's reaction could very well have been a result of an overblown sense of entitlement, evidence of a mean girl who never left high school, what's also troubling is how quickly and gleefully the rest of us issued blame on McHenry without fully knowing -- or, it seems, caring about -- the other side of the story.
    The video that was released -- by the tow company -- was heavily edited and included only McHenry's responses, not the comments of the employee who may have provoked her and contributed to an argument that clearly escalates as the video goes on. McHenry knew she was being taped; at one point, she looks directly at the camera. The employee even threatens to make the video public.
    Did McHenry keep going because she has that much of a self-destructive streak? Or because she truly could not help herself? Or was she confident that any video evidence would show that there were two people playing this particular game?
    These days, there's nothing we love more than an example of a celebrity fall from grace, whether it's Lindsay Lohan or Brian Williams or Britt McHenry, who was judged not on the facts but on what we take particular joy in believing: that the over-privileged and semi-famous do not necessarily deserve a fair trial.
    Sure, McHenry probably feels entitled, but that's our doing, too. We're a society obsessed with putting celebrities on a pedestal -- celebrating them, compensating them. And yet when, in a moment of frustration and stress, McHenry lets the entitlement bestowed on her win out over taking a deep breath and walking away, we're right there to demand to know what gives her the nerve.
    You know what gives her the nerve? We do. (Be honest: When is the last time you had a warm and fuzzy experience at the tow lot?)
    But we're really no better than she is. The problem with social media, and our dependence on it, is that it allows people to present and receive whatever angle they want, biased or not, fair or not. It's the "power of the press" without the objectivity or accountability demanded of the actual press. And it has enabled a dangerous vigilantism that makes those who use that power no different from the ones they are supposedly rallying against. Think about it.
    Who was worse: McHenry or the people who made that video public, and who did so without owning up to their part in the conversation? Who is worse: Britt McHenry for childishly mocking a confrontational tow employee's bad teeth, or the Twitter masses who call for justice and "the return of class" -- who express views like, "Part of me feels bad for Britt McHenry. Poor thing actually believes she was hired for 'brains' and 'education'?
    Shouldn't they question whether, in fact, McHenry could have actually been standing up for herself?
    Sorry to break it to you, but these days, we're all bullies. At least Britt McHenry owns up to it.