Editor’s Note: Issac Bailey is a longtime journalist based in South Carolina and the Batten Professor for Communication Studies at Davidson College. He’s the author of “My Brother Moochie: Regaining Dignity in the Face of Crime, Poverty and Racism in the American South.” His latest book is “Why Didn’t We Riot? A Black Man in Trumpland.” The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
Journalist Hemal Jhaveri recently sent an ill-advised, ill-considered tweet during a particularly emotional moment – not long after one shooter committed a massacre in three spas in Georgia and another killed 10 people in a Colorado grocery store. That’s not why she’s no longer a race and inclusion editor for USA Today’s Sports Media Group. It’s because her employer, like too many people today, gave into their own cowardice.
In a Medium piece announcing that she had been fired, she detailed the ways she and many other journalists of color feel treated in many newsrooms throughout the country. We are expected to ignore or accept everyday microaggressions and watch White colleagues express themselves in ways we don’t always feel free to. Then, when we speak up, we are called to account for making them uncomfortable.
All the while, we know we are often targeted by readers and audience members who don’t like us for our race or gender but attack us in ways that obscure that reality. After Jhaveri posted her story, USA Today told CNN that it wouldn’t comment on personnel issues but “we firmly believe in and stand by our principles of diversity and inclusion.”
This isn’t about one journalist or one tweet. Neither is this solely about decisions made by large media companies. It’s about whether we will allow bad-faith actors to dictate what justice for a public mistake looks like. It’s an issue that can affect us all. But this isn’t about online mobs, not really. If you really want to understand supposed “cancel culture,” that nebulous term which has been thrown around with great fanfare, particularly on the right and among libertarians, you shouldn’t waste your time trying to determine just what offenses are most likely to get you “canceled.” You should spend more time checking the spine of the organization whose employee is under relentless attack. In the case of Jhaveri, USA Today looks spineless.
Jhaveri’s tweet was tin-eared. It overly generalized a complex and horrific phenomenon – mass shootings – and unfairly targeted a group in a heated moment. There’s no excuse for it.
“It’s always an angry white man. Always,” Jhaveri’s tweet read. (Mass shooters are not always White men even if the majority are, if you needed reminding.) When the alleged shooter was identified as Ahmad Al Aliwi Alissa, a Muslim man of Syrian descent, Jhaveri was inundated with messages about the need to “muzzle” her, that she hates White men and Christians, and is a racist race baiter, among many other things.
Most of us who frequent Twitter have found ourselves caught up in an emotional knee jerk reaction, only to realize later we’ve taken things a bit too far. I know I have. Some of the people I respect most have as well. The combination of frustration and the ability to respond publicly almost immediately to just about any event is a dangerous one even for the most careful person. That’s one reason why Twitter exists. The site tends to incentivize speed and superficiality rather than critical thinking and reward pithiness over nuance. It’s not that critical thinking isn’t possible on the platform, it’s just that social media users must exercise a daunting level of caution and expend extra effort to remember that when a high-profile story is unfolding.
In a sane world, depending on the circumstance, deleting the tweet, apologizing and absorbing a well-earned round of harsh criticism is consequence enough for a journalist in Jhaveri’s position. In rare cases, a short suspension might even be warranted. But this isn’t a sane world, especially not the world of social media, where hundreds or thousands of people are ready to pounce on any misstep by a perceived ideological enemy.
I’ve been subject to such pile-ons when the right people eagerly expressed their disagreement with something I had written. It’s not fun. I play in public, so I expect the public to sometimes not like what I say. Every public figure should expect the same. It’s up to the person under fire, and their employer, to ensure that such a pile-on doesn’t become an injustice. And that’s where USA Today went astray.
Jhaveri’s tweet was among a bevy of such tweets by journalists and other public figures prematurely claiming the shooter in Colorado was a White man after early images of the half-naked suspect with a bloody leg and in handcuffs circulated on social media. Americans’ racial identities are complex – far more so than US Census definitions might suggest, for instance. Controversially, they classify many of Middle Eastern descent as White. How to best address and reflect the nuances of racial identity is a question that certainly merits deep scrutiny; ultimately, however, what matters here is that there was simply not enough information available at the time to determine whether the alleged perpetrator’s race played a significant role in his motivation to commit such a horrific act.
But was that assumption so egregious it should have ended with Jhaveri losing her job? Of course not. Was her overgeneralization about mass shooters so beyond the pale USA Today should have ceded ground to a group of people online who cynically use any such mistake to defame those with whom they disagree? Of course not.
That’s why “cancel culture” discussions should stop being about those trying to get someone punished for a perceived (or real) slight. They aren’t going away. Social media has given more people more power than ever. In some cases, that’s been extremely helpful, outing police officers who engage in police brutality and teachers and announcers at high school girls’ basketball games who throw around racist slurs then blame it on diabetes. It’s good those kinds of things are documented and shared far and wide. We need to see them, need to know them. It has given voice to the previously voiceless.
Even a good thing can every now and again be weaponized in disturbing ways, though. That’s unfortunate. But that’s why those in charge of making the decisions should be held to a higher standard, should be expected to not give into their own cowardice just to make an uncomfortable news cycle disappear as quickly as possible. USA Today failed that test. Horribly.
Other companies better find their spine, or they’ll fail their tests, too. More importantly, how all of us respond in moments like these will help shape the contours of the discussion going forward. A society-wide spiral of cowardice serves none of us well. We can make it easier for companies to find their spines by showing ours first.