How internet bullshit gets made
On Monday night, a panel on a two-hour pregame show for Monday Night Football will, among other things, address domestic abuse. This panel will discuss, once again, the appropriate penalty for hitting a woman.
The panel for that discussion will include the following people: Chris Berman, Cris Carter, Mike Ditka, Adam Schefter, Tom Jackson, Keyshawn Johnson, Jon Gruden, Mike Tirico, Stuart Scott, Steve Young and Ray Lewis.
Up to 11 men, all between the ages of 39 and 74 will sit at the table for a domestic violence discussion on ESPN. Zero women. Victims of domestic violence in America are most likely to be women aged 20-24.
So begins Ben Collins’ Esquire piece “ESPN Has a Problem with Women,” a fairly standard takedown of the network’s institutional misogyny, a hundred versions of which have appeared in dozens of publications in the three weeks since the Ray Rice video was released. It’s a good piece.
Shortly after it was published, the San Francisco Chronicle's Marcus Gilmer tweeted a link to the article and preceded it with this: “ESPN to have an 11-person panel about domestic violence during tomorrow’s pre-game and all 11 participants are dudes.”
This, of course, is bullshit. Well-meaning bullshit, morally and ideologically in-the-right-place bullshit, fine—but it’s still bullshit. “To have a panel on” an issue means something very specific. If ESPN had announced it was having an “11-person panel about domestic violence during tomorrow’s pre-game” and then filled that panel with 11 men, that would be fucking absurd.
But that’s not what happened. Collins’ article is very clearly just talking about ESPN’s Monday Night Football pre-game show in general, presuming that at some point—since it has dominated conversation about the NFL for the last three weeks—the topic of domestic violence will come up and therefore be discussed by a football panel comprised entirely of dudes. This, too, is outrageous, but it’s light-years away from planning and promoting a “panel on domestic violence” in advance and being so repugnant and tone-deaf as to not include a single woman.
As of this morning, Gilmer’s tweet had been retweeted 214 times. One of those retweets was by VICE Sports writer Lindsey Adler. Shortly after that, she tweeted, “THIS IS HORRIFYING" with a link to Collins’ article and a screenshot of its second and third paragraphs, omitting the vital context in the first. This one has been retweeted 753 times. "Utterly speechless,” wrote Mike Schur as he retweeted Adler’s tweet to his 76,000 followers. His tweet, in turn, has been retweeted 649 times.
Once the Internet Bullshit Express has built up a head of steam, there’s no stopping it. By this morning, the story was on Jezebel, Mediaite, Mic, and dozens of other outlets. “Hi, everybody now reading my ESPN story @Lahlahlindsey’s tweet!” tweeted Collins last night. “Note: There’s no special panel on tomorrow’s Countdown for domestic violence.” His tweet has zero retweets and one favorite.
There are two things that are insidious about this particular kind of internet bullshit. The first is the ideological component. As Collins’ original piece argued quite well, ESPN does display a chronic lack of respect for women and doesn’t feature nearly enough female voices on its broadcasts. Everyone should be aware of this and put pressure on them to change it. So pushing back against the bullshit is easily taken as betraying the cause, aligning yourself with the legions of mouth-breathing morons who have spent the last three weeks doing things like wearing Ray Rice jerseys to Ravens games and muttering “protect the shield, protect the shield” over and over while lying on their couch in a pork-rind-induced diabetic coma.
The second is—what else?—money. Esquire is an established print magazine but not a very successful web property; Collins’ story, having caught a tidal wave of outrage-powered virality, will probably do better traffic than anything else it publishes all year. According to the social media buttons at the top of the article, it’s been shared 971 times on Facebook and 2,314 times on Twitter. Those figures for Esquire’s next most-viewed story are 17 and zero. You might think that Collins or his editor would want to rework his lede in order to clear things up, or at least that they wouldn’t want to promote a misinterpretation of what the article says. You’d be wrong. One of the 753 and counting who retweeted Adler’s “THIS IS HORRIFYING” tweet was Esquire's official Twitter account.