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.

Football, as America’s de facto national game, is what best channels the substance of American culture, its mediated violence, into a single ritual. It systematizes technology, brute force, and drama into an event capable of creating beauty, boredom, spectacle, and catharsis. But stasis, under capitalism, is untenable, and therefore the size, spectacle and speed of football must be pushed beyond their limits and nature must be adapted to the service of the game. The NFL’s desire to grow and improve football by improving upon and surmounting nature has made the game’s recent history a story of hubris, wrapped in the themes of science fiction.

What these pitchers do appears to be so simple: chuck a ball over a plate. Do it well and they’re successful; do it right long enough and they’re fabulously rich, to boot. View it that way and there are very few external factors to bear on success or failure. The rest of the world is rendered pointless. A pitcher must do only one thing, and if he does not do it well the consequences are obvious. Those among us who strive to live in ways similarly simple and authentic are drawn to that practical obviousness. The pitcher’s craft may rely upon craftiness, but there is no masking the result. He succeeds until he fails, and then he has to go out there and do it again. It’s an emotionally punishing undertaking, masochistic even. It is also extremely familiar to most any human resident of planet Earth.

A quick primer on Ferguson, “St. Louis,” and St. Louis County

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Over the past few days I’ve seen a lot of confusion about the geography and municipal structure of Ferguson and St. Louis, so I just want to offer a quick rundown of the region and make some distinctions that often elude not only national media but frankly many St. Louis residents as well. This isn’t just me being pedantic; if you want a full understanding of the insanity going on in Ferguson this week, you need to understand the deep roots of St. Louis’ regional dysfunction.

The St. Louis metro area has a strange, flukish governmental framework that dates back to 1876, when St. Louis City made the monumentally shortsighted decision to separate itself from surrounding St. Louis County. When the city needed to expand westward in the ensuing decades, it had nowhere to go, and gradually the region’s political and economic center of gravity shifted to the County. Today, the City and the County cooperate on some regional bodies but municipal codes, public finances, and most services (police, fire, courts, public works) are divided along the City-County line.

But this is only half of the reason why “St. Louis”—i.e., the metro area—is so dysfunctional. The other is that St. Louis County is itself further balkanized into no less than 91 independent municipalities, 74 of which maintain their own municipal police departments—most of which, like Ferguson’s, are small and suffer from a lack of oversight. These 74 separate departments, plus the much larger St. Louis County Police Department, serve a relatively small suburban area that—even in other fragmented metro areas like Dallas-Ft. Worth—would (and should) be served by no more than three or four departments.

When you understand this insane fragmentation, and understand that the police response in Ferguson is being “coordinated” by St. Louis County Police in conjunction with dozens of other smaller independent municipal departments, tweets like these begin to make more sense:

Importantly, this does not downplay the very real racial component at play in the St. Louis County Police Department’s unbelievably heavy-handed response to the protests in Ferguson—in fact, the region’s racial tensions and its governmental fragmentation are inextricably linked to one another, since efforts at reunification or consolidation often run into opposition from white suburbs that want to remain separate from predominantly black municipalities like Ferguson.

Rioters rampage through Huntington Beach after surf competition … University Of Mississippi Students Riot Over Obama Victory … St. Patrick’s celebrations at UMass spark rioting and 70 arrests … St. Patrick’s Day riot ‘like a war zone,’ London, Ont. police chief says … 1,000 riot at University of Dayton on St. Patrick’s Day … Students Arrested After New York ‘Kegs and Eggs’ Riot … Ten thousand riot in downtown Denver after Super Bowl victory … Police in Riot Gear Arrest 37 People After Red Sox Sweep World SeriesPatriots fans riot after Super Bowl loss … UMass police arrest 15 after Red Sox World Series win Red Sox Win Incites Riots Across BostonDeath of Victoria SnelgroveDisco Demolition NightTen Cent Beer NightRichard Riot1993 Stanley Cup riot1994 Vancouver Stanley Cup riot … 2011 Vancouver Stanley Cup riot3,000 at Michigan State riot over alcohol ban … 10,000 Fans Riot in Michigan … Michigan State Party Turns Into RiotRiot Police Hit East Lansing Streets Following MSU Win … Arrests expected in PSU riotPenn State riot: Students react to Joe Paterno firing … Fans riot on University Boulevard after Elite Eight loss … Iowa State University Students Riot On A Tuesday For No Apparent Reason … University of Delaware students rampage at riot party … Several police departments respond to riots at annual Kent State ‘College Fest’Power outage sets off Fraternity Row riot … Kentucky Students Riot After NCAA Championship Win … Kentucky erupts in rioting after NCAA loss … 19 arrested after University of Minnesota students riot for the second time in a week after Gophers lose hockey final … Police use tear gas to disperse crowd near Western Michigan University … 'Unruly' revelry after Maryland game leads to 28 arrests in College Park … Riots near U of O ‘like a war zone’ … CSU students and neighbors react to Saturday riot near campus … Police In Riot Gear End UW Party … 'Deltopia' Spring Break Party Morphs Into Riot In Santa Barbara

Riots like the one last night in North St. Louis County are a youth phenomenon, not a black one.