Two weeks ago, New York magazine ran an extensive profile of R. Kelly. The feature was based around the question, “Is it OK to listen to R. Kelly?” and it generated plenty of discussion, despite coming to no definitive answer on that question.
Earlier this week, The Daily Show canceled an appearance by Chris Brown after staffers reportedly revolted at the idea of having him on the show.
As far as the media landscape in 2015 goes, neither of these events is especially noteworthy, but compared and contrasted, they get to the heart of an existential problem that faces the media, especially any outlet that works beyond the strict remit of the daily news cycle: to what extent does coverage contribute to the perpetration of terrible things, and how does the media balance that against the journalistic obligation to report the news?
The platonic ideal of the media is that it reports what is objectively news, not that it makes decisions as to what news might be. In the real world, of course, it doesn’t work like that — the very act of reporting something is a huge influence on whether that subject becomes news or not. Deciding what to write about, or what not to write about, is thus as important an ethical decision as how you write about the subject in question.
All of which is to say, by choosing to run a major profile of a controversial figure — R. Kelly and, last year, Terry Richardson — New York is making a decision to contribute significantly to keeping Kelly in the public eye. And when that person’s career is contingent on publicity and celebrity, publishing such a feature is also a question of ethics. It’s not that R. Kelly would crawl away and die somewhere if people stopped writing about him, nor that ceasing to write about him would lead to any resolution of the accusations against him. But perhaps he wouldn’t still be happily making albums about how good he is at sex, either.
To some extent, obviously, the effect of your coverage depends on what you write. There are limits to the doctrine that any publicity is good publicity, and Jessica Hopper’s exhumation of Jim DeRogatis’ investigation of the years of rape accusations against Kelly wasn’t exactly a fillip to Kelly’s career. But then again, since we’re discussing the fact that he was on the cover of New York last month, that coverage doesn’t exactly appear to have killed his career, either — which is remarkable, given that the article in question was an exhaustive examination of decades’ worth of sexual abuse allegations. If that sort of coverage doesn’t kill your career, then the nuances of “fair” profiles that apparently aim to counterbalance years of accusations with a boilerplate, “Is he a monster or just misunderstood?” narrative are generally lost on anyone who just sees the headline and goes, “Oooh, R. Kelly must have a new album due!”
Clearly, you can’t just make a public figure go away by ignoring them. Still, by not ignoring them, you risk creating an even bigger monster, as evidenced by the continued existence of the bouffant-headed fascist currently running for the Republican presidential nomination, who would probably have remained an unpleasant but largely unknown New York capitalist were it not for the media’s constant fascination with him.
So is it worth continuing to cover such people, and to what extent does the media even have the moral right to make that decision? Is there a moral imperative to deny coverage to someone who is objectively terrible? If you’re a champion of free speech, your gut reaction to that question is probably, “Hell no!” No subject should be off limits to the press, and the fact that there’s a successful R&B singer whose career appears to be teflon despite his ALLEGED propensity for pissing on underage girls — that’s newsworthy, no? Enforcing a media blackout on a public figure because you just don’t like them is… a slippery slope, to say the least.
But it’s not unprecedented, either — which brings us to the question of denial of coverage, which in turn brings us to Chris Brown and his non-appearance on The Daily Show. Unlike Kelly or the myriad other celebrities whose crimes have been conveniently ignored or forgotten, Brown has largely been a media pariah since he assaulted Rihanna in February 2009. Or, more accurately, he’s been a media piñata; there’s been plenty of coverage of him, but his name has almost invariably been prefixed with “worst person ever” or “domestic abuser” or a similar description. As I’ve written here (and others have written elsewhere), one-upmanship in denigration of Chris Brown has become something of an undignified media pastime, one that has little interest in the man himself or the facts of his life.
Touching on this subject always seems to require a disclaimer, so here’s one: I am not in any way defending Chris Brown or attempting to justify what he did. But the fact that one act has criminalized him forever in the eyes of the public is uncomfortably reminiscent of the way that certain (black) felons continue to suffer for their crime long after their original sentence is finished. This isn’t a media blackout, per se, but in an age when a 19-year-old is given blanket coverage for, y’know, having an ass, it’s as close to a media blackout as a celebrity gets: a denial of any coverage that interrogates or deviates from a single narrative. Chris Brown will always be in the news, but he will only ever be in the news as the guy who beat up Rihanna and has been decided by all and sundry to be forever damned.
So, why the differing treatment? For a start, Brown’s assault on Rihanna happened in the age of social media — everyone saw the pictures of what he did to Rihanna, and they were awful. But then, you might argue, visual evidence of a man who may or may not be Kelly pissing on a 14-year-old girl also exists; there’s a video, and there has been for many years. As Hopper and DeRogatis discussed, all the accusations are a matter of public record, and have been for decades.
Still, a blurry video isn’t the same as a single, sharable photo of Rihanna’s shattered face. There’s also the fact that Brown’s victim was at least as famous as he was, if not more so, and her star has only risen in the years since the assault. Kelly’s victims are nameless, faceless, poor black girls, and as DeRogatis noted in his interview with Hopper last year, “Nobody matters less to our society than young black women” — unless, like Rihanna, they’re famous.
Whatever the reason, Brown’s media profile appears forever defined by a single incident, while Kelly’s is never defined — it waxes and wanes, depending on how long it’s been since someone’s examined the allegations against him. If it’s been long enough, they retreat into the realm of history and sometimes even humor — look at this, for instance, published by the very same media group that published Hopper’s DeRogatis piece: “Oh, that’s right, the freakiest stuff imaginable happens in an R. Kelly bedroom. Who can forget the time he was caught on tape rolling face on MDMA, urinating on yet another underage temptress?” Everyone, it appears, except the “temptress” in question, who was FOURTEEN YEARS OLD.
It needn’t be this way: as DeRogatis himself said to Hopper, “When you tell me what a brilliant ode to pussy Black Panties is, then realize that the next sentence should say: ‘This, from a man who has committed numerous rapes.’ The guy was a monster! Just say it!” But very few people say it. Obviously, Kelly isn’t even the most egregious case of this — there’s Roman Polanski, whose media profile is forever defined by everyone pretending one incident didn’t happen, or Woody Allen, who’s the subject of accusations just as unpleasant as those that dog Kelly, but who nevertheless continues to make films where an unfeasibly beautiful young woman falls in love with an unfeasibly obnoxious older man because, oh, he’s just so neurotic and adorable!
The point is that we have a clear double standard here, or at least a standard that is applied unequally and arbitrarily. If there’s a simple answer to this question, it’s this: the media as a whole needs to do better in the way it covers “difficult” celebrities, and specifically, it needs to look at being less reactive and more investigative. Much has been made in recent years of the trend of churnalism, i.e. the way in which thoughtless and often automated aggregation leads to the uncritical dissemination of information. Issue a press release, make sure someone picks it up, watch a few outlets pick it up from there, and then a few more outlets pick up that “story” — soon you have an exponential web of coverage, all of it originating from one source, none of it fact-checked or critically evaluated.
The herd mentality goes further than that, though. If everyone is reporting something in a certain way, it’s very easy to find yourself taking the same angle. Who wants to be the person who is brave or foolish enough to diverge from the accepted narrative, especially with the speed at which the outrage cycle works these days? Who wants to be the one to suggest that perhaps the Chris Brown denigration has gone far enough or, conversely, that maybe we shouldn’t continue to write uncritically about how much the ladeez just love R. Kelly?
No one. But journalists owe their subjects — and their readers — more than this. No one is 100% good, and no one is 100% bad. People are complicated, life is complicated, relationships are complicated. And if you want to be a journalist, you have an obligation to cover all that complexity, instead of just cramming it into a simple narrative, ignoring it completely, or milking it for controversy’s sake.