‘haters’ and controversy makers
Two weeks ago, ultra conservative American radio man Rush Limbaugh took to the airwaves in criticism. The subject of his critique was Sandra Fluke, a law student who had testified at a Steering Committee hearing in support of having health coverage for contraceptives. Limbaugh’s analysis almost exploded social media, from the moment that he called Ms. Fluke ‘a slut’ and ‘prostitute’ who clearly has sex too often to cover the costs of her own contraception. It was a fiery analysis from a typically shock provoking host, but it did set tongues wagging about when media analysis should stop being personal.
What should our tolerance level for aggressive or sexist commentary be?
The Fluke case prompted a reexamination of how the US Republican party and conservative movements treat women and respond to their opinions in professional settings. Pieces like this have chronicled the rise in prominence of both Limbaugh and Fluke through online media. When President Obama reportedly called Ms. Fluke in support of her testimony, disappointed at the way she’d been referred to in the media, the focus shifted to that of decorum and “honour” in public criticisms. It became, perhaps, less about the debates surrounding women and contraception and instead focused on the tone and what was acceptable behaviour towards her.
The United States are not alone when it comes to harsh and threatening commentary. Social media has been a well documented tool for sparring between celebrities and public figures. In a similar vein to criticisms against Ms. Fluke, our own media has lately grappled to respond to debates on public agreements that play out aggressively.
Also in February, The Age newspaper writer Suzanne Carbone received public taunts following a piece she wrote for the paper on the publicity activities of former sports manager Ricky Nixon. Nixon, who was reportedly unimpressed by the reporting of his offer to entertain fans in a corporate box at the football for $1500, took to Facebook to express his dislike for the journalist. The account, which was public, saw ex footballer Dermott Brereton also weigh in. The issue that The Age took with this was, again, the tone. When it was suggested that Carbone’s story was the result of her needing a ‘good shag,’ Nixon encouraged Brereton to ‘do that [shag her] on our behalf’.
But it was Brereton’s response: ‘I don’t do charity like that,’ which seemingly created a news story out of the comments. The AFL has been quick to distance itself from what was said, but the story has lingered on news and gossip sites for the past couple of weeks.
So what, if anything, do such cases mean? Both these examples could be considered casually sexist, but it is not only sexual or sexist commentary that gets put out into the blogosphere to taunt or offend. When controversies and public fights emerge, so do theories about what the result is. If ‘haters gonna hate,’ as that meme goes, does it have an impact?
Perhaps as social media cements networks of feminists and activists, comments out of line with public ideas about ‘decency’ can be knocked down quickly. Tom Watson theorises in Forbes magazine that the last five to ten years has seen a growth of feminist networks in particular, who act immediately when questionable comments hit the airwaves and influence things like advertisers’ decisions to stay with a media group after a controversy. One way to read it is that within minutes of the broadcast that saw Limbaugh call a college student a slut, groups of feminists and citizens were able to put up a front that condemned his actions. The media cycle may allow for one to be called a prostitute by a shock jock, but even when said announcer continues with that critique, someone will be there to check his aggression.
But then there’s free speech, which is a more constitutionally entrenched concept for the US than Australia. Within the Republican camp there are those who claim media personalities should be able to express their opinions however they like. This is an argument that has gained some traction given, perhaps, how hard it is to quantify the negative effects of speech, posts and tweets alone. As social media encounters more case studies of inappropriate criticisms, perhaps we’ll get a sense of whether they influence debate before the blogosphere jumps to the defence of whoever is being harassed.
Some have acknowledged that behind taunts or unprofessional insults in the media there is often a greater issue in need of discussion. In the Fluke case, this is arguably healthcare policy at her university, and this has been displaced somewhat by angry talk. Perhaps this is the true result of controversy makers when they take aggressive comments to media networks. A difference of opinion may result in vitriol, preventing further debate.
For now it seems that the political incorrectness of such stories ensure they get front page attention. Should commentators be knocked down for making it personal? Or is it a case of words not causing harm?
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