Now Trending In “The Newsroom”: Public Shaming

In a recent episode of “The Newsroom,” Aaron Sorkin’s HBO show on creating, presenting, manipulating and perceiving what we call news, two major characters are publicly embarrassed by events they’d considered either private or inconsequential.

In one instance, the brilliant but socially misguided finance reporter Sloan Sabbith is shocked – Shocked! — when the man she breaks up with posts intimate pictures of her on a revenge porn site.

I’ve been out of the dating scene for some time now, but I have to admit: if I were involved in an intimate relationship with anyone in 2013, I would never believe taking nude photos was a good idea. In fact, I’d probably sweep the room for hidden cameras. I know, who thinks of that in the heat of the moment after a couple of drinks? Anyone who has any public profile whatsoever, that’s who.

Some celebrities might not care but Sloan is young and female and she wants, no needs, to be taken seriously. At first, she’s devastated; too humiliated even to feel angry. Finally she grows a pair, so to speak, interrupts her arbitrage ex in a meeting, kicks him in the balls, follows with an admirable right hook and snaps a shot of him lying bloodied on the ground that we know she’ll post later.

We’re meant to admire her journey from being passively stunned to being righteously enraged — You go, girl! — but if I were a reputable financial reporter from a major cable news outlet, I’d want to put the story of my private affair to bed as quickly as possible. Instead, Sloane’s love life is destined to be far more visible than even her most prescient financial predictions. Then again, I suppose there’s no such thing as bad publicity.

In the other instance, Will MacAfee, the head anchor with a reputation for brainy surliness, has apparently hurt the feelings of a Washington Post reporter by unwittingly snubbing her at a restaurant. She’s taken to the Twittersphere, emboldened by Will-haters who can easily believe he’s guilty of some sort of impropriety.

Her tweets, posted while he’s on air and reported to him during his thirty-second breaks by a junior associate, are designed to put him between a rock and a hard place. Whatever he responds will be too little too late; the story will have to lose steam of its own volition.

The setup reminds me of the favorite tactic of defense lawyers trying to discredit a witness: Ask the witness to provide a yes or no answer to the question “Have you stopped beating your wife?” There’s no good response to a question with a constricted answer, just as there’s no way to refute a false impression in 144 characters. Will, whose quick wits usually give him the upper hand, is bothered by this virtual turn on the chopping block because the reporter took her gripes public.

Sorkin asserted in brief comments following the episode that a culture of public shaming, especially online, is upon us, facilitated by our easy access to the various social networking megaphones. He’s right. It’s certainly ubiquitous, as all sorts of frustrated people who feel wronged take to cyberspace to air their grievances. The names of pedophiles and johns are published. Stealth photographs of people littering, urinating or engaging in all sorts of other public mischief are posted.

One might think there’s something to be gained, some public good that might be served or mind that might be changed, as when some of our forefathers stuck their neighbors in the stockade or had them walk around with signs proclaiming their misdeeds.

Psychologists and lay people seem to disagree about the effectiveness of public shaming, citing a dearth of evidence that it actually changes behavior (although it must surely heighten resentment on the part of the person or persons shamed). But the version of public shaming Sorkin addresses — the one that’s becoming increasingly popular — is about revenge. Been dumped? Post naughty pictures of your ex. Feel snubbed? Protest loudly and frequently to the world. Though some may see their actions as justified, they seem to be engaged in vendetta-driven vigilantism.

Public shaming often seems to be less about exposing someone else’s bad behavior than about soothing one’s own ego. That makes it not only very distasteful but also very dangerous. The angry instigator is deliberately leaving an unflattering and permanent record that will stay up long after tempers have cooled and attention has shifted.

The Internet empowers its users, theoretically a positive development. Unfortunately, it doesn’t come with either instructions or a warning label: Use only in conjunction with critical thinking skills. We accept without questioning, opine without researching, and, increasingly, attack without considering the consequences. Public shaming’s popularity, especially in the context of individual humiliation, reveals us to be immature, insecure narcissists. It eschews the high road or even the long view for adventures in backstabbing. We’re wallowing in the mud and we’re loving it.

We ought to be ashamed.

Nikki Stern is the author of the books Hope in Small Doses and Because I Say So: Moral Authority’s Dangerous Appeal. Nikki’s articles have appeared in the New York Times, Salon, USA Today, Newsweek, and Humanist Magazine, among others. She’s currently working on a book of short fiction. Follow her on Twitter at @realnikkistern.

Image Source: HBO.

  • Richard Brown

    Well said. I consider social media to be our unchecked, reckless id. Back in the pre-Internet days, no statement would get published without vetting by editors, fact-checkers and perhaps legal staff; anything imprudent would be quashed. Now almost anyone can impulsively post whatever they want without any thought about consequences to others and ourselves. Yes, we should be ashamed.

  • On the other hand, public revelations of people’s behavior CAN make things happen. At least it got a trial for Zimmerman. It can alert people to what is happening in the world. The internet is a mixed bag. But I don’t think the examples from The Newsroom are particularly relevant except to the show and its characters. Of course Sloan was stupid. Of course Will feels awful for something he didn’t even do. Unfortunately news outlets have, for years, covered the accusations against someone on the front page, while relegating the rest of the details, including when people get off, to the inside pages. I think the interwebs are full of ugly and hate and rife with misinformation. I think anonymity feeds that. But in neither of the cases on The Newsroom did anonymity come into play. Nor did that come into play when the video of Maggie was aired. There are two different issues going on here: public shaming by people who wish to make others look bad; and the general ugliness that pervades anonymous comments. PS Richard: lots of stuff got by factcheckers in the old days. I know, I was in magazine and newspaper journalism. Corrections are printed in small print and one had still to look for them. Reputable news sites do a decent job of checking facts nowadays but stuff slips through, as always. But this isn’t the same issue, again.

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