Bad Take Breakdown 2: United Boogaloo

United Airlines fucked up. They needed to get some of their employees to another airport, but instead of continuing to offer more money until someone volunteered to be massively inconvenienced to help them out, they “randomly” picked a passenger to give the boot — I guess he’d still have been compensated, but only at the rate which he (and all the other passengers) had already declined. He wasn’t interested, so as might be expected in this helltopian late Capitalist torturescape, United used the authority we’ve given them to enforce their will to…enforce their will.


A quick primer on the aftermath

The CEO praised employees for doing the right thing in the face of this obviously crazed psychopath on board:

The market disagreed:

Then again…


Anyway, while there was some market pressure, I imagine United’s PR and legal teams gave that extra push needed to change the CEO’s heart:

How not to act in good faith

There are a lot of gross, awful Takes about this floating around, but I think
I found the worst Take family:

Pictured here with its original title; click through for the silently modified one

Then there’s this guy who’s just really glad to have been the one who tipped them off:

His Twitter feed is a cavalcade of strange, sad pride about this:

Every bad Take produces a kaleidoscope of (heh) lines of flight. The one I’ll try to follow in this piece is toward introspection about our collective outrage reflex and how Hot Takes fail to sublimate it into edifying discourse.

It’s about ethics in journalism.

Every ghoul defending this sort of reporting presents it as “identifying” the victim, as showing us “who he is.” We need the proper context, you see. We need to know what kind of man would stand up (er, remain seated) to corporate power and the police and say “No. You move [me].

A useful question to ask yourself when reading or watching or otherwise consuming anything is “what does the author want to be true?” Obviously, you can’t know the answer, which is itself irrelevant — Wimsatt and Beardsley, Barthes, and so on have shown us why. The point in asking is not to arrive at an answer we can prove corresponds with the internal world of the author. Rather, it’s a jumping off point for a few entwined threads of critical thought:

  1. looking for unconscious motivations, often unknowingly revealed
  2. considering (again, often unintended) implications of what is said and done
  3. noticing Ideology and how it shapes everything and manifests everywhere (even/especially in Takes good and bad)

To elaborate on the connection: Ideology is the medium through which we experience the world. It’s tricky — as soon as we try to even think about it, it’s there in the very concepts we use. It furnishes us the words we use to describe the world; it sets the conditions of our being who we are. As such, it often manifests unconsciously and seemingly imperceptibly. An example, at the risk of alienating people I don’t want as fans in the first place: when feminists talk about patriarchy, they don’t mean that it exists through men attending secret cabal meetings and just deciding to pay women less or shame rape victims. Sure, others think they do, but sadbrained exceptions aside, we use it to refer to an emergent phenomenon produced by people acting on motivations and producing effects they aren’t aware of, often as cogs in a barely-visible machine. Some folks have a lot of trouble accepting that they can be motivated by drives they don’t know they have, that their actions can have consequences they don’t intend or notice, and that their actions can reinforce a structure they don’t notice ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

That’s Ideology.

So when I say things like “the author said [thing] for [reason],” I don’t mean she thought it all through and decided based on perfect knowledge of her own motivations and the predictable outcome of her writing the article. I don’t believe there was a conscious effort to create a negative identity for this guy to some nefarious end. In fact, I think it’s even worse: she wasn’t thinking about her journalistic duty at all, just going blithely through the motions of the work of journalisting.

I’ll be focusing on this single instance of the United Airlines Guy Was No Angel Take, the Courier-Journal piece, as it was the first one I noticed and (I think) the first one to break the story, but the analysis can be more or less slotted in for any similar piece.

Establishing a firm identity for the target is a common form for Bad Takes (and by extension, Bad Journalism) to take. Like this article, we can construct an identity. Unlike the author, I hope to engage in a little less self-deception about my own motivations for constructing this persona. “Morgan Watkins,” the author, is a narrow snapshot of Morgan Watkins, the person, at the time she loosed her Bad Take in the wild. It’s impossible to know what the author thought she would accomplish with this article, but by reading her own words we can explore a possible worldview, the potential ideological background that preceded writing this hit piece.

She’s correct that the article doesn’t explicitly justify United’s actions, but her rationalization contains some troubling sleights of hand, which I’ll spend a great deal of time unpacking for some nebulous purpose.

How many ways can you read a sentence?

She’s “just identifying who he is for the public.”

In other words, all she did was find publicly available information about this man. She didn’t do anything else. This is a weak justification for kicking a man while he’s down, but the obvious side effect is that it opens the door to “maybe United isn’t so bad…” in the broken minds of a significant portion of people who obtain this knowledge.

“I’m only showing the public that Dr. Dao is no angel.” Every time someone who’s a minority (and half the time when they’re not a minority) is a victim of power, you’ll see this sort of rationalization. Sometimes it’s a clear “this person deserved it,” but most of the time it’s framed like it is here. Just “reporting the facts.”

This sort of Take is simultaneously frenetic and lazy. Frenetic because you spend a lot of energy giving the appearance of doing a thorough job — the mental gymnastics required to convince yourself you’re doing good, hard-hitting journalism, to defend the garbage you’ve put out into the world instead of admitting you fucked up (to say nothing of the drawn-out realization that this will follow you forever). Lazy because it never goes far enough, and it never can. Lazy because at no point in writing or defending this article did its author ask herself to what end she was providing this information.

Plenty of other terrible journalists likewise fell back on “just presenting a side of the story” to exculpate themselves:

Imagine arranging your desk to stage this photo to brag to your 11,000 followers about what you seem to think is how good you are at your job.

The above is a pretty typical case of the following narcissistic pattern:

  • Say a bad thing you think just must be said about something
  • As soon as criticism rolls in, immediately forget the importance of the thing you said the bad thing about to focus on yourself, being criticized (I, my, I, I, “we,” “we,” me)
  • Complain about threats that don’t exist (I didn’t manage to find a single one, but feel free to correct me on this if you’ve seen any) to deflect & avoid addressing the legitimate criticism

The problem is that it’s not really a “side” of the story as it’s being presented. It’s not even a footnote. Read this sort of response as “we’re not saying he deserved it, but here’s this unrelated information about his past to juxtapose with his being brutalized,” for unstated reasons.

Let’s try to figure out what those are. If the goal was to “just” give us a more complete view of those involved, where are the hit pieces on the security officers who dragged Dr. Dao off the plane? What about the gate agents who let too many people on? And so on up the power chain.

So when you’re “just identifying” the victim, that really is all you’re doing. You’re creating an identity. It’s not a useful one or even about the right person, but by gosh will it rake in the pageviews.

By some divine providence, the universe pulled one of those pranks where it pretends to be just. After all this kvetching, the story didn’t even make it to air. But it might reinforce the narcissism; “I was right, but people pitched a fit on Twitter!”

She’s “just identifying who he is for the public.”

This is actually harder to do than it sounds. I think he’s the guy in the video with blood pouring from his mouth, repeating “kill me” over and over.

Watkins certainly gives us more information about Dr. Dao, which she equates to “identifying” him. As Foucault observes in “What is an Author?” and Derrida does in…a lot of places, the problem is that there’s always a remainder. There are always pieces of writing that get excluded from what we mean when we refer to an author’s body of work; there are always traces excluded from any pretense of totality. And there is always something excluded from any claim to just be providing more information. Not one of the myriad simpering media hacks reporting on Dao’s “shady past” has even gestured toward an analysis of the biographical and sociohistorical conditions leading up to his crimes, so the context excuse (ahem) doesn’t fly.

Just spitballing here, but maybe Takes like this are a natural consequence of the “the truth is in the middle” mindset which forms the layman’s idea of how public discourse should proceed. Report the “truth” — provide more information — to create a more “nuanced” story.

It may well be a journalist’s duty to cover the crimes a victim committed from decades ago, for the sake of helping establish context. But deciding a set of circumstances and events can be omitted (and it is a decision) isn’t neutral or objective. It’s ideologically laden or, at best, entirely arbitrary.

Dr. Dao is not his criminal history. It does not identify him. Once you’ve convinced yourself that it is a big part of his identity (technically true, I guess), it’s easy to see it as worth injecting into a conversation about his being victimized over a decade later. And a lot of otherwise sensible folks aren’t ashamed to twist themselves in ethical knots to justify thinking the information is crucial, like this progressive-leaning doctor whose Take takes the form of a Left critique of power but in context serves a bog standard law and order narrative:

His identity What was I saying about narcissism?

For what is it useful? “It’s important that I know whether this person who resisted questionable authority is Actually Good™ or merely the kind of person who would think he could get away with it.” It’s useful here only if you need to decide whether to react with empathy or with smug dismissal to the inarguable fact of his being abused. This stance opens up the possibility that maybe, maybe he deserved it. Hold onto this; it’ll come up again soon.

She’s “just identifying who he is for the public.”

She’s doing it us a favor! She believes that she’s providing a vital service in giving us more information about Dr. Dao (the victim of cold machine
intelligence enforced by warm unthinking agents of Capital).

We probably needed to know the airline fiasco happened. But I have yet to see a compelling argument that we needed a rundown of the victim’s past transgressions. This is not a case of being unable to make any useful decision, ethical or otherwise, without his rap sheet. No, there was no public interest served there.

But Watkins did do us a favor, just not how she thinks. She took part in reducing Dr. Dao to a bit player in the media’s movie, and the media is a function of what we want it to be: Bad Takes that feed the outrage machine. Anger is fine. And go nuts, even disgust is 👌. Outrage — emphasis on rage? Take a breather.

Examine the lack of public outrage about this (very) similar case:

This “mouthy” University of Michigan professor with a “huge attitude” had to take a plea bargain. We’re to understand that she was out of line, so it’s easier to look the other way, to forget about it, to justify it. Her behavior allows us to hastily decide on an identity for her and consider that maybe she deserved it. I can’t quite source this, but a lot of folks thought it was pretty funny back in December. If you were among them, don’t worry. Definitely don’t waste your time justifying it to others; ultimately, you only have to answer to yourself.

Beyond the Take

To reiterate: Watkins did us a solid. Those of us looking to lick the boot of power by doing PR for United get a character arc for Dao. He was no angel. It’s okay to hate this felon for standing his ground. We all know who to hate, and it’s whoever isn’t us.

Let’s carry that further. If I hate United Airlines for treating a customer this way and hate you by proxy for defending them, then I’m on Dao’s side, and once this is published, you can decide I believe that drug crime should not be life-destroying, or at least that we should not punch down at victims. I can decide you believe in…karma, I guess. No further thought is necessary, and we each have a foolproof mechanism to decide who to hate.

On the off chance any journalist who took the Take less taken is reading this, I want to clarify my point. People aren’t lobbing such harsh criticism at you for “just identifying,” just doing your job, just reporting the facts. Well, they are, but the problem isn’t with the “reporting the facts.” It’s with the “just” and your immediate retreat to it. Just giving a lot of cretins what they want: an excuse to hate this guy, a reason to dismiss what United and the police did to him. That you’re catching so much flak for your Take encapsulates how people seize every opportunity to pigeonhole and dismiss somebody. I’d advise you to be honest with yourself, but you’ve already convinced yourself you were.

Dr. Dao’s “shady past” may indeed reveal him for who he is. But in the same way, how you go about disclosing it and your reaction to criticism reveals you for who you are. And though these Takes must always fall short of disclosing the true identity of the United Airlines Drug Doctor, they give us a mirror to disclose our own, to ourselves.

Back Matter

A few stray threads to tug on:

  • If Morgan Watkins Twenty-Six hadn’t written this career-staining article,
     someone else would’ve (plenty did)
  • An editor gave this the green light. He also defended it:
Thankfully, we’ve got brave folks at the Courier-Journal to do the homework for us on this scumbag “Doctor” who got in trouble, once. We should be careful not to engage in mob mentality, unlike the bastions of journalistic integrity who posted photos of this man’s house, which is definitely not something any angry mob would find interesting.
  • As I was writing this, numerous changes were made to the article
    in question (with no official statement of correction or addendum). You can view some of the various versions at this link. The trend of these silent edits is toward a more “objective,” less scummy article, but the URL remains, as does all the irrelevant garbage. At least they took out the photo of his house.