The internet went up in arms last week after the Wall Street Journal published an article revealing that Disney (which owns Maker Studios, a company that produces videos for YouTube channels) severed ties with Felix Kjellberg, known online as PewdiePie, after a series of “anti-Semitic” posts. However it was the WSJ’s own initial inquiries into the “anti-Semitism” that led Kjellberg to be let go from Maker Studios in the first place. Kjellberg, who began his Pewdiepie channel as a gaming channel, is currently the world’s most subscribed YouTuber with over 53.8 million subscribers.
Almost immediately, the article incited a firestorm after various media outlets picked up the story and PewDiePie supporters defended his actions, claiming the WSJ had taken his videos out of context and prematurely accused him of being an anti-Semite. Even J.K. Rowling felt the need to weigh in, tweeting a link to an Independent UK article claiming Kjellberg was trying to make fascism “cool.” There were numerous videos in question, but the two most cited were one in which Kjellberg wore a soldier outfit and listened to Hitler speeches in response to previous claims of anti-Semitism, and another in which he used the website Fiverr, a freelance service that allows people to order various services for just $5, to hire two young boys to hold up a sign saying “Death to all Jews,” allegedly to satirize the website.
In response to the accusations of anti-Semitism, Kjellberg made two videos. The first accused the WSJ of taking his videos out of context by not explaining his “jokes.” The second took aim at Ben Fritz, the journalist who broke the story. Kjellberg’s main complaint was that the WSJ went to Kjellberg’s sponsors to make inquiries about his “anti-Semitic content” before coming to him. Additionally, Kjellberg displayed screenshots of Fritz making similar jokes on his personal Twitter account in January 2015. One read, “I’m not counting jokes about black people. Those are just funny” after criticizing the television show “Mom” for their jokes about Hispanics. Fritz tweeted on another occasion in December 2009, “Just attended my first Chanukah party. Had no idea Jews were so adept at frying.” These tweets have not been deleted and remain on Fritz’s Twitter. Of course, Fritz’s actions don’t excuse Kjellberg’s; however, they do decrease the WSJ’s credibility.
The whole thing is a pretty insane situation, encompassing poor journalism and poor comedy on each side. For me, however, the debate isn’t about whether the WSJ’s actions were ethical or whether Kjellberg’s jokes were acceptable, it’s about the fundamental battle between new and old media.
While I’m not a fan of Kjellberg’s bravado or moral superiority (he even cited the SPJ Code of Ethics in his video), and general entitlement that YouTube creators have, the media’s response is equally shameful. The WSJ did not disclose in their article that it was their own inquiries that lead to Maker Studios firing Kjellberg, they did not ask Kjellberg for comment until after the accusations had been made, they took him out of context and their own journalists made similar comments. They tried to brand him as an alt-right supporter (despite never seriously endorsing Trump, although he has defended him) and blame him for contributing to a culture that elected Trump instead of talking about things like how the traditional media covered Trump more than Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders combined.
After backlash, Wired actually changed their headline about the incident from “PewDiePie Was Always Kinda Racist — But Now He’s a Hero to the Nazis” to “PewDiePie’s Fall Shows the Limits of ‘LOL JK.’” I mean, come on. This is why media is losing credibility. Because the next time they do hold politicians accountable, or report on important issues, people will think about this complete nonsense story. Throughout the debacle, Kjellberg argued that he was taken out of context and that context does matter (sound familiar?).
This entire situation is a shocking example of how little importance is being placed upon things that actually matter. The Wall Street Journal’s unethical reporting is inexcusable. But Kjellberg’s claim that the media just doesn’t understand YouTubers and is “afraid” of creators’ influence is simply delusional. This battle of old and new only furthers the distrust between the media and consumers, and it’s the media’s responsibility to do better.
Caitlin Antonios is a second-year literary journalism and English double major. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.