The Media Today

The Kanye West debate swings around again

October 11, 2022
Kanye West attending the Givenchy Spring/Summer 2023 show as part of Paris Fashion Week on October 01, 2022 in Paris, France. (Sipa via AP Images)

Across two nights last week, the artist formerly known as Kanye West and now formally known as “Ye” went on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show and shared some rambling thoughts, many of which were about “the media,” in the caricatured sense of that term. Among our collective crimes: pushing the “demonic” idea “that being overweight is the new goal”; unfairly accusing Ye of “stalking” his ex-wife Kim Kardashian; being suspiciously “in sync” in covering the details of the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas (“Have I reached Alex Jones territory yet?” Ye asked); and promoting a “godless agenda.” “If you asked Tonya Harding how she did the triple flip or the triple spin, she was in so much practice that when it was time for her to skate in a competitive format, it just happened,” Ye said, explaining his decision to wear a shirt with the slogan white lives matter at a recent Paris Fashion Week event. “That’s what’s happening. God is preparing us for the real battles. And we are in a battle with the media.”

The interview—seemingly Carlson’s first with Ye, though he has praised Ye before—predictably attracted a mini-slew of takes assessing what it meant for “the media,” in both the mass and news senses of that term; Slate’s Justin Peters, for instance, called it “the ultimate example of what I’ve come to call the Tucker Carlson Grievance Interview: a recurring feature of Carlson’s show in which the host lends a prim, sympathetic ear and a hugely influential platform to various trollish dipshits, generally of the ‘liberal or recovering liberal’ variety, who have faced criticism and occasional consequences for saying, doing, and/or wearing ugly, antagonistic things.” (Carlson said of the interview, “We’ve rarely heard a man speak so honestly and so movingly about what he believes.”) The attendant hubbub might normally have died down after a couple of days. The interview was, as Peters noted, only the ultimate example of a tedious and repetitive Carlsonian genre that increasingly defies original analysis.

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But Ye wasn’t done inserting himself into the mainstream news cycle, and he didn’t need Carlson’s help to stay there. On Friday, he suggested on Instagram that the rapper Sean Combs, a/k/a Diddy, who had criticized the white lives matter shirt, is controlled by Jewish people, leading Instagram to temporarily lock down Ye’s account. On Saturday, Ye switched over to start posting on Twitter for the first time in a while, earning a sunny “Welcome back!” from Twitter’s would-be new overlord, Elon Musk. On Sunday, Ye tweeted that he was about to go “death con 3 [sic] On JEWISH PEOPLE,” leading Twitter to temporarily lock down Ye’s account. The posts sparked widespread media condemnation, though not from everyone, of course. Some commentators quickly drafted Ye into their tedious and repetitive talking points about supposed social media censorship. The further right you went, the more overt the defenses became. An InfoWars talking head said that the backlash to Ye’s posts “only proves what he’s talking about is real”; a Daily Wire talking head said, “It’s like you cannot even say the word ‘Jewish’ without people getting upset.” After Ye tweeted, a commentator named Todd Rokita accused the liberal media of “hypocrisy” for going after Ye’s “independent thinking” and “opposing thoughts.” Todd Rokita subsequently said that he hadn’t seen Ye’s posts about Jewish people. Todd Rokita is the attorney general of the state of Indiana.

This was far from the first time that Ye had sparked a media firestorm; since at least 2016, when he planted himself firmly in the orbit of Donald Trump, he has “made more waves with his efforts to trigger the libs than he has with his music,” as the New Republic’s Alex Shephard put it yesterday. When coverage of Ye has swelled, so, often, has criticism of that coverage, both in terms of tone and quantity. In 2018, after a previous occasion on which Ye returned to Twitter, my then–CJR colleague Alexandria Neason spoke on our podcast about the “media death spiral of hot takes” that ensued; a few months later, after Ye met with Trump in the White House, Neason criticized the “nausea-inducing round of rubbernecking coverage” that the visit generated, noting that the press had gleefully relayed Ye’s “bunk” before condemning it without acknowledging its own role as co-producer of his controversialism. In 2020, as Ye announced he was “running  for president,” various observers criticized coverage for variously ignoring and stigmatizing his mental health; he had by then revealed his bipolar-disorder diagnosis. “We don’t have a shared language for when a celebrity is not doing well in public,” BuzzFeed’s Elamin Abdelmahmoud wrote in an essay. “It sure as hell doesn’t look like a smirking headline inviting you to enjoy the Kanye circus. It looks like weaving compassion and accountability together, and naming what he’s going through alongside what he does.”

The latest round of Ye coverage has attracted similar criticism. After the white lives matter T-shirt incident, Versha Sharma, the editor in chief of Teen Vogue, called on fashion media, in particular, to stop covering Ye uncritically and suggested that he gets too much coverage, period. “I started my career in political journalism, and I believe there are lessons fashion and culture writers can take from the ongoing media debate over how to cover a conspiracy-theory-touting narcissist like former President Trump,” Sharma wrote. “Any uncritical airtime or website/social media space you offer only adds fuel to the fire of attention-seeking.” On the subject of Ye’s mental health, Sharma quoted Ruth Etiesit Samuel, a culture journalist at HuffPost, who noted on Instagram that “Anti-Blackness is *not* a comorbidity associated with bipolar disorders and/or neurodivergence! They are wholly unrelated.”

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As is often the case with Ye, his prominence in the current news cycle reflects a dizzying conflation of claims and issues, some of which really matter, some of which really don’t. The American cult of celebrity is often trivial, and the media should be less complicit in sustaining it; equally, when that cult escapes and influences political discourse, shouldn’t we take it seriously? Mental health is an important story, and Ye is a highly visible news peg for it; equally, it’s dangerous to make offhand assumptions about his condition, especially when those bleed into apologism. The actual things that Ye says are often impenetrably nonsensical or petty and interpersonal (just see the Carlson interview) and don’t merit breathless aggregation and dissection by news sites with more pressing demands on their attention; equally, outright bigotry from famous people can have sickening real-world consequences, especially when it flows through—and is held up as a useful token by—a far-right political and media ecosystem that is mainstreaming that bigotry. Last night, MSNBC’s Alicia Menendez discussed Ye’s posts alongside other recent stories about bigotry, including Rep. Marjorie Taylor-Greene’s invocation of the “great replacement” conspiracy theory. Another key vector of that idea? Carlson.

Writing in 2018, Neason clarified that she was not arguing that the things Ye says are “of no consequence,” but rather requesting that the press “decline to be complicit in exacerbating those consequences”; writing last week, Sharma argued that if journalists must cover Ye, they should do so “with context, an eye toward accuracy, reality, history, and motivation.” This is all sound advice. At minimum, coverage should isolate what’s important in the Ye story and describe it clearly for what it is, rather than mining him for controversy then performing ignorance or agnosticism about the substance. Sadly, too much topline coverage of Ye’s recent outbursts did the latter. Several mainstream outlets referred in tweets and headlines to Ye’s “alleged anti-Semitic posts,” or wrote that the posts had been “widely deemed” to be anti-Semitic—language that arguably revealed more about its authors than its subject.

Peters noted in Slate that the premise of Carlson’s interview with Ye last week was to ask him what message he meant to send by wearing the white lives matter shirt while other journalists jumped to conclusions. This was “silly,” because the T-shirt was the message, Peters wrote. “And everyone—Tucker Carlson included—knows what it means.”

Below, more on Ye:

  • The future? Instagram’s and Twitter’s decisions to clamp down on Ye’s accounts after his recent posts were relatively straightforward given their blatant offensiveness, “but a conservative-led movement to rein in what some see as ‘censorship’ by Silicon Valley giants is poised to alter how they approach such decisions,” Will Oremus and Cristiano Lima write for the Washington Post. “Between a growing field of state laws that seek to restrict content moderation and Elon Musk’s determination to loosen Twitter’s policies, posts such as Ye’s could soon become more prevalent online.” (ICYMI, my colleague Mathew Ingram has written about both the state laws and Musk recently.)
  • “Bullying”: After Ye unveiled his white lives matter shirt at Paris Fashion Week, Gabriella Karefa-Johnson, a contributing editor at Vogue, described it, in an Instagram post, as a failed attempt at a “Duchampian” provocation that was, in practice, “deeply offensive, violent and dangerous.” Ye responded by lashing out at Karefa-Johnson via his own Instagram account, leading other famous users to come to Karefa-Johnson’s defense. “Amid the dramatics,” Vanity Fair’s Delia Cai wrote that she found herself thinking about “the singularly critical role” that Instagram plays in “facilitating and documenting both the connections and clashes” between celebrities and the public. “We’re not here for mediocre 30-second Reels,” Cai added, of the platform. “We’re here for the (in this case, truly alarming) way one app can so flatly democratize public and personal relations into shareable, screenshot-able content pile-on.”
  • Being careful: Earlier this year, following a previous slew of Ye posts, Jenna Ryu, a wellness reporter at USA Today, urged media outlets to be cautious in their coverage. “It may be tempting to keep up with Ye’s frequent Instagram posts. But experts say we need to remember that the star has been open about his mental health issues, speaking in detail in the past about his bipolar disorder. And the public knows nothing—and should not make assumptions—about his current mental state,” Ryu wrote. Not only can “constant coverage worsen a celebrity’s own mental health, but it also perpetuates the stigma for others: that those with mental health issues are dangerous, weak-minded, lazy or attention-seeking—and as a result, deserve to be laughed at.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.