Our rapidly fracturing national media ecosystem gave very different treatments to two local stories of hate this past week. The fair-minded way one victim dealt with it all is a beacon of hope.
In a certain world, one populated by a surprisingly large subset of the nation, Seattle now is a city of intolerant and violent leftists hellbent on stomping Trump supporters. Oh and we have green hair.
This is the view you got if you went down the rabbit hole of the right-wing Wurlitzer media machine this past week.
If you missed it — and that depends almost entirely on your Facebook algorithm — a 17-year-old from Illinois made national and international news here this past week when he walked around Capitol Hill wearing a Make America Great Again hat.
Somebody snatched it — somebody with green hair — and then spit on the Trump hat and threw it into the street. That’s it; that’s pretty much the whole story. It was obnoxious, obviously, especially because the MAGA hat-wearer is a kid. How lame is it to grab the hat of a kid visiting our city and spit on it? I think most of us would agree: Very lame.
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But is it of international significance? Well, the conservative Daily Mail tabloid in London just devoted 750 words and 10 photos to the episode.
But does it indicate anything bigger than a hat-snatching? Well hoo boy, in this alternative news ecosystem, you better believe it did!
“When do … the Democrats start taking responsibility for this?” demanded Alex Jones of Infowars.com, one of the sites to trumpet the hat story.
“What is it with Seattle?” posed The Western Journal — the “journal for Western civilization” — a right-leaning site you may never have heard of but which has an incredible 5.2 million followers of its Facebook feed.
Answered Paul Joseph Watson, an editor for Infowars. “Seattle is a (bleep)hole. And this is why Trump will win again.”
The symbolic power of this one green-haired person snatching this one hat is remarkable.
A few years ago, I would have chalked all this up to fringe silliness. But times have changed. The main conservative sites that featured the story — the Daily Mail, Breitbart, Western Journal, The Epoch Times, Daily Caller and Infowars — now have among them more than 35 million followers on Facebook alone (a hundredfold more than The Seattle Times).
The MAGA-hat-wearing teen then used the incident to indict entire belief systems: “I want to expose the left for what they do,” he said. By Monday he was on Fox News national radio, concluding: “If someone wears an Obama hat … I don’t think they have to be scared of people giving them bad looks or assaulting them.”
Inconveniently for that story line, we did just have the mayor of Burien attacked. He wasn’t wearing Obama gear, just his brown Latino skin.
It’s interesting to see how differently the story of a possible hate crime against Mayor Jimmy Matta was portrayed in the media. It got lots of coverage, too (though not by the above-mentioned sites). But for the most part the stories didn’t draw conclusions. The coverage didn’t make sweeping generalizations about categories of people or schools of thought, even though the commentary delivered by the attacker was overtly anti-immigrant and political.
Most tellingly, the victim, Matta, took time after he was allegedly assaulted to urge people not to make generalizations. That’s even though the attacker made some about him, calling him a “Latino illegal” though Matta, 42, was born here and is a lifelong U.S. citizen.
“My feeling is that I don’t know deep down why the guy attacked me,” Matta told me Tuesday. “Maybe he had too many drinks and got upset and lashed out. I know what he said was hateful. But it didn’t seem like some organized effort. So what I’m saying is people shouldn’t draw broader conclusions from this one incident about our community.”
Giving the benefit of the doubt like that — why is that so hard? Surely then the green-haired person doesn’t speak for us all, either?
“We’re so divided and polarized,” Matta added. “We’re doing this to ourselves.”
Yes, this rut we’re in — we dug it. And the way we get information now is only channelizing it deeper.
I don’t know how we get out, but two things that might help are: Go beyond your phone’s news feed (especially if you’re one of those 35 million). And try to be more like Jimmy Matta.