When does a private citizen become a public figure?
If you’ve worked in journalism any amount of time, that question has surely tugged at your keyboard. There are no official rules on when reporters can write about a regular Joe or Jane without permission. Unofficially, it’s understood that if someone does something harmful to others, he or she is pretty much fair game. But what if someone does something that’s merely interesting?
This week, the internet has been on fire about a decision CNN made to run a story about the genesis of the President Trump wrestling meme. You’ve probably seen it by now – it’s a old video clip of Trump at a wrestling event, with a CNN logo superimposed over the head of a man whom Trump bodyslams. Trump gleefully tweeted the GIF last Sunday.
The meme, CNN discovered, was first posted on Reddit by an anonymous 50-year-old man who also had a history of racist posts. CNN published the man’s online identity, which it had used to find him. The network didn’t reveal his actual name, but in a fit of self-righteousness, it threatened to do so if his bad behavior continued.
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There’s a lot going on here, and most of it boils down to a question of when private is private. Here’s this journalist’s perspective: CNN was right to pursue the origin of the Trump wrestling meme. If it had come from someone connected to the White House or the GOP, that would have been newsworthy. But once CNN found out it was a random 50-year-old? Those are choppier waters.
In general, the rule for journalists has been this: If you’re not a public figure and news happens to you – a natural disaster, say, or most crimes – you usually get to choose how private you want to remain. (An exception: If police accuse you of a crime.) But if you say or do something the media think is interesting, things can get cloudier, especially if you do so in public.
Does posting on Reddit count as public? It’s a forum that reaches an audience greater than some newspapers, so maybe. But posting a meme anonymously isn’t quite like writing a signed letter to the editor, so maybe not.
Cluttering things a bit is the fact that our Reddit poster is not a nice man. He’s apologized for being a prolific racist, but that apology came only after CNN contacted him, so it’s tempting to say he had all this coming. But being ugly isn’t newsworthy, even if that ugliness might have had something to do with his creating the wrestling meme.
So what do we have here, ultimately? A man created a video joke, posted it in his corner of the internet, then got pulled into something much bigger. All of which is not particularly surprising in this digital age. We live in a universe where everyone is just a few retweets from celebrity, willing or not.
Should the media give in to that ethos? I wish we’d say no more than we do. I wish CNN had said no last week. But journalists, like everyone else, are a product of their digital world – and the internet has its own answer to the when-private-is-private question: