In Oscar Wilde’s play The Importance of Being Earnest, two of the characters, Jack Worthing and Algernon Moncrieff, take turns living a double life as a person named Ernest. Each enthusiastically performs this deliberately misleading role to avoid having to be responsible people who abide by accepted social conventions, all the while rationalizing their own deception as necessary for the circumstances at hand.

So, too, in much of modern journalism, the importance of being clickbait at the expense of being professional cannot be overstated. To capture the fleeting attention of social-media users who incessantly scroll and rarely read beyond the headlines, legacy media outlets for years have stooped to blatantly alarmist headlines and suggestive sub-headlines to lure readers. When readers respond as expected and get angry, and then express that anger online, all too often professional journalists respond with performative outrage and claims of harassment. Even when journalists (such as the notorious crybully Taylor Lorenz of the Washington Post) have been asked to correct something factually wrong that has led to harassment of their subjects, they will instead claim they are the ones being unfairly harassed and victimized.

Journalists live by the clicks generated by Internet reply-guys but call them racist or sexist when it suits them to do so. Rather than accept that some amount of trash talk and trolling is an unappealing but permanent part of being a journalist, or acknowledge that journalists and their editors profit from it by deploying deliberately provocative headlines and social-media posts, too many writers simply complain. They claim that online harassment is constant and life-threatening (especially for women and people of color and LGBTQ people), and many now argue for stricter regulation and censorship of speech as a result. But their definition of harassment is often overly broad or in the eye of the beholder, and harassment that reaches the level of threat that would invite law-enforcement involvement is extraordinarily uncommon.

A recent example demonstrates the unhealthy codependency. Just before the end of the year, Time magazine published (and promoted all over social media) an article it titled “The White Supremacist Origins of Exercise, and 6 Other Surprising Facts About the History of U.S. Physical Fitness.” Illustrated with a black-and-white photo of old-timey white guys lifting weights in a gymnasium, it was a deliberate effort to stir controversy and garner attention.

White supremacy is a favorite trope of Time’s editors. In May 2022, its readers were warned that “White Supremacy Is Deadly. Guns Make It Deadlier.” In June, a review of a book titled Teaching White Supremacy purported to inform readers about “How Racism Was Baked into U.S. History Textbooks.” Previous years featured many similar stories (“There’s No Quick Fix for White Supremacy,” “White Supremacy Runs Deep in White American Christianity,” “Real Viking History and the Imagined White Supremacist Past”).

The “[fill-in-the-blank] is racist or white supremacy” is now a standard mainstream-media formula, guaranteed to increase engagement, both negative and positive, from readers. Even health and fitness topics aren’t immune to the trend; Scientific American recently featured a story on the “Racist Roots of Fighting Obesity.” Its editors promoted the article by tweeting, “The heightened concern about black women’s weight reflects the racist stigmatization of their bodies.”

So it was likely not a surprise to Time’s editors when the exercise-is-white-supremacy formula yielded immediate results. Online and in conservative media, the article was widely shared and roundly mocked. The writer interviewed in the piece, Natalia Petrzela, who is promoting her new book about the history of the fitness industry, expressed concern at the treatment she received, particularly the attention from right-of-center media outlets such as the New York Post and Fox News. Fox’s Sean Hannity invited her to appear on his show to discuss her work (she declined).

“I have spent the last days getting—and reporting—death threats, insults, and other ugliness bc I supposedly believe ‘exercise is racist’ If you know me or my work, you know that’s ludicrous. I am about the most enthusiastic fitness booster out there,” she tweeted, adding, “Ironically, ppl freaked out bc they ONLY read the headline or a few cherry-picked phrases.”

Death threats are unacceptable, and Petrzela is right to report them; they are unfortunately not uncommon on social media, although thankfully rarely acted upon. But her general outrage was also misdirected: If she is going to complain publicly about how she is being treated, she should be calling out the editors at Time, who, she seems to believe, misrepresented her work. It was their work that drew the attention she now says is unwanted, not the reading public, which reacted predictably to a clickbaity headline.

More to the point, the title of the article, though provocative, is not an inaccurate assessment of the way Petrzela herself describes her work in the Time interview. Her book might be a wide-ranging historical study of the fitness industry (I look forward to reading it), but she chose to answer the reporter’s questions with some noticeable social-justice jargon. She also describes herself as a “scholar, writer, teacher, activist” on her website. For a reader who is viewing her work for the first time, it’s not irrational to assume that Petrzela might agree with the headline’s description of exercise as white supremacy.

For Time, Petrzela offered this observation about early-20th-century fitness campaigns (emphasis added): “They’re saying white women should start building up their strength because we need more white babies. They’re writing during an incredible amount of immigration, soon after enslaved people have been emancipated. This is totally part of a white supremacy project.” She adds that it was “a real ‘holy crap’ moment as a historian, where deep archival research really reveals the contradictions of this moment.”

While this might have been a “holy crap” moment for Petrzela, it’s common knowledge to anyone who has studied the American Progressive movement. It is interesting that Petrzela chose to emphasize white supremacy in her answer (a popular social-justice accusation), rather than the fact that these concerns over race fitness and race health were driven by elite Progressives of that time—the same Progressives she praised earlier in the interview for opposing women’s corsets.

Petrzela also took several opportunities to inject presentist political notions about race and inequality into her answers to the reporter’s questions. When asked about the impact of the recent pandemic on fitness, she replied, “What’s so unfortunate about the pandemic is how much it accelerated fitness inequality.” And when queried about running as a more egalitarian form of fitness, she objected to the idea, noting, “It’s important to point out that access was never totally equal, if you lived in a neighborhood that didn’t have safe streets or streets that were not well lit. Women were catcalled. People of color were thought to be committing a crime.”

In other venues, Petrzela has enthusiastically endorsed the idea that her work is part of a social-justice project. In December, she appeared on the PurposeGirl podcast to talk about “Why Fitness Is a Social Justice Issue,” The episode was described as follows: “For Petrzela, fitness is a social justice issue. She argues that the fight for a more equitable exercise culture will be won only by revolutionizing fitness culture at its core, making it truly inclusive for all bodies.” This is the language of diversity, equity, and inclusion activism (with its oddly dehumanizing terminology of “bodies” instead of people and its focus on “equity” rather than equality of opportunity). And it proves that it was disingenuous for Petrzela to complain that her work was wildly misrepresented when she herself has participated in promoting ideas about exercise as a social-justice and race issue.

Outrage has become an unfortunate by-product of journalism in the digital age. As long as the importance of garnering clicks takes precedence over the importance of objective reporting, journalists and their subjects will have no right to complain. The performative outrage is the point. But as Oscar Wilde’s play, which featured the Victorian-era clickbait subtitle “A Trivial Play for Serious People,” reminds us, the end result for people trapped in such cycles of destructive performance isn’t insight. It’s farce.

Photo: Pittigrilli/Wikimedia Commons

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