Thursday’s big story involved footage of a woman used to being on camera — ESPN reporter Britt McHenry — having those very devices work against her. Cameras caught footage from a confrontation with a woman working for a towing company after McHenry’s vehicle was towed. Among the printable things McHenry said to her:
“So I could be a college dropout and do the same thing?”
“Lose some weight, baby girl.”
It was like a script from Mean Girls 2. It cost McHenry a one-week suspension, while the story earned Deadspin more than a million page views (language warning on that link, which has the video).
It also opens up a lot of questions to think about.
Without a video, this incident isn’t a story. If this video captures someone who isn’t in the public sphere berating an employee, it isn’t a story. But the combination of the video and the public figure turns a private situation not related to McHenry’s job into a story that impacts her career.
This is the confluence of two very powerful things: our move toward greater transparency, whereby surveillance video is everywhere and pretty much anyone with a phone can shoot video; and a society eager to shame wrongdoers.
The notion of whether we act as the best version of ourselves when we know we are being (or could be) watched, or whether we act tentatively and are afraid to be ourselves is one that has been explored in literature and pop culture countless times (including David Eggers’ recent work, “The Circle,” which is particularly relevant to the McHenry incident and in 2015 in general).
We’ve all behaved badly to varying degrees, whether it’s something as innocuous as sneaking through a red light at 2 a.m. when there’s not another car in sight or something more serious. Part of me wonders if we’re so eager to shame others because in the backs of our minds we’re secretly thankful we weren’t the ones caught.
Maybe the McHenry incident is different because 1) she looked at the camera at one point and clearly knew she was being recorded but still continued with her awful ranting and 2) the nature of her words was so particularly ugly that she loses any benefit of the doubt. Nobody should act that way, publicly or privately, and if that’s the attitude and mindset she carries through life it clearly needs an adjustment.
Should it affect her job, though? That’s still an interesting question. While personally humbling/humiliating to behave that way, and indirectly damaging to the ESPN brand, the incident was in no way work related and in no way is related to job performance.
It’s safe to say a lot of people more famous than McHenry have done far worse and simply haven’t been caught. Maybe it’s good that she was. Maybe we will welcome a day in the future when every move everyone makes is recorded and able to be judged. Or maybe we should be careful what we wish for and careful how harshly we judge.