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PewDiePie’s Trumpian Media Criticism

This morning, Felix Kjellberg, better known as PewDiePie, the most popular YouTuber in the world, took to his channel to address the recent controversy over anti-Semitic jokes in his videos. After The Wall Street Journal shined a light on the comments, Disney dropped the video maker from their roster of talent and Google removed him from their preferred advertiser program.

In an 11-minute video released today, titled “My Response,” Kjellberg takes one step forward and two steps back in addressing the content of his videos. Regarding the most infamous incident, in which Kjellberg used Fiverr to pay two men to unfurl a banner reading “Death To All Jews,” he said, “I’m sorry for the words that I used, as I know they offended people. And I admit that the joke itself went too far.” The task, Kjellberg says, was meant to demonstrate how far one could push the envelope on the service.

In the video, Kjellberg stands by his philosophy that no joke should be off-limits — but, unlike most figures caught in controversies over offensive jokes, also accepts that there are consequences for that stance. He gets why Disney and YouTube distanced themselves from him, he says, and avoids characterizing his detractors as members of a humorless, political-correctness police squad.

But here’s where it gets dicey. Above all else, Kjellberg blames not his failed attempt at shock humor for the backlash, but The Wall Street Journal. They’re the ones who cost him deals with Disney and Google. In his parlance, “the media” is out to get him.

There’s a kernel of legitimate grievance here. Coverage of his career has almost always centered — in a shocked tone — on the millions of dollars he earns annually, rather than the actual content of his creative output, which has not infrequently bordered on, if not outright occupied, offensive territory; the anti-Semitic jokes, in other words, don’t exactly come out of nowhere, and they were not particularly shocking or offensive to Kjellberg’s very young, often male fanbase. It’s not hugely surprising that Kjellberg or his fanbase might feel blindsided by the media attention, even if it’s more than deserved.

But Kjellberg’s argument quickly goes off the rails: “This is not an article, this is a personal attack against me,” he argues. (For the record, a celebrity with 53 million subscribers, who earns millions of dollars a year, encouraging anti-Semitism — even as poorly conceived comedy — is newsworthy.) As a way of refuting claims that he’s normalizing anti-Semitism, Kjellberg pulls out the I’m-rubber-you’re-glue defense: “Personally, I think they are the ones normalizing hatred.” Next up is deflection: “Why don’t we focus on the real issues?” he continues. It’s a wonder he doesn’t call the Journal’s report fake news.

The video ends with Kjellberg, teary-eyed, expressing thanks to everyone who supported him this week, which is an indication that he hasn’t learned much from his bad week. PewDiePie has built a career on the personal connection he provides for his millions of young, mostly male fans, and he needs to acknowledge their support. But refusing to recognize that the community has a strong toxic element, and that his behavior is worth scrutiny, is not a good indication that he understands the position he’s in, or the power he wields. Or maybe he understands it too well: At one point, he flashes the names of the Journal’s reporters on screen. It’s about as clear a dog whistle as I’ve ever seen, and checking the Twitter mentions of those reporters confirms not just that Kjellberg achieved his intended effect, but that the reporters were right to take note of his behavior.

PewDiePie Apologizes for Anti-Semitic Jokes, Blames Media