the media

Joy Reid’s Missed Opportunity

Reid during her extended apology segment on Saturday’s show. Photo: Screencap/AM Joy/MSNBC

MSNBC host Joy Reid offered a complicated on-air apology on her show on Saturday over homophobic rhetoric she is alleged to have used in posts on a now-defunct blog. She didn’t apologize for writing the posts; in fact, she didn’t admit to writing them at all, oddly explaining that, “I genuinely do not believe I wrote those hateful things, because they are completely alien to me,” while also acknowledging that there is no evidence to prove she didn’t write them. Instead, she apologized for having once held homophobic views and making other hurtful and insensitive remarks as a result. Reid, a staunch liberal, then tried to reframe the debate around the importance of evolving as a person, learning to be a better progressive and ally, and recognizing the power of discriminatory speech.

Reid clearly hoped her remarks would lead to an important debate — devoting the rest of her show to precisely that. But her statement was also a confusing, incomplete admission that is unlikely to dissuade concerns about Reid’s journalistic credibility, and that undercut an otherwise revealing lesson.

The Backstory and Hacking Claim
Reid’s statement was addressing homophobic remarks which were discovered in posts she published on her Reid Report blog from the mid- to late 2000s. The first trove of posts was revealed late last year by an anonymous Twitter user, quickly prompting an apology from Reid, though she also launched an investigation into the authenticity of the posts. Last week, when a new batch of her old posts came to light, Reid claimed that the “offensive and hateful references” had been fabricated as “part of an effort to taint my character with false information by distorting a blog that ended a decade ago.”

“Now that [the Reid Report site] has been compromised I can state unequivocally that it does not represent the original entries,” she also said.

Looking back at the posts, Reid wrote in one that “most straight people cringe at the sight of two men kissing,” and that she wouldn’t see the film Brokeback Mountain because she “didn’t want to watch the two male characters having sex.” She also admitted that her discomfort “probably” meant she was homophobic. In other posts, she mocked gay celebrities, and at one point perpetuated one of the most damaging unfounded fears about gay men by suggesting they “tend to be attracted to very young, post-pubescent types.”

Tweets that Reid sent in 201o and 2011 mocking conservative commentator Ann Coulter with transphobic insults have also resurfaced as a result of the scandal.

To say that Reid’s bold hacking claim has not stood up to scrutiny would be an understatement. None of the explanations offered by Reid, a consultant she hired, nor her supporters seem plausible. There also appears to have been an attempt to, in effect, destroy the evidence, as last month someone modified her old blog so that it would no longer appear in the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine.

So far, Reid has faced no known consequences from MSNBC over the posts or her subsequent comments, and network executives appear to be standing by her following Saturday’s show:

The Daily Beast, meanwhile, suspended Reid’s column there until they can complete an investigation into the matter, and the LGBT advocacy group PFLAG rescinded an award they were going to give Reid next month for her work as a straight ally.

Reid’s Remarkable But Maddening Mea Culpa
With one crucial exception, Reid was laudably transparent in her apology on AM Joy on Saturday. She said that after being “stunned” by the offensive comments “attributed” to her last year, she did a lot of soul searching, but also cybersecurity searching, hiring investigators to prove that the posts had not come from her. They were unable to do so, she confirmed on-air, but Reid offered no additional explanation for how the posts came to be, other than to say she did not “believe” she had written them. She also acknowledged that, “I can definitely understand, based on things I have tweeted and I have written in the past, why some people don’t believe me.”

Reid then went on to admit that she had once held homophobic views, explaining that she grew up in a household with “conservative views” about the LGBT community. She also said that earlier in her life, she had not been as understanding or supportive of LGBT friends as she should have been, and she apologized for making transphobic remarks about Ann Coulter.

“I have not been exempt from being dumb or cruel or hurtful to the very people I want to advocate for,” she explained. “I own that. I get it. And for that, I am truly, truly sorry.”

“I look back at the ways I talked casually about people and gender identity and sexual orientation and I wonder who that even was,” she added, and later tried to emphasize how she has evolved since:

I can only say that the person I am now is not the person I was then. I like to think I have gotten better as a person over time, that I am still growing, that I’m not the same person I was 10 or five or even one year ago — and I know that my goal is to try to be a better person and a better ally. Now the reality is I have to own the things that I have written and tweeted and said and I’m hoping out of all of this there’s an opportunity to talk about the ways in which hurtful speech does imperil marginalized communities.

Watch the full statement here:

The Reaction
After her extended apology, Reid hosted a panel of LGBT activists and invited them to “grill” her over the controversy. The resulting discussion, which covered a range of issues affecting the LGBT community, was more sympathetic than adversarial when it came to Reid’s remarks, however.

Many have rallied to Reid’s defense over the past week, particularly like-minded liberals who champion Reid’s criticism of the right and her efforts to elevate marginalized perspectives using her show and social-media accounts. But some attempts to refute the old blog posts have amounted to little more than partisan defensive crouching. Others have emphasized that the Trump administration, not Reid’s homophobic comments or alleged hypocrisy, is the real threat “the media” should be focused on. That sentiment came up more than once among the AM Joy panelists on Saturday:

Others have made a point to publicly forgive or excuse Reid, or to celebrate her bravery, like fellow MSNBC host Rachel Maddow did after Reid’s show on Saturday:

Former attorney general Eric Holder also praised Reid on Saturday, calling her apology “appropriate” and “heartfelt” before insisting that “this unique and compelling voice for tolerance and equality should not be silenced. We learn — and change — from our mistakes. She has.”

But others have remained skeptical, noting that they are far more concerned about whether or not Reid lied, than what remarks she may have made a decade ago:

Harsher critics of Reid and MSNBC, like the Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald, have pointed to the episode as an example of double standards on the left and in the media, noting that if a conservative official or media figure had been caught lying about old blog posts, the calls for their dismissal would be deafening. Reid gets a pass, Greenwald and others believe, because journalists personally like her and share her ideology.

Many on the right, like Washington Examiner columnist T. Becket Adams, have also argued that media support of Reid only exacerbates the industry’s preexisting credibility problem:

On Sunday, AM Joy was back to its standard fare, offering criticism of the backlash to Saturday night’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner.

The Larger Lesson and Missed Opportunity
British author and LGBT activist Greg Hogben was one of the people who said on Saturday that they accepted Reid’s apology and welcomed her continuing support. He also endorsed the larger lesson Reid sought to illustrate about how people’s personal beliefs can evolve for the better.

“What’s the point of successfully changing the hearts and minds of people if we’re just going to throw their 10-year-old comments back in their face?” he asked.

Under different circumstances, that issue — how problematic views are formed, changed, and ultimately forgiven — could and should have been the most revealing and meaningful takeaway from this controversy.

People changing their minds, and being transparent about why and how that happened, is an essential part of social progress. That’s especially true when it comes to public figures, and applies to card-carrying members of the trying-to-stay-woke media as much as it does to politicians or other people of influence. Frank discussion of past prejudices or evolving views is rarely rewarded, however. In American politics, and through the lens of political media, changes in opinion or position are ridiculed and attacked at least as often than they are unpacked and appreciated. There is no incentive to reveal embarrassing or abandoned views, unless they are part of a redemption arc or political strategy.

If more people like Reid were more open about how and why their views have evolved, especially if it didn’t require a precipitating scandal, most public debates would be more honest and productive. It’s difficult to understand why Reid seems to be both accepting and avoiding full responsibility in this case, but it’s possible she didn’t realize that most of her viewers and readers would give her the benefit of the doubt, or could benefit from learning about her experience, until it was too late.

The other lesson is that it’s always worth interrogating political rhetoric from the recent past. As the Nation’s Richard Kim pointed out on Friday, anybody who was reading the liberal blogosphere during the George W. Bush administration — if they were paying attention — would have encountered a lot of casually homophobic rhetoric and harmful arguments about the LGBT community. Underlying homophobia within liberal discourse was unremarkable at the time of Reid’s blog posts, whereas such remarks would clearly lead to pitchforks and hashtags now. The right doesn’t have a monopoly on hurtful speech.

For a glaring example of this disparity, watch this old Daily Show clip, in which Jon Stewart mocks Dennis Kucinich with a punch line that most liberals would now recognize as blatantly transphobic:

These attitudes undoubtedly slowed the progress of the movement for LGBT rights, just as more evolved attitudes were an essential part of the recent sea change regarding marriage equality. The #MeToo movement is another example of widespread change as a result of a great many people reexamining their perceptions and experiences, then rethinking how to best support others.

Though it clearly wasn’t Joy Reid’s first impulse, and may only be part of an effort to turn the page from a scandal, her subsequent admission about her former views and actions can still be instructive, and not just about latent or forgotten homophobia.

Many of us have held deplorable views in the past, or may end up considering our current views to be such in the future. Figuring that out often requires getting dragged into the light, or watching somebody else get dragged there first, but it can also be a choice.

For whatever reason, Reid missed an opportunity to lean into this controversy from the start, and to leverage and expand, rather than damage, her credibility.

Hopefully, some of her fans and supporters will nonetheless take advantage of this chance to do some soul searching of their own and then share their experiences and uncomfortable realizations. And for the influential people at the center of the scandals yet to come, hopefully they’ll recognize that learning out loud goes hand-in-hand with leading by example.

Joy Reid’s Missed Opportunity