Business Insider Retracted a Bad Piece — and Set a Terrible Precedent

Johansson in Rub & Tug
Johansson is under fire for playing a trans man in Rub & Tug. Photo: Emma McIntyre/Getty Images

Last week, Scarlett Johansson became the subject of intense criticism on social media when it was announced she would be playing the role of Dante “Tex” Gill in Rub & Tug, an upcoming biopic about Gill’s life as a massage-parlor owner and crime boss who was a colorful fixture of Pittsburgh’s underworld in the 1970s and 1980s.

The problem is that Johansson is a cisgender woman, and many people believe Gill was a trans man. There’s a little bit of ambiguity here since back when Gill was alive the idea of a transgender identity was less widely understood and openly discussed than it is today, and some contemporaneous coverage positioned him as a quirkily androgynous butch lesbian. But the claim that Gill should really be seen as a trans man is strongly supported by a 2003 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette newspaper obituary which, while failing to use the pronouns Gill explicitly stated he preferred, notes, “For years, according to police, Ms Gill ran a string of [massage] parlours as fronts for prostitution, all the while insisting that she was a man and telling everyone she wanted to be known as ‘Mr Gill’.”

Following the announcement that Johansson would be playing Gill, there was a flood of outraged posts and articles arguing that it’s inappropriate for a cisgender woman like Johansson to play a transgender man like Gill, in part, the thinking goes, because her doing so feeds the notion that trans men are “really” women simply playing some sort of dress-up, rather than authentic men who should be treated as such. Plus, such casting deprives trans actors of a role that should, by rights, go to them, just as it would be unfair to give a role written for a member of a nonwhite group to a white actor. (In fact, Johannson was involved in a similar blowup last year for doing exactly this — playing a character originally written as a Japanese woman in Ghost in the Shell.)

A column by Daniella Greenbaum published on Business Insider‘s website on Friday made the opposite argument, that Johansson is simply doing what actors always do: stepping into the role of someone different from herself. This column didn’t last for very long on the site, though, as the Daily Beast’s Maxwell Tani reported yesterday:

Several Business Insider staff told The Daily Beast that some employees were offended by the column.

The publication took down the piece on Friday, and appended an editor’s note to the page on Tuesday saying that “Business Insider removed the column because, upon further review, we decided it did not meet our editorial standards.”

The decision also prompted the publication to alter its own internal editorial policies.

In an email to editors on Monday obtained by the Daily Beast, global editor-in-chief Nich Carlson announced that BI would create an internally available list of employees who had “volunteered to talk about culture and identity issues” to other staff. Further, Carlson also announced that “culturally sensitive columns, analysis, and opinion pieces” would now be reviewed by the company’s executive editors before publication.

This was a mistake on BI’s part: It definitely shouldn’t have retracted the column, and in doing so the website is violating an important and underappreciated journalistic norm against retracting work in all but the most dire of circumstances. It would have been far preferable for BI to leave the article up, but to explain clearly and specifically what was wrong with it, and to then publish work responding to it. It is worth noting here that Greenbaum herself was opposed to the retraction.

Now, it’s worth pointing out that the column wasn’t particularly good. It can still be read here — in 2018, there’s really no such thing as deleting something published in a high-profile place on the internet. Greenbaum blames the conflict on “social-justice warriors” and writes of Johansson, “She has been cast in a movie in which she will play someone different than herself. For this great crime — which seems to essentially define the career path she has chosen — she is being castigated for being insufficiently sensitive to the transgender community.” Greenbaum fails to fully engage with the argument some trans advocates are making about the particularly fraught nature not of any actor playing a role distinct from who they are in real life, but of a cisgender actor playing a transgender part in particular. Whether or not one agrees with those arguments, that was the source of the anger directed at Johansson and Rub & Tug’s filmmakers.

While Greenbaum’s column was pretty bad, lots of pretty bad stories get published each day at major media outlets, and it’s quite rare for something to be retracted. For this reaction to be justified, one would have to argue that Greenbaum’s argument was so beyond the pale, so radically offensive, that the editor who allowed it onto the site made a catastrophic error, and BI really had no choice but to disappear it. That’s plainly not the case in light of the text of the article; rather, what happened was that some people were offended by the column, and BI responded by yanking it. Or at least that’s the only reasonable conclusion given BI’s complete lack of explanation for what happened here, and given the chronology of events laid out by Tani’s reporting.

Retracting journalistic work, whatever its quality, solely on the basis of offense is a terrible path to go down. This doesn’t happen that often, but it happens, and when it does the material in question usually covers a hot-button issue: In 2017, for example, Salon quietly unpublished a column by a so-called “virtuous pedophile” — a member of a controversial group of individuals who are attracted to children but who pledge not to act on those urges, and who advocate for non-offending pedophiles to be treated with compassion and given the resources to reduce their odds of offending — and offered a similarly substance-free explanation.

If the journalistic custom against this sort of unpublishing corrodes, it will give a great deal of power to dictate the shape of media outlets’ coverage to anyone who can generate enough of a ruckus online, or, in the case of BI, within a given publication. That would be a negative development: For journalism to function, editors and writers need to feel free to publish potentially controversial material and then to withstand any subsequent outrage that results without the existence of the article itself coming under threat. Because even if you agree, in isolation, with BI’s decision or with Salon’s, tomorrow the outrage-inducing article could be about a subject you do think warrants a fair and open hearing that it isn’t getting. There’s a reason retractions are so rare in journalism — and for the health and vibrancy of the craft, they need to stay that way.

BI Retracted a Bad Piece — and Set a Terrible Precedent