Q: “I enjoyed your recent investigation into the 2016 Mall of America’s black Santa outrage, and I have a question regarding ‘asking questions.’ How do you tell the difference between someone with a genuine inquiry about something and an ideologue attempting to steer the debate in a specific direction?”
A: I received this query in response to my research into an ugly episode of racial hatred that tainted the 2016 holiday season. The Mall of America hired a jolly bearded man named Larry Jefferson as one of its Santas. Jefferson, a retired Army veteran, was the mall’s first African American Santa, and the local newspaper, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, carried a story about it on December 1. Later that night an editorial page editor for the Tribune, Scott Gillespie, tweeted: “Looks like we had to turn comments off on story about Mall of America’s first black Santa. Merry Christmas everyone!”
Overnight and the next morning his tweet went viral and served as the basis for countless news stories with titles such as “Paper Forced to Close Comments On Mall Of America’s First Black Santa Thanks to Racism” (Jezebel); “Santa is WHITE. BOYCOTT Mall of America: Online Racists Are Having a Meltdown over Mall’s Black Santa” (RawStory); and “Racists Freak Out Over Black Santa At Mall Of America” (Huffington Post).
The next day, however, the editor—after seeing stories about the scope and nature of the racist backlash the Tribune faced—reversed himself. Instead of “we had to turn off comments” Gillespie stated that the commenting was never opened for that article in the first place: “Comments were not allowed based on past practice w/stories w/racial elements.” This raised some questions for me: If the comments had never been opened on the story, then how could there have been a flood of racist comments? Where did that information come from? How many racist comments did the paper actually get? Something didn’t add up, and I felt it was important to understand the genesis of this story.
My research (including an interview with Gillespie) eventually revealed that the racial incident never actually occurred and that—despite nearly two million news articles to the contrary—the Star Tribune did not receive a single hate-filled message in the comments section of its story on Jefferson. What happened was the product of a series of misunderstandings and mistakes, fueled in part by confirmation bias and amplified by the digital age (for a detailed look at the case see my Center for Inquiry [CFI] blog “The True, Heartwarming Story of the Mall of America’s Black Santa” at http://www.centerforinquiry.net/blogs/entry/the_true_heartwarming_story_of_the_mall_of_americas_black_santa/).
I’ve been writing about journalism errors and media literacy for two decades, and usually there’s relatively little pushback (except, perhaps, from journalists reluctant to acknowledge errors). However, part of this story was the criticism I received on social media for researching it. Perhaps the best example was when I responded to a post about the initial story on a fellow skeptic’s Facebook page. She and all of her friends on the thread took the erroneous news story at face value (which didn’t surprise me, as virtually everyone did), but what did surprise me was the suggestion that trying to uncover the truth was “a distraction tactic—now we can talk about how most people are not racist and change the subject from racism.”
I was stunned. I had no idea that trying to determine how many people complained would or could be construed as somehow trying to distract people (from what to what?). No one—and certainly not me—was suggesting that a certain number of racists upset over a black Santa was acceptable. I never said or implied that if it was “only” ten or 100, then everyone should be fine with it. But knowing the scope of the issue does help us understand the problem: Is it really irrelevant whether there were zero, ten, or 10,000 racist commenters on the Jefferson article? If Trump can be widely (and rightly) criticized for exaggerating (or failing to accurately quantify) the crowd at his inauguration speech as “the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration—period” when in fact it was several orders of magnitude smaller, why is asking about the reporting of viral news stories whose sole basis was one (retracted) tweet so beyond the pale? Another wrote, “‘I’m just asking the question. … Not to personalize this, but this is why I avoid skeptic and atheist spaces.” There was clearly some confusion about what constitutes legitimate inquiry, hence Al’s question.
“I’m just asking questions” is a favorite refrain of conspiracy theorists. It is meant to appeal to a sense of openness and fairness; after all, everyone agrees that authority should be questioned. The problem is not that the questions themselves are inherently inappropriate or invalid; it’s that the people asking them refuse to accept the answers they are provided by experts. When a conspiracy theorist uses this tactic, it’s often clear because their questions have in fact already been answered. For example, 9/11 Truthers love to just “ask questions” such as “How can jet fuel melt steel?” when 1) it contains a faulty premise (steel need only weaken, not melt, to collapse); and 2) it has been answered repeatedly by physicists and skeptics. In this case, I was asking questions that weren’t answered at all—until I tracked down the answers myself.
Another consideration is the person’s motivation, which can often be determined by what sort of questions are being asked. For example, questions designed to establish the factual, journalistic basics (of who, what, where, why, and how) are likely to be born of a genuine desire to establish the facts of the case and understand what happened. In contrast, questions from conspiracy theorists often contain false or unproven assumptions implicit in the question, as noted above.
The source of the questions also offers a clue. It shouldn’t be hard to tell whether the person asking questions is a legitimate researcher (e.g., a journalist, academic, or skeptic) or a conspiracy theorist/crank. I’ve investigated and researched hundreds of news stories where something isn’t quite right, from manufactured quotes to journalist innumeracy to misleading statistics—on hundreds of topics ranging from psychics to dowsing and anorexia to alternative medicine. The content of that particular news story (racism against a mall Santa) was of far less interest to me than if it were accurate. It’s not a personal issue for me, just as I’m not personally invested in whether or not a person is truly psychic or a new “miracle cure” really works. If so, great. If not, great. (Of course the fact that a vile, viral incident of racism did not in fact occur is great news.) Either way I want to determine the truth.
Usually when I encounter claims of investigating being a distraction in my research it is itself a distraction tactic, an attempt to head off inquiry that might debunk a claim or show that some assumption or conclusion was made in error—not unlike the Wizard of Oz pleading for Dorothy and her gang not to look behind the curtain. (“Why are you asking questions about where I suddenly got this important UFO-related document?” or “Asking for evidence of my faith healer’s miracle healings is just a distraction from his holy mission” doesn’t deter any skeptic worth his or her salt.) If a claim is valid and factual, there’s no reason anyone would object to confirming that; as Thomas Paine noted, “It is error only, and not truth, that shrinks from inquiry.”
I tried to remember where else I’d heard the phrase used recently, when someone who was asked about something called the questions a “distraction.” Finally I realized where that tactic had become common: the Trump administration. When Donald Trump was asked about the leaked Access Hollywood recording of him bragging about groping women sexually, he dismissed the questions—and indeed the entire issue—as “nothing more than a distraction from the important issues we’re facing today.”
It’s also important to understand why a person’s questions are being challenged in the first place. It’s often due to tribalism and a lack of charity. Ray Hyman, in his influential short piece titled “Proper Criticism,” lists charity among eight important principles:
The principle of charity implies that … we should try to resolve the ambiguity in favor of the claimant until we acquire strong reasons for not doing so. In this respect, we should carefully distinguish between being wrong and being dishonest. … Furthermore, we often have a choice in how to interpret or represent an opponent’s arguments. The principle tells us to convey the opponent’s position in a fair, objective, and non-emotional manner.
To scientists, journalists, and skeptics, asking for evidence is an integral part of the process of parsing fact from fiction, true claims from false ones. If you want me to believe a claim—any claim, from advertising claims to psychic powers and conspiracy theories to the validity of repressed memories—I’m going to ask for evidence. It doesn’t mean I think (or assume) you’re wrong or lying; it just means I want a reason to believe what you tell me. This is especially true for memes and factoids shared on social media and designed to elicit outrage or scorn.
But to most people who don’t have a background in critical thinking, journalism, skepticism, or media literacy, asking for evidence is akin to a challenge to their honesty. Theirs is a world in which personal experience and anecdote are self-evidently more reliable than facts and evidence. And it’s also a world in which most of the time when claims are questioned, it’s in the context of confrontation. To a person invested in the truth of a given narrative, any information that seems to confirm that idea is much more easily seen and remembered than information contradicting the idea; that’s the principle of confirmation bias. Similarly, when a person shares information on social media it’s often because he or she endorses the larger message or narrative, and they get upset if that narrative is questioned or challenged. From a psychological point of view, this heuristic is often accurate: much or most of the time when a person’s statement or claim is challenged (in informal settings or social media for example), the person asking the question does indeed have a vested interest.
The problem is when the person does occasionally encounter someone who is sincerely trying to understand an issue or get to the bottom of a question. The knee-jerk reaction is often to assume the worst about them. People are blinded by their own biases, and they project those biases on others. This is especially true when the subject is controversial, such as with race, gender, or politics. To them, the only reason people would question a claim is if they were trying to discredit that claim or a larger narrative it’s being offered in support of.
Of course that’s not true; people should question all claims and especially claims that conform to their pre-existing beliefs and assumptions; those are precisely the ones most likely to slip under the critical thinking radar and become incorporated into our beliefs and opinions. I question claims from across the spectrum, including those from sources I agree with. To my mind, the other approach has it backward: How do you know whether to believe a claim if you don’t question it?
My efforts to research and understand this story were born not of any doubt that racism exists, nor even that Jefferson was targeted, but instead of a background in media literacy and a desire to reconcile two contradictory accounts about what happened. Outrage-provoking stories on social media—especially viral ones based on a single, unconfirmed informal tweet—should concern all of us in this age of misinformation and “fake news.”
The real tragedy in this case is what was done to Larry Jefferson, whose role as the Mall of America’s first black Santa has been tainted by this social media–created controversy. Instead of being remembered for, as he said, bringing “hope, love, and peace to girls and boys,” he will forever be known for enduring a (fictional) deluge of bilious racist hatred. The true story of Jefferson’s stint as Santa is diametrically the opposite of what most people believe: He was greeted warmly and embraced by people of all colors and faiths as the Mall of America’s first black Santa. I understand that “Black Santa Warmly Welcomed by Virtually Everyone” isn’t a headline that any news organization is going to see as newsworthy or eagerly promote, nor would it go viral. But it’s the truth—and the truth matters.
I’m reminded of a quote from Carl Sagan: “Even when it’s applied sensitively, scientific skepticism may come across as arrogant, dogmatic, heartless, and dismissive of the feelings and deeply held beliefs of others. When someone comes along who challenges our belief system as insufficiently well-based … or demonstrates that we’ve swept key underlying assumptions under the rug—it becomes more than a search for knowledge. It feels like a personal insult.”