Last week, the U.S. media pushed into viral orbit—some 700,000 views—a Youtube “mashup” video that changes President Barack Obama’s solemn denunciation of the Charleston mass killer Dylann Roof into a one-liner. The attempted jest included taking the word “killer” from the President’s speech at a funeral after the nine murders in Charleston, South Carolina church and—to the tune of Michael Jackson’s spooky hit—turning it into “Thriller.” The video also turns a moment from the congregation singing “Amazing Grace” into a ghoulish Michael Jackson “ooh, ooh, ooh.”
Here’s what’s truly frightening. Ostensibly a Halloween stunt, building on other mashups of the President, the video by “Baracksdubs” was hailed as “GREAT” and “genius” by USA Today, and Entertainment Weekly (a Time publication) and the Chicago Sun-Times similarly lauded the video.
One Youtube viewer saw what I saw.
“Mly Mly” commented directly on the Youtube site on Halloween, asking the videographer to take it down:
“Using a portion of the President Obama speaking at funeral for Senator Clementa Pinckney is insulting to his family, friends, the people of Charleston, and President Obama. That moment was a poignant moment for the Obama presidency and the issue of race in our country. Whoever spent time making this should make a large donation to Senator Pinckney's family, and take that portion out. You want to throw together some mash up fine, but not at the expense of eulogy. Disgusting.”
Apparently the videographer decided to leave it up. It might be hard not to, with nearly 20,000 likes (200 or so thumbs down) from viewers who probably don’t realize that what they’re laughing at. “Baracksdubs,” as the Youtube site is called, monetizes its views (of course), so plays of “Barack Obama Singing Thriller” have likely racked up at least $2,000 in ad income for the otherwise anonymous videographer. The sponsors while I watched were Jameson Whiskey and JC Penney.
I’m not saying that it’s intentional. Baracksdubs’ other works have a sophomoric feel. But at the very least, someone at the promoting publications should have caught this. Someone in a comedy section should have jumped at it and said, “Too soon!” Or, better, “Never!”
But, if a viewer didn’t notice Charleston in the video, then maybe it’s not there? Maybe mashups do reduce the half-life of tragedy before comedy to zero (Watch Brian Williams, for example--though don’t follow his example of “truthiness.”)
I asked around to friends this week whether my reaction was overblown, whether this is just the way things are. One responded:
“All this stuff is fairy dust that will dissipate and not make a difference.”
A new media tendency may be to willfully disrupt our culture so quickly that tragedy and comedy ride simultaneously on the same edge. But isn’t journalism’s task to weigh “story” in terms of its content as opposed to simply “linking” in a race to sell the most razors?
I attempted to contact EW to ask them to respond to concerns that the video uses a national tragedy in extremely poor taste. They’ve disabled their “contact” button, and left a departed editor’s name and email address on an active corporate page. Eventually I found the name of the new publisher, Ellie Duque, and sent emails and left a phone message. No one responded.
If anyone wonders whether Entertainment Weekly lacks a budget for fact-checking (or, call it spoof-checking), the magazine actually runs a periodic column called “Fact Checking Movies.” A recent topic was about how the movie “Selma,” portrays Martin Luther King’s arguments about voting rights with President Lyndon Johnson. The magazine concluded that the arguments were contrived.
But apparently they don’t have anyone to check the videos they promote, or to update their webpage so that their readers can hold them accountable. So much for "interactive" media.
What do you think?