Brian Kelly made a joke. The Notre Dame football coach didn’t take on race, religion, ethnicity, politics, sexual identification, or social injustice. Not that a joke shouldn’t do those things. He made fun of no one. He offended no one.
The overlords at Twitter snapped their fingers, though, so the media came running. Even the usually harmless Chris Fowler, ABC/ESPN’s college football analyst, jumped in on Twitter:
“uh..what do we think of Brian Kelly’s humor attempt? It’s a twist on an old one liner, saying his whole team ‘should be executed.’ but this is ’21..yeah i don’t think it works.”
Uh, what did Fowler mean by “we”? What do “we” think? Is thinking a group project now? What do the media think?
Adam Rittenberg wrote on ESPN.com that Kelly’s quip “immediately generated strong reaction on social media.” FOXNews.com said, “The remarks went viral across social media.” The Washington Post wrote, “Kelly’s curious comment prompted backlash on social media.”
Let’s not confuse hot air with fire. Backlash, strong reaction, and going viral have replaced thought, instincts, and news judgment. Editors — trained, rational, smart human beings — used to decide what’s newsworthy. Now Twitter decides.
The story on Kelly is this: Nothing happened and no one cared, but the media blew it up to feed the hungry beast of Twitter. So this isn’t commentary on Kelly, other than to say that when it comes to his comedic skills, he’s a fine football coach.
This is about the media and their unhealthy and dangerous love affair with Twitter. The media are obsessed to the level of stalkers. They are supposed to be leaders of independent thought, but instead stare at Twitter all day long and wait to be told what to say and think. Social media metastasized the cancerous journalism cliche “if it bleeds, it leads” into “if it trends, we pretend” it’s newsworthy.
That’s how a poorly executed wisecrack becomes the top story on ESPN.com.
After Notre Dame’s overtime win over Florida State, Kelly played off an old one-liner from John McKay, football coach of the lowly Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the 1970s. After a bad game, someone supposedly asked McKay what he thought of his team’s execution.
“I’m in favor of it,” he said.
With Kelly, ABC’s Katie George asked about Notre Dame trying to hold off FSU’s late rally. Kelly said, “I’m in favor of execution. Maybe our entire team needs to be executed after tonight.”
The funniest thing about Kelly’s attempt at humor is how uncomfortably he botched it. It was not a “curious comment,” as the Washington Post said.
“It was taken serious?” Kelly said Monday when asked to explain himself. “Are you people crazy? …
“It’s a John McKay quote that he used after a game. I was stealing one of his old quotes and being funny, because nobody likes to be funny any more. If you want to take me to town on that, please do.”
No one could think Kelly was honestly calling for the mass murder of his football team. But somehow, this led to a reflection of Kelly’s low moment at Notre Dame. Eleven years ago, student Declan Sullivan was filming football practice in heavy winds at the top of a 40-foot lift. It was too dangerous. Sullivan died.
And Twitter seems to think that Kelly’s joke was in bad taste considering that he let Sullivan go up that lift in those winds.
Kelly is right that nobody likes to be funny any more. Twitter, and the media’s kowtowing to it, won’t allow it. Twitter is destroying humor and replacing it with cheap snark. No one can risk being offensive without worrying that some idiot on Twitter will say something and then a few more will retweet him, and then the Twitter algorithm will turn it into a trend that beckons the media mob.
McKay used to joke with reporters and give one-liners. He once said, “We didn’t tackle well today, but we made up for it by not blocking.” He said, “If a contest had 97 prizes, the 98th would be a trip to Green Bay.” And, about coaching an expansion team: “You do a lot of praying, but most of the time the answer is no.”
McKay couldn’t have existed today because, as Fowler said, ‘this is ’21.”
How did Kelly’s harmless flub become a national story? Here’s how:
There used to be something called shoe-leather reporting. A reporter walks the streets and talks to sources and gets a feel of things. That’s how stories were uncovered. That, plus your instincts, helped you decide what might interest readers or be important to them. That’s fading fast. Now, editors stare at numbers all day on a computer to see what’s trending. That’s the only way to figure out what people are thinking. Numbers.
If the numbers go high enough, a buzzer goes off and an editor calls a reporter to do a “story.” The story is carefully crafted to try to get in on the trend.
They even write headlines based on search engine optimization, which means they have tricks so that if you call up a Twitter trend on Google, their story will come up first.
Meanwhile, the Twitter algorithm plays all of this stuff up and makes it go even more viral.
Longtime sports writer Jeff Goodman can see the obvious. He tweeted Monday: “So the first two headlines on ESPN are about Brian Kelly making a joke and a golfer backing a tennis player. I miss the old days when news was actually news.”
Twitter is executing independent thought, humor, human interaction, and news itself. That’s not funny.