Earlier this year we took a look at the "Epic Beard Man" meme, which the Internet sold to us as "elderly white war vet stands up to young black thug" instead of the more accurate "mentally disturbed old man has yet another in a long line of violent outbursts on a confused victim." It turns out that's not exactly an isolated incident. If we wrote an article every time something went viral based purely on a lack of context, that's all we'd write about. So we've narrowed it down to the biggest stories that the media and the Internet got the most wrong in 2010.
The way we heard it:
In 2010, smart, creative, genuinely funny comedy lost out to hackneyed 90s stand-up bullshit once and for all. And it was all Jay Leno's fault.
It went like this: In 2009 The Tonight Show was finally taken away from Leno and given to Conan O'Brien -- the voice of a new generation. We didn't think Leno was funny, but we had to admit it was pretty cool of him to make way for the new guy. He stepped down with grace and class ... only to turn right back around a few months later, when his stupid new show couldn't get its own ratings, and steal the The Tonight Show back. We'd call him an Indian giver, but that's a pretty offensive term, so we'll just call him a giant gaping asshole instead.
Also, his hair is stupid.
Across the internet the story and outrage spread like wildfire as NBC inexplicably folded before the juggernaut assault of Leno's evil team of Hollywood lawyers, morally bankrupt agents, powerful connections and possibly shadow assassins. The network offered to move Conan's Tonight Show to a much later time slot to make way for Leno in the 11 o'clock hour. After trying valiantly to defend himself with elegance, wit and dignity, Conan was ultimately fired, Jay was moved back, and the only people left happy by the whole thing were some ... some old people probably, like in fucking Kansas somewhere, who wouldn't know good comedy if it farted in their mouths.
But the truth is ...
Leno had nearly nothing to do with Conan getting fired. The popular phrasing is that Leno "took back The Tonight Show" after "giving it to Conan." But Leno doesn't "own" The Tonight Show -- NBC does. It was never Leno's choice to make. The sad reality is that Conan signed a tragically shitty contract with NBC -- a contract that held no specifications for his timeslot -- and it came back to bite him. And he should have seen it coming: Both Leno and Letterman have timeslot clauses built into their contracts to avoid this very thing. As Matthew Belloni, an entertainment lawyer and journalist, explains:
"Any talent lawyer worth his five percent fee is probably calling to ask for timeslot guarantees."
It's as basic as a call girl clause or a cocaine rider.
So then it was NBC exploiting an oversight in Conan's contract so it could keep their precious Leno waggling his chin and over-explaining his punchlines, right? Actually, the explanation is much simpler and more logical: Both programs were failing. Neither host's audience followed him to his new spot. Team Coco blamed that on Leno's new show providing a terrible lead-in to Conan's, but Leno's new show didn't start until several months after Conan's. Even without Leno's comedy black hole shitting up his lead-in, O'Brien's Tonight Show ratings were still in the toilet.
The only crime Leno committed was having better lawyers than Conan. Conan's contract forced NBC to pay him $45 million if it fired him. But Jay's early termination fee was a ludicrous $150 million. But -- and this is important -- he gets that $150 million only if the studio fires him.
His bosses essentially came to him and said, "Listen, we have two options here: We fire Conan and put you in his job. Or we fire Conan and you refuse to take his job, thus rendering you and your entire production staff unemployed."
Even Wally Wingert?
What would you answer in that situation? Keep in mind that any way you cut it, the other guy is fired; the only decision in your hands is whether you want to lose your job too. Then also keep in mind that it's not just you -- but all of your friends and co-workers -- whose jobs are on the line.
We can't hate Leno for "taking" anything away. It was the only thing he could have done. We can only hate him because really -- fuck that guy. No real reason we can pin down. He just seems like kind of a dick is all.
Also, he didn't write the best Simpsons episode ever.
The way we heard it:
"The Tea Party is just a swarm of redneck doofuses, not only unworthy of serious consideration from the rest of us but 100 percent deserving of scrotum-based epithets. Because they're just that ridiculous."
And Christine O'Donnell was the new Queen of the Crazies. It didn't take long for us to find out that she was personally bankrupt, a dabbler in witchcraft and not all that knowledgeable about this holy document she swore she was building her candidacy around. Plus, everything that came out of her mouth was pure hilarious moonshine. Which was probably why she stopped giving her mouth a national platform six weeks before the election. But that didn't stop the media from talking about her, because O'Donnell so perfectly represented everything else about the Tea Party.
Above: Everything else about the Tea Party.
There were blatant racists and blatant Obama-to-Hitler-comparison-makers. All year we saw misspelled signs and angry, red-faced Colonials. People like Anderson Cooper and President Obama showed how seriously they were taking the party by calling them "tea-baggers." And nobody blamed them, because all year long, the media gave us a picture of the Tea Party that made it perfectly clear: This is a joke.
A joke on who?
But the truth is ...
It wasn't a joke.
For all those wackjob birthers captured on film wearing frilly lady blouses and triangle hats, there were thousands of ordinary people just living their lives, being regular, and not liking how their Republican Party had turned out. And even though Tea Party members tend to skew toward older, middle-class white guys, their overall demographics aren't that far from the rest of the country. Of course, regular people are about as riveting as dry toast, so they didn't get much screen time. Which is why it came as such a shock to everyone when 32 percent of Tea Party-affiliated candidates won their elections.
American Revolution II: Now with 40 percent more obesity.
By focusing in on the assclowns the media painted a picture that not only wasn't accurate, but pretty much made constructive political discourse impossible. They didn't just fail to do their job -- they did the opposite of their job, and they've been doing it for years.
Like back in the 1960s, when they homed in on long-haired hippies dancing like spazzes and plugging every orifice they could with flowers, then declared these ding-dongs the voice of their generation. In reality, most kids from the 60s never looked like that or behaved that way, but that doesn't mean they inherently supported the war in Vietnam or were opposed to civil rights. They just weren't part of the hippie fringe. Look at your mom's (or grandma's?) yearbook if you don't believe us. Or look at this picture from Woodstock.
In case you can't tell, most of the guys are sporting relatively short hair ... at Woodstock.
So when we watched coverage of O'Donnell and the Tea Party this year, we were only getting the bonkers half of the picture. Now that CNN is teaming up with the Tea Party Express to host the Republican debates next year, we'll probably see a lot fewer costumed revolutionaries. But everyone will just assume the Tea Party cleaned up its act, when in reality it will be CNN.
The way we heard it:
"Kanye West's career is as done as yesterday's jeggings. After all, there are plenty of perfectly good rappers who don't throw temper tantrums like a spoiled toddler."
Three months before 2010 got under way, Kanye made the blunder of a lifetime when he swiped Taylor Swift's microphone at the MTV Video Music Awards and gave his gaffe-tastic "Imma let you finish" speech. What Kanye didn't know was that somewhere on that stage was a magical, invisible line of pariahdom. The consequences of that stunt would play out in the form of disses from American presidents, current and former, a cancellation of his tour with the biggest pop star in the universe, dozens of fellow musicians shaming him publicly and a call to boycott him by Joe Jackson. Yes, Kanye had sunk so low that Michael Jackson's father thought he had the moral authority to call for his blackball.
By the beginning of 2010, our minds were pretty much made up on Yeezy. At best, he was a retarded buffoon who had somehow duped us into buying his records for five years. At worst, he had something very seriously wrong with him. Just about everything he said, did, or wore in 2010 made him look like it might be the latter. Like when he compared himself to Maya Angelou or covered his teeth in diamonds. And especially when he discovered Twitter and started spewing all sorts of incoherent diarrhea. It's almost like Kanye collaborated with the media to present the worst possible image of himself, and we ate it up, because why wouldn't we? Who acts like that, right?
But the truth is ...
None of it mattered.
Thanks to unsettling cartoon pornography.
Kanye's latest album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, is being called the "Sgt. Pepper of hip hop" and a "masterpiece" by critics. For a while there, we forgot that Kanye has been making the music half of "rap music" since he was 20-years old. Before he ever picked up a microphone, other big names, such as Jay-Z, Nas and Ludacris, were clamoring to rap over his beats. So when he actually got around to doing the one thing that made him famous in the first place, we probably shouldn't have been so surprised that he was good at it.
This isn't the first time we've seen an artist create like a genius while acting like a lunatic; we're just not used to seeing it in rap music. Brian Wilson had a reputation as a tortured genius, crippled by shyness and stage fright but with a head full of opaque brilliance that the rest of us could appreciate only when he sat down at his piano. It might be time to start thinking of Kanye West as the opposite of Brian Wilson. Instead of struggling with crippling shyness, Kanye forces his fans to deal with his crippling case of whatever the opposite of shyness is.
Other than that, the two men are identical.
There was even a moment at this year's Video Music Awards when Kanye made us think, if only for a split second, that maybe he'd orchestrated the whole controversy on purpose just to keep us talking about him. He returned to the scene of the crime, and performed his new album's hit single, "Runaway," mixing every layer of the song together on his keyboard as if to remind us that, yes, he's a musician. The chorus "Let's give a toast to the douche bags" had such feeling that you almost forgot that he was making fun of himself while simultaneously making everyone else who'd made fun of him in 2010 look like they weren't in on the joke.
Granted, that's a lot of self-awareness to award a guy who wears shit like this:
And also his necklace retardation.
In the end, it doesn't matter if he's self-aware, retarded like a fox or retarded like Rain Man. As long as he makes music that critics fawn over and that the rest of us buy it probably doesn't matter.
The way we heard it:
"It's an impotent ignorant redneck vs. super-cool all-powerful Internet geeks Anonymous! And Anonymous wins! LOL!"
Some of you were exposed to this story only via memes, usually a screen cap of a hillbilly screaming "YOU DUN GOOFED!" at a camera while a girl cries in the foreground.
Or maybe you've just heard people joking that they'll "backtrace" you, or report you to the "cyber police."
It's all referencing the same video, where a girl is receiving harassment from Anonymous (aka the most tech-savvy and malicious posters at 4chan) and her father screams a bunch of hilarious threats that he in no way has the power or expertise to follow up on. It's funny because he's clearly an old, uneducated redneck, the kind of guy who would beat up on a geek if he saw one in real life. And all he can do is impotently shake his fist into the camera and make a bunch of nonsense threats.
It's the stuff memes are made of, a perfect geek victory we can all celebrate. The video exploded on Digg, Reddit and everywhere else. The family wound up on Good Morning fucking America.
But the truth is ...
It was 4chan making sexual advances to, and then real-life death threats toward, an elementary school girl.
Let's back up for a moment.
4chan isn't entirely pedophiles, but it has a lot of pedophiles. Historians may never know whether it started with real pedophiles or simply hipsters making pedophile jokes in order to be shocking (they invented the "Pedobear" meme, a child-molestation themed mascot), but we know that the No. 1 job of 4chan moderators is trying to stem the tide of child porn (or "CP," as it's referred to in 4chan jargon) that floods the site. Surf /b/ for an hour, and you'll wind up with naked children thumbnails on your hard drive.
Which, on the plus side, is a great way to meet real live FBI agents.
So the girl in the video, who goes by Jessi Slaughter, showed up on /b/ one night and, as they tend to do, /b/ tried to get the fifth-grade girl to strip. She refused to show enough skin and eventually took to her webcam to call /b/ a bunch of losers (4chan keeps no archives, but you can find the screen grabs of all this if you Google it and hate yourself).
Anonymous sprung into action. This is the type of cause Anonymous really gets into. Some of you may know them only for their attacks on Scientology or their defense of the WikiLeaks leakers. You probably don't know that for every one "good" deed, they perform several hundred like this. And by "like this," we mean they hunted down the personal information of an 11-year-old girl, including her home address and phone number, and began calling her house at all hours and making death threats. Hundreds and hundreds of 4chan posters jumped onboard, unified in their drive to terrorize a small child.
But hey, at least they donated all that money to Iran.
She was eventually placed under police protection, and her father flipped out and made his hilarious rant into her webcam to try to get Anonymous to back off. A meme was born.
They say one of the worst things you find out about the world as an adult is the way the oppressed, when given the chance, can be just as horrible as their oppressors. Nerds who get wedgies all day at school don't dream of equality -- they dream of being the one doing the beating and humiliating. For proof, all you have to do is look at how Anonymous behaves when given the chance to terrorize someone who they know can't strike back. They find themselves operating by the same rules as any bully: They don't harm the people who most deserve it, but rather the ones who are least able to retaliate.
This, but with thousands of people in Guy Fawkes masks instead of a little boy.
But most of us who find ourselves on the "geek" side of the equation want to see ourselves as the oppressed and righteous minority, so we cheered on Anonymous and mocked the ignorant hillbillies. Meanwhile, Anonymous went back to their favorite hobby: Defacing Facebook memorial pages of dead children. LOL!
The way we heard it:
"The Social Network is a scathing, and probably unfair, portrait of Mark Zuckerberg that Facebook doesn't want you to see."
If you found yourself crapping next to a basket of magazines in the months before The Social Network hit theaters, you were well prepared for the public execution of Mark Zuckerberg. The Sunday Times of London promised a movie about the "seamy life of (the) Facebook boss" who is "driven not just by money or fame but also sexual insecurity." New York Magazine ran a cover article that set the stage for a media throwdown.
Zuckerberg weighed in with the complain brag of the year, saying "I just wished no one had made a movie about me while I'm still alive" (before going on to complain, "I also wish the supermodels I have sex with on top of my money pile would stop getting altitude sickness").
Once the movie came out, the real fact-checking began. The Orlando Sentinel compared the film's "ugly portrait" of Zuckerberg to Oliver Stone's "J.F.K., a dazzling con job fabricated on faulty data and a single point of view." Slate pointed out that the story we get in the movie, that Zuckerberg invented Facebook to get back at a girl who dumped him, is almost definitely made up.
It would have been easier to defend the movie if its screenwriter, Aaron Sorkin, didn't openly admit that he wasn't even trying to tell the truth, saying "I don't want my fidelity to be to the truth; I want it to be to storytelling", or roughly translated, "If lying made the story better, I lied."
Accodring to Sorkin, The West Wing is based in a true story because there's really such a building.
But the truth is ...
Everyone was completely right that the movie is full of lies and half-truths. They just all seemed to miss that almost every single one of those lies was designed to make Zuckerberg look awesome.
Aaron Sorkin needed to lie because he couldn't write an interesting movie about the kid who gave a rambling 45 minutes interview at the D8 conference earlier this year when confronted about Facebook users' well-documented privacy issues. Sorkin's version of Zuckerberg would have ice skated circles around those interviewers. The only information the real Zuckerberg conveyed was that he may in fact be a very sweaty robot.
The Social Network's Zuckerberg is only "uncool" in the way that nerdy girls in teen movies are "ugly" until they take off their glasses. He occupies the physical space of an "uncool" person and is referred to as such by other characters. But he dominates every conversation and room he enters with quiet, savant-like intensity. No, movie Zuckerberg doesn't smile or engage in social niceties. Anyone claiming that makes him less cool might as well be arguing that Brett is the coolest character in Pulp Fiction because he has better manners than Jules.
The movie took a lot of heat for its theory that Zuckerberg created Facebook to get back at an ex-girlfriend. Slate complains that the entire story line appears to be based on one sentence Zuckerberg wrote on his blog, which read "Jessica Alona is a bitch." But in the film's last scene, we learn that the "bitch" is the answer to the riddle that is Mark Zuckerberg. Slate points out that he might not have even had a relationship with her.
So to recap, the real Zuckerberg called a girl a bitch on his blog, and the movie makes that the salutation on the most epic unsent love letter in the history of unrequited love. Fine. Zuckerberg didn't invent Facebook out of puppy love. But that feels less like slander and more like the type of lie you tell about yourself while trying to get laid.
Every Hollywood movie is required by law to have a love interest.
The magazines and sites that criticized the movie for being unfair to Zuckerberg accomplished the rare feat of getting it exactly wrong. If the movie's version of the truth is irresponsible in any direction, it's for letting the real Zuckerberg off too easily. Movie Zuckerberg's low point comes when he's persuaded to screw over his best friend by Napster founder Sean Parker. Real Zuckerberg's low point might have been the time he used Facebook to hack into other students' email accounts.
But you should still totally trust Facebook with your personal data.
Or maybe it was the AIM conversation where he called Harvard's student body "dumb fucks" for trusting him with their private information, or the chat log where a friend asked him what he planned to do about the Winklevoss twins (who in the movie and in reality accuse him of stealing the idea for Facebook from them) to which the real Zuckerberg replied:
ZUCK: yea i'm going to fuck them
ZUCK: probably in the year
Look, we've all had conversations that we'd rather not see surface. Some of us may have even threatened to perform that exact sexual act on Harvard's entire student body without a trace of irony. We're not suggesting that Zuckerberg should be judged for something he wrote as a 19-year-old. Just that he really shouldn't be defended as though The Social Network wronged him in some way. It turned the world's youngest billionaire into something that should technically be impossible: A punk rock billionaire. It was because of the movie, not in spite of it, that Zuckerberg seemed interesting enough to be Time's person of the year. The movie made him Gordon Gekko for a new generation, and with a heart of gold. If you don't understand why that's good for Zuckerberg, ask Michael Douglas about "the number of people who tell him that his Oscar-winning role was the reason they went to work on Wall Street."
Not to mention what it did to the hair gel industry.