Woody Allen and The Media Mob

From trial by tree to trial by twitter.

Posted Feb 08, 2014

At the turn of the 20th century, lynchings of African Americans were not only commonplace, but when the media—largely newspapers at the time—covered them, they almost always did so as if they were deserved. The victims were presented as guilty of any and all accusations; the evidence of their innocence was either not reported or done so as if it was evidence of guilt or duplicity; and the victims were referred to in dehumanizing terms as if presenting them as “monsters” and “rapists” was the only natural way to perceive them. While some of the victims may have been guilty of the crimes of which they were accused, the fact that many others were innocent, and that calls for mob justice denied them their right to fair trial, made no impact on the perceptions of the masses. That is because lynchings were done in the name of morality; of safeguarding women and children from rapists; and of sending a message to others that the courts were not the only venue of justice. In short, lynching—hanging a person from a tree or lashing them to it and burning them alive—was not viewed negatively; it was viewed as a moral act. And the role of the media was far more often to applaud those who engaged in lynchings, than to condemn them.

Fast forward to the modern era of high-tech media where information is transmitted so instantaneously that facts need no checking, stories need no investigating, and rumors need no restraining and we discover that little has changed. Where we once had trial by tree, we now have trial by Twitter.

The recent (and renewed) accusation against Woody Allen that he molested his then 7-year-old daughter has done more to drive home the truth about mob mentality than it has established any truth about what may or may not have happened. And that is because the media are once again at the helm of shaping public perception and giving a green light to aggression. I have written extensively here and elsewhere on the manner in which mobbing goes down in the workplace; among the consistent features found in any organized mobbing is the role of leadership. In the workplace, mobbing begins when leadership signals that someone must go and that any and all criticisms and accusations against the target will be welcome and any defense or caution against a rush to judgment will be risky.

Another feature of organized mobbing is that it is done in the name of protecting others and promoting a moral code—no matter how far the mobbing transgresses from prevailing codes of moral conduct. Moreover, once mobbing commences, there is absolutely no evidence the accused can present that will stop the mobbing, and every representation of the target will be negative—no matter what the target does or does not do. In short, when a workplace mobs a worker, reason and fairness fall victim to bloodlust and the only way to curb that bloodlust is for leadership to call a stop to the aggression—which it rarely ever does. Perhaps most ironically, those who engage in workplace mobbing do not view themselves as “mobbing,” nor even aggressive. As long as humans are persuaded that the target of their aggression deserves it, we are likely to blind ourselves to the nature of our aggression—we see ourselves as acting humanely, when we act most inhumanely.

So what does mobbing look like outside an organizational context? It looks exactly like what we are seeing being played out in the cybersphere and media covering the claims of Dylan Farrow that Woody Allen molested her. The media have, near universally, presented her claims as factual; used headlines portraying the guilt of the accused as already established; minimized or excluded any calls for objectivity or caution; ignored evidence that might suggest the accused is innocent or presented that evidence as evidence of guilt; and wrapped it all in a cloak of morality as if “the rape culture” women live in necessitates a single narrative and trumps any other moral codes related to fairness, objectivity or a presumption of innocence when accused of such serious crime.

As I have said in an earlier essay, I don’t know if Woody Allen is guilty or not. But what I do know is that the manner in which the accusations against him have been presented by the media constitutes mobbing, by any definition of the term. Moreover, I know that those engaged in his mobbing—led by the rallying cries of editorial teams in far too many major blogs and newspapers—do not view themselves as engaged in mobbing nor do they view themselves as acting contrary to any moral code. They view themselves as acting nobly, in defense of others, and in protection of women and children.

It is no wonder that the bloodiest of wars are carried out in the name of religion. That is because the more noble we believe ourselves to be, the more likely we will excuse our own lapses in morality as being necessary and deserved. As humans, we are moral creatures and tend to justify our actions as fitting our own moral codes. Thus, the more that members of an organization view themselves as ethical and moral, the more they will excuse their own aggression and hence the more aggressive they tend to become. Perhaps for this reason the few calls to caution in judging Woody Allen have tended to come from conservative media, while the most biased and venomous have tended to come from the liberal press—a seeming irony, given that it is the liberal press which has been in the forefront of calling for fairness in our judicial processes.

We may no longer hang people from trees when they are accused of rape, but our mass psychology has not changed. The only truth that will be established in the Woody Allen/Dylan Farrow tragedy is that there is nothing “progressive” about the rush to judgment, no matter how liberal the sounding board, and that certain moral precepts—a right to fair and impartial trial by one’s peers, a presumption of innocence, and evidence beyond accusation fly out the window when other moral precepts—the right not to be molested or raped, the right to be believed when speaking from experience, and the right to seek justice—are presented as at risk. The truth is, what is most at risk is not the progress we have made in understanding and prosecuting sexual crimes. What is most at risk in our high-tech instantaneous media saturated lives is the progress we have made toward ensuring that anyone accused of a serious crime be treated fairly, objectively and humanely. But as long as the media depict the lynchings in their communities as justice being served, the only thing we can be sure of is that the lynchings will continue.