A brief explanation of how a recent Ben Affleck interview with Howard Stern explains everything about today’s media challenges.
During a recent appearance on the Howard Stern Show, Ben Affleck spent a lot of time talking about his alcoholism and the poor way he’s handled stress in the past. He also described his ex-wife Jennifer Garner as someone he loved and respected and explained that while their divorce was painful and disappointing, the marriage ended amicably.
A marriage breaking up, while not uncommon, is a big, painful deal. Affleck described how that stress and pain led him to drink more. “I’d probably still be drinking. It’s part of why I started drinking … because I was trapped … I was like ‘I can’t leave ’cause of my kids, but I’m not happy, what do I do?’ What I did was drink a bottle of scotch and fall asleep on the couch, which turned out not to be the solution.”
The comment was part of an interview that lasted more than an hour. By the next day, led by sites like Buzzfeed and People, there were endless headlines like this: Ben Affleck Says He’d Still Be Drinking If He Was Married To Jennifer Garner, suggesting that Garner somehow caused the drinking. I listened to the whole interview and those headlines do not represent the spirit of what Affleck said. Once those headlines were out, the internet went crazy, and more news and entertainment sites reported the comments and included that social media users were coming to Garner’s defense — because what a throng of uninformed people say on social media is news these days. The following day, Affleck responded to the controversy on Jimmy Kimmel by saying the focus on one sentence in his interview made him out to be “the exact opposite of who I am.”
So then the headlines returned and the internet started arguing again. But the topic of the argument was still the false story that Affleck blamed Garner for his drinking and threw her under the bus.
Why would I waste this space on a salacious Hollywood story? Because this is the exact same pattern we’ve seen play out on much more important stories from the beginning of the Trump era through the present. A false statement gets made. The headlines feature that false statement. That statement spreads. Social media chimes in. The false statement is challenged. And the headlines change to account for that challenge. But the focus of the story, and the social media discussion around it, is still on the initial falsehood.
An example: Back in 2018, Trump tossed out the idea that maybe the Russians meddled in our elections in favor of the Democrats. The suggestion was based on nothing. But that day, Jake Tapper spent the first 12 minutes of his CNN show with a guest who shot down the notion Trump floated. But the time was still spent on the question of whether Russians meddled in favor of the Dems. That scenario is a win for the liar because it gets the false idea out there, confuses the average news consumer, and achieves the goal Steve Bannon so eloquently described as flooding the zone with shit. When I mentioned this on Twitter at the time, I was retweeted by Debra Messing which got Jake Tapper’s attention. He advised her not to “accept nonsense from randos on the twitters.” Of course, that’s the exact advice I’d give news orgs covering Ben Affleck or anything else. Besides, I’m not just some rando on Twitter. I’m the rando on Twitter.
Dave Pell is the author of Please Scream Inside Your Heart, Breaking News and Nervous Breakdowns in the Year That Wouldn’t End.