One of my new favorite podcasts of 2021 is called You’re Wrong About. You’re Wrong About has been on since 2018, but I got into it this past spring. I was hooked by its several-episode arc on the OJ Simpson trial.
The genesis of the podcast is that there are all these major events—typically significant, sensationalized headline-news stories like the OJ Simpson Trial, Princess Diana’s death, or the Tanya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan saga where we think we know the details, but they’ve actually been manipulated and bastardized by the media, word of mouth, and time (Slow Burn is another excellent podcast which plays with the perception vs. reality of major cultural touchstones).
As the series progresses, it’s become less about these larger-than-life tabloid fixtures and more of a breakdown of the ways people can manipulate media, statistics, and studies for whatever angle they’re trying to push. One of the two cohosts, journalist Michael Hobbes, is particularly adept at taking the sort of click-bait statistics we love to share on social media or insert into articles, and break down how said statistic, study, or quote has been misinterpreted, misread, or sensationalized without the proper context. As a marketing professional who knows exactly how to angle or hyperbolize a study or stat to get a specific reaction, I occasionally feel victimized by You’re Wrong About, but that’s also part of the fun.
I recently wrote an op-ed for the Asheville Citizen-Times about the term “fake news” and how it holds no weight though it’s become ubiquitous to certain sects. I’ll link to the article, but there’s a paywall, so I’ll also provide an abridged summary: saying something is “fake news” is the easy way out because it means you don’t have to interrogate said news to see what about it is fake. You don’t have to actually break anything down or think critically. You just have to say “fake news,” and that’s that.
I mention the Asheville Citizen-Times op-ed because I thought a lot about the conversations I’ve heard on You’re Wrong About when conceptualizing and eventually writing the piece (see also: self-promotion). I also mention this op-ed because a conversation I heard at the gym the other day had me thinking both about how fear-mongering stats are disproven with ease on You’re Wrong About, and how the people most apt to utilize “fake news” as an argument are the ones who most often fall for genuine fake news.
I was in the sauna at the gym last week, and two gentlemen were having a loud talk about how crime is skyrocketing in “Biden’s America” and how “you can be attacked or shot anywhere anymore, and no one does anything about it” (rich, in itself). The one guy then told the other about the gun violence in Philadelphia and how “it’s a ghost town up there…seriously, streets are empty because everyone is scared to be outside.” The second guy offered, “My cousin lives there, and people are being shot left and right. City’s losing money because no one wants to visit.”
Since I’ve learned my lesson about speaking up in the sauna, I stayed mum, but what I wanted to offer was that I’m planning on going to Philly for New Year’s weekend, where I plan on celebrating all day in what I’m sure will be very crowded streets. Also, finding open AirBnBs or hotel rooms was tough. The guy with the cousin in Philly also shared how, “I heard they were trying to clean up the area by the river and make it a park, but it’s so crime-ridden no one will visit, even after they put all this money into it.” That area by the river is the Spruce Street Harbor Park, and it’s not crime-ridden or avoided—my brother, sister, and nephew were at the park last week for their Winterfest and texted the cutest pictures of my nephew all bundled up in his baby winter gear. Spoiler alert: All three made it alive out of Winterfest without being shot.
Now, I assume that these guys are patrons of the Fox News, which of course reports the gun violence in Philly with headlines like Philadelphia officials outraged as Democrat-run city surpasses 400 homicides amid calls for more police and Sister of Philadelphia murder victim hits back at liberal DA’s “insane” denial of crime crisis. Philadelphia does have a horrifically high murder rate this year. The city’s website reports 534 homicides as of this writing, a 13% increase from 2020. It’s problematic and scary, but the way it’s being reported by Fox News and repeated by these men completely misinterprets and twists the reality these stats represent.
If you haven’t guessed yet, the guys in the sauna were middle-aged white men. Most of the Philadelphia shooting victims are Black, and most shootings happen in North Philly or West Philadelphia (you can see a map of the gun violence here). Now, as a rule, middle-aged white tourists aren’t venturing into North or West Philadelphia, so these men could hop on a plane to Philadelphia and grab a cheesesteak at Pat or Geno’s with absolutely no increased danger than last year or the year before. Additionally, if you checked out that linked map, you’ll see that the area by the river—Spruce Street Harbor Park—is one of the few areas no gun violence has been documented. Do you know what else is on the rise in Philadelphia? Domestic violence shootings. And that occurs in the home. That’s not a threat to tourists and statistically, it’s men who are the perpetrators.
If I’d engaged these men, I would’ve pointed out that domestic violence is rising everywhere and pointed out how shootings (including those categorized as domestic violence) might be up because gun sales have hit record highs this past year. Suppose I wanted to engage in some light fear-mongering. In that case, I might even mention to these two men, one of whom had talked about his high school-aged children, that school shootings have returned to their regularly scheduled programming and how white high schoolers make up the majority of school shooting victims. My point? Philadelphia isn’t the warzone it’s being portrayed as—and we’re not much safer anywhere else—but knowing that takes looking past the headlines and thinking critically about reality (or, in my case, knowing many people who live and work in Philadelphia and aren’t staying inside due to the threat of gun violence).
These two men were wrong about almost every point they brought up.
Many writers will claim they don’t read comments or engage with feedback on the articles they ostensibly put out in the world for people to read and engage with. I’m going to respectfully say I think that’s a lot of bullshit, but since this is an article about facts and stats, that’s just a thought, a hunch. Regardless, I’m not above that kind of fray. I’ll read the comments all day.
I learned that the bulk of the Citizen-Times readers commenting on my op-eds agreed with my viewpoints—which shouldn’t be surprising because Asheville is a liberal-leaning city—but wondered why I was wasting my time writing. Right-wing craziness happens outside Asheville—I’m not going to change anyone’s mind writing op-eds in the Citizen-Times.
The sauna conversation I was privy to was not only two men claiming that Philadelphia was a warzone. It was also a conversation where one of the gentlemen repeatedly used the term “the Blacks.” It was a conversation between two men who admitted to stockpiling guns over the course of the last year because “you don’t know when you’re going to have to defend yourself anymore” (I braced then, for their Kyle Rittenhouse opinions, but luckily that’s as far as they went). The sauna conversation happened in a gym in Asheville, which shares a parking lot with The Biltmore Church, which touts Madison Cawthorn as godly. Asheville is a liberal-leaning city, but anyone who believes it to be some kind of progressive paradise is wrong on that front.
Editor’s Note: The picture accompanying this post is a shot from my sister’s roof deck in South Philadelphia, where I’ve been three times in the past year, all without incident.