Back before the pandemic, amid the encroaching commercialization of Christmas, Black Friday sales, and annual social media grumblings about the manufactured controversy over whether “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays” is appropriate, an ugly episode of racial hatred tainted the beginning of the 2016 holiday season.
It began when the Mall of America hired a jolly bearded man named Larry Jefferson as one of its Santas. Jefferson, a retired Army veteran, is black–a fact that most kids and their parents neither noticed nor cared about. The crucial issue for kids was whether a Playstation might be on its way or some Plants vs. Zombies merchandise was in the cards given the particular child’s status on Santa’s naughty-or-nice list. The important thing for parents was whether their kids were delighted by the Santa, and all evidence suggests that the answer was an enthusiastic Yes. “What [the children] see most of the time is this red suit and candy,” Jefferson said in an interview. “[Santa represents] a good spirit. I’m just a messenger to bring hope, love, and peace to girls and boys.”
The fact that Santa could be African-American seemed self-evident (and either an encouraging sign or a non-issue) for all who encountered him. Few if any people at the Mall of America made any negative or racist comments. It was, after all, a self-selected group; any parents who might harbor reservations about Jefferson simply wouldn’t wait in line with their kids to see him and instead go somewhere else or wait for another Santa. Like anything that involves personal choice, people who don’t like something (a news outlet, brand of coffee, or anything else) will simply go somewhere else–not erupt in protest that it’s available to those who want it.
However a black Santa was a first for that particular mall, and understandably made the news. On December 1 the local newspaper, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, carried a story by Liz Sawyer titled “Mall of America Welcomes Its First Black Santa.”
Scott Gillespie, the editorial page editor for the Tribune, tweeted later that night (at 9:47 PM): “Looks like we had to turn comments off on story about Mall of America’s first black Santa. Merry Christmas everyone!” The tweet’s meaning seemed both clear and disappointing: On a story that the Star Tribune posted about an African-American Santa, the racial hostility got so pervasive in the comments section that they had to put an end to it, out of respect for Jefferson and/or Star Tribune readers. He ended with a sad and sarcastic, “Merry Christmas” and sent the tweet into cyberspace.
Overnight and the next morning his tweet went viral and served as the basis for countless news stories with titles such as “Paper Forced to Close Comments On Mall Of America’s First Black Santa Thanks to Racism” (Jezebel); “Santa is WHITE. BOYCOTT Mall of America’: Online Racists Are Having a Meltdown over Mall’s Black Santa” (RawStory); “Racists Freak Out Over Black Santa At Mall Of America” (Huffington Post); “Mall of America Hires Its First Black Santa, Racists of the Internet Lose It” (Mic.com), and so on. If you spend any time on social media you get the idea. It was just another confirmation of America’s abysmal race relations.
There’s only one problem: It didn’t happen.
At 1:25 PM the following day Gillespie, after seeing the stories about the scope and nature of the racist backlash the Tribune faced, reversed himself in a follow-up tweet. Instead of “we had to turn off comments,” Gillespie stated that the commenting was never opened for that article in the first place: “Comments were not allowed based on past practice w/stories w/racial elements. Great comments on FB & Instagram, though.”
This raised some questions for me: If the comments had never been opened on the story, then how could there have been a flood of racist comments? Where did that information come from? How many racist comments did the paper actually get? Fewer than a dozen? Hundreds? Thousands? Something didn’t add up about the story, and as a media literacy educator and journalist I felt it was important to understand the genesis of this story.
It can serve as an object lesson and help the public understand the role of confirmation bias, unwarranted assumptions, and failure to apply skepticism. In this era of attacks on “fake news” it’s important to distinguish intentional misinformation from what might be simply a series of mistakes and assumptions.
While I have no doubt that the Tribune story on Jefferson would likely have been the target of some racist comments at some point, the fact remains that the main point of Gillespie’s tweet was false: the Tribune had not in fact been forced to shut down the comments on its piece about the Mall of America’s black Santa because of a deluge of racist comments. That false information was the centerpiece of the subsequent stories about the incident.
The idea that some might be upset about the topic is plausible; after all, the question of a black Santa had come up a few times in the news and social media (perhaps most notably Fox News’s Megyn Kelly’s infamous incredulity at the notion three years earlier–which she later described as an offhand jest). Racist, sexist, and otherwise obnoxious comments are common in the comments section of many articles online on any number of subjects, and are not generally newsworthy. There were of course some racists and trolls commenting on the secondary stories about the Star Tribune‘s shutting down its comment section due to racist outrage (RawStory collected about a dozen drawn from social media), but fact remains that the incident at the center of the controversy that spawned outrage across social media simply did not happen.
A few journalists added clarifications and corrections to the story after reading Gillespie’s second tweet or being contacted by him. The Huffington Post, for example, added at the bottom of its story: “CLARIFICATION: This story has been updated to reflect that the Minneapolis Star Tribune‘s comment section was turned off when the story was published, not in response to negative comments.” But most journalists didn’t, and as of this writing nearly two million news articles still give a misleading take on the incident.
The secondary news reports could not, of course, quote from the original non-existent rage-filled comments section in the Star Tribune, so they began quoting from their own comments sections and those of other news media. This became a self-fulfilling prophecy, wherein the worst comments from hundreds of blogs and websites were then selected and quoted, generating another round of comments. Many people saw racist comments about the story and assumed that they had been taken from the Star Tribune page at the center of the story, and couldn’t be sure if they were responding to the original outrage or the secondary outrage generated by the first outrage. As with those drawn to see and celebrate Jefferson as the mall’s first black Santa, this was also a self-selected group of people–namely those who were attracted to a racially charged headline and had some emotional stake in the controversy, enough to read about it and comment on it.
Unpacking the Reporting
I contacted Gillespie and he kindly clarified what happened and how his tweet inadvertently caused some of the world’s most prominent news organizations to report on an ugly racial incident that never occurred.
Gillespie–whose beat is the opinion and editorial page–was at home on the evening of December 1 and decided to peruse his newspaper’s website. He saw the story about Larry Jefferson and clicked on it to see if the black Santa story was getting any comments. He noticed that there were no comments at all and assumed that the Star Tribune‘s web moderators had shut them off due to inflammatory posts, as had happened occasionally on previous stories.
Understandably irritated and dismayed, he tweeted about it and went to bed, thinking no more of it. The next day he went into work and a colleague noticed that his tweet had been widely shared (his most shared post on social media ever) and asked him about it. Gillespie then spoke with the newspaper’s web moderators, who informed him that the comments had never been turned on for that particular post–a practice at the newspaper for articles on potentially sensitive subjects such as race and politics, but also applied to many other topics that a moderator for whatever reason thinks might generate comments that may be counterproductive.
“I didn’t know why the comments were off,” he told me. “In this case I assumed we followed past practices” about removing inflammatory comments. It was a not-unreasonable assumption that in this case just happened to be wrong. Gillespie noted during our conversation that a then-breaking Star Tribune story about the death of a 2-year-old girl at a St. Paul foster home also had its commenting section disabled–presumably not in anticipation of a deluge of racist or hateful comments.
“People thought–and I can see why, since I have the title of editorial page editor–that I must know what I’m talking about [in terms of web moderation],” Gillespie said. He was commenting on a topic about his newspaper but outside his purview, and to many his tweet was interpreted as an official statement and explanation of why comments did not appear on the black Santa story.
When Gillespie realized that many (at that time dozens and, ultimately, millions) of news stories were (wrongly) reporting that the Star Tribune‘s comments section had been shut down in response to racist comments based solely on his (admittedly premature and poorly phrased) Dec. 1 tweet, he tried to get in touch with some of the journalists to correct the record (hence the Huffington Post clarification), but by that time the story had gone viral and the ship of fools had sailed. The best he could do was issue a second tweet trying to clarify the situation, which he did.
“I can see why people would jump to the conclusion they did,” he told me. Gillespie is apologetic and accepts responsibility for his role in creating the black Santa outrage story, and it seems clear that his tweet was not intended as an attempt at race-baiting for clicks.
In the spirit of Christmas maybe one lesson to take from this case is charity. Instead of assuming the worst about someone or their intentions, give them the benefit of the doubt. Assuming the worst about other people runs all through this story. Gillespie assumed that racists deluged his newspaper with racist hate, as did the public. The web moderator(s) at the Star Tribune who chose not to open the comments on the Santa story may (or may not) have assumed that they were pre-empting a deluge of racism (which may or may not have in fact followed). I myself was assumed to have unsavory and ulterior motives for even asking journalistic questions about this incident (a topic I’ll cover next week).
In the end there are no villains here (except for the relative handful of racists and trolls who predictably commented on the secondary stories). What happened was the product of a series of understandable misunderstandings and mistakes, fueled in part by confirmation bias and amplified by the digital age.
The Good News
Gillespie and I agreed that this is, when fact and fiction are separated, a good news story. As noted, Gillespie initially assumed that the newspaper’s moderators had been inundated with hostile and racist comments, and finally turned the comments off after having to wade through the flood of hateful garbage comments to find and approve the positive ones. He need not have feared, because exactly the opposite occurred: Gillespie said that the Star Tribune was instead flooded with positive comments applauding Jefferson as the Mall of America’s first black Santa (he referenced this in his Dec. 2 tweet). The tiny minority of nasty comments were drowned out by holiday cheer and goodwill toward men–of any color. He echoed Jefferson, who in a December 9 NPR interview said that the racist comments he heard were “only a small percentage” of the reaction, and he was overwhelmed by support from the community.
The fact that Jefferson was bombarded by love and support from the general public (and most whites) should offer hope and comfort. Gillespie said that he had expected people to attack and criticize the Mall of America for succumbing to political correctness, but the imagined hordes of white nationalists never appeared. A few anonymous cranks and racists complained on social media posts from the safety of their keyboards, but there was very little backlash–and certainly nothing resembling what the sensational headlines originally suggested.
The real tragedy is what was done to Larry Jefferson, whose role as the Mall of America’s first black Santa has been tainted by this social media-created controversy. Instead of being remembered for, as he said, bringing “hope, love, and peace to girls and boys,” he will forever be known for enduring a (fictional) deluge of bilious racist hatred. The true story of Jefferson’s stint as Santa is diametrically the opposite of what most people believe: He was greeted warmly and embraced by people of all colors and faiths as the Mall of America’s first black Santa.
Some may try to justify their coverage of the story by saying that even though in this particular case Jefferson was not in fact inundated with racist hate, it still symbolizes a very real problem and was therefore worthy of reporting if it raised awareness of the issue. The Trump administration adopted this tactic earlier this week when the President promoted discredited anti-Muslim videos via social media; his spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders acknowledged that at least some of the hateful videos Trump shared were bogus (and did not happen as portrayed and described), but insisted that their truth or falsity was irrelevant because they supported a “larger truth”–that Islam is a threat to the country’s security: “I’m not talking about the nature of the video,” she told reporters. “I think you’re focusing on the wrong thing. The threat is real, and that’s what the President is talking about.”
This disregard for truth has been a prominent theme in the Trump administration. Yes, some tiny minority of Muslims are terrorists; no one denies that, but that does not legitimize the sharing of bogus information as examples supposedly illustrating the problem. Similarly, yes, some tiny minority of Americans took exception to Jefferson as a black Santa, but that does not legitimize sharing false information about how a newspaper had to shut down its comments because of racist rage. There are enough real-life examples of hatred and intolerance that we need not invent new ones.
In this Grinchian and cynical ends-justifies-the-means worldview, there is no such thing as good news and the import of every event is determined by how it can be used to promote a given narrative or social agenda–truth be damned.
I understand that “Black Santa Warmly Welcomed by Virtually Everyone” isn’t a headline that any news organization is going to see as newsworthy or eagerly promote, nor would it go viral. But it’s the truth.
A longer version of this article appeared on my Center for Inquiry blog; you can read it HERE.