It was a story from and for the 21st century.
It was fueled by the intersection of all of the pitfalls of modern journalism and, some might say, the foibles of modern society: digital media outlets desperate for clicks, social media users eager to gossip, and, depending on one's view, the political correctness plaguing our national conversation - or the need for underrepresented groups to speak truth to power. It was a story that Johannes Gutenberg, when he invented moveable type in the 15th century, could scarcely have imagined.
The story started out modestly enough. Kristen Stewart - an actress, despite her many other achievements, still best known for playing a teenager in love with a vampire in the Twilight franchise - was promoting a new film at the Sundance Film Festival in a video posted by Variety.
"Instead of sitting around and complaining about that, do something," Stewart, 25, said in the video. "Go write something, go do something."
This was a call to action.
"And that's easy to say," she continued. "... It's hard to get movies made. It's a huge luxury. Who gets to just make movies? But that subject is just so prevalently everywhere right now, and it's boring."
What exactly was Stewart talking about? She was urging revolution, that was certain - but implying that mere dialogue about the issue, whatever it was, was tedious. In a move that would prove fateful, a Web editor at Variety thought the actress was talking about racial and ethnic diversity in Hollywood and wrote text accompanying the video that said so.
Though that text is now lost, suddenly Stewart's comments looked very bad. Her alleged dismissal of concerns about diversity come in the middle of a national debate about race in Hollywood and centered on the Academy Awards, which nominated only white actors in its acting categories.
Even Oscars host Chris Rock may be forced to weigh in on whether the awards, now in their ninth decade, really mean anything at all given that they have over-represented whites. (In 2005, he said they are "just a fashion show.") And best-actor nominee Matt Damon is just one of many celebrities who, even before the #OscarsSoWhite debate, has been shredded for apparently discounting the need for racial and ethnic diversity on the set.
So Stewart, like Damon, Stacey Dash and many others before her, was summarily excoriated on social media.
"Everyone, stop discussing racism, you are boring Kristen Stewart," one comment read. Another: "Kristen Stewart has got nerve talking about the topic of diversity being boring. She shouldn't be calling anything boring w/ her blank face." Another: "Kristen stewart thinks the struggles of people of color in the industry are non-existent and she gets a variety of roles so ofc shes happy."
Those who demanded Stewart's blood, though, unleashed the hounds too quickly. It turned out the actress was not talking about racial and ethnic diversity in the Variety video but gender equality - an important distinction an editor had missed. Indeed, Stewart has been vocal about this issue in the past, once memorably trading sexist interview questions such as "Who's your favorite designer?" with a male co-star to comedic effect.
Having dropped a cultural bomb on an innocent actress, Variety had to issue a mea culpa. Its new, excruciating headline: "Correction: Kristen Stewart Sundance Comments Weren't About Diversity." (Of course, Variety is not the first major media outlet to make a mistake. The Washington Post recently issued a correction regarding a fake tweet attributed to rancher Ammon Bundy.)
"Variety has amended the text accompanying Stewart's video to specify that her remarks referred to 'gender equality' rather than 'diversity,'" the magazine wrote. "This post has been updated to reflect that change."
Variety tried to explain what had gone wrong. After all, reporters and editors don't just fuss about with words on paper anymore. They post videos. They write text accompanying videos. And they write headlines about videos. At any point, something can go horribly wrong - and, in this case, they did.
"The incorrect text accompanying the video was quickly amended, corrections were issued on social media and a re-edited version of the video has been published to make clear what question she was answering," Variety wrote. "The error was the result of an edit to the web page in which the video was presented without seeing the specific question Stewart was answering, which pertained to a lack of opportunities for female actors and directors."
Now it was Variety's turn in the social media shredder.
"An entity that maintained oversight of its reporting would never have allowed this to happen," one critic wrote. "Inexcusable."
Litigation, it seemed, was in order.
"Kristen Stewart needs to sue Variety," another wrote. "All she said was to actually do something about gender inequality instead of just speaking."
Although Stewart was off the hook for racism, Variety's mistake, some said, showed the magazine was racist. It was hyping Stewart's comments - using them to spark interest in the story on "Black Twitter," the oft-invoked shorthand for the rich conversation about race ongoing on that social media platform, much of which is driven by African-American users.
"Variety used Kristen Stewart to outrage blacktwitter for page clicks & you fell for it like always," one comment read. "NEVER trust a headline. It's clickbait."
Meanwhile, the brouhaha didn't just show how trigger-happy some social media trolls are. Criticism of Stewart focused on her appearance - her "boring" or "blank" face, for example - was sexist, some said.
"So, Kristen Stewart was horribly misquoted," another comment read. "Still, people jumped at this opportunity to tweet that they don't like her face. #EverydaySexism."
Certainly, one Twitter user's decision to post a clip of Stewart getting punched in the face in Panic Room (2002) - a movie she made as a pre-teen - invoked the nasty spectacle of violence against women.
But wait. Sure, Stewart hadn't dismissed dialogue about racial and ethnic diversity in Hollywood. But she had dismissed dialogue about gender equality in Hollywood. Wasn't that just as bad?
"'That subject' or the flagrant gender problem in Hollywood is probably less 'boring' to others attuned (to) its impact," Rachel Vorona Cote wrote at Jezebel. "But sure, less talk and more meaningful action - especially from those most empowered to make change - would be ideal."
An interesting point. Alas, having been taken in by Variety's original, inaccurate language about diversity, Jezebel also had to issue a correction - or, rather, a "note." The publication had been wrongly outraged. Now it was rightly outraged. Outrage about whatever, it seemed, was key - no correction required.
"Variety has amended the text accompanying Stewart's video to specify that her remarks referred to 'gender equality' rather than 'diversity,'" Jezebel wrote. "This post has been updated to reflect that change."
Lost in all this - Stewart's comments wrongly portrayed by Variety, the backlash against Stewart, the Variety correction, the backlash against Variety, and the various accusations of sexism, racism and journalistic hackery - was the movie Stewart was promoting: "Certain Women" from Kelly Reichardt, acclaimed director of "Wendy and Lucy" and "Meek's Cutoff," among others.
"Certain Women" was good, Variety said.
"Kelly Reichardt's wonderful triptych of female character studies confirms her status as the quietest of great American filmmakers," the magazine wrote.
- Washington Post