Reactionary Journalism in the Age of Trump: The Phony Redemption of HanAssholeSolo

Last night, as the fireworks of July 4 were fizzling out, CNN reporter Andrew Kaczynski posted a troubling update to the saga of the now-infamous wrestling video that President Trump tweeted several days ago. This video was a clip from Wrestlemania XXIII in which Trump attacked WWE chairman Vince McMahon, but with McMahon’s face replaced by the CNN logo.

Kaczynski revealed that CNN had discovered the true identity of the video’s creator, an anonymous Reddit user known as “HanAssholeSolo” (whom I will refer to henceforth as “Han”). Han was a regular “shitposter” on Reddit, where he made frequent racist remarks and even advocated genocide of Muslims. Through some as-yet-unknown digital pathway, a version of Han’s wrestling video made its way from the fetid domain of far-right internet trolls into the public eye via the personal Twitter account of the President of the United States.

This is not the first time that Trump has tweeted material from racist message boards, which suggests that current members of the White House staff are likely prowling such sites for material that they can use as propaganda. So much has already been said of the far-right affinities of West Wing personalities like Steve Bannon, Michael Anton, and Dan Scavino that a repeat of last year’s “Scavino Visits Neo-Nazi Websites” might reek of old news by now. In any case, CNN went after an easier target: HanAssholeSolo himself.

In his piece, Kaczynski says that CNN attempted to contact Han, but initially received no reply. After Han learned that CNN knew who he was, he wrote a lengthy apology on Reddit and deleted all his other posts. (He has since deleted his Reddit account altogether.) Han then contacted CNN and told them that, in spite of his vile online behavior, he actually had no animosity toward the groups he ranted about on Reddit: “I love all people of all races, creeds and origins. One of my best friends is a homosexual and one of my best friends is Jewish and one of my best friends is Muslim.”

The “some of my best friends” trope is of course one of the classic defenses that bigots use to excuse their bigotry, and Han’s protests were so on the nose that they sounded to me like a virtual parody of the bigot’s apologia. So while I have no sympathy for Han, there’s an important part of CNN’s handling of this affair that gives me pause, namely this:

After posting his apology, “HanA**holeSolo” called CNN’s KFile and confirmed his
identity. In the interview, “HanA**holeSolo” sounded nervous about his identity being revealed and asked to not be named out of fear for his personal safety and for the public embarrassment it would bring to him and his family.
CNN is not publishing “HanA**holeSolo’s” name because he is a private citizen who has issued an extensive statement of apology, showed his remorse by saying he has taken down all his offending posts, and because he said he is not going to repeat this ugly behavior on social media again. In addition, he said his statement could serve as an example to others not to do the same.
CNN reserves the right to publish his identity should any of that change. [emphasis mine]

In other words, if Han ever goes back to his old shitposting ways, CNN will reveal his true identity to the world. Aside from ethical concerns over a journalist making such a threat, my main problem with Kaczynski’s reporting is that Han’s identity is not the real story. The real story is that the White House actively seeks out content from people like Han and uses the President’s social media to validate them.

Instead of focusing attention on that disturbing reality, CNN has given its audience the reassuring story of a contrite Trumpkin who now sees the error of his ways and will never troll again … or else the watchful network will let the world know what an a-hole Han really is, with potentially dire consequences for his safety and his livelihood.

I don’t intend to drum up sympathy for Han and his crocodile tears, but rather to call them out as a distraction and to question why CNN feels the need to act in a nearly extortionate manner. Many journalists interpreted the video as a call to violence. That the “violence” depicted in the video was phony did not seem to assuage their fears (which is understandable considering the ritualized taunting of journalists that Trump engaged in at his campaign rallies). Trump doesn’t need physical violence to be a threat to journalists, though: his use of social media to reach his supporters constantly reminds journalists of the diminishing status of their profession. CNN threatened Han because journalism itself is threatened by the personalized relationship that he and others like him have with Trump.

Of course covering the controversies of Trump’s campaign and administration has been a boon to CNN’s ratings, but that won’t save dying local papers or even larger outlets like the New York Times. The growth of the internet means that professional journalism’s gatekeeping role is never coming back. In this respect, journalists have a great deal in common with the “deplorables” who love to hate them: Trump’s working-class base dreams of an industrial economy that is also never coming back, as automation does away with manufacturing jobs.

Regardless of its origins, Han’s video is a brilliant illustration of our present dilemma: in the faceless CNN character, journalists saw themselves being assaulted by a political movement that has galvanized extremists; Trump’s base, on the other hand, saw themselves embodied in the man who told them, “I am your voice,” taking on an institution whose hostility toward him stems from the fact that he has so clearly demonstrated its manifest redundancy.

Unfortunately, this is real life, not the harmless kayfabe of professional wrestling. In reality, CNN and MAGA are drawn together like twin black holes, each feeding on the other. We the citizenry, and the institutions of our democracy, have already passed the event horizon.

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