Fox News and the power of yelling about "cancel culture"

Did an NPR writer "cancel" Tom Hanks? No.

Did you hear the news about Tom Hanks?

No, no, he’s not dead. Worse: he’s been… cancelled.

That’s what Fox News’ “straight news” show says, and why would I ever doubt them?

But just to be sure, let’s dig in just a little deeper.

So last week, Hanks wrote a guest essay for The New York Times opinion section about the need to teach about the 1921 Tulsa massacre.

Personally, I liked the piece and thought he made some important points about why it matters what history we teach and what gets left on the cutting room floor. The general sentiment is a necessary rejoinder to efforts to even further limit what can be taught in America’s schools about race.

But for all my study, I never read a page of any school history book about how, in 1921, a mob of white people burned down a place called Black Wall Street, killed as many as 300 of its Black citizens and displaced thousands of Black Americans who lived in Tulsa, Okla.

My experience was common: History was mostly written by white people about white people like me, while the history of Black people — including the horrors of Tulsa — was too often left out. Until relatively recently, the entertainment industry, which helps shape what is history and what is forgotten, did the same. That includes projects of mine. I knew about the attack on Fort Sumter, Custer’s last stand and Pearl Harbor but did not know of the Tulsa massacre until last year, thanks to an article in The New York Times.

At another point, Hanks argues that “historically based fiction entertainment must portray the burden of racism in our nation for the sake of the art form’s claims to verisimilitude and authenticity.”

View of the front page of an edition of the Black Dispatch newspaper, detailing incidents of the Tulsa Race Massacre (which occurred the previous day), Oklahoma, June 1, 1921. (Photo by Greenwood Cultural Center/Getty Images)

Now here’s where Hanks gets “cancelled.”

NPR TV critic Eric Deggans wrote his own opinion piece calling on Hanks to be more than “non-racist,” and instead embrace the role of being “anti-racist.” Here’s how Deggans describes that difference:

For those of us who speak often on these issues, one of the toughest things to do is to go to a white person who is trying hard to be an ally and tell them they need to do more. And I'm sure there are plenty of Hanks fans out there of every stripe who will say I am expecting too much, being ungrateful toward a big star who said more than he had to.

And understand: I'm not saying Hanks, Howard or Spielberg are racist. I'm not even saying that Hanks should have made or supported a film specifically about the Tulsa Race Massacre long before now (though I am astonished that a guy who has been making film and TV projects rooted in American history for at least 25 years didn't find out about Tulsa until 2020.)

But over this summer, in the wake of George Floyd's murder by a white police officer, I spent a lot of time investigating the difference between being non-racist and being anti-racist. Anti-racism implies action – looking around your universe and taking specific steps to dismantle systemic racism.

So I am saying it is time for folks like Hanks to be anti-racist.

From there, Deggans suggested that Hanks and others should be more specific about how their work contributed to a skewed version of history that places white people on a pedestal and treats them as reality’s protagonists.

If he really wants to make a difference, Hanks and other stars need to talk specifically about how their work has contributed to these problems and how they will change. They need to make specific commitments to changing the conversation in story subjects, casting and execution. That is the truly hard work of building change.

Rather than talk about what "historically based fiction entertainment" must do, why not talk about what Tom Hanks, longtime scripted and documentary executive producer, will do? As a star who can get a movie made just by agreeing to appear in it, what will Tom Hanks, movie star, actually do?

The aftermath of the Tulsa Race Massacre, during which mobs of white residents attacked black residents and businesses of the Greenwood District in Tulsa, Oklahoma, US, June 1921. (Photo by Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)

But wait, Deggans didn’t “cancel” Hanks, nor could he even if he wanted to.

Fox and others in right-wing media have a tendency to label criticism of any sort as examples of “cancel culture.” Deggans didn’t write an article saying that Hanks was dead to him or that Hanks should never work again or anything of the sort. Deggans was calling on Hanks to be even more active in trying to right the wrongs Hanks outlined in his Times piece.

Twitter avatar for @DeggansEric Deggans at NPR @Deggans
FoxNews.com did a story about my column on Tom Hanks that also mentioned cancel culture. But my column was encouraging Hanks to use his power to make more movies and TV shows reflecting a broader history, so I'm not sure where the cancel part comes from.

Brian Stelter @brianstelter

This is apparently due to @deggans' opinion column titled "Tom Hanks Is A Non-Racist. It's Time For Him To Be Anti-Racist." That's cancel culture now?!? https://t.co/4FVlWRUOhb https://t.co/F1MMGH2oYZ

But setting aside that Deggans’ piece was actually a call for Hanks to do more, not less, how on earth does an NPR TV critic “cancel” one of the most famous people on the planet? This is part of what’s maddening about the concept of “cancel culture” and how it’s used in right-wing media (and by useful idiots in the center who spout right-wing talking points about “the illiberal left”). Stray opinions from people without any actual power keep getting framed as attempts to “cancel” celebrities.

The right isn’t taking up this story because they care about Hanks or that they actually think that he’s at risk of being “cancelled.” The right is taking this up because they love a good “the left is eating its own again” story. They go back to this same bag of tricks whenever they want to make it seem like people left of center are censorious monsters by blowing up criticism and framing it as a mass movement.

Last week I wrote about The New Yorker’s irresponsible article about teaching the Supreme Court’s infamous Dred Scott decision. It was based on a single professor. The same thing happened a couple of years back when a HuffPost article offering tips for reducing your Thanksgiving-related carbon footprint was framed as an attempt to end the holiday altogether (yes, based on a single blog post). I wrote about it at the time for Media Matters.

At the same time that the right is using the actual government to restrict speech, they pretend to be champions of open debate.

I wish it was as easy as going, “A-ha! See here! You’ve contradicted yourself! You’re not consistent! You’re not principled! The debate is over!” The hard truth is that the people who go on and on about “cancel culture” genuinely do not care that they aren’t principled on this (or any) topic. They’ll gladly demand that Lil Nas X stop selling his “Satan Shoes” and will successfully make the argument to block movies like The Hunt from being released. (If you’re interested, I put together a list of right-wing engaging in what they would otherwise call “cancel culture” if it were happening on the left.)

Republican politicians are enacting bans on “critical race theory” (which is a real thing, but not what they’re actually talking about) to limit what children can learn about America’s history.

It’s how you end up with guys like The American Conservative’s Rod Dreher arguing in defense of Hungary’s laws banning any discussion of LGBTQ issues that could be perceived as “promoting” them. A few days later, he wrote another piece arguing that trans people need to be stopped from, uh, existing(?), because we are “destroying the natural family.”

This is from the same guy who has written piece after piece after piece complaining about “cancel culture.” It doesn’t matter that he’s caught being a total hypocrite on the topic. He knows what he is. But this information should make it easier for those of us who are not willfully engaging in that sort of nonsense to stop taking guys like Dreher and the Fox News crew at their words when they pretend they stand for “free speech.”

It’s possible to disagree with someone’s criticism or to think that their criticism is too harsh without making that de facto “cancel culture.”

When you take what happened with Deggans’ piece about Hanks and round it up to “cancel culture,” you’re making it clear that the term has no meaning to you and is nothing more than a prop to use for your own political purposes. It takes just seconds to realize how ridiculous the “cancel culture” label is here and how utterly disingenuous right-wing media types are being by using it. If Deggans’ criticism of Hanks’ piece was an attempt to “cancel” Hanks, wouldn’t Fox News’ pile-on in response to that also be an attempt to “cancel” Deggans?

Fox News’ daily meltdowns over Dr. Seuss, Mr. Potato Head, Tom Hanks, and whatever else they decide they’re outraged about is part of a (so far successful) plot to paint the left as wannabe censors. Maybe there is someone somewhere who wants to truly “cancel” Mr. Potato Head or Hanks or Seuss because of one thing or another, but there’s no left-wing coalition of Dr. Seuss-haters who are trying to use the power of the law to impose their agenda on others. That can’t be said about the right, and it’s time for any well-meaning people in the middle who have been churning out “the illiberal left!” pieces about college campuses to realize they’ve been duped.