Last week, nonprofit Media Matters for America, which AllSides gives a media bias rating of Far Left, unearthed statements Fox News host Tucker Carlson (Far Right media bias) made on a shock jock radio show between 2006 and 2011. The reveal was designed to put pressure on advertisers to drop Carlson’s show, and many of them have.

Unearthing old comments made by public figures with the intent to incite outrage or economic consequences has been referred to as “offense archaeology,” a term coined by Leftist writer Freddie deBoer. In many advocacy and media organizations, teams of people are employed to comb through the past and present lives of the politically influential in order to find a “gotcha” moment. It’s a political tactic that’s been used on both the Left and the Right.

Offense archaeology makes past speech (and sometimes, past behavior) into a weapon that can be used to hurt a member of “the Other Side.” Errant comments are presented as “proof” that the public figure in question is “bad” and to argue that the target should lose their job, organizational role, economic ties, or societal respect.

Americans seem to be divided over whether people should be held accountable for their past speech, and in what ways. At the same time, there is some bias and hypocrisy at play as to when the Left and Right choose to engage in this political tactic.

The Left Believes People Should Be Held Accountable for Their Speech, Past and Present

Underlying Left and Right opinions about offense archeology are differing views on speech in society. The Left says that people — especially powerful public figures — need to be held accountable for their bad ideas, lest they spread. They believe that bad ideas cause harm and have no place in the public sphere.

“Freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom from consequences” has become a common refrain on the progressive Left. Some on the Left equate words and ideas to violence — or say words and ideas could lead to violence or other negative outcomes. Many believe that ideas can be so dangerous that there must be real-world consequences for those who utter them — whether that be convincing employers to fire them or asking advertisers or other business partners to cut ties.

A few high-profile examples: last year, comedian Kevin Hart was compelled to step down from his Oscars hosting gig after old tweets some people deemed homophobic surfaced online. ABC cancelled Roseanne Barr’s show Roseanne after the actress tweeted something deemed racist. Journalist Megyn Kelly’s NBC show was cancelled after she made comments about the use of blackface on Halloween.

In the case of Tucker Carlson, those on the Left say that Carlson’s comments (which you can listen to here) were made in earnest. They say that the comments reveal what Carlson really thinks about women and minorities, and that this is cause for outrage and the destruction of his career, lest he negatively influence any Americans through his TV show.

Max Boot, a columnist at the Washington Post (Lean Left media bias) is an example of a Left writer who believes certain views should be kept off high-profile platforms:

“It is difficult to believe that any television network would give Carlson a forum to spew his bile or that any reputable company would underwrite it. Megyn Kelly was fired from NBC for only one offense — defending blackface Halloween costumes — and, unlike Carlson, she apologized. It is high time for both advertisers and network bosses, from Rupert Murdoch on down, to search their souls about their complicity in injecting this poison into the body politic. Carlson has a right to say whatever he wants — but he doesn’t have a right to say it on the most-watched cable channel in the country. He needs to go. Now.”

The Right Believes People Should Be Free to Speak, No Matter How Awful Their Ideas

The Right believes that enforcing consequences for “bad” speech or ideas hurts public discourse by making Americans afraid to speak their minds or express views that run counter to the collective orthodoxy. They may not support Carlson’s comments — or Kevin Hart’s, or Roseanne’s, or Megyn Kelly’s — but they defend their right to say them, including on a high-profile media platform. They believe Americans can come to their own conclusions, sussing out good ideas from bad ones, and don’t need to be “protected” from bad speech.

“The answer to bad speech is more speech” is a refrain often said on the Right. They believe that genuine debate and discourse will be silenced when Americans and public figures fear losing their jobs and livelihoods when they express unpopular ideas or jokes. The Right says that freedom of speech means there will be ideas floating around that we don’t like, and we can choose to either debate them or to ignore them.

National Review (Right media bias) writer David French is an example of a Right leaning writer who says “offense archeology” has a negative impact on public debate:

“I don’t like many of Tucker Carlson’s ideas. As I’ve written at length, I think his embrace of victimhood populism is bad for the nation and bad for the conservative movement. I’ve tried to follow his show, but I find his brand of right-wing outrage journalism tiresome and destructive in its own right. But we should respond to his arguments with arguments of our own. We should debate him on the air and in print. And if we don’t like his show, we can change the channel.

Our nation cannot maintain its culture of free speech if we continue to reward those who seek to destroy careers rather than rebut ideas. And when you reward a Media Matters search-and-destroy fishing expedition with calls for boycotts or reprisals, then you are doing your part to destroy debate. It’s vengeful. It’s cowardly. And it’s exactly the online world that spiteful partisans want to build.”

Left and Right Bias in Offense Archeology

Offense archeology is a political tactic used by both sides. It has been used either to take a first shot at someone or as a counter-punch. While both the Left and Right have engaged in offense archaeology, they have also shown bias in whether or not they make the offender face consequences.

While many on the Left believe people should be held accountable for “bad” speech or ideas, they sometimes break from this line and excuse comments that are deemed uncouth when they come from people on their side. Two examples:

Similarly, while many on the Right believe “bad” speech should be fought with more speech, the Right sometimes engages in offense archeology anyway. Notice that it was the Right who dug up Gunn’s tweets in the above example. Other examples:

Amazingly, sometimes the target of offense archaeology isn’t even around to step down from a role or to apologize. In February, a Twitter user unearthed comments actor John Wayne made to Playboy in 1971, comments some users found to be racist and homophobic. Wayne has been dead for 40 years.

Should Digging Up The Past Be Considered News?

At AllSides, we don’t have a role in deciding what the media covers; we aggregate top headlines from all sides of the bias spectrum, presenting you with a balanced view of what the media is already choosing to cover. We encourage critical media consumption. To that end, it's worth asking ourselves if offense archaeology should be considered newsworthy.

Does offense archaeology serve public discourse, ensuring bad ideas are snuffed out? Or does it erode public discourse, making people afraid to speak? Should old comments be something journalists cover in order to hold bad actors to account, or should we create a new norm against digging up comments and behavior from the past?

I’ll give you my take. Social media has now been around for over a decade. Activists and journalists would be hard-pressed to find an individual, prominent or not, who hasn’t said or done something that is bound to upset someone, somewhere. As long as offense archaeology is considered newsworthy, political activists will have plenty of content to fuel the outrage machine, and society will become more and more polarized as a result.

Offense archaeology is rarely accompanied by media discourse that unpacks the merits of the thought itself, or what the speaker might have reasonably intended. More often than not, the ensuing media coverage compels us to think in a dichotomy of “good” versus “bad,” with no room for nuanced thought in between.

Questions to Ask Before Engaging in Offense Archaeology

Next time you view a headline centered on the latest offense expedition, take a minute to consider these questions:

  • Can we reasonably assume these comments are a reflection of the target’s earnest views, or were they meant tongue-in-cheek, or as an off-color joke?

  • How do we decide which views should be met with simple societal shame and derision (a “talking to”), or whether they require more serious consequences, such as job or career loss? How do we determine where the line is drawn?

  • If it could be reasonably inferred that these comments were meant as a joke, is it ever okay to make off-color jokes? What role might errant jokes play psychologically?

  • To what degree does someone’s past comments or behavior represent or inform their current views?

  • Do these comments represent ideas that are gaining traction?

  • Should society create a norm against digging into people’s past to look for mistakes? Why or why not?

Offense archeology is a relatively new political tactic dividing the Left and the Right, fueled by technology. At the same time, understanding one another is critical to healing our hyperpolarized nation. Before jumping on the next offense expedition, it might help to turn the gaze upon ourselves, and consider whether or not we have said or done things that may be misunderstood or viewed as offensive by someone else. If we can do this, perhaps we can gain insight into our own behavior and learn where there is room to improve. Ultimately, it may help us to soften towards each other, and find forgiveness — not unbridled outrage.

We want to know what you think. Head over to our Facebook page to let us know if you think offense archaeology is a positive political tactic that helps to remove bad ideas from the public sphere, or a tactic that is hurting public discourse.

Julie Mastrine is the Director of Marketing at AllSides. She has a Lean Right bias.

This piece was reviewed by Samantha Shireman, Information Architect at AllSides. She has a Lean Left bias.

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