In this edition of Lon Harris’ weekly Passionfruit column, we’re exploring the response to country music star Jason Aldean’s recent music video controversy and what it can teach us about the rise of internet sleuthing.
By now, most Americans have probably heard at least a little bit of country music artist Jason Aldean’s latest release, “Try That in a Small Town.” Though Aldean has claimed it’s simply an ode to community and togetherness, others have noted that pointed lyrics like “Got a gun that my granddad gave me / They say one day they’re gonna round up / Well, that sh*t may fly in the city, good luck” and “See how far ya make it down the road / Around here, we take care of our own” are essentially violent threats that recall the bigotry and intolerance that are also sometimes hallmarks of rural life in America.
Jason Aldean released the song along with a music video, which was shot in front of a Tennessee courthouse which was the site of both a lynching in 1927 and a race riot in 1946. The video also features a variety of footage featuring protests, civil unrest, and more behavior that the singer apparently plans to respond to with his granddad’s ol’ rifle, including Black Lives Matter images in the video which were deleted yesterday.
Try What in a Small Town, Exactly?
Jason Aldean’s team, already under fire due to the song’s lyrical content, defended the video by claiming that all of this footage was taken from real news clips featured on American TV. This is where TikToker Destinee Stark stepped in, posting a video in which she highlighted various clips used in the Jason Aldean music video that was not, in fact, featured in the US news cycle. In fact, within the first 30 seconds of the video, Stark identifies two misleading clips: one shot during a festival in German and the other produced by a Bulgarian stock footage studio.
In its first 6 days on TikTok, Stark’s video scored millions of views and over 235,000 likes. Sadly, she also told Gizmodo via email that she’s been pilloried ever since with “death threats, death wishes, threats of violence” and “degrading, vile comments.”
It’s perhaps unsurprising that a commentator discussing third-rail kind of topics like race in pop music would receive pushback from the internet at large. But it’s still worth pointing out that, in this particular case, Stark is providing a valuable and clear public service, the kind of work that legitimately did once fall upon the American media rather than self-described “petty” individuals such as herself.
X Gon’ Give It (The News) To Ya
We’re in a major transitional period for American media and journalism in general, particularly the online variety. Readership is down, social media apps are… uh, in decline, Google is hoarding more and more search traffic for itself, and the online ad market has yet to recover. Competition for eyeballs has never been more intense. It seems hardly a day goes by without news of more layoffs, more downturns, and more humans being replaced by accident-prone machines.
As a result, more Americans are getting their news from alternative sources than ever before. And no, not just Tucker Carlson’s show on the app formerly known as Twitter. Original reporting and journalism today are as likely to be posted on Medium or Substack, in a YouTube video, or even on TikTok as it is in the daily paper.
Obviously, the rise of “citizen journalism” has some major advantages. In past generations, editors of major publications served as gatekeepers, deciding what kinds of stories would get reported and what kinds of stories would not, whereas today, there are incentives to do any kind of reporting with a receptive audience, whether or not your editor in chief gives you the thumbs up.
New approaches from new voices also allow for greater experimentation. Whereas once, if you wanted someone to read you the news, it was almost definitely going to be a man in a suit on TV between the hours of 7 and 11 p.m., today you can get your news from pretty much any kind of voice that you please, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Still, there are some aspects of the old model as well that it’d be preferable not to lose entirely. A lot of citizen journalists posting news and updates on Twi– sorry, X, or places like Reddit are working without experienced editors, dedicated fact-checkers, or often any kind of help at all. That makes it easy for mistakes, errors, and misinformation—intentional or otherwise—to slip through the cracks, while a professional news organization might have caught it first.
Working for a major publication also offers key protections for reporters working in the field. There’s safety in being backed by names like The New York Times or CNN, and legal teams to protect writers from manipulation or coercion (say being forced to identify a source). It’s scarier to go out there as a lone gun.
Why Do Randos Have To Fill In for Rolling Stone Anyway?
So the question is not: “Why was a TikToker subject to virulent abuse after fact-checking Jason Aldean’s claims about his controversial music video?” It’s more like: “Why wasn’t any other publication actually looking into Jason Aldean’s claims about his controversial music video before a TikToker?”
A Google News search of the country artist and video in question reveals that the controversy is certainly being discussed widely in the media by professional publications, but rather than really digging in and doing any kind of long-form or thoughtful investigations, most publications are using the story as an opportunity to dig for SEO traffic.
This People Magazine link about the Jason Aldean controversy provides a helpful example. It contains very little to no original reporting about the song, the video, the internet backlash, or anything else. Instead, it’s a keyword-heavy summary of the story so far—published under the headline “Everything to Know”—designed purely to attract clicks from people looking up the story.
Some mainstream media sources are going even further, directing farming out the original reporting and analysis to social media users. This Rolling Stone article (behind a paywall, no less) just links out to another TikTok user named Danny Collins, who noticed that one of the headlines features in Jason Aldean’s video actually relates to a story about small-town white supremacist harassment.
In ages past, professional scribes would’ve had to actually get on the phone or hit the pavement and speak with witnesses or other involved parties or experts to get a sense of what was happening around a breaking story. Today, social media certainly makes finding alternative perspectives a lot easier, but are these the best and most accurate sources? Or just the fastest sources for over-taxed writers being asked to publish multiple thoroughly reported, accurate stories daily?
Obviously, these are trends and abstract generalities. There remains a lot of great, relevant journalism from traditional, mainstream sources, and user-generated content platforms like YouTube and TikTok are also rife with garbage content and misinformation.
Still, the point remains: We’re already living in a world where a lot of people are getting their information, historical context, and analysis of current events from citizen journalists and scholars on websites like YouTube. It’s now just a matter of how we curate, fine-tune, and organize these sources to get a populace that’s, on the whole, more informed than misled. And reporters who are safe, protected and looked after as they do their jobs.