In 1984, the George Orwell novel that has recently come to seem less like an allegory than a prediction, the protagonist spends his workday in a cubicle at the Ministry of Truth, an ironically named government agency devoted to obscuring the facts. His job there is to edit already published newspaper articles, over and over, so that they align with the government's current version of events. When an article or document needs destroying, he and the other cogs drop it into a so-called memory hole, “whereupon it would be whirled away on a current of warm air to the enormous furnaces which were hidden somewhere in the recesses of the building,” Orwell wrote. As the papers burned, the rewriting of history became seamless. The image evoked the political purges of Josef Stalin, who ordered the removal of his enemies from both photographs and text.
Seventy years after 1984 was released, we don’t need memory holes anymore. Instead, we just hit “unpublish.”
Last week, the Boston Globe became the latest outlet to memory hole one of its own pieces. The offending story, by freelance writer Luke O’Neil, began like this:
One of the biggest regrets of my life is not pissing in Bill Kristol’s salmon. I was waiting on the disgraced neoconservative pundit and chief Iraq War cheerleader about 10 years ago at a restaurant in Cambridge and to my eternal dismay, some combination of professionalism and pusillanimity prevented me from appropriately seasoning his entree. A ramekin of blood on the side might have been the better option, come to think of it. He always did seem really thirsty for the stuff.
O’Neil goes on to discuss former Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen, who quit the Trump administration this month, as well as conservative ghouls Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Mitch McConnell, and Stephen Miller, all of whom have been unceremoniously booted out of businesses around the U.S. since Trump took office.
O’Neil, if the first paragraph didn’t give it away, has no problem with turning America’s restaurants and movie theaters into the battleground for red/blue politics, and he makes some compelling points: Thanks to the administration's policies at the Southern border, thousands of refugee parents have been separated from their children and there’s still no clear plan to reunite them. Should the people responsible for these monstrously cruel policies really be allowed to eat in peace? O’Neil, clearly, thinks not. He concludes his piece with this: “As for the waiters out there, I’m not saying you should tamper with anyone’s food, as that could get you into trouble. You might lose your serving job. But you’d be serving America. And you won’t have any regrets years later.”
I'm torn on this. While the idea of kicking Mitch McConnell or Stephen Miller or any of Trump's other anal spores out of my hypothetical baked potato bar truly does spark joy, I also suspect booting Trump officials out of businesses, or pissing on their lunches, is ultimately self-defeating. It might feel good for a minute, but when it becomes a news story (as it invariably will), the backlash will far outweigh any benefit to the hashtag Resistance. Right-wing media likes nothing more than stories of liberal intolerance, and they will milk your moral stand for all it's worth. Is giving ammunition to the Fox News and Donald Trumps of the world worth a brief moment of bliss?
For some people, I suppose it is, but after O’Neil’s piece was published, conservative pundits from Fox News, The Federalist, The Daily Wire, and others (predictably) picked it up and picked it apart. Some did a better job than others: Tucker Carlson mostly looked confused about why anyone would order salmon instead of the steak, while the Federalist’s Michele Blood at least acknowledged that “the First Amendment protects [O’Neil’s] right to express his objection to the administration’s policies and to Nielsen’s enforcement of those policies.” Still, she, too, came down on the side of censorship. “O’Neil’s statement encouraging readers to serve America and avoid regret by tampering with a government official’s food is vile, and deserves public censure,” Blood wrote. “The Globe’s editors should never have published it.”
Apparently the powers that be feel the same. Shortly after O’Neil’s column was published, it was updated with the offending statements removed. That still wasn’t contrite enough: Soon after that, the paper removed O’Neil’s piece entirely from its website. In its place was a note: “The Globe Opinion page has removed from its website an April 10 column by Luke O’Neil on former homeland security chief Kirstjen Nielsen because it did not receive sufficient editorial oversight and did not meet Globe standards,” it read. “The Globe regrets its lack of vigilance on the matter." O’Neil, it concluded "is not on staff.” Even that disavowal was apparently too much: Now when you pull up the piece, there’s no editor's note at all. “Page not found," the text reads. "We are sorry for the inconvenience.”
They memory-holed it.
The decision to ax O’Neil’s piece came from the very top. In an interview with Boston public radio station WGBH, Interim Editorial Editor Shirley Leung said that the Globe decided to pull the story after the paper’s billionaire owners John and Linda Pizzuti Henry read it.
“When the Henrys read the column, they felt that even after changing the column—and I ultimately agree with them on this—this is a kind of piece that should never been published on our website to begin with,” Leung said, which is kind of odd considering that she initially tweeted the link to O’Neil’s piece. Perhaps she wasn't anticipating what was coming.
She should have known better. The power of the online mob has been growing in recent years, even when those mobs have relatively few members. Jesse Singal, himself no stranger to the mob, wrote about this phenomenon in 2017 in New York Magazine. "A small group of extremely angry people—people who may or may not even be actual customers of a given company—can easily flood that company’s social-media outposts with white-hot anger that feels like it represents something bigger and broader and more threatening to the company’s interests than it actually is,” Singal wrote. He argues that companies should stop capitulating to this kind of outrage, and he’s right—although, when a mob is coming for your head (or your business), it can be hard to remember that the pitchforks are just digital.
The Globe is hardly the first or only outlet to engage in memory-holing. Last summer, Business Insider yanked a post defending Scarlett Johansson’s decision to play a transgender man after outcry from social media justice warriors. While editor's notes, updates, and corrections are perfectly common, retraction is not. It's the kind of thing that happens after someone is caught fabricating or plagiarizing, but there were no errors in the post. Like O'Neil's column, it was just one person's opinion.
A few months later, the short-lived, Grindr-owned outlet INTO caught flack for publishing an opinion piece on Ariana Grande by trans activist Eli Erlick. The piece accused Grande of trafficking in “transmisogyny, anti-queer jokes, and blackface,” as well as displaying the symptoms of #whitefeminism. Grande fans were, to put it mildly, pissed, and shortly after a mob frenzy whipped up, INTO’s then-executive editor Zach Stafford pulled the post, not because of the content, but because of the author. In a note now in the story’s place, Stafford wrote: “A number of concerning allegations related to one of our freelance writers has come to our attention. As an organization that listens to and champions the rights of the LGBTQ community, INTO has decided to discontinue our relationship with this person.” The allegations weren’t spelled out—Erlick’s name wasn’t even mentioned—so the reader is left to wonder what, exactly, she is accused of doing. Whatever she did or did not do, INTO memory-holed Erlick, too. All trace of her work has disappeared from the site.
It’s not just progressive media outlets removing allegedly problematic people or content. After the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, The Daily Caller, a conservative website founded by Tucker Carlson, removed Jason Kessler's articles and byline from its website. Kessler, a white supremacist, was an organizer of the event, at which counter-protester Heather Heyer was killed and 34 others were injured. The Daily Caller had good reasons for disavowing their relationship, but they didn't even do that: They just deleted him from the site.
Entertainment outlets do it, too. Proud USC mom Laurie Loughlin was reportedly removed from her show on the Hallmark Channel after being accused of buying her daughter’s way into college. The show's creators apparently didn’t even have to reshoot much. Instead, they used some digital editing techniques to eliminate her very presence.
And there's The Simpsons. After HBO’s recent documentary about Michael Jackson’s alleged sexual abuse came out, The Simpsons pulled a nearly 30-year-old episode with a cameo by Michael Jackson from all of its platforms and re-runs.
After Garrison Keillor, the longtime host of A Prairie Home Companion, was accused of behaving inappropriately at work during the height of #MeToo, he wasn’t just fired, Minnesota Public Radio actually changed the show's name and memory-holed Keillor from their archives. That’s over 40 years of radio disappeared. The company later reversed this decision, but it’s worth asking who benefits from memory-holing other than the brands themselves. They don’t just get to disavow the alleged sinners in their midst; they actually get to erase them completely. It's quite the PR move, but is anyone safer if Lake Wobegon and a cartoon Michael Jackson are wiped from memory? I doubt it.
Luke O’Neil, who told me he officially quit freelancing for the Globe this week, isn’t entitled to piss in anyone’s lunch, but he’s certainly allowed to think about it, and, yes, to write about it. And he's not actually opposed to unpublishing work, at least in theory. When I asked if there was ever a situation where he could understand yanking a piece, he said there's probably an extreme example he would support, but "being crass and rude to people in power isn't it."
This isn't entirely a First Amendment issue. Although I wouldn't put it past the current administration, the government didn't shut O'Neil down; a private company did. But while the Boston Globe was free to reject O'Neil's musings about pissing in the fish, they didn’t. They published it. And once that was done, the correct—the essential—action for any paper is to stand by their writer, stand up to the mob, and, if need be, the paper's owner. The media’s job is to document what is happening in the world, and when we memory-hole published work, we are failing that very fundamental task. In Orwell’s dystopia, it was a top-down directive from the government to rewrite the past. In our current dystopia, you don't need Big Brother. Corporate media is doing it in their place.