Tuesday Talk*: Does The Fringe Really Matter?

The commencement speaker at Duke University was none other than New York Jewish comedian Jerry Seinfeld. Whether his speech was particularly good or funny is beside the point. That students walked out of graduation as he was introduced, however, became headline news.

At Reason, Billy Binion argues that it shouldn’t have been.

…But I’ll bookend the list with an article that, whether it meant to or not, made the case for why the demonstration wasn’t really a story at all: “About 30 students walk out on Jerry Seinfeld at Duke commencement,” notes Politico.

Thirty students out of the approximately 7,000 graduates and a crowd estimated to be composed of around 20,000 in total. Assuming those numbers are basically correct, that is 0.43 percent of students and 0.15 percent of the audience. Put differently, roughly 99.6 percent of students and 99.8 of the crowd watched Seinfeld’s address, which went on undisturbed after a brief period of chanting from the protesters. But it is very likely that many news consumers walked away with the polar opposite impression after consuming the press reports.

That there were dozens, DOZENS, of students involved in the graduation protest is important, just as there was a similarly small fraction involved in the Columbia encampment. At a school with more than 36,000 students and over 7,200 faculty, a few hundred may be more than dozens but still amounts to a miniscule fraction of students. Of course, this doesn’t inform us whether others supported the students and faculty involved in the protest but chose, for whatever reason, not to join go all in.

The problem, as Billy argues, is that the media’s highlighting (fetishizing?) the protests has given rise to a distorted view of what’s happening on campus.

The out-of-touch Seinfeld coverage wouldn’t necessarily merit a mention if it were an anomaly. The problem: It isn’t. It has become fairly standard practice in the press to take voices on the fringe and shove them to the center of the conversation without contextualizing where they came from. Journalists are incentivized to find engaging angles, and fringe characters tend to be interesting. The impulse is understandable. But it creates a distorted picture of reality and comes at the expense of the truth. And journalists should foremost be invested in conveying the truth.

The old saw is “if it bleeds, it leads,” and in the same scheme of pushing the notorious for the sake of readership interest, covering protests, whether by a few hundred or a few dozen, does emphasize the few over the many. Would anybody care if this were a mere footnote in a story in the Duke Chronicle about what a lovely graduation ceremony it was, with a few dozen malcontents walking out while thousands of students listened attentively to beloved television star Jerry Seinfeld?

Then again, this may have only been dozens, but it was dozens that came on the heels of encampments, and campus building seizures, that pitted student against student, that to some extent extolled terrorists and martyrs despite the mass act of terrorism on October 7th, that marred a ceremony that served no purpose other than to provide the handful of unduly passionate activists to put on a performance at the expense of their fellow students and parents. Did any of these graduation protests stop the killing in Gaza? Did anyone think it would? Did anyone care that their moment of attention came at the expense of other students, who just wanted to enjoy a graduation after they were denied a high school graduation because of covid?

The press has shown a particularly insatiable appetite for stories on Israel-Palestine protests on college campuses; the division sells. Some of those demonstrations have certainly been newsworthy. This one wasn’t.

Did the press make a big deal out of a nothingburger at Duke, or was this the Duke piece of a larger, and newsworthy story. Has too much been made out of the fringe of simplistic if passionate students when one realizes just how tiny a fraction they constitute in the grand scheme of university students?

*Tuesday Talk rules apply.

14 thoughts on “Tuesday Talk*: Does The Fringe Really Matter?

  1. Henry Berry

    SHG notes “if it bleeds it leads.” But this isn’t the only basis forcmost headlines on front pages of newspapers and other media these days. If it bleeds, it leads has to be squared with and understood in relation in relation to the particular medium’s ideology. New York Post headlines are a good example of this. If it bleeds it leads is often the reason for a particular headline in a particular story, but most of the headlines also further the newspaper’s conservative, anti-progressive position. I mention the New York Post, but you can see this routinely in headlines of the New York Times and other media with better reputations, but no more respectable concerns for perspective or the truth of subject matter they are dealing with.

  2. Miles

    What distinguishes Duke is that it’s a very good school, almost Ivy, and it’s Jerry Seinfeld, who is a comic icon, and still this happened. Standing alone, it’s no big deal, but as part of the whole, it’s another nail in the coffin.

  3. Mike V.

    I’d equate the coverage given the protestors to squeaky wheels getting grease. The media seems ever eager to cover protests whether the protest has merit or not. And is gives the public at large a skewed picture of how students really feel about the war in Gaza, BLM or whatever the protest de jour happens to be. The actions of a few hundred out of a class of thousands is hardly representative.

    What, to me anyway, was noteworthy was how a New York Jew gave the commencement address as a college in the deep south and was cheered. Imagine the odds of that happening just a few decades ago.

  4. Chaswjd

    Perhaps Mr. Seinfeld made them feel unsafe. Perhaps they were retreating in light of the threat he posed to them.

  5. BlueThing

    I read a while ago that the modern corollary to “If it bleeds it leads” is “If it enrages it engages”.

    I think that is true in the internet age, and it explains a lot about the slant in story selection, slant of article, and especially clickbait headlines.

    On the main topic, I’d say that the walkout borders on a nothingburger and if written about should be framed in terms of its relatively small numbers. It’s really only newsworthy at all because of the other protests.

  6. Elpey P.

    -“Did you hear? 30 students walked out on Jerry Seinfeld’s commencement speech.”
    – “So you’re saying most of the students walked out on Seinfeld?”
    – “No, it was thirty students.”
    – “lol why is everyone saying all the students walked out everyone is so dumb”

    -“Did you hear? A student posted a hateful symbol on a residence hall bulletin board.”
    -“omg systemic injustice call Morning Joe unsafe campus cancel classes”
    -“is that really nece–”
    -“How dare you. Oh good here’s the CNN truck.” [later:] “I was just trying to start an important conversation.”

  7. Pedantic Grammar Police

    Polls show that the vast majority of college students, and varying majorities of the US public (55% in a recent poll), disapprove of Israel’s actions in Gaza. Calling this majority a fringe, because only a small number chose to rudely disrupt a graduation ceremony, is disingenuous.

    1. Elpey P.

      Or the small number that chose to rudely disrupt a graduation ceremony is the fringe and the majority is something else.

      1. Pedantic Grammar Police

        A small group aggressively promoting a mainstream position is not a fringe. Climate protestors , for example, idiotic though they may be, are not a fringe, because they promote a belief that many deluded souls share.

        A fringe is a small group promoting an idea with which large majorities disagree. For example, the nutjobs who ruin legitimate protests of Israel’s actions in Gaza by wearing Hamas headbands and saying that the October 7th massacre was justified.

        1. Elpey P.

          Those most likely to see this as a referendum on Israel’s actions in Gaza are the disruptors. Most others see this as a referendum on whether or not it was reasonable and necessary to disrupt a completely unrelated speech by Jerry Seinfeld for being Jewish and having expressed support for Israel in the wake of October 7.

          Excuse me while I unpack the twists in that climate sentence to figure out if fringes even exist.

        2. Rxc

          Unfortunately, it is the fringes that drive every movement, except the moderates
          They have the ” fire in their bellies” to change things, By Any Means Necessary.

  8. Richard Parker

    In any current newspaper, the headlines are the most biased aspect of the news.

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