How Scott Tobias Turned the Film Critic Community on Twitter Into a Thoughtless Mob

“I don’t see any need for arguing like this. I think we ought to be able to behave like gentlemen.” — Juror Four, Twelve Angry Men

Scott Tobias is a 41-year-old man who lives in Chicago with a wife and daughter. In 1999, he started work at The Onion, where he became the film editor at The A.V. Club — a print supplement that is bundled with The Onion in eight cities. According to Quantcast, The A.V. Club has a global monthly online reach of 1.9 million unique visitors. Tobias also contributes reviews to NPR, whose ethical handbook specifies this high-minded guideline:

Everyone affected by our journalism deserves to be treated with decency and compassion. We are civil in our actions and words, avoiding arrogance and hubris. We listen to others. When we ask tough questions, we do so to seek answers — not confrontations. We are sensitive to differences in attitudes and culture. We minimize undue harm and take special care with those who are vulnerable or suffering. And with all subjects of our coverage, we are mindful of their privacy as we fulfill our journalistic obligations.

At the beginning of this week, this seemingly mild-mannered man, who had graduated from the University of Georgia with a bachelor’s degree in comparative literature and had worked on a Master’s degree in Cinema Studies at the University of Miami, devolved into a defamatory diablo on Twitter.

Over two and a half days, Tobias, who has nearly 15,000 followers, posted approximately forty-nine tweets which implied that a man, who has nearly 6,000 followers, had wronged him. Rather than participating in a civil and constructive dialogue, Tobias preferred arrogance and indecency and used his influence to vilify this man on Twitter before the man had a chance to see or respond to his tweets. Tobias never thought to contact the man by email until the wrongful insinuations he had put forth had propagated among his peers. That man was me.

As Richard Cooper has astutely observed, when a figure on Twitter climbs his way up the social hierarchy after racking up followers like a rabid pachinko addict, there’s the risk that he’ll develop a weird and entitled attitude against anyone sending him a critical tweet. And Tobias became just that: a small-time ochlocrat who hoped to shut me down because I had the audacity to question his stance on a tweet widely perceived as unthinkable.

Tobias called me “vile” and “fucking insane” and “a miserable, hateful, shameless, sliming little cretin.” (The worst I had called Tobias was “spineless” when he would not answer a question.) He summoned the wrath of such cultural figures as Slate‘s Dana Stevens and Dan Kois, HitFix‘s Daniel Fienberg, and several others, who never thought to question Tobias’s position or investigate the facts. They preferred to feed Tobias’s blind and unthinking fury, which had emerged well after the underlying issue involving The Onion had been resolved. It came about because I had not removed a photo that was well beneath the mildly irreverent temperature set by The Onion in publishing such images as one featuring doctors hovering over a sickly Fidel Castro (published on February 26, 2013) or the infamous juxtaposition of 6-year-old murder victim JonBenét Ramsey (published on August 9, 2012). It came about because Tobias wanted revenge.

* * *


On Sunday night, The Onion had posted the above tweet during the Oscars ceremony. This thoughtless verbal assault on Quvenzhané Wallis, a nine-year-old actress nominated in the Best Actress category for Beasts of the Southern Wild, raised many hackles. The Onion deleted the tweet an hour later. Nobody at the time took responsibility.

That evening, on Twitter, I sought vital answers. Why didn’t anybody at The Onion or The A.V. Club wish to be held accountable for the tweet’s underlying misogyny?

On Sunday night, I entered into a seventeen tweet volley with two editors at The A.V. Club: Scott Tobias and Todd VanDerWerff. VanDerWerff was fair, civil, and unimpeachable throughout the exchange. When the imbroglio hit a low point two days later, it was VanDerWerff who provided insight into The Onion‘s operational structure and tried to mediate in the comments. On Sunday night, as The Onion was being profusely lacerated, VanDerWerff would respond with calm, kindness, and grace to a woman who had raised concerns about the casual sexism on The A.V. Club‘s forums:


By contrast, Tobias was hostile to dialogue.


So I wrote an article about the Onion‘s tweet and the exchange I had with Tobias. The article was accompanied by a photo of Tobias, with the “cunt” tweet positioned across The A.V. Club‘s logo to his left.

I cop to the possibility that it may not have been a good idea to put the photo up. But in the early stages of the affair, nobody had deemed the photo especially noxious. Before The Onion apologized for the Wallis tweet on Monday morning, nobody had said a word in my article’s comments about the photo’s apparently offensive qualities. It was only after I issued an apology to The A.V. Club in the comments that Tobias showed up, decrying my “non-apology apology” and bringing up the photo issue on this website. In examining Scott Tobias’s Twitter timeline, we discover that just before The Onion‘s apology, Tobias’s concerns about the photo had nothing to do with the tweet’s juxtaposition:


The photo’s copyright did not belong to Scott Tobias. My subsequent investigation revealed that the photo belonged to The Onion, Inc. Tobias never had the right to assert copyright.

The photo did not libel or defame Mr. Tobias in any way. It depicted very clearly what I wrote about in the piece: a disembodied tweet lingering at a slight diagonal angle in The A.V. Club‘s environment as Scott Tobias stands with a reluctant grimace to the left. The photo did not sully Tobias’s image and likeness in any way. There was certainly no malice intended by this contextual abutment. It merely illustrated how misogyny exists in our culture, how it isn’t going away anytime soon, and how men often stand in place grimacing as the atavism continues.

Tobias’s motivation to remove the photo shifted from vanity to a case of hypothetical libel, as suggested by HitFix‘s Daniel Fienberg:


It was clear that these guys didn’t know what they were talking about, but the suggestion of libel kept Tobias licking his lips. While all this was going on, I wasn’t even on Twitter.

* * *

I first became aware that something was going on when Tobias had left a comment on this website on Monday night. At the time, I was unaware of his public requests to remove the photo on Twitter.

When The Onion apologized on Monday morning, I thought that the matter was closed. I have said nothing further about The Onion, The A.V. Club, or Mr. Tobias on Twitter since that morning. (I would hold my silence as the nasty accusations, fallacious charges, contemptible threats, and scabrous suggestions, all instigated by Tobias, poured in over the next three days.)

I had stayed offline during most of Monday to get some work done. But I did briefly poke my head from the thickets of real life at 5:52 PM to offer an apology in the comments:

Since The Onion has stepped up to apologize for its tweet, I feel that I owe The A.V. Club a modest apology. While I still believe, as I specified in the piece, that The Onion and The A.V. Club should be beholden to some form of institutional values so that nastiness like this does not happen again, and while I feel that those who work for a publication should be intimately familiar with the way in which regrettable tweets set a tone, and while I feel that the seventeen tweets I offered over the course of 45 minutes (eclipsed by the scores of tweets from A.V. staffers over a period of seven hours throughout much of today, while I was busy working) do not constitute “mindless harassment,” I should have been more circumspect in contacting the people directly responsible for the Twitter feed.

In the interest of clarity, I should note that, even though I mentioned the “scores of tweets from A.V. staffers” in my comment, this was based on a cursory glance at Twitter on my phone in the afternoon, when I had tweeted a Richard Ben Cramer quote. I did not see tweets from Tobias calling for the photo to be removed.

What I did not know was that Tobias, not pleased in being challenged, had initiated a plan to condemn me on Twitter and attempt to destroy my reputation. (The complete timeline of events is presented in this detailed graphic.)

On Monday afternoon, at 1:36 PM EST, Tobias tweeted a public request for me to remove the photo. I did not see it. There was no Twitter notification by email. At 10:27 PM EST, Tobias tweeted a second public request. I did not see it. There was no Twitter notification by email.

Tobias had not emailed me.

At 10:25 PM EST, Tobias left a comment on this website, which I approved and read shortly thereafter. I replied at 10:57 PM EST, asking Tobias to address his concerns through formal correspondence.

Curious about what Tobias was referring to, I went to Tobias’s Twitter feed and learned that Tobias accused me of being “vile,” called me “fucking insane,” and had suggested to his followers that I had deliberately rebuffed him.

Again, I had not seen his tweets before then.

I am normally quite happy to remove photos when people ask. I have done so in the past. But Tobias’s harassing behavior is not how you go about getting a photo removed. And when I went to the trouble of getting the notice necessary to remove the photo, something that was not my obligation, the process took two days.

I was unclear about the copyright being asserted and I wanted to be absolutely pellucid on the facts. This was because I had not been entirely circumspect about The Onion‘s organizational structure with my initial article. For this, I was pilloried by Tobias’s peers as “a terrible asshole,” “a cunt,” “a real cunt,” “a fucking cunt,” “a world-class creep,” “an awful troll,” and numerous other epithets that flowed late into the night. I was condemned for being slow and methodical. I had not received a takedown notice.

I contacted people at The Onion on Wednesday and Thursday morning (including CEO Steve Hannah, TV editor Todd VanDerWerff, and HR Coordinator/Office Manager Theresa Lyon), apprising them of the full situation and instructing them that I would need something specifying (a) copyright information on the photo, (b) contact information for the aggrieved party, and (c) a statement asserting in very clear language why the material is not authorized, and also requesting a public apology. (In fact, I have yet to receive any apology, either private or public, from Scott Tobias or anyone at The Onion or The A.V. Club.)

It was never my job to educate Tobias about copyright law. There is a formal process to remove a photo. But despite working in the media business for at least fourteen years and being married to a lawyer, Tobias did not follow the procedure. As the detailed timeline demonstrates below, he was more interested in devoting his energies to harassment. (If you can’t see the image in full, right click on the image in your browser and select “View Image” and click again to zoom in.)


The collective outrage was never about the photo. It was about power. In the 1980s, Heinz Leymann investigated mobbing, a collective form of harassment in the workplace which he defined as “hostile and unethical communication which is directed in a systematic way by one of a number of persons mainly toward one individual.” As cafes have increasingly transformed into offices, Twitter has created a new virtual “workplace” atmosphere.

When I learned what Tobias was up to on Monday evening, I informed him by email that he was harassing me and that I only wanted to deal with third parties. He continued to harass me and it caused people such as Darren Hughes to make violent threats:


Tobias’s tweets inspired a few hundred additional tweets from his peers which hurled more invective along these lines. As the timeline graphic clearly demonstrates, not once did Tobias seek to mollify his followers. He was the ringleader in a campaign built on collective harassment. It’s the kind of behavior one associates with 4chan, not purportedly high-minded cultural critics or people who work for The Onion and NPR.

Tobias’s tweets also inspired an effort by Slate staffers to suggest that I was a troll. It was precisely the linguistic switcheroo that Richard Cooper had identified in his essay on Twitter hierarchies:

The hideous term “trolls”, previously reserved for the kind of racist or neo-Nazi filth people put in YouTube comments sections to get a reaction, was now being used to apply to the phrases “yawn” and “one step up from a mumsnet post”.

From Dan Kois, Slate senior editor:


From Dana Stevens, Slate film critic:


The irony of cultural critics smearing a critic of a critic has not been lost on me, nor has the irony of male critics who who are more offended by a mild photographic juxtaposition than a misogynistic tweet directed at a nine-year-old girl. This upholds the very point that my piece and the accompanying photo argued: that institutional values within today’s cultural outlets prohibit an examination of casual misogyny. With professionals like this, who needs critics?

* * *

It was amazing to me how Twitter had inspired the 21st century’s answer to The Ox-Bow Incident. I was never contacted or afforded a perspective. There was one creepy “assistant professor” who was spending his time between classes harassing me and stopped doing this after I called his program coordinator. The narrative that Tobias created left zero room for painting me as anything less than a baleful menace. All I had done was put up a photo and raise my voice. I never insulted anybody during the Sunday night exchange. I certainly hadn’t killed anybody or defended phone hacking. The reaction was tremendously out of proportion with the purported offense.

Scott Tobias had turned the film critic community on Twitter into a thoughtless mob.

In the end, I decided to remove the photo: not because of the harassment and not because I was pressured. Even though Tobias had harassed me and publicly crucified me before I had ever had the chance to respond to his requests, decency and compassion were essential parts of journalism. He had not been especially decent or compassionate to me, but I wanted to believe that there was a decent human being somewhere inside Scott Tobias. I wanted to be kind when the others were being quite unkind.


I took steps to get The Onion to send me a formal takedown notice and eventually heard back from A.V. Club general manager Josh Modell.

With the official takedown notice in my hands, I quietly removed the photo.


Within twenty minutes of the photo’s removal, Scott Tobias acknowledged this on Twitter. But he did not apologize for his conduct or for riling up his peers. Indeed, the tone here was rooted around celebration and “victory” rather than dialogue and decency. In Tobias’s mind, he had “won.” I don’t know if he has learned anything.

You can’t tar people because they haven’t responded to your timetable. I fully admit to being guilty of this in the past. Now that I’ve seen it from the other side through Tobias, I better understand why patience is essential. Without patience, we dehumanize ourselves by viewing other people as blank lemmings who fall into a natural pecking order.

I don’t know if the film critics who harassed me on Twitter are even cognizant of what they’ve done. Did Twitter turn them into monsters? I’ve certainly tweeted my share of foolish and angry sentiments, but it has never occurred to me to incite my friends to harass anyone writing something critical abiout me. As Nagasawa put it so well in Murakami’s Norwegian Wood, “A gentleman is someone who does not what he wants to do, but what he should do.” (To which Watanabe replies, “You’re the weirdest guy I’ve ever met.” To which Nagasawa replies, “You’re the straightest guy I’ve ever met,” just before paying the bill.)

The high road doesn’t get enough credit in American life. It takes a hell of a lot of courage not to respond to beasts who want to bring you down. They are so eager to destroy and shame that they lose their sense of humanity. Yes, we all make mistakes. And we can’t expect people to react in the way we want them to. But isn’t it better to behave like a gentleman?

Jonathan Jones: The Entitled Hack

I can’t say that I sympathize much with Jonathan Jones’s suggestion that the world needs more critics — in part because of the self-importance oozing from his smug pores, the cocky wink and triumphant knuckle-to-chin inviting even the most pacific souls to lacerate the man’s halitotic face with an X-Acto rather than raise a hearty toast in commiseration. Granted, it’s possible Jones didn’t plan it this way. I’m almost certain that someone at The Guardian played a sick joke with that photo. Perhaps Jones rudely berated some unpaid intern and the photographer got a comeuppance when she asked Jones to wear a blue shirt that made him look as if he was some corporate huckster smashing in a kid’s piggy bank with a smile.

The only reason I’m even writing about Jones at all is because the Guardian, rightly assailed by public outcry, has decided to not only switch comments off, but to erase the public record. There is no trace at all of the disastrous reception. So let’s spell out a few home truths.

I’ve experienced more joy talking with tedious taxmen and colorless bean counters than enduring those peculiar critics who can’t get beyond their cultural entrapment and who can’t marvel at the great human world before them. The world that, you know, most of us live in.

And I object to Jones’s wankage because the person who complains of having too much cultural information to process often doesn’t understand that this seemingly saturated existence isn’t nearly as bad as having to endure a wretched job in which the worker may be fired tomorrow, the worker must maintain a plastic smile, and the worker contends with the abuse of insensitive men with money. We’ve moved past a time in which one critical mind even matters. Or has not Jones noticed this little thing called the Internet, in which people stumble onto blog posts and articles and frequently fail to look at the byline?

So the question of what’s on Jonathan Jones’s mind is largely moot. I could get more profound insight about Michael Haneke from the fresh grad down the street now forced, by financial necessity, to toil as a barista. Haneke has plenty of admirers. He needs little help from Jonathan Jones. He needs real help from people who are willing to make sense of his films and offer original viewpoints, and I can’t see how a hack merely stating that Haneke’s films “are perfect and they are profound” or going on about how The White Ribbon is “the best of such films I have ever seen” is anything less than giving the okay to a form of writing nearly indistinguishable from a press release.

No, Mr. Jones, the curse of our time, in the arts, is having to endure your gushing folderol and then experience you express why you are entitled to have someone pay you to bang out such meaningless modifiers. Tickle our fancy like Jonathan Rosenbaum or Anthony Lane or Roger Ebert, and then you may have a case. But in the Internet age, everyone can be a critic. And the ones who write for free and who still feel cinematic passion are often much better than you.


The Critics

thecriticThe critics fidgeted in their fat chairs, boasting of long lunches with publicists and grand gifts from studios, while waiting for the descent into darkness. They were all men – or, at least, the kind of inactive men who were becoming more commonly accepted in the early years of the twenty-first century. They couldn’t be bothererd to take a stand, unless you counted the pretentious essays they wrote for well-funded websites (and maybe one of those rare dead tree outlets) that only a handful of snobs regarded. They could talk for hours about the Italian Neorealists, but they would never dare fly to Italy unless someone else was footing the bill and their assistants had remembered to obtain passports.

The critics were truly amazing – not because of what they said or wrote about movies – but because they represented a sad and peculiar type of human specimen who remained almost completely out of touch on almost every important issue. You could call up these critics and ask them to rattle off Takuya Kimura’s last eight roles, but you couldn’t get them to say anything intelligent about the subprime crisis or the rising unemployment rate or Goldman Sachs. You couldn’t possibly get them to remark upon the warm smell of a Louisiana cypress or the first time they had truly loved a woman. But they could tell you of such moments that occurred within the woeful world of cinema. That tree’s slight sway in that one Tarkovsky shot. Was it intentional? It was at the 33:42 mark on the DVD, and it looked better in Blu-Ray than the torrent. And what had Kent Jones said about it at that panel that twenty-three civilized people had attended?

The critics would fight long and hard over whether Vertovian or Eisensteinian montage had made more of a cultural impact, but they would never stand up for the colleague who lost his job because he was considered too old and too wise. The critics would never look out for the young whipper-snapper who was lucky to have a job. The critics’s asses were relentlessly fixed to their chairs and it would be difficult to extract them. And, if one must delve down a sad opportunistic path, it might make a good reality TV show to see if these men could perform honest labor and demonstrate the extent of their bravado.

But there was a movie to write about. No notes required. The fastidious days of erudition were over. This would be a 300 word review. Oh Christ, longer than 90 minutes? Subtitles? Hope I don’t fall asleep. But there’s that junket tomorrow. Too bad I don’t have the balls to ask a real question.

The lights went down. The darkness might have cloaked the critics if the professional exercise had not been so transparent.

Sprezzatura the Maligned

It’s been more than a year since the manboy cultural critic Lee Siegel was temporarily suspended from The New Republic for allegedly posting anonymous comments on its blog, under the name “sprezzatura.” And while Boris Kachka has interviewed Lee Siegel, Filthy Habits recently received an email from an individual claiming to be “sprezzatura.” He wished to set the matter straight. Sprezzatura’s email, which contained three mysterious JPEG attachments (among them, a picture of an alpaca in a compromising yet family-friendly position), claimed that he had been misrepresented, that Siegel was not “brave, brilliant, and wittier than [Jon] Stewart,” and demanded immediate reinstatement to the New Republic message boards. It remains a mystery to me why sprezzatura thought I had the keys to the New Republic castle. But this was a desperate email written in a desperate time.

“It is there where my shallow invective flowed best,” wrote sprezzatura of the New Republic website. He offered to send me $100 if I would interview him. I declined on moral principle. Then sprezzatura demanded an interview with me gratis by email because “Kachka had proved to be a wuss with his softball questions.” And I agreed, only because I had no wish to receive an email from sprezzatura ever again. I have been unable to confirm whether this “sprezzatura” is the same “sprezzatura” unleashed on Siegel’s blog. Indeed, I do not how many “sprezzaturas” there are. But I suppose it’s pedantic mysteries like this that have many of us wasting long hours on the Internet.

sprezz.jpgWhy don’t you just get a blog?

Because that would be too easy! And if I had devoted a blog just to clarifying my identity, I would have been thought a kook!

Actually, most bloggers are cranks. I speak with some expertise on the subject. But I don’t see how you’re making a case here, Lee.

Do not address me with that name! Those days are far behind me! We must forget that regrettable episode!

So you are Lee Siegel.

If you’ll pardon a metaphorical leap, Lee Siegel is a tuna melt poorly prepared with half-melted cheese. John Battelle never responded to any of my thoughtful queries. Therefore, he is an imbecile who cannot recognize my genius. David Brooks rested his argument on the flimsiest of premises. I do not need to inform you what these premises are. Just trust me. They’re flimsy. And when Cox wanted to draw attention to herself, she used the word “cunt” to make a point. Plus, she made more money than I did. And she’s a woman two decades younger than I am. It’s not fair!

Lots of invective there, sprezza baby. But can you cite any specific examples? Some might argue that you are using “cunt” to make….well, not exactly a point, but to stand out with an irrational Dale Peck-style explanation.

It doesn’t matter! Malcolm Gladwell’s hair was adopted for television as American Idol. I have tried to stop them from supplying him with shampoo, but they keep arresting me!

Lee, step away from the Internet and get some fresh air. We’ve had some unseasonably warm weather in January. Go for a walk.

I love the Internet, I’m on it all the time. I couldn’t have written my book so quickly without it. Thanks to the Internet, I didn’t have to think. I could just cut and paste some boilerplate, bang out a book and make a quick book and show those New Republic bastards exactly who mattered. I don’t think it’s making more people connected than they were before, not at all.

It didn’t have to be this way, Lee.

I react very badly when mediocrity is associated with my name.

Well then, write well!

That is hard when you are “sprezzatura” and you have been banned from your own magazine’s message board. Will you give me a hug?

Only if you stop using the moniker “sprezzatura.”