Tuesday, April 30, 2019

"GAME OF THRONES" SCANDAL: Inside the Shocking Fall of the Nation's Top Recap Writer

After the Battle of Winterfell, USA Today fired their most trusted expert on Game of Thrones. What got us here, and what does it mean for the future of journalism?

Left: Arya Stark fights the Army of the Dead at Winterfell; Right: Wes O'Fink. © Home Box Office / Wes O'Fink

Article written by George Stefano Pallas. Search engine optimization and softcore pornography practiced by the author are his alone and do not necessarily reflect nor should be construed as those of the Author.

People flipping through the Life section of USA Today on Monday were confronted by a rather glaring omission: for the first time in nearly six years, the company did not run a recap article for the previous night’s episode of Game of Thrones, not even in the Opinion, Money, or News section. That’s because, as of Sunday night, TV critic and Senior Analyst of Westeros Affairs Wes O’Fink no longer works for the famed nonpartisan newspaper, which he nurtured into a go-to source for reporting on the power struggles and scandals pandemic to the war-torn continent.

It took USA Today’s board of directors no more than 36 hours to respond to an internet furor sparked by incendiary tweets that O’Fink posted before he worked for them. Sometime around Saturday morning, users on the social network unearthed misogynistic comments that the analyst seemed to have made off the cuff in reaction to earlier seasons of Game of Thrones. The earliest of the tweets, which O’Fink has since deleted, focused on a particularly rough and memorable encounter between Daenerys Targyrean and Khal Drogo from Season One.

“Drogo did nothing wrong, also Jason Momoa can GET IT,” he wrote after the premiere of the second episode. Many Game of Thrones fans, however, choose to see the scene as more distressing than erotic, and tweeted at the analyst in droves to say that his rhetoric normalizes rape culture.

O’Fink didn’t stop at this admittedly ambiguous moment, though. In 2014, he weighed in on the controversial relationship between the incestuous Lannister twins, specifically the infamous scene where Jaime forces himself on a reluctant Cersei right next to Joffrey’s dead body. His take reads: “Jaime be like, ‘Your mouth is saying one thing, but your body’s saying something else.’ #GOT #BetterThanBrazzers.” Game of Thrones analysts and professors at USC universally agree with the episode’s director that Jaime’s actions constituted rape, and academics have identified denial of this fact as an ipso facto symptom of rape culture.

During the last season before he joined USA Today as a journalist, O’Fink dabbled in victim blaming yet again, sharing an offensive meme based on The Dark Knight. In the meme, Heath Ledger’s Joker character reflects, “Massacre countless people including a pregnant queen at a wedding, nobody panics; have Sansa Stark get raped off-screen, well then everyone loses their minds!” O’Fink was presumably referencing the episode “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken,” which critics and politicians regarded as a low point for the series. The tweet is made still more disturbing by the known connections between clown symbols and white supremacist groups online.

O’Fink waited until Sunday morning to address the public backlash against the things he’d written. Instead of apologizing for belittling the pain of the characters, though, he doubled down on those and other statements.

“To anyone who went creeping through my profile looking for some old jokes to twist against me for a keyboard warrior medal or dopamine rush, I hope you get impaled by the Night King and exposed as the zombies that you are,” he wrote in a series of enraged tweets. “I will enjoy finishing up one of three articles I’ve already started for #BattleOfWinterfell and invite all the haters to suck on it.”

None of those pieces have materialized, however, as USA Today told the analyst that very evening that he was fired effective immediately. In a public statement first shared by Deadline, the paper explained, “In the #MeToo era of heightened sensitivity to the experiences of women including Cersei Lannister, Sansa Stark, and Danyreas Targyrean, we apologize to all our readers for the repellent statements made by one of our former staffers. Rape is never a laughing matter, and we hold our recap analysts to a higher standard of professional conduct than that displayed by Wes O’Fink.”

USA Today also disclosed that they had contacted the FBI to investigate whether their writer had committed any crimes by explicitly wishing for his detractors to be killed by the Night King. “Not every threat of violence is genuine,” the paper read, “But when someone sends a threat with that degree of specificity, the only responsible option is to take it seriously.”

The reaction on social media to O’Fink’s dismissal was largely positive. One user named Fiona Marrow said, “USA Today took less than two days to adopt a common-sense 21st-century solution to an abuser. America, are you listening?” Others noted that O’Fink will be entering a tough job market for Game of Thrones recappers and reporters in general, considering the wave of journalist layoffs at BuzzFeed News, Huffington Post, Vox, Vice, Refinery29, and other respected online publications. “Better get used to Kraft and ramen, @BestWes,” scoffed Bob Breichner, an actor-turned-activist who has a blue check mark.

For many, however, the termination of O’Fink couldn’t come at a more inconvenient time, as the third episode of the eighth season threw viewers headlong into the epic Battle of Winterfell, one of the most deadly mass killings in a nation long burdened by sword violence. The absence of a designated expert covering the bloodshed in Game of Thrones feels especially poignant in the era of fake news and concerted efforts to suppress the freedom of the press.

USA Today has assigned TV critic Patricia Crummer to cover O’Fink’s responsibilities until they hire a permanent replacement, but some find even that measure inadequate, given the magnitude of the events in Sunday’s episode. “It’s like we’ve become Idiocracy,” said YouTube commentator Cenk Uygur with a heavy sigh on The Young Turks’ weekly review special. “This is history in the making, and you’re going to fuss over a couple bad words said years ago by a journalist, one of the people we need most right now? Are you for f***ing real?”

Indeed, O’Fink is not without vocal defenders. Several cast members of the show wrote an open letter to USA Today on Monday pleading for his reinstatement. According to the signees, including Emilia Clarke, Kit Harrington, Sophie Turner, and Maisie Williams, O’Fink was a “victim of internet trolls and character assassination.” The letter went on, “We believe his cancellation does a disservice to our show, which has always forced the topic of rape in a mature and penetrating manner.” Commenters on the USA Today Facebook page also questioned if terminating O’Fink is consistent with the paper’s centrist, independent political stance, which makes it a printed competitor to NPR and CNN.

Whatever the future holds for Wes O’Fink, the outcry over his Game of Thrones criticism has renewed conversation about the necessity of unregulated administrative regulation of social networks. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey has attracted criticism for lax enforcement of the website’s hate speech guidelines, making it a favored platform for conspiracy theorists and noted alt-right figures like Milo Yiannopoulos, Alex Jones, Gavin McInnes, James Woods, Laura Loomer, Tommy Robinson, and Carl Benjamin, a.k.a. Sargon of Akkad.

The Gannet Co. is currently accepting applications for a new critic to write about the developments both in Westeros and Westworld. Among the requirements listed are a Bachelor’s degree in History, Political Science, Journalism, or International Studies and at least three years of experience analyzing Game of Thrones for an established podcast, newspaper, journal, or think tank.

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