Mark Schierbecker, left, and his (now ex) publicist Danielle Muscato at Skepticon 8.
Undoubtedly, there were good intentions behind last week’s Skepticon 8 session, “Q&A with University of Missouri Protest Videographer Mark Schierbecker.” The talk, held at the annual Missouri-based convention for skeptics and seculars, was ostensibly conceived to address events surrounding last week’s resignation of Missouri System President Tim Wolfe — but instead, it turned into something resembling a public flogging.
The first 25 minutes of the session breezed by. The session featured only two panelists: Schierbecker, who'd gained national attention after covering the protests at Mizzou, and his publicist Danielle Muscato. Muscato did most of the talking.
Minutes before the panel’s scheduled conclusion, Schierbecker took one last question from his publicist.
"Mark, I'm going to ask you a direct question and I'm sorry if this is uncomfortable but I need you to answer this,” Muscato said from her seat next to Schierbecker onstage. “Are you racist?"
That was the moment the session spun off the rails.
The ensuing 50 minutes produced a remarkably frank (and at times deeply awkward) conversation between Schierbecker, Muscato and members of the audience, several of whom hounded Schierbecker for his decision to pursue assault charges against Click. Further complicating matters was Moscato's failure to bring even one representative of Mizzou’s black protest movement, Concerned Student 1950, to the session. That left two white people on a stage discussing issues that needed to include black voices, some audience members argued.
Three hours after the event, Muscato released a public statement on Facebook. She wrote that Schierbecker had said “multiple indefensibly racist things” during the Q&A and that his remarks made it impossible for her to stay on as his publicist.
“I attempted to give Mark several chances to clarify his apparently racist remarks as not racist, but in my opinion, I was unsuccessful,” Muscato wrote in the November 14 post. “I made a mistake in hosting this session. This should not have gone forward without #ConcernedStudent1950 voices.”
Indeed, the latter point might be the only thing all sides agree on: The session should never have taken place.
Before the footage of an angry Click made national headlines, Schierbecker’s journalistic resume amounted to little more than than his work as a senior staff photographer for The Maneater, the student-run newspaper at the University of Missouri - Columbia.
But on November 9, the 22-year-old Schierbecker was on the Mizzou quad when student activists locked arms around the tent encampment of Concerned Student 1950, the core protest group. The protesters demanded that media leave the area.
Schierbecker kept his camera rolling, even as he engaged in verbal spats with the students around him and, minutes later, when Click grabbed at his camera. He filmed while Click asked other students to bring “some muscle over here” to eject the reporters from the newly christened “safe space.” (Under fire from politicians and pundits, Click has since apologized for her actions.)
Schierbecker uploaded a six-minute clip of the confrontation to YouTube, and the video became a viral sensation. Editorials and columns across the country (including Riverfront Times) criticized Click for blocking reporters just trying to do their jobs. And although Concerned Student 1950 amended their “no media” policy just one day later, the protesters and their allies groused that the thin-skinned media had made themselves the star of the story, thereby deflecting attention from the racism and disenfranchisement experienced by Mizzou’s black students.
Schierbecker was swamped with interview requests. On November 11, he tweeted that he’d gained a publicist — Danielle Muscato, whose website describes her as an “atheist activist, writer, debater, pundit, musician, and transgender woman.” Muscato, in a later tweet, called Schierbecker a “longtime friend.”
Most of the people who wanted to talk to Schierbecker didn't share his publicist's politics. On November 12, Schierbecker appeared on Fox News and was quoted by conservative website Brietbart lambasting the protest movement and its initial suppression of journalists. That same day, Schierbecker told Reuters that he would press charges against Click for assault.
That was also the day Muscato announced via tweet that she was looking for protesters to appear on a panel that weekend at Skepticon 8.
In a post to her personal Facebook page, Muscato wrote: “I would like AT MINIMUM one person from #ConcernedStudent1950, and/or one of the people camping out on Mizzou's campus this week, and/or one of the demonstrators, to join this panel. If needed, I can help you arrange transportation and hotel space.”
Muscato was unsuccessful in her efforts. Still, on November 13, she and Schierbecker drove to Skepticon 8 together. Despite the lack of black protesters for the event, the conference’s organizers let the session take place as planned. That decision would prove to be disastrous.
Which brings us back the question Muscato leveled at Schierbecker: Are you racist?
“Everybody is a little bit racist,” Schierbecker's answer began. “Everyone has prejudices that manifest themselves in public-facing situations. The Mizzou students have legitimate grievances because of this, it is a very white campus. Yes, I have white privilege, and as a white person it is my duty to use my white privilege in a way that can result in fewer white privileges in the future and greater equality across the board.”
Muscato prodded further, asking Schierbecker what he could do as a student and a journalist to address racism on campus. Schierbecker answered that “the best anyone can do” is to acknowledge racism’s existence in everyday life. He added the protest movement is doing “good work” but that journalists should not be curtailed in documenting the historic moment.
But the session didn’t end after its allotted 30 minutes. Diane Burkholder, a Kansas City-based activist in the audience, rose from her seat and asked why Schierbecker and Muscato had produced a “scripted” event that seemed geared toward burnishing Schierbecker’s image.
“If the point is to uplift and validate the perspective [of] black students, particularly the black students of Mizzou, I find it highly problematic that the point of this is to uplift your narrative as a white male entering a black space,” she said. “If you're going to uplift black people, uplift that and don't make this about yourself.”
A man in the audience pointedly asked Schierbecker to address how the video was being used by conservative media; they were painting the protest movement as a collection of whining, expression-quashing bullies. The video had even turned up on a forum on Stormfront, an explicitly white supremacist website, the man pointed out.
Schierbecker answered that journalists “are trying to as best as we can to represent the situation as fairly as possible, we're not hijacking the movement to advance our dialogue” about free speech.
However, Schierbecker did apologize for “pandering to Breitbart," which had quoted him calling Click and other protesters “coddled liberal arts majors.”
In the ebb and flow of questions and answers, a theme began to emerge. Various audience members wanted Schierbecker not only to acknowledge that his video had overshadowed black students’ efforts at fighting racism on campus, but to take responsibility for a direct role in weakening the movement. Didn’t he realize that by pressing charges against Click (and publicly refusing to accept her apology) he was actively diverting news coverage from real issues? Shouldn’t the moral obligation to fight oppression and reduce suffering trump the challenges faced by one journalist?
Next: The questions get harsher.
Muscato appeared increasingly flustered as the session dragged on. She tried goading her client toward the audience’s points. It didn't work.
During one of Muscato’s attempts, Schierbecker interrupted to address a previous question:
“Someone wanted to know if I would go on the record to call out news outlets that are racist,” Schierbecker declared. “I want to go on the record right now and say: Fuck. Racists.”
But this was not what the audience wanted to hear.
Muscato, apparently sensing the audience’s disapproval, asked Schierbecker if he could clarify his “fuck racists” remark in the context of his previous “everyone is a little bit racist” position.
“I think everyone is a little bit racist, I still agree with that. Fuck me, too,” Schierbecker said matter-of-factly. “Because I am probably a little bit prejudiced against certain minorities. It’s a systemic problem, it’s not something I do consciously. But that can change. I'm going to end up at the end of this week a little bit less racist than I was last week.”
This, too, did not appease the audience.
For all his acknowledgment of the pervasiveness of racism, Schierbecker refused to budge on his principled belief in the First Amendment. It is a journalist’s duty, he said, to report and preserve historic moments like the scene on the Mizzou quad. Simply letting Click (and the protest movement) off the hook would ultimately do more harm.
No matter how Moscato rephrased the audience’s questions, Schierbecker refused to concede that he had erred. He granted that there should be reasonable limits to journalist’s right to report. He would not, for instance, follow a protester into the their tent.
“If they want to set up a private area off campus where they can go and have some peace and quiet then that's fine by me, I'm not going to go into their homes, or knock on their doors. [If the protesters] call their tent their safe space, I could go with that.”
But the longer Schierbecker talked, the more he dug into beliefs that the audience was unwilling to accept. They didn’t want to hear his feelings about racism. They wanted him to say that combating racism, and supporting those who are fighting it, should trump his mission as a journalist.
“You can't just say 'fuck racism' and be done with it,” a woman shouted.
“I'm just going to ask you,” she said, “at what point at you going to stop doing interviews about this assault issue and direct people to talk to Concerned Student 1950 about the race issue?”
Schierbecker answered, “The moment that Melissa Click resigns or is fired.”
Audience members murmured angrily in their seats.
“So you want her to be fired for protecting people against racism?” a woman fired back. “That's what it sounds like to me. So you want her to be fired for being a white ally.”
A different audience member, a soft-spoken woman, pointed out that regardless of his professional principles, Schierbecker had to realize that he had contributed to the tense confrontation with Click and the protesters. And while Click was wrong to grab his camera, the woman continued, it could have all been prevented, had Schierbecker shown more empathy and patience when entering other people’s personal space.
“I get the personal space thing, better than a lot of people in this room,” Schierbecker said. “I have autism. After this meeting I will probably go up into my room and cry for about ten minutes, because I’ve had more interaction today and this week than I ever get in a year.”
As Schierbecker delivered his answer, a live microphone somewhere in the audience picked up a female voice muttering, “Oh, white tears. Stop it.”
Muscato cut in.
“Ok, we have to stop,” she said, noting the time.
The session was finally over, but the backlash would only make things worse.
Hours later, Schierbecker uploaded a video titled "Journalists’ Livelihoods Matter" to YouTube. He looked like he'd been crying.
In the video, Schierbecker said that Muscato had berated him after the session and told him that she had no choice to sever their professional relationship.
“I am crying right now because she told me after the conference that this was completely unacceptable and she's going to disassociate herself from me, basically to save her own skin,” he said. “She is very pissed at me. I am likewise very angry at how things went today.”
The Skepticon 8 session was Muscato’s brainchild, continued Schierbecker. It was Muscato, he claimed, who had coached him through some of his statements regarding white privilege and racism.
“She had me say a lot of things that I didn't feel comfortable with, such as that I acknowledged my own white privileges. She wanted me to go on record on if I was a racist. I was extremely uncomfortable about the entire aspect of it. I didn't speak up, though, because I was told that this would be good for my career,” he said.
Schierbecker concluded the video by declaring that he wanted to “disassociate” himself from the entire session.
“I had never spoken at a conference of this magnitude before, and I never will again,” he said.
Later that evening, Muscato released her statement accusing Schierbecker of saying “multiple indefensibly racist things” during the session. That night, Skepticon organizer Lauren Lane released a formal apology for greenlighting the event without Concerned Student 1950's participation.
The next day, Skepticon released the full video of the session. Reactions to the botched event have been mixed. Although virtually every blog, comment and tweet about the session reaffirmed the notion that Skepticon organizers should have cancelled it when they realized it didn’t have any representatives of Concerned Student 1950, many questioned Schierbecker’s treatment by Muscato and the audience — especially the seemingly callous dig about his autism and “white tears.”
Muscato’s statements after the session drew heavy scrutiny as well. Despite numerous requests for clarification from commenters on her Facebook post, she failed to identify any specific statements by Schierbecker’s as “indefensibly racist.” Some people accused Muscato of setting Schierbecker up for public embarrassment and then throwing her “friend” under a bus
On November 17, Muscato released another statement via Facebook. It was an apology for her initial apology. She wrote that after re-watching footage of the session she’d realized that she was wrong to accuse Schierbecker of making racist remarks.
“For this I owe Mark a sincere and full apology, which I hope to make personally to him in private and in person soon,” she wrote. “As I have said before, I believe Mark is a good person and that he is doing what he can to learn from this, as we all are.”
But Muscato then used the statement as yet another opportunity to criticize Schierbecker. She blamed him for the lack of news coverage of the social media death threats and vandalism on the Mizzou campus.
“Did the news media cover this? Barely,” she wrote. “And that is partially because they were busy interviewing Mark about his video. I see this as an example of white privilege, and it is what upset me on Saturday.”
(For the record, the social media threats against black students and vandalism were, in fact, covered by numerous media organizations, including CNN, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, USA Today, Fox News and the Huffington Post. Riverfront Times also reported on those incidents.)
More than a week after Schierbecker’s clip went viral, it’s simply taken on a life of its own. But now, the very thing that Muscato and the Skepticon 8 audience members were afraid of is happening yet again — but this time it’s the Q&A session itself being used as ammo to discredit black protest movements. Video of the Skepticon session has been widelydiscussed on the Kotaku in Action subreddit, which is the main hub for Gamergate, the amorphous online movement that, among other goals, actively opposes progressive causes like feminism and Black Lives Matter.
At the same time, Schierbecker’s clip of a university professor blocking journalists has sparked conversations about the nature of protest movements and their relationship with the media. During a November 12 interview with ABC News, President Barack Obama told George Stephanopoulos that “there is clearly a problem at the University of Missouri,” and that it is “entirely appropriate” for students to protest the injustices in their midst.
“The issue is just making sure that, even as these young people are getting engaged, getting involved, speaking out, that they’re also listening. And, you know, I’d rather see them err on the side of activism than being passive,” Obama said. “But I also want to make sure that they understand that being a good citizen, being an activist, involves hearing the other side.”
It wasn’t just civil disobedience that fueled the civil rights movement, Obama added.
“It was also because the leadership of the movement consistently stayed open to the possibility of reconciliation and sought to understand the views, even views that were appalling to them, of the other side.”