Social Media Journalism, Take Two

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Finally, I had my first big chance as a writer to take an unpopular stand on a controversial issue.  I had an opportunity to speak up, to make a difference, to try to make people see a different side of a story.

And I took the coward’s way out.  I deleted my post when I thought I had been proven wrong, and I hoped that nobody saw it.  Or at least, that the few who saw it would soon forget about it.

I was wrong to do that.

For the eight people who clicked on “Social Media Journalism” on Tuesday and saw the promise I made, I am here to follow through.  I gave my word that I would speak up if I heard any proof, that I would use my blog as a platform to expose the situation and to call out for justice.  I said I would take a stand.

I just don’t think it’s the stand everybody wants me to take.

It’s all about a situation that took place on May 25 of this year, at M-Spa Salon in my hometown of Portage, Michigan.  According to all reports, here are the bare-bones facts.

A woman named Ashley Bays brought her family into the salon for haircuts.  Her  2 ½ year old son, who is autistic, became agitated during his haircut and began to scream – which is what 2 ½ year olds often do during haircuts, autistic or not.  The salon owner approached the family and ended the service, at which point the stylist followed them outside and finished the little boy’s haircut on the lawn.  When it was done, the father took the rest of the family home, and Bays returned to the salon to get her own hair done.

That is what is known.  Those are the facts.

The next day, another woman, Vanessa Hunt, posted an emotional tale on Facebook about having witnessed the event while getting a manicure.  According to Hunt, the salon owner didn’t just end the hair service and ask the family to leave.  No, she said, the salon owner, Michelle Mott, allegedly screamed at the mother, berated her for being a poor parent, and gave a “real tongue lashing”.  In this version of the story, the tearful young mother cradled her precious son as she fled the salon, only to get hugs of comfort from Hunt and a friend while the little boy’s haircut was finished outside.

In Ms. Hunt’s version of the story, the father and other children are nowhere to be found, and no mention is made of Bays’ return to the salon.

The Facebook post went viral.  Hundreds of thousands of angry comments poured out from people who were suitably outraged that anyone, particularly a business owner, could treat the mother of an autistic child that way.  Several “Boycott M-Spa” pages appeared on Facebook with more and more angry crusaders out for blood.  Literally and figuratively.

I wrote about the incident, suggesting that maybe the Facebook tale was spreading awfully quickly without a lot of evidence to back up the claims.  I agreed that Mott’s behavior was deplorable if the story was true, but wondered if perhaps people should take a step back and wait for some proof.  Friends on my own Facebook page let me know, in no uncertain terms, that it must be true since the news was carrying the story.  What no one seemed to notice was that the news stories were covering the story of the Facebook post going viral, but none of them discussed the incident at M-Spa that had started it all.

Then the names were released, and I figured I must have backed the wrong horse.  I saw the anger and just plain vitriol that was hurled at anyone who dared to question the story, and I wimped out.  I deleted my post.

I didn’t stand behind my words.

I failed myself and anyone who follows my work.

Meanwhile, the story got bigger and bigger.  Huffington Post-CNN- Big.  And the story got crazier.  Mott, it was said, had threatened her employees, ordering them to sign a non-compete contract or be fired, at which point she would withhold their paychecks.  Some even said she had threatened to fire any employee who spoke up about the situation.  When Mott’s lawyer described her business as a “triage state”, the maddening crowd cheered and stepped up its intimidation.

Everyone claimed to have seen an article or interview with that information, but no one could say where.

I started asking around.  After all, I worked in the salon industry in a neighboring town for seventeen years, and my family members have owned salons in Kalamazoo and Portage since the 1950’s.  I know people.

Nobody else witnessed the event.  Nobody.  Not one single client other than Hunt and her friend.

Even before this incident, Mott already had a terrible reputation around town for poor customer service.  M-Spa is known for being snobby, elitist and overpriced – just like high-end salons and spas in towns all around the world.  The business has been successful despite the reputation, because there will always be fools out there who are willing to spend too much money for a little bit of expensive condescension in an elite establishment.

People started coming out of the woodwork with tales of her rudeness and questionable business practices.  But not one of them – not one single person – came forward to say that he or she had seen Mott screaming at the autistic boy and his mother.  At a busy salon on a Saturday, in a story that is receiving national attention and an outpouring of support.  No one besides Hunt and her friend saw or heard a thing.

No one.

In the days of “Yellow Journalism” reporters wrote pretty much anything they wanted.  They manufactured lies and fantasies with the power to ruin lives, all for the sake of selling more papers.  The modern equivalent of this is “Tabloid Journalism.”  The difference is that tabloid journalists use a lot of words like “alleged” and “our sources say that. . . “ and similar disclaimers to protect themselves from lawsuits.   Their headlines are misleading, but the stories are just vague enough to start rumors without ever actually confirming anything.

And now there is Social Media Journalism, in which anyone can say anything about anyone they want, and the general public is so eager to rally behind a cause that no proof is ever needed.  People are so hungry for drama, for a reason to be angry, for a fight to jump into, that they throw their common sense out the window.  Otherwise intelligent and educated people are suddenly willing to agree with people saying things like:

  • Alright      Everyone – NEED a Lawyer ProBono for advice on no compete contract of the employees at M Spa
  • I am Also told that the owner threatened to withheld paychecks from her staff until they signed the no compete contract. Also, she announce yesterday that there would be NO APOLOGY resulting in most of the staff wanting to leave, but they are worried about not having a job:( this situation is very sad for those talented staff members! I know there are other Salon Owners watching this page, Please put up your info if you are able to still help some of the talented employees – THANKS!!!!!
  • Our      PROMISE you, Michelle Mott, is this. Once you have publicly apologized to the parents and child you publicly humiliated in your place of business, our Boycott Page WILL be removed. People may need a lot more than words though to forgive such a hateful act. Keep in mind your actions will never be forgotten.  How many times do you need to be asked to apologize???? Are you really  that proud and that arrogant?

 

I am not defending Michelle Mott.  If she really, truly screeched at the mother and then threatened her employees that way, then I fully agree that she was wrong.  It is never okay to shout and humiliate a customer that way, and it is definitely not okay to mistreat an autistic child and his family.

But . . .

What’s happening to Michele Mott and M-Spa right now is the modern-day equivalent of a lynch mob.  The hordes of angry people are ready to destroy her business and professional reputation based on hearsay.  She has been condemned by a wave of furious spectators who haven’t asked for one shred of evidence.

What if I were to post a story on my Facebook page tomorrow that says I witnessed my neighbor brutally murdering his wife?  Would people step up to say Why, I did hear him yell at her once or he always did have a bad temper.  And if my post went viral, would people from all around the world demand that the police storm his home, haul him away in handcuffs and sentence him to death?

Of course not.  I would be asked for evidence.  A body.  Blood.  Pictures.  Other witnesses.

What I am trying to say here is that Michelle Mott has been tried, convicted and sentenced on Facebook.  Her business is going to be a loss.  Her employees are going to lose their jobs, their customers, and their livelihood.  People are being hurt.

Which injustice is greater – the alleged and unproven incident at M-Spa, or the current witch-hunt against Michelle Mott?

Think about it.

And don’t piss off anyone with access to Facebook.

http://www.mlive.com/news/kalamazoo/index.ssf/2013/05/mother_of_child_with_autism_el.html

Treatment Of Boy With Autism Prompts Facebook Uproar

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