When Peter Lovenheim turned in his “Jingle Bells” story, I knew right away that it would be well read and generate a number of comments on RochesterBeacon.com. But I’d be lying if I told you I thought the article would result in news coverage—and a torrent of online comments—around the nation and across the globe. Yet that’s what happened.
“Jingle all the way? Maybe not” was posted on our website and delivered to subscribers of our Weekly Review email two days before Christmas. It became clear immediately that the number of email clicks would be higher than for any other Beacon story since our launch in October 2018. Pageviews on our website were high too through the holiday weekend—and then they skyrocketed. It’s now the most-read article ever on RochesterBeacon.com, by a large margin.
The tale of how the story went viral, how it was covered by other media, and how readers here and elsewhere reacted is one worth telling, I think. It says much about the state of the news media and public discourse today.
The story’s origin
Peter, the Beacon’s Washington correspondent, is an alumnus of Brighton’s Council Rock Primary School who splits his time between homes in Brighton and the D.C. area. As he relates in the article, his interest was piqued when he read a notice posted earlier this year on the Brighton school district’s public website—in a section on “Diversity and Equity,” where the district chronicles its years-long anti-racist, anti-bias initiative—that Council Rock had dropped “Jingle Bells” from its music curriculum. It prompted him to reach out to Council Rock principal Matt Tappon and other staff; he also communicated with Allison Rioux, Brighton Central Schools assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, and professor Kyna Hamill, director of Boston University’s Core Curriculum, whose 2017 article influenced the decision to remove the song.
While initially spurred only by curiosity, Peter soon believed this could be a story for the Beacon. We discussed it, and I agreed. The idea: to explore the roots of “Jingle Bells,” written by James L. Pierpont in the mid-1800s, and why Brighton educators had decided, in Tappon’s words, that the beloved holiday song had “the potential to be controversial or offensive.”
The 1,700-word article Peter wrote was deeply researched and nuanced. It did not judge the school’s decision; instead, it presented a wealth of context and asked readers to make up their own minds: “Is Council Rock’s decision to stop singing ‘Jingle Bells’ a reasonable step to create a more inclusive school curriculum, or an instance of well-intentioned overreach?”
Response and reaction
Why did Council Rock drop “Jingle Bells?” Tappon and other staff pointed to Hamill’s article, which said the song’s first public performance may have occurred in 1857 at a Boston minstrel show, where white entertainers performed in blackface. When Peter told them Hamill was “shocked” by the decision to remove “Jingle Bells” based partly on her research, Rioux supplied another explanation: “Some suggest that the use of collars on slaves with bells to send an alert that they were running away is connected to the origin of the song Jingle Bells. While we are not taking a stance to whether that is true or not, we do feel strongly that this line of thinking is not in agreement with our district beliefs to value all cultures and experiences of our students.”
After Peter told them he was planning to write a story about the decision, Tappon and Rioux declined to comment further.
On Dec. 28, Brighton superintendent of schools Kevin McGowan struck the match that caused a media wildfire. In a nearly 700-word message emailed to the Brighton school community and posted on the district’s website, he offered a full-throated defense of the Council Rock decision, adding reasons that neither Tappon nor Rioux cited. It was not, he went on, “‘liberalism gone amok’ or ‘cancel culture at its finest’ as some have suggested.”
Before McGowan’s message appeared, no other news media had picked up on the story. Quickly, that changed. On the Dec. 29, the Democrat and Chronicle posted a story. The local TV stations covered it too. Soon, “Jingle Bells” news stories were popping up far and wide, by publications ranging from USA Today, the Washington Post, the Miami Herald and the New York Post to American Military News and Law Enforcement Today. Fox News also hopped on the bandwagon, and the AP News wire helped to spread it across the country. Outside the U.S., coverage of the story and McGowan’s response has appeared in Toronto, in the London Daily Mail and in several Indian outlets including the Hindustan Times.
Some of the coverage was balanced and reasonably thorough (locally, the D&C’s story stands out). But quite a bit of it was slapdash, silly or politically charged. (The Law Enforcement Today story begins: “Ever hear the saying, ‘Liberalism is a mental disorder?’ Welcome to Council Rock Primary School in Rochester, New York.”) Many outlets mentioned the Beacon and provided a link to Peter’s story, so readers could see the entire piece, but others did not. A few had only a short story and then presented McGowan’s message in its entirety.
Wherever it appeared, coverage of the “Jingle Bells” story let loose a flood of reader comments. On Fox News alone, there were 5,700 comments as of Tuesday. As with the news stories, some of the comments on news sites and social media have been thoughtful, restrained and even well-researched. Others have been scornful, snarky and vituperative—whether directed at Brighton education officials or other readers with whom they disagree. Thankfully, Beacon readers have generally been civil in their debate. One reason, perhaps: We will not post comments by those who do not provide their full name or otherwise violate our comment policy, which among other things bars abusive, ad hominem material. On our site and others covering the story that we’ve checked, readers who submitted comments overwhelmingly opposed the school’s decision.
Questions worth asking
Again, I must be honest: We are very happy that Peter’s “Jingle Bells” story and the district’s response to it have gone viral in this country and abroad. Maybe we’ve picked up some far-flung readers. At the same time, it has reminded me of the challenge we face trying to live up to our mission statement, where we talk about “illuminating truth’s complexity” and being “a source of and forum for ideas and perspectives that are rooted in intellectual openness.” In the digital realm, where many news sites subsist on clickbait and powerful platforms like Facebook operate with algorithms that prioritize anger and rage, the line between careful scrutiny of hot-button topics and simply fueling the fire can be awfully thin.
Personally, I’d be fine to go a few holiday seasons without hearing “Jingle Bells,” especially renditions like this one. But is the song truly tainted by racism? Does it have no place in an elementary school curriculum? Or should it, as professor Kyna Hamill says, “be sung and enjoyed, and perhaps discussed.” There might be no right answers, but to me, the questions are worth asking.
Paul Ericson is Rochester Beacon executive editor.