Anderson Cooper vs. Reddit

Tina Nguyen Contributor
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Popular with Internet humor geeks for “image macros,” “meme generation,” and “narwhal obsessions,” the popular website Reddit is up in arms after CNN’s Anderson Cooper zeroed in on a section of the site dedicated to sexualized pictures of underage girls.

Thursday night on Anderson Cooper 360, the silver-haired anchor expressed shock that a section of the site called “R/Jailbait,” was allowed to exist on a corporate property.  Tastefully blurring out the pictures of clothed adolescent girls, Cooper nevertheless went through the segment highlighting some of the more sleazy aspects of the site, particularly a header proclaiming “Keep a teen off the streets — put her in your van!”

What surprised Cooper, however, was that R/Jailbait wasn’t “run from some site in Eastern Europe, or [by] some guy in his basement.”  Reddit is a subsidiary of media conglomerate Advance News, recently split off from Condé Nast.

Condé Nast, the publisher of premier magazines such as The New Yorker, Wired and Vogue, bought Reddit in 2006. Its president has a seat on Reddit’s board.

“It’s pretty bad to know that a big corporation has something like this that would reflect badly on it,” Cooper said on his show.

The reactions of Reddit editors — or Redditors — waking up Friday morning ranged from annoyance at being defined by a minority of their community, to outrage at being tarred by the pedophile brush.

Most, however, laughed it off as a joke.

An “Ask Me Anything” request sprung up for Cooper, while user “atheros” pointed out that CNN had once praised Reddit’s “Random Acts of Pizza” forum dedicated to helping out hungry people in need with free meals.  Meanwhile, Redditors started promoting another pre-existing site section — or subreddit — called “R/Whalebait,” filled with pictures of marine mammals with lascivious captions.   Some even started joking that by promoting the site on his show, Cooper had unintentionally started driving traffic to R/Jailbait. Friday, a whole subreddit sprung up photoshopping Anderson Cooper into R/Jailbait photos.

At the heart of the ‘jailbait’ outrage, however, lies a fundamental conflict between two schools of thought.

Reddit general manager Erik Martinadvocates that as an open Internet board, Reddit represents the Internet as it is — not how it should be.  “We’re a free speech site,” he said in a statement to CNN,  “and the cost of that is there’s a lot of offensive stuff on there.”

But First Amendment arguments may not extend to corporations, cautions CNN’s Senior Legal Analyst Jeffrey Toobin, who has also represented The New Yorker as an attorney. Though there’s no issue of illegality since the girls pictured are clothed, a corporate site should exercise some control over its own content, he said.

“A website automatically exercises some control,” Toobin insisted. “The idea that [Advanced News] have no control over their own users is just wrong.”

“A lot of companies want to get involved with the Internet,” he rationalized, while saying that corporations are, on some level, responsible for their own properties.  “There are big parts of Reddit that have nothing to do with underage sex, or inappropriate (sic).  Unfortunately, that’s kind of like saying ‘Look at all these banks that I didn’t rob.’”

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