It was cruel to build the legend of Ken Bone—and even crueler to tear it down

Ken Bone is not the person we said he was.
Ken Bone is not the person we said he was.
Image: Reuters/Rick Wilking
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Ken Bone is not an American hero.

The 34-year-old coal plant worker became an internet celebrity this week after asking an actually not very good question about US energy policy at the second presidential debate. In the midst of what has become an increasingly depressing slog towards the Nov. 8 election, Ken Bone’s cheerful red sweater and bushy mustache seemed like a much-needed bright spot. What began as a Twitter meme quickly became a nationally trending story, as everyone from the Washington Post to Time to this publication wrote absurdly fawning profiles like “America needed a hero. Kenneth Bone answered the call” and “Ken Bone Is the Only Honest Man in This Election.”

Less than a week later, the tide has turned. We are officially leaving the “Bone Zone.” After doing a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” on Oct. 13, sharp-eyed Gizmodo reporters noticed that America’s champion was also a commenter on several of NSFW subreddits, including threads called PreggoPorn and RealGirls. He also suggested George Zimmerman was justified in shooting Trayvon Martin.

Are these incredibly informed opinions? No, of course not. In fact, many of the comments I’ve seen so far are unequivocally offensive. But are they worthy of headlines like this one? Also no. Remember, the only reason Bone was at the debate in the first place is because he identifies as an undecided voter. This means he thought he could, next month, vote for Donald Trump—and still might. In this context, nobody should really be that surprised that he once publicly ogled naked photos of Jennifer Lawrence or holds outdated and stupid opinions on race and implicit bias.

From the beginning, there was something a little bit off about the whole Bone frenzy—something a little mean-spirited, even. As one of my coworkers noted, it felt a bit like when the cool jocks in high school would ”adopt” a nerd for a day, let him eat lunch with them and then, just when he was starting to feel comfortable, duct-tape him to the flag pole.

Bone is certainly not the first private citizen to be plucked from obscurity to bask, willingly or not, in his or her 15 minutes of fame. Like Chewbacca Mom before him, Bone was used by the media as an avatar, a symbol used to churn out hot takes like “What Chewbacca Mom teaches us about happiness.” But also like Chewbacca Mom (real name Candace Payne), it turns out that these walking zeitgeists are imperfect, complicated human beings with characteristics we may not in fact approve of.

What’s really unfortunate about this whole thing, however, is the lack of accountability. The media created Ken Bone, and we are just as eager and willing to destroy him. We created a fake person and are now gleefully patting each other on the back as we debunk our own myth. The New York Daily News, a publication that called Bone the debate’s “only hero” on Tuesday, is now using him as a symbol of everything wrong with American voters. Which one is it?

I’ve published some piping hot takes, let’s be clear, but there’s a difference between publishing a controversial opinion and the sensationalist, cruel opportunism that has characterized the rise and fall of Kenneth Bone. In graduate school, my professors said a reporter’s job was to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. But what happens when those ”comfortable” people being afflicted are only comfortable because we made them that way? Even in the digital era, journalists can do better than this.