Opinion: The Ethics of Shane Dawson
Lauren Miller ‘22 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
On October 19, Shane Dawson released the final video in his seven-part series, The Mind of Jake Paul, which Dawson describes as “an in-depth look at one of the fastest growing YouTubers of all time.” It follows Dawson on a deep dive investigation into Jake Paul’s controversial history, from crowding his neighborhood with obsessed fans to setting an empty pool on fire and more serious accusations of abuse, in an attempt to find out what makes him tick. It includes interviews with Paul’s former manager Nick Crompton, his ex-girlfriend Alissa Violet, who accused him of physical abuse, his current girlfriend Erika Costell, and a few others that witnessed the rise and fall of his YouTube celebrity, often from a distance.
Many people, including Dawson himself now, have described this series as a documentary. It’s not hard to see why: Dawson interviews first-hand sources, he uses footage from past events, and the series runs a total of about nine hours, something even Ken Burns would find excessive. But as entertaining and addicting as these videos might be (or, let’s face it, are), let’s get one thing clear right here and right now: these are not documentaries. And they should not be treated as such.
Episodes of The Mind of Jake Paul were uploaded before the next one was finished editing; most of them were uploaded before the interview with Violet was even conducted. Which means Dawson edited this “documentary” not as one long story, with pieces that are meant to fit together and ideas that are meant to be explored and possibly resolved, but as a series of mini-mysteries designed to keep you watching and coming back the next week for more. This on its own isn’t bad; reality-documentary shows like those about people surviving in the Alaskan wilderness survive this way. But in an investigative series, this means Shane was putting out episodes before his investigation was done. He edited earlier videos, setting up mysteries he hadn’t solved and didn’t even know if he would. That’s not only bad filmmaking – it’s unethical.
Dawson is not a documentarian, he is a YouTube star. Which means, despite the titles, Dawson is still the focus of these videos. It chronicles his emotions through the whole process, the focus is on how he is affected by the information he learns, we hear his theories and beliefs before any facts. That’s why he is front and center in each of the thumbnails. Paul may be the subject of these videos, but Dawson is the star. His thoughts and feelings and opinions take center stage, at the cost of something real.
Because Jake Paul could actually be a strong documentary subject. Despite Dawson’s divided interest in spectacle and investigation, an interesting portrait of Paul’s life emerges. He’s a prime example of the problem our country is reckoning within the likes of the #MeToo movement: men with too much power that have never been held accountable for how they use it. It’s especially clear in the final interview when Dawson makes feeble attempts to explain to Paul why people are upset with his actions.
From a young age, as Paul admits, he was allowed to run wild and free, encouraged by his father and older brother to take whatever risks seemed funny or entertaining. Then suddenly, he was receiving internet fame and millions of dollars for crossing line after line with complete impunity. He was being egged on by thousands of subscribers, encouraged by managers, living in a bubble where he could do or say anything and no one would tell him it was wrong. So when people started caring, when people started telling him that he couldn’t do or say those things, he got angry. That’s a story I’m interested in, a person I want to see dissected and analyzed and forced to reckon with their actions. I’m not inclined to see him crying on a couch about the six-figure deal he lost when his brother posted a video of a dead body for his audience of middle-schoolers to see.
But over the course of this series, it became clear that Dawson’s interest was elsewhere. His investigating was extremely shallow. He interviewed only four people close to Paul, including Paul’s girlfriend Erika Costell and Paul himself. His “research” consisted of watching YouTube videos, never requesting more footage or information than that which is available to the public. He doesn’t fact-check anything. Both Costell and Paul tell Dawson that Costell’s assistant filed a police report when she was assaulted at a club, starting a conflict that ended with Alissa Violet accusing Paul of domestic abuse. Not once does Dawson share proof that a police report was filed; he doesn’t even try to obtain it. In real investigative journalism, there’s hard evidence, there’s proof, there’s documentation of events and conversations. But Dawson doesn’t do any of that; he lets people sit with him in front of a camera and say whatever they want without being challenged. The audience can wonder whether they’re telling the truth, but Dawson never will.
Because Dawson doesn’t really want these to be documentaries. He’s not interested in the truth. If he was, he’d spend a year, maybe more, combing through records of Paul’s time in Los Angeles, his relationship with Violet, his business deals. He’d go through each claim Paul makes in those final one hundred and fifteen minutes and see if there is any document, footage, or person that can back him up. He would talk to his family, his coworkers, his neighbors. He would not let discrepancies in Violet and Paul’s stories stand without examination. But that’s not what Dawson cares about. Dawson cares about views, about stirring up controversy that will get people to click on his videos and engage with the content. That’s why he’s the star of the series; he has to be the personality people will follow to the next “documentary” he makes. That’s why he uploads them episodically, that’s why he doesn’t independently research the claims people make to him. Shane’s obligation isn’t to the truth. It’s to his number of views.
Which manifests itself in one particular moment in Dawson’s interview with Alissa Violet. Although the episode was released before the finale interview with Jake Paul, Dawson met with Violet a month after he’d spoken to Paul. They’d already discussed Paul’s relationship with Violet and that information had sat for a month. So when she explains that Paul strung her along without a commitment, emotionally manipulating and abusing her, using his position as her boss to control their relationship, Dawson shrugs it off as evidence of the mutually destructive relationship Paul describes in his interview. When Violet says that Paul would bring girls to the house under the guise of auditioning them for Team 10, have sex with them, and then never follow up on their “audition,” Dawson thinks nothing of it. But I have not stopped thinking about it.
This is why Jake Paul would be a rich subject for the #MeToo era. Violet makes a clear, repeated allegation that Paul used his power in the YouTube industry to manipulate women for his benefit. She claims that he casting couch-ed more girls than she could count, using the promise of a career to get sex from them. She says that she was emotionally abused and manipulated for years, that she told Costell and others about it. Then it’s left alone, a heavy accusation of a serious manner never revisited. A better documentarian would make this the focal point of the piece. This should have been a pivoting moment, where we stopped trying to tell the “true behind-the-scenes story” of Jake Paul and started asking about the context and real consequences of his actions.
But Dawson is not a documentarian. These videos were never documentaries. He didn’t bring up Violet’s accusations with Paul or Costell or any other of the dozen or so people that lived in the Team 10 house at the time of the alleged abuse. He didn’t bother to address her claims at all, instead, ignoring them completely and ending the series as though all questions had been answered. Why? Because the final episode of his series was set to premiere in just a few days and he’d already worked out the perfectly balanced note of sympathy to end on. He had nothing to gain from further investigation, so he didn’t bother.
It’s fully possible that Alissa Violet was using exaggerated language and Jake Paul isn’t abusive so much as he’s just a jerk. But we’ll never know because a serious allegation was made and Shane Dawson did nothing to investigate or even consider it. Rather, he let Jake get the final word on the matter, unquestioned. For nearly one hundred and twenty uninterrupted minutes.
Which means that, at best, Dawson missed an opportunity to clarify a messy situation for his audience, making him a bad filmmaker. And, at worst, he’s letting an abuser control the narrative around his abuse, making him complicit.
These “documentaries” aren’t just videos full of lazy camerawork, shallow research, and clickbait fluff interviews disguised as investigative journalism – they are missed opportunities. A better documentarian, a real documentarian, would see in Jake Paul the chance to speak truth to power, to demonstrate that our culture and society can no longer let people, especially men, get away with bad behavior because they’re “young” and “don’t know any better.” But Dawson’s series actively contributes to the trend of letting potentially dangerous men control the narratives around accusations of abuse, escaping consequences and being “redeemed” without having to actually change. The comments on the final episode are full of people saying that Dawson has made them feel bad for Paul and see him as a misunderstood, unfairly maligned person. A real documentarian would be ashamed of how they’ve glorified and sympathized their subject without the research to support it. Dawson has lifted Paul up, without ever doing the grunt work necessary to determine if it was right to do so. And this seems to have been his goal all along.
But if none of this is proof enough that Dawson lacks the journalistic ethics necessary to handle the subjects he supposedly cares about, just look at the description of each episode in the series. These videos handle allegations of bullying, assault, and emotional abuse. And Dawson still tags them as comedy.
Watch the “The Mind of Jake Paul” here.