Media Criticism

The Washington Post's Halloween Costume Hit Job Is a New Low for Cancel Culture

There was absolutely no reason to run this.


A few years ago, something mildly embarrassing occurred at a Halloween party hosted by a Washington Post cartoonist: A white woman painted her face black and wore a name tag that read "Hello, My Name is Megyn Kelly," in reference to the TV host's controversial defense of white people wearing blackface. The intended butt of the joke would appear to be Kelly, not black people. Regardless, several guests approached the woman and explained to her that it was still not OK to wear blackface. The woman reportedly left the party in tears.

Suffice it to say, this is not a story that needed to be told. The woman is not famous, she does not appear to hold any power, and is not seeking public office. But because two of the aggrieved guests—a pair of young, progressive women—are still raw about it, and because we are living through a moment where no single person's humiliation is too trivial to earn them a reprieve from the forces of cancel culture, a pair of reporters have exhaustively chronicled the incident in a 3,000-word article for…The Washington Post.

Brace yourself before diving in, because this is one of the worst newspaper articles of all time. Between the elite media navel-gazing, the smug sanctimony of the cancelers, the absurd one-sidedness of the narrative structure, the spirit of revenge taken to an odious extreme, it's hard not to come away feeling nauseated. Unfortunately, it's so emblematic of the rising dual trends of activist journalism and unforgiving progressivism that I'm going to go into some detail here.

The article is titled "Blackface incident at Post cartoonist's 2018 Halloween party resurfaces amid protests." Resurfaced? How? Did it surface once, and is now surfacing again? Already we're shifting responsibility because the only reason this incident is "surfacing" at all is that the Post lacked the courage to tell the two women pictured in the article's photo that this particular story was not newsworthy.

These two are Lexie Gruber and Lyric Prince. Gruber is a 27-year-old management consultant, and Prince is a 36-year-old artist. The Post photographed them for the story in Washington D.C.'s Malcom X park, where they appear as bold truth-tellers. Their truth is that they are still mad at an older white woman who didn't understand that her costume wasn't funny, and they want revenge. So it begins:

Every year, Tom Toles's Halloween party draws an eclectic mix — journalists and political types from Washington's power elite, but also artists and musicians, everyone from retirees to college kids, jammed into small rooms and sprawled across the backyard, dancing and gossiping, checking out the crowd to see who has the most inventive and outrageous costumes.

At the 2018 party at the home of The Washington Post's editorial cartoonist, in addition to several Ruth Bader Ginsburgs, someone dressed as the "Mueller Witch Hunt" and Post columnist Dana Milbank came as just-confirmed Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, complete with a beer-dispensing device on his head. A guest named Lexie Gruber wore a scary "Beetlejuice" get-up and called herself "dead."

A middle-aged white woman named Sue Schafer wore a conservative business suit and a name tag that said, "Hello, My Name is Megyn Kelly." Her face was almost entirely blackened with makeup. Kelly, then an NBC morning show host, had just that week caused a stir by defending the use of blackface by white people: "When I was a kid, that was okay, as long as you were dressing up as, like, a character."

Already, we're in strange territory. Why is The Washington Post writing about a Washington Post Halloween party from two years ago? If it wasn't newsworthy then, why is it newsworthy now? Many of the people quoted throughout the article are affiliated with the Post. Were they obligated to participate in this struggle session? Did they go on the record because they were still bothered by the incident, or because it was a chance to show the concern they didn't feel compelled to show two years ago? The story isn't the important thing—the story behind the story is what matters. And then the one behind that.

The story here is that Gruber and Prince were offended at the Halloween costume chosen by Sue Schafer, a 54-year-old government contractor, and told her so. The story behind the story is that they recently decided this wasn't enough of a rebuke and so enlisted the Post to help them identify and publicly humiliate Schafer:

Nearly two years later, the incident, which has bothered some people ever since but which many guests remember only barely or not at all, has resurfaced in the nationwide reckoning over race after George Floyd, an unarmed African American man, was killed when a white police officer in Minneapolis knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes. Many protesters have called on white Americans to reassess their own actions or inactions when confronting violent and everyday racism alike.

Gruber felt compelled to revive the 2018 incident. Last week, she emailed Toles, whom she has never met.

"In 2018, I attended a Halloween party at your home," she wrote. "I understand that you are not responsible for the behavior of your guests, but at the party, a woman was in Blackface. She harassed me and my friend — the only two women of color — and it was clear she made her 'costume' with racist intent."

Gruber, a 27-year-old management consultant, told Toles that the incident had "weighed heavily on my heart — it was abhorrent and egregious." She asked him to help her identify the woman.

"After the killing of George Floyd and the protests, I began reflecting more on this incident," Gruber said in an emailseeking Post coverage of the incident.

"I wanted to know who this woman is. . . . What impact does she have on society? I think this is an important story — that a party full of prominent people in Washington welcomed a person in blackface, danced and drank with her, and watched in silence as she harassed two young women of color."

An important aspect of the incident is Gruber's claim that Schafer "harassed" her. I think most readers would expect that "harassment" is active rather than passive: i.e., that Shafer must have done something to Gruber and Prince, beyond merely wearing a costume. Did she yell at them, or insult them? Since the Post journalists responsible for this story—Marc Fisher and Sydney Trent—were intent on reconstructing the party by interviewing as many guests as they could, you might think they would have shown a passing interest in verifying the provocative claim. But the article never backs it up, and in fact, numerous sources—including Gruber and Prince themselves—undermine it repeatedly.

Looking back, some guests at the party say they wish they had confronted Schafer more aggressively. Others say that she has already paid a price and that her embarrassment and regret were evident when she left the party in tears.

"I wish I'd have been the one to call her out," said Philippa Hughes, a Washington arts entrepreneur who attended the party. Hughes, who is Asian American, is friendly with both Gruber and Schafer. "I did go up to Sue and say, 'What the hell?' But it took Lexie yelling at her to make her leave."

Gruber yelled at Schafer, causing her to leave the party in tears, according to this attendee's account.

Here are Gruber and Prince's own accounts:

Gruber and her friends moved inside, got drinks and found themselves in the crowded living room. Prince, who is 6-foot-1, easily spotted the woman in blackface and pointed her out to Gruber. "What should we do?" Prince said.

She approached Schafer. Prince said she criticized Schafer's makeup and told her, "You look horrible"—a way of "clapping back" at the blackface without addressing race head-on. Prince said in an interview that she was worried about being stereotyped as an "angry black woman," worried that someone might call the police.

"I felt very unsafe talking to that person in the first place," she said. "I was in an environment that, if it got heated, it would decidedly not be in my best interest."

Another guest, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect friendships, said Schafer laughed after Prince said her makeup was "very ugly."

Gruber also said that "the woman basically just started laughing."

Schafer agreed that she laughed but said that it was a nervous laugh, a sign of extreme discomfort, and that it came "only when she told me that I was ugly and had wrinkles.

Let's get this straight: Gruber and Prince walked up to Schafer, called her ugly and pointed out her wrinkles. Schafer laughed awkwardly, probably in order to defuse the tension. Who is supposedly engaged in harassment here?

Benjamin Ross, a friend of Gruber who also attended the party, said her "methodical explanation of the immorality of blackface 'was beautiful, very respectful. And the woman just laughed at Lexie, very denigrating and flippant. She was not at all apologetic."

But three other witnesses said she yelled at Schafer, and even Gruber admits that "there wasn't a single person in that party who didn't hear me when I spoke."

Gruber's entourage left after that, as did Schafer. The next day, Schafer called Toles and apologized for upsetting so many people with her costume. The reasonable conclusion here is that she neither expected nor intended to offend anyone, was sorry for the pain she had caused, and had learned a lesson.

When Schafer was informed recently that the Post was writing about the incident, she thought she should inform her employer. Schafer was promptly fired, which is entirely the Post's fault. Gruber and Prince didn't know Schafer's name and had no way to publicly shame her without the newspaper's assistance.

In his recent email correspondence with Gruber, Toles made some attempt to protect Schafer and declined to give Gruber her name. This prompted Gruber to accuse him of complicity in her racism. It's not clear whether Toles ultimately gave up the name, or how this story was assigned. Reading between the lines, I imagine that someone may have decided that writing the story was a means of getting out in front of it, ensuring that the villain would be Schafer rather than a Post staffer who allowed a white guest in blackface to enter his Halloween party. By valorizing Prince and Gruber—who, let us recall, told an older woman she was ugly and think that they were harassed—and castigating Schafer, the Post ensured that it would not be deemed complicit in her crimes. If this doesn't call for a Reign of Terror metaphor, I'm not sure what does.

It's astonishing that this article—a story about a long-ago Halloween party attended by the Post's own staff and principally involving three private persons—made it to print, and everyone involved in its publication should be deeply ashamed. That includes Prince and Gruber, but also Fisher and Trent, and their editors. As far as cancel culture goes, this is a new and depressing low point.

(Related: Read Eugene Volokh on the same subject.)