A fairly huge story has been brewing on the convention scene all month regarding FanX – the huge pop culture event held twice yearly in Salt Lake City – its co-founder Bryan Brandenburg and how he handled complaints about a guest harassing other guests from a well-known children’s author.
And it’s ended with Brandenburg taking a leave of absence from the show.
It all started with complaints that author Richard Paul Evans had repeatedly and inappropriately touched a female author while both were guests at FanX – also known as FanX Salt Lake Comics Convention™ – last year.
Other author guests were disturbed by this, and a call for FanX to draft a suitable harassment policy went out. That they didn’t have one at this late date is pretty crazy in itself, given that the shows claim to be among the biggest in the US.
What follows is a story so bizarre that maybe it’s best told in headlines from local media:
…and that’s only the tip of the iceberg.
This is a long, complicated story so I’ll just summarize it here.
Author Shannon Hale has a full account of her part in this on her Tumblr, but basically, she wrote to Brandenburg and Farr expressing concern after both comments in a news story on Evans’ behavior and a confidential report on the incident seemed to go out of their way to lessen the impact of the harassment by Evans. That would be the same Evans who compared being a white man in America to being taken from your home, starved, and gassed to death a shower.
Brandenburg responded to Hale with the letter reproduced below:
So to break this down a bit, after running down a laundry list of pretty appalling harassment by a bunch of senior figures working for the con – showing that harassment was an ongoing problem at the event – Brandenberg suggested that a best selling female author who was concerned about harassment “sit this one out” – I guess so men would not feel weird about all their hugging fun.
Unsatisfied with this answer, Hale took to twitter to express her concern – and let’s be honest, try to put a little pressure on FanX.
Showing how troubled he was by all of this – ie not at all – Brandenburg the original letter from Hale without covering up her private email address in his own, now deleted tweet.
Context is indeed everything, and that Brandenburg felt that this put him in a more positive light says a lot- although he DID delete all the admissions of previous harassment.
Once this got out, pressure began to build on FanX. Several other authors said they would no longer attend the con. And as the furor grew, it finally seems to have dawned on Brandenburg that lashing out, calling #metoo “trendy” and victim shaming was not the way to go about handling this. And so an apology:
I would like to apologize to Shannon Hale for the events that happened on Twitter today, and my overall handling of the reports of harassment from our last event. In an overly emotional state, I took to social media in response to a tweet that quoted an email exchange between the two of us. In doing so, I didn’t notice my screenshot still contained her personal email. This was overlooked and not meant maliciously. I felt my comments were taken out of context from the original email exchange, and I responded hastily and inappropriately. I deeply regret sending the original email and the tweets that followed. In response to my poorly chosen words about the #metoo movement being “trendy”, I came off insensitive to people’s pain, and I am sorry. After today’s events, I admit that I am not fully aware or educated about the importance of the #metoo movement, and this is something I am actively working to change. I need to improve on listening and making people feel validated.
The last part is certainly true.
As the week has progressed, the outcry only continued; more authors and a publisher dropped out. FANX posted new harassment guidelines. And social media manager Manda Bull was promoted to Communications Manager and posted a long FAQ on Facebook and the FanX site:
Team FanX has learned a lot in the past few weeks about how we communicate with our world-wide audience. Our mistakes have lead us to a new era. Today, in addition to my duties as Social Media Manager, I have been named the Communication Manager for FanX.
We are still working out the details of this change, but one thing is certain: along with our PR Manager Jeremy Kartchner, Marketing Manager Kelsey Kingdon, and Customer Service Manager, Sara Jones, we will make sure our communication with you is much more consistent than it has been in the past.
This is a huge and important task that I do not take lightly. Customer service has always been a big part of my social media position. I have learned a lot over the years, and I always strive to communicate with others with compassion and understanding.
Yesterday, things were said and done that were insensitive and wrong. Even though I know the apologies Bryan Brandenburg published were heartfelt, I understand why some of you are not yet ready to forgive him for his actions. I want to let you know that I have been reading your thoughts, especially on Twitter. I am here today to address concerns you may have with FanX moving forward.
Among the steps – education on harassment, a compliance committee made up of a diverse group of people, more apologies and more emphasis on “Consent is Key,” moving on beyond “Cosplay is not Consent.”
And that brings us to today, when the legitimate outrage over Brandenburg’s continued bungling of what should have been a pretty simple response, and concerns over the safety of guests and fans at the event, led to Brandenburg stepping down to think things over, as announced in yet another contrite statement from Dan Farr.
But it should be noticed – this is just a “leave of absence”. In other words, Brandenburg is laying low which the heat dies down. He[‘ll be back for the show in September. And people are still concerned, especially after his comments on Facebook message groups show he didn’t have a clue what everyone was legitimately concerned about.
Authors and others who’ve taken FanX to task this week say this shows that the focus is still in the wrong place — on the event’s success and reputation, rather than on correcting missteps.
‘They’re making it about emotion, and putting a Band-Aid on something,’ said best-selling Utah author Shannon Hale. Her criticism of how FanX handled a female author’s accusation of inappropriate touching by Utah author Richard Paul Evans set off a week of public controversy.
‘I would like this to be about making sure people are safe, and not just about people getting their feelings hurt,’ she said.
Hale and other authors had contacted Brandenburg and Farr in private for weeks, expressing doubts about organizers’ dedication to stamping out harassment, even as FanX tried to promote a new anti-harassment policy.
Brandenburg, when announcing the policy, posted on Facebook that trying to address concerns while preserving the convention’s fun environment of touch was a ‘dilemma.’”
Keeping guests and fans safe from unwanted touching – let alone all the harassment from the volunteer and photo ops managers is not a “dilemma.” Brandenburg protested that this was a “he said/she said” situation, rocketing back to the pre stone age when women are simply not believed. Given all of Evans admissions that he likes to “hug” who even says there would have been a dispute? What is not in dispute is that hugs can be creepy and wrong when they are non consensual, and that’s pretty simple.
This was not a complicated case where a nuanced approach had to be taken. It was a slowly thrown whiffleball right over the plate that anyone who spends time in the fan space should have been able to whack right out of the park on the first try.
Just as Brandenburg’s stepping down was announced, twitter was pointing out that he was participating in a new secret FB group where he vowed that his was being misunderstood and treated unfairly in the media – if these screencaps are accurate, it would seem Brandenburg’s contrition is for public consumption only.
And far from sitting it out, Hale is sticking with it:
Holy ##%%# @fanxsaltlake do you really feel good about this? Bryan Brandenburg's public "please forgive me" apology sounds hollow when privately he continues to lie about me. What is it going to take? https://t.co/EkRTj7GgTw
— Shannon Hale (@haleshannon) May 24, 2018
We’re months away from FanX in September, but I suspect this fiasco isn’t done yet. And the show already had a lot of controversy. FanX – previously known as the Salt Lake City Comic Con – engaged in a years long legal battle with San Diego Comic-Con over the “Comic-con” trademark. While you can think the trademark was silly, after seeing the stubborn vindictiveness of the original pushback to Hale, you can perhaps guess one of the reasons that battle dragged on for so long – and is still going. Brandenburg was a frequent social media poster claiming this or that legal victory in the battle.
Since he won’t be posting publicly for a while, let’s hope Brandenburg takes a real time out and take some time for some real introspection about the importance of keeping EVERYONE at his shows safe – even female guests.
Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.