The DM came on the Friday after Thanksgiving, one of the year's slowest news days. That was not what made it surprising.
"Hey Dave," wrote CJ Pearson. "Since you've reported on me before, I'd like to offer you an exclusive."
I had not talked to Pearson for two months, since the 13-year-old YouTube star fabricated a story about the president of the United States blocking him on Twitter. Pearson had vaulted from YouTube into a quasi-serious political role, leading a "Teens for Ted" outreach group for Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), and appearing on Fox News to talk about liberal bias. Still, my article about that saga felt like a one-off, partly because of its strangeness, and partly because Pearson quickly blocked me on Twitter and egged on conservatives who wanted to know why the media was picking on him.
But Pearson was apparently changing his mind about the media, and about me. In mid-November, he had e-mailed Oliver Darcy, the editor and reporter at the Blaze who broke the Twitter hoax story, with a brief apology and confession. He had fessed up completely to faking the "block," using someone else's block and passing it off as his own even after being caught.
"Being 13 years old, I make mistakes everyday," wrote Pearson, who explained that he was trying to make a point about the White House's embrace of the "clock kid" in Texas. "Everyday, I learn from them."
Pearson had forwarded that apology to me, and now he was pitching me. The story was about CJ Pearson "considering myself not a conservative anymore." I hesitated; between the hatemail-generating power of the first story and the fact that it was the Friday after Thanksgiving, I wasn't sure whether Pearson's saga needed to be told.
A few hours later, CNN ran with it, under the headline "Viral teen YouTube star renounces conservatism." My instincts were shot; the Internet very much wanted to talk about CJ Pearson. "I was tired of being a champion of a party that turned a blind eye to racial discrimination," he explained to CNN, and in no time at all he was carrying on a conversation/fact-finding mission with Black Lives Matter activist DeRay McKesson.
He was clapping back at the "haters" who made fun of the switch.
Pearson was engaged in a rebranding campaign, if nothing else, so I officially checked in with him. The first thing he wanted the world to know was that he had not done a political 180, CNN headline or no.
"Instead of using the word 'renounced,' I think stepping back from labels describes my actions much more appropriately," Pearson explained. "I didn't want to be remembered as the 'anti-Obama' kid. I wanted to be a voice for my generation and I understand that I couldn't do that by not listening to the other side, due to how politically diverse my generation is."
He was rejecting labels, and all it took was one conversation. "My change of heart comes on the heels of an impactful conversation with my good friend, 13 year old Evrie," said Pearson. "There’s this big event called the Slut Walk — have you heard of it? It’s kind of like a feminist statement, where young women dress provocatively, to make the point that nothing a girl is wearing is an excuse to assault her. She was defending that, and I said: You’ve got a point. Then we started talking about racial justice."
That conversation turned into Pearson's final (for now) video, about Laquan McDonald's death at the hands of Chicago police. "This is an issue where conservatives and liberals should come together," Pearson said, facing the same camera that had recorded his endorsement of Cruz and his challenge to debate the president. "What if that happened to me? What if I, being innocent, was gunned down?"
Pearson wrestled with whether to post that. "I said to Evrie, if I did, my fans wouldn’t be receptive," he recalled. "But I didn’t want to be a puppet of anyone’s ideology."
Had he been one before? "As far as my opinions in my videos, there are a few that I would step back from," said Pearson. "Mostly the ones focused on race. However, I still stand by most of my prior opinions. My criticism of President Obama still stands. I am still a conservative leaning person."
Pearson was adamant that his story had almost nothing in common with the tales of other "wunderkinds" who quit the right. In 2013, when 18-year-old Jonathan Krohn renounced his work (including a book) as a conservative teen pundit, he did so on the front page of the New York Times's style section. Pearson would not be having that. "To compare me to Jonathan Krohn is literally insane," he said. "Krohn took a 360 and went over to the liberals. I just took a step back, and I think that’s an admirable trait."
If it was, the conservatives who'd grown tired of Pearson could not tell. "That Pearson kid will now finally get the attention he's been seeking," snarked Erick Erickson, the longtime editor of RedState. Pearson's personal Icarus moment had inspired other pundits to vent about why, exactly, their movement kept elevating teenagers who could rattle off inspiring sentences, but did not quite understand what they were saying.
And Pearson's visibility had suffered from the blocking hoax. He had left "Teens for Ted" with no fanfare at all. Write-ups of his career mentioned how many millions of people he'd reached on social media, yet only one of his post-scandal videos broke five digits on the viewmeter.
Pearson was already adapting to that, announcing on Twitter that he was probably going to put down his camera and switch to writing. Perhaps racial and criminal justice, issues that the right and left had met on, could become his new focus.
"Both parties don't have the best track record when it comes to racial discrimination but that's okay," he offered. "Why? Because it's up to people of color to help them understand. Being 13 years old, I don't think I've ever experienced a personal type of racism but systemic racism still definitely exists. That's a problem that needs quality policy solutions."
Would it need CJ Pearson? He hoped so. After all, he'd revealed the truth about his hoax, and claimed a new freedom for himself. All he needed were people to keep caring about what he thought, people who would be just as interested in him now that the "anti-Obama kid" hook was finished.
"I remember sometimes wanting to speak about an incident, and not being brave enough to do so, because I'd lose fans," he said. "I don't think like that anymore."