Thursday, November 19, 2009

Journalists who don't understand their profession

Three points in response to this unbelievable news out of St. Louis, MO. An anonymous poster to a blog linked to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch posted a one word comment in response to the question of the day: What is the strangest thing you've ever eaten?

His response: pussy.

The moderator of the blog deleted his post. The anonymous commenter re-posted his comment. (Probably thinking it hadn't gone through.) By mechanisms still not well understood by me, something called WordPress, sent Kurt Greenbaum, the author of the blog post and the STL Post-Dispatch's "Director of Social Media", an email, and.....well, why don' we let Kurt describe what happened next."
I deleted it [the second comment], but noticed in the WordPress e-mail alert that his comment had come from an IP address at a local school. So I called the school. They were happy to have me forward the e-mail, though I wasn’t sure what they’d be able to do with the meager information it included.
Well, I'll tell ya what they did with it. The IT department at the school were able to pinpoint the computer and the time and apparently, identify the poster because only one person had access to that computer at that time. So despite the fact that the STL P-D's privacy policy specifically states that they will not share information on posters with third parties without the poster's consent, Greenbaum did exactly that.

When confronted with the news that the anonymous comment had garnered a tattle-tale phone call from the blog owner, the school employee resigned on the spot.

Kurt Greenbaum then posted an account of the situation on the STL P-D website, whereupon he was summarily torn to shreds by every poster (save a handful) to the page.

I have three things to say about this.

1. The glee with which Kurt Greenbaum reports of a person losing their job for posting a mildly vulgar word qualifies him for mayor of Douchebaggerdale.

2. The fact that he vehemently defended his actions when everyone told him what a douchebag he was and the fact he felt blameless for forcing someone out of a job for something that was neither illegal nor immoral is further proof of his douchebaggery. What? You don't believe me? Look at this:

@Ghetto: Yeah, you caught me! I made him log on to his computer at work, visit’s Talk of the Day, read the item, type a vulgarity and hit the “submit” key.

Interesting perspective. Thanks for your contribution.

Oh, I didn’t say he was fired. I said he resigned.

— Kurt Greenbaum 3:31 pm November 16th, 2009
or this:

Blocking IP addresses is a bad idea. You can accidentally block everyone from a particular place of business. I didn’t track down the guy. His place of work just showed up in the email alert because their servers were correctly configured.

Defend the guy who posted the vulgarity all you want. I’m not regulating someone’s thought. He can think whatever he wants. I’m moderating our boards. Follow our guidelines and this won’t be a problem for any of you.

Remember, I said it was a school, right? It could have been a student. I didn’t know who it was. I just thought the school might like to know about it. I sleep fine at night.

— Kurt Greenbaum 4:26 pm November 16th, 2009
Oh, the douchbaggery. It burns.

3. I wouldn't buy a STL Post-Dispatch if my life depended on it. If their Director of Social Media doesn't understand the nature of social media, he deserves to be fired for that alone.

I don't think I have ever heard of a bigger douche than this guy. But by god, don't call him a facist. At the St Louis Post-Dispatch, they'll call out your business for your personal thoughts.

Oh, and what warning do posters get to watch their language by the P-D? If you attempt to post, this is what appears in the comment box.
I guess these guys have never met my mother.

Massive fail, dudes.


  1. The guy sounds like a douchebag... but really? I mean, what if he was researching who the commenter was for a story on, say, the origins of on-line trolling? I mean, it seems to me he did violate the terms of use of the STL-D in contacting the employer, but at least the story you linked to made it seem like he thought he was going to get a student in mild trouble, not get someone fired (or forced to resign).

    Maybe it's the two glasses of wine, but I can't find myself that angry about this. It was a violation of the school employee's rights, but on the scale of things that outrage me about our world, someone pulling a juvenile stunt and getting fired for it -- well, regretable, but that happens every day. Journalistic douchebags -- well, if we're talking about that, I'm far more annoyed at the Freakonomics folks, say. They're both journalistic and academic douches.

    You say their "Director of Social Media" doesn't understand social media sort of confuses me... surely the nature of social media makes immature comments inevitable but surely the second, if not first law of social media is "Don't assume your anonymity is safe." That doesn't make what the poster did illegal or immoral, but the fact that what happened to him (forced out of a job for dubious reasons) happens to many people for reasons far less reasonable or at least more politically interesting than "they made a dipshit comment on a blog from a school computer" sort of makes this low on my list. And then the thing you linked to about being a fascist -- he called the guy's business to ask permission to post his email, for chrissakes. Isn't that what he should do? It was hardly a stakeout; he wanted to print an email making negative comments about him, he called and asked permission to do so. That's more reasonable than the converse, though one certainly can argue he should just ignore it and move on, but on the other hand if he wants to post on emails he considers annoying, well that fits squarely into social media doesn't it? (Whining that you're being persecuted and making fun of your detractors...)

    It all seems over-the-top, but I'd hardly call it d-baggery at it's best, myself. The guy seems to have had a mildly jerkish response (get some kid in trouble), seemingly inadvertently got someone fired, and then was defensive about it. Annoying, but really low on a scale of true pricks, imho.

  2. J, there are two things I think you are failing to see here through your alcoholic fog :P.

    1. A journalist above all other professions should understand the right to anonymity. Journalists bread and butter are anonymous sources. The same rights they extend to sources should also be extended to the general public. Yes, they might cut down on the juvenile bathroom humor if they forced people to sign their real names. However, they also might not get the honest opinions of their readers, nor an honest discussion of issues. If people have to worry what their neighbors and employers will do with their honest opinions, they are much less likely to have a meaningful discussion. Journalists should OVERvalue the right to privacy of people who respond precisely because they should KNOW the value of honest discourse.

    2. The journalist was not being honest when he said that "I didn’t track down the guy. His place of work just showed up in the email alert because their servers were correctly configured." He did "track the guy down" when he did anything at all with that information. Not tracking the guy down would be IGNORING the server from whence it came. He may not PERSONALLY have tracked the guy down, but he contacted a third party who DID track the guy down. He's splitting hairs. That's the kind of shit that douchebags do to cover up the fact that they are massive douchebags.

    Trolls are a fact of the internet. In reality, I don't think this commenter was a troll. I actually think his comment was mildly amusing. Besides, you don't think the question just BEGS for that answer?

    And what if it HAD been a student? You think that student would have gotten a smack on the hand? Oh hell no. That student would have been expelled, probably brought up on charges of sexual harassment, misuse of school equipment, banned from every after-school activity s/he was in, and more than likely sent to a school for troubled youth. Ever heard of zero tolerance policies? They kicked a fucking first grader out of school for bringing a cub scout spoon/fork/knife utensil to school.

    You seriously underestimate, as this guy did, what schools are up to these days. Public schools are the last refuge of the thought police.

    On another note, the people who agreed with what Greenbaum did, generally agreed with him because they didn't want "that kind of person" working with children. They are assuming that it was a classroom teacher when, in fact, that was never established. It could have been a grounds worker or a custodian or a lunchroom worker.

    The guy never considered that he was violating his own employers policy, was proud of himself for his actions, repeatedly defended himself as having NOT violated his own employer's policy, and STILL thinks that he was right in his actions.

    DOUCHEBAGGERY at it's finest!

  3. Eh, I still think you're way overestimating the pertinent douchebaggery here.

    Journalists should appreciate anonymity? Surely you realize, they only appreciate it when it serves them. As well they should -- I would say hunting down people's activities or identities in defiance of social norms is invaluable when it is, say, whistleblowing or other historical investigation. The fact that he didn't respect anonymity in this case I think has very little to do with journalistic etiquette, which has always been very malleable anyway, though it quite certainly is a breach of several other trusts. But c'mon, with douchebaggery available every day at Fox News or on talk radio or, hey, Olbermann half the time (I think he's done some brilliant journalism and some cringefully yellow journalism as well), or Tucker Carlson just by breathing, when there is douchebaggery like Judith Miller's reporting or Ann Coulter's calling the 9-11 widows names or the daily slog of the news that highlights crimes of African Americans disproportionately, when the numerical majority of crimes are committed by (duh) the majority race in the US, when the news companies defend a lack of both international and local news, or when they follow up talking about natural disasters and death with Boinko the Bouncing Elephant -- all those are douchebaggeries of far greater distinction in my opinion. Oh, sure, much of that douchebaggery is systematic, but that to me doesn't particularly excuse it.

    No, I disagree with you that guy broke journalistic ethics, as they only defend anonymity of their own sources, not the right to anonymity more generally. I don't think I've ever seen them maintain the slightest pretense of the latter. It was dickish, but it also was no more than what a hacker or troll might do to someone; it would be dickish at the hands of a hacker and much more so in that of a journo, but hardly uniquely so.

    I also don't think the guys comment was particularly being begged for; for one thing, it's obviousness makes it way unfunny in my eyes. It's not even shockingly vulgar (say, "your mom's pussy"), which, if you're going to make a trolly anonymous comment, you may as well be shockingly inappropriate, not making a response that would be passé for a 12 year old.

    What the guy did was wrong, I perfectly agree with that. But in the scale of wrongs, both dickish and horrible, it barely merits a beep in my book. Indeed, I place more blame on the school (assuming they pressured the dude to quit) as it seems like his comment was, if possibly ill-advised and certainly trolly, quaint, and juvenile, pretty much harmless. You're right that schools are often thought police (though I'm not utterly convinced they would've overreacted had a student been the culprit; we hear about such overreactions all the time, but that is why they are newsworthy and memorable: they are hardly what happens uniformly, even if they happen too often) and if that was the case here, the shame is more on them. Journos are often inquisitive, sneaky, and slightly to very shifty or ethically gray. Much of our best reporting has come from ethically gray actions; the fact that this guy did it over something so inconsequential makes him a dick, but only in the ridiculously small scope of the deed, not in its quality.