Times fight

Times fight

: In his Sunday column, Dan Okrent named one specific letter-writer for sending bile to The Times. I chose not to name the name (though I did Google him) because this is their fight and I don’t know where this he-wrote-she-wrote will land (and I then took Okrent to task for more generally criticizing bloggers as the muse of poison-pen-letter writers). But the named name just left a comment on this blog and so I’ll bring it out and quote him in full. First, here’s what Okrent wrote:

But before I turn over the podium, I do want you to know just how debased the level of discourse has become. When a reporter receives an e-mail message that says, “I hope your kid gets his head blown off in a Republican war,” a limit has been passed.

That’s what a coward named Steve Schwenk, from San Francisco, wrote to national political correspondent Adam Nagourney several days ago because Nagourney wrote something Schwenk considered (if such a person is capable of consideration) pro-Bush. Some women reporters regularly receive sexual insults and threats. As nasty as critics on the right can get (plenty nasty), the left seems to be winning the vileness derby this year. Maybe the bloggers who encourage their readers to send this sort of thing to The Times might want to ask them instead to say it in public. I don’t think they’d dare.

And now here’s what Steve Schwenk — and I presume it to be him — left as a comment below:

For a man who bemoans the absence of civility on the left, Okrent sure has a strange way of dealing with it.

He not only distorted what I said in my e-mail, but he called me a coward and told the entire country who I am and where I live after very effectively making me out to be a monster.

My kids were terrified by the never ending phone calls and hang ups. My daughter asked what we should do if a mob came to the house to get us. And needless to say, the humiliation I now have to experience in responding to the repeated inquiries about whether that was really me will go one for weeks. Did I mention that I am looking for a job?

The worst part is that the bastard completely distorted what my e-mail said and why I was complaining. He left out the 99% that raised legitimate questions and focused only on the sensational words of anger I regretfully used.

Thanks, Daniel Okrent. And thanks, to you too, “Adam.” I all but pleaded with them not to do it, that it would really harm me and was an unfair response to a private e-mail. Okrent’s assistant hung up on me and Nagourney laughed me off, like it was his right to harm me since he works at the NYT and thinks he’s a star.

And they wonder why people are angry.

And you can see what I said below.

Well, Schwenk does say that he is regretful about the words he used.

The object lesson is that this is where anger and mud inevitably leads: to bile and venom and words or actions regretted.

It is our role in this new medium of communication to get people communicating before it gets that far.

: UPDATE: Some additional thoughts above the filthy fray, above.

: Schwenk’s open letter to Okrent. Chris Nolan’s post about it.

  • http://inspiredkazoo.blogspot.com Brett

    Trying to elevate the election discussion, take a look at this:
    If we can steer people away from “voting against” and instead toward “voting for,” I think it will help.

  • http://www.anildash.com/ Anil

    It’s funny, I’ve been ruminating on what an uncivil community we’ve made in weblogs, especially around political weblogs, and it looks like it’s spreading to print journalism. Not exactly the impact I was hoping we’d have. I wrote more about it here:

  • Mike G

    Why would any level of Bush-hating craziness be an employment disadvantage in San Francisco?

  • http://RuthCalvo Ruth

    A friend who happens to be an attorney was commenting on how great it is that people consider emails to be like private conversation. It isn’t. In legal terminology, it’s ‘disoverable’, meaning that it can be subpoenaed.
    Don’t write an email you don’t ever want to see again, please. You aren’t as anonymous as you think.

  • pdq332

    Well, Schwenk does say that he is regretful about the words he used.
    He is **now** regretful. At the time, he was drunk on his own sense of self importance. The strategic importance of humility is that it makes a smaller target ;-)

  • pdq332

    Well, Schwenk does say that he is regretful about the words he used.
    He is **now** regretful. At the time, he was drunk on his own sense of self importance. The strategic importance of humility is that it makes a smaller target ;-)

  • http://www.elflife.com/ carsonfire

    I completely agree with Ruth. You should never assume anonymity in emails, or really anything you do on the internet.
    This isn’t an evil Bush administration thing, either. I’m sure I’d be running for cover, too, if I were outed for saying that Kerry or some Kerry supporter should get their heads blown off, taken out of context or not. Uncivil discourse leads to uncivil reactions.

  • Tim

    Schwenk’s follow up letter to the Times.

  • Tim

    Schwenk’s follow up letter to the Times.

  • a.moose

    And Jeff, what has your role been in promoting such ugly encounters? Your snarkiness, your pettiness, etc.?

  • a.moose

    And Jeff, what has your role been in promoting such ugly encounters? Your snarkiness, your pettiness, etc.?

  • Old Grouch

    One man’s snark is another’s deadly insult. That’s what emoticons are for ;-)

  • paladin

    This is why we need legislation (or something) to administer real consequences to reporters (or whatever) who set out to destroy a man’s (or woman’s) reputation. This should not stand. There should be a law against this sort of media character assassination. This guy sent what he thought was a private email and suddenly he is the object of a national hate campaign. The press needs more oversite, not less, I don’t care who feels “chilled”.

  • http://anildash.com/ Anil

    Paladin, do you think bloggers should have to face those “real consequences” as well?

  • htom

    I’d like to see the full texts of both sets of emails, please, before I begin to have an opinion about their authors.
    About someone who’ll publish one sentence from an exchange … those folk are easier to form opinions of.

  • paladin

    Anil, shouldn’t we all be held accountable for what we say and do? Does MSM get a pass? Why?

  • sauer38h

    So, just what is a “Republican” war, anyway? Is that meant in the same sense that World Wars 1 and 2, Korea, and Vietnam were “Democratic” wars?
    Is anybody threatening to blow the heads off Schwenk’s kids? If not, does he really have any legit grounds for complaint?
    I haven’t been too knocked out by Okrent’s performance so far at the Paper of Record – he seems as devious and self-serving as one might expect a Times flack to be. His attempt to blame everything – short of bad weather – on weblogs is symptomatic. Maybe he and trolls like Schwenk deserve each other.

  • david

    The only one whose reputation will be tarnished by this will be Okrent. Even his “friends” now know he is a vindictive scumbag. He’ll get what’s coming to him.

  • Mike

    paladin, emails are not private, it is Steve’s fault for assuming so. Although I do agree that the entire letter should have been referenced, or atleast more than Okrent cited.
    And the answer to this situation is not more laws (we have libel laws for mischaracterizations of someone in the press), the answer is not writing such idiotic and caustic emails in the first place. Mr. Schwenk should first be looking at himself as the cause of this due to his inflammatory statement.

  • Larry

    Doesn’t it seem odd that this guy wouldn’t have connected his own inappropriate expression of anger with those he himself experienced? Wouldn’t it have been better if he’d given any indication that he’d learned a lesson about the limits of civilzed discourse, rather than simply playing the worn-out victim card again?

  • http://ekcupchai.typepad.com MD

    You know, a couple of years ago when I first started reading blogs, I sent a snarky e-mail to Josh Marshall. He very rightly sent me back an e-mail calling me on my snarkiness. I was thoroughly ashamed of myself after reading his reply and sent him an apology. Why did I think e-mails or blog comments should be any different from the other forms of communication I normally use? I try to be polite in my ‘real’ life – why did I behave differently in this instance because I was dealing with someone from a blog? I have no idea.
    So, from that moment on I’ve tried to be polite and reasonable in comments and e-mails to bloggers. I can’t say I’m perfect, but I try. And the whole politeness thing really works (I guess Mom was right!). I tend to get back very thoughtful replies. So, Mr. Schwenk was definitely wrong to use such extreme language, but it might have been nice, or rather, civil, for the NYT to accept his apology and use the example without ‘outing’ him.

  • Mike

    Sorry, but I don’t see Schwenk’s follow-up letter as an apology. And I don’t see is stated anywhere that he has apologized. Being regretful is not the same as telling someone you are sorry. In his follow-up letter, he is merely speculating that the intentions of Nagourney and Okrent were to harm him, while he meant no ill will even if he regretfully chose such despicable words.
    I don’t think he has learned from his mis-step as you have MD.

  • http://www.2020hindsight.org Susan Kitchens

    Via Chris Nolan‘s blog (she agrees with you, btw, in critiquing MSM for not admitting to its own bias), this link to Schwenk’s Open Letter to Daniel Okrent.
    Closing ‘graf:

    Let me close by pledging that, henceforth, I shall write all of my e-mails as though they will be published in the New York Times. I shall write them with the care, consideration and respect for civil discourse that one would expect from the public editor of the nation’s leading newspaper. I will write them as though I am writing a respected column that will be read by people around the world, and that will be captured in Google forever. My parting request to you, Mr. Okrent, should your choose not to do the honorable thing and resign, is that you pledge to never again write a column for the New York Times as though you are writing a private, angry and hostile e-mail to an audience of one.

  • Scott Harris

    No sympathy for Schwenk here. You cannot throw bombs, and not expect to get hit with the fall-out.

  • http://www.sidesalad.net Jeff

    Anvil wrote:
    “I’ve been ruminating on what an uncivil community we’ve made in weblogs, especially around political weblogs.”
    Why would blogs be any different than the lack of civility we’ve seen in everyday life? Blogs aren’t some sort of greenhouse for hatred. They’re conduits for expression.
    I see nothing unique online that I don’t hear in everyday life.

  • http://www.musingsofafatkid.blogspot.com fat kid

    No sympathy for Schwenk here. You cannot throw bombs, and not expect to get hit with the fall-out.

    I concur. Same thing happened to me about a year ago on a motorcycle messageboard. You see the level of discourse start to plummet and what a vicious circle it is. The bummer is, it only takes a few snarky comments and the whole thing goes to pot.
    Maybe we come up with a new meme like “Godwin’s Law“. Heh.
    However, I dont think it’s something we’ll ever *solve* – as long as any of us can snipe safely from the sidelines, it’s going to be in our nature to “win” the argument and make the opposition look foolish. *shrugs* What’s that old car vandalism case I read about on Volokh a while ago? Feh. The more people reading blogs and getting fired up about politics, the worse it’s going to get. Although the readers of this site may decide to remain civil, there’s someone new reading it every day – and all you need is one snarky comment to fire up a whole new generation of flame-wars.

  • David

    There is really a lesson in all of this. When you write an email when you are angry you should not send it until some time later to see if you say something regretful.
    This man’s daughters and wife do not need or deserve the hate. But the writer of the email needs to be excoriated. Not for his disagreement with NYT but for his rotten choice of words. The NYT has noted hate letters to them from both right and left. They are shocked that the left (whom they prefer) in this campaign seems to play the role of the SA.
    Now this independent wants to ask his good friends in the Democratic party why I shouldn’t hold my vote (for the very first time in my life)for all Democrats this November. There are several races in my state and district where I have no intention of voting for the Republican. As this kind of crap continues it is becoming increasing likely that I will not vote for any Democrat in those races as well (just under vote the line).

  • fat kid

    Why would blogs be any different than the lack of civility we’ve seen in everyday life? Blogs aren’t some sort of greenhouse for hatred. They’re conduits for expression.

    Uh, see my comment – we can all hide behind our monitor. Only when we say something stupid and someone ‘calls us out’ are we sorry.
    The ‘pussification of America’ rolls on. :D

  • http://irrationalist.blogspot.com David O’Connor

    I’m coming late to the conversation, but had some thoughts.
    Paladin wrote:
    This is why we need legislation (or something) to administer real consequences to reporters (or whatever) who set out to destroy a man’s (or woman’s) reputation. This should not stand. There should be a law against this sort of media character assassination.
    There is such a law. The law of libel applies to MSM and to bloggers alike. For someone to be guilty of libel, defamation must be proved. Defamation is basically harm to reputation. Damages also have to be proved. Some helpful info:
    (note: I am not affiliated with the above-linked law firm, I just googled it and thought that the explanation was worthwhile.)
    Anil then wrote
    Paladin, do you think bloggers should have to face those “real consequences” as well?
    As I said above, libel law applies to what bloggers write. Therefore bloggers are currently facing the real consequences of what they write (and quite properly so, in my opinion). Bloggers are arguably *more* susceptible to the “real consequences” of being sued for libel as most bloggers lack the legal resources of such media giants as the NYT, or CBS (for example).
    Excellent discussion of this topic at:
    http://www.exgaywatch.com/xgw/2003/12/blogging_and_li.html (again, no affiliation).

  • http://bcostin.typepad.com Bryan C

    Bah. I’m not Okrent’s biggest fan, but he’s done nothing wrong in this case. Schwenk said vile things in an email to a newspaper, and now he has to deal with the anger his comments caused. “Regret” is fine, but it doesn’t absolve one from the consequences of one’s words or actions.

  • http://lonewacko.com The Lonewacko Blog

    Ruth: I’m sure you meant discoverable and not disoverable.
    I try to only send polite emails to ombudsmen and the like, honey vs. vinegar and all. However, if a reporter is a lost cause, I relax the rules a bit. But, I’d certainly try to avoid sending something in which even a sentence could be taken out of context and used against me.

  • Franky

    I don’t agree with Okrent 100% (although I am in sympathy for someone having to face the consequences of being a loudmouth behind a computer screen), but this is definitely uncool to post a man’s address and phone number. Okrent did nothing similar.
    Jeff, I think you should remove the post.

  • Franky

    Well, now I look like a madman!

  • Jim C.

    I agree with david: it’ll be interesting to see if Okrent gets into any trouble for attacking a fellow leftie.
    From Schwenk’s follow-up letter (emphasis added): “My parting request to you, Mr. Okrent, should your choose not to do the honorable thing and resign, is that you pledge to never again write a column for the New York Times as though you are writing a private, angry and hostile e-mail to an audience of one.”
    This is not what a man who is sorry for his actions would write. He still thinks he can hold others to standards he himself does not follow. He thinks he should be polite only when it might come back to him. He has learned nothing. He has proven Okrent’s point in spades.
    It reminds me of Clinton’s saying he learned “humility”, but still accusing others of being out to get him. Or of Marion Barry after he was caught red-handed with cocaine, saying he was “set up”.

  • wag

    Honestly I can’t belive you guys agree with this. Okrent could easily have said ‘Steve from San Francisco’. Adding the ‘Schwenk’ ensured lots of threats from angry bush-backers. Lets be honest here: those of you who are for this “outing” by Okrent are Bush fans aren’t you?

  • Rick

    I have just a few uncivil comments to make:
    First, Schwenk should have used the adverb “regrettably”, not “regretfully”. He may be regretful, but his words were regrettable. Doesn’t anyone speak English anymore?
    Second, I stopped reading anything with Nagourney’s byline a long time ago, but I will have to track this item down to see what he said that was “pro-Bush”, especially enough so to arouse the response he got from Schwenk.
    Third, watching this fight between Daniel Okrent and Steve Schwenk puts me in mind of the mountain man watching his wife fight off a grizzly, who remarked that this was the first fight he’d watched where he was absolutely impartial.

  • http://RuthCalvo Ruth

    Right you are, lonewacko, I was not rereading closely and it is ‘discoverable’ indeed. And thanks, carsonfire, glad to see you understand. It’s not a conspiracy theory, it’s simple realism.
    We see something like ‘road rage’ break out occasionally on these communications, where people think they are anonymous and can say things they wouldn’t otherwise. Sad. Civility is something we owe ourselves, not just other people. Jeff sees it more than the rest of us, and good for him he’s sensitive to it.

  • david

    >Okrent did nothing similar.
    Ohh please give us a break! Okrent put the guys last name along with what city he lived in…he might as well have given the guys address…because in the internet world anyone can find out that Schwenks middle initial is “X” in about ten seconds. OKRENT knew this and from what Schwenk says Nagourney laughed about it because the reporter in him must have know this also.
    Funny how when the article first appeared Jarvis felt it was “fine” that Okrent had put the guys name in the column but now he tells us “boys and girls” to “behave” because NOW he find it to be a “filthy fray.” hmmm it must have become a filty fray when his limousine liberal elitist mediawhore friend found himself being attacked by some lefties who don’t like what he did.

  • http://www.buzzmachine.com Jeff Jarvis

    Whoa, David, I did not say it was fine. You are making that up. I specifically said that I chose not to quote his name myself… until he left a comment under his name here. Look at your comment and now imagine saying it face to face with me. You don’t even have the courage to put your full name on the post. Get out of my face. Speak with a civil tongue or don’t bother.

  • david

    >Finally, Okrent QUITE PROPERLY goes after
    >critics who turn vicious — even naming one.
    >FINE. But then he tars all bloggers with that
    >same brush:
    Back then you thought it was QUITE PROPER and FINE now you find it a “filthy fray”…it only became a filthy fray when the left decided to fight back.
    Okrent put Schwenks last name and city he lived in along with a nasty quote about “republican wars”, he more than likely knew that the freppers would go after this guy.

  • fat kid

    I believe it’s “freepers”. ;)

  • Kim

    Okrent is a disappointment. He wrote a bias, skewered, cherry picked piece about bias. “The public editor serves as the readers’ representative” In what way was Okrent representing the public in this article? He goes on to say “I also don’t wish to discourage readers….”. He can’t be serious. He just outed people in his column. He even judged them. If they want to counter him what is their recourse?
    According to Okrent bias is in the eye of the beholder, right? So then would it not be fair to say left-leaning editors will not notice left leaning bias.
    You want to solve the transparency issue start by putting party affiliation after the name of the journalist regardless of what the story is about.
    Look, everyone has their ideological committments. The public is questioning the placing of ideology above objective truth. Is it possible to write without bias? No it isn’t. It isn’t ok to just make sh*t up and pass it off as good information either. Blair (and many others) and now Rather have been caught passing bad information to the public. The public/bloggers/commenters charged them with journalistic malpractice. Blogs are enabling part of the public to bypass the old “feedback” method. At this point I believe the public, via blogs, has sent a very clear message to legacy media outlets, stop skewering the information so as to manipulate us to your preordained conclusions.
    Kaus has it right, ” New York Times ombudsman Dan Okrent has finally been pummeled by reader criticism into a useless, angry defensive institutional crouch.” Time to move him to the op-ed page.

  • http://itznewstome.blogspot.com Jim B

    What Schwenk did was beyond the pale, and he’s angry at having to face the same sort of hate that he leveled at someone else.
    I don’t approve of anyone wishing death on anyone else over matters of policy. But Schwenk wished personal harm on the writer’s **CHILD**.
    There’s no excuse for that, and Schwenk’s response shows a clear lack of understanding about how beyond the bounds of acceptable discourse his letter went.
    Should he have his full name published? Absolutely…He has no relationship to Nagourney, so he had no expectation that his e-mail was “private.” It was in response to an article Nagourney had written, a function of Nagourney’s job – not his personal life. If Schwenk had written to a personal acquaintance regarding a private comment, then he might have a point.
    What he did was essentially write a “Letter to the Editor” directly to Adam Nagourney, and the paper published it. Shocker! Gasp! Oh no!
    If Steve Schwenk truly cared about his family, his career, etc. he would have taken 30 seconds to realize that he had no right to do what he did. Every choice we make in life has consequences. We all have to live with them. Schwenk’s just mad that he has to live with his.

  • Steve Schwenk

    Some seem to think that because I SAID something “wrong” or foolish, it’s ok for a huge corporate media power to take retalitory actions and do anything and everything they want in response no matter how out of scale or how damaging, so long as it does not break the law. But I did not break the law either. Why am I held to a moralistic standard (“What a ‘bad’ thing to say”) and they are only held to the standards set by criminal or civil law?
    It’s a morality I find to be rather bankrupt, really. Someone else’s bad act should not grant license to others to act immorally themselves. It’s not an uncommon moral outlook, though.
    Likewise, Jim, just because one person does something wrong, does this mean that others should then be permitted to do bad things to that person and not be held accountable for thier conduct? I never wrote to Okrent, BTW. Or the NYT. I wrote to Nagourney. If I committed a wrong act, it was against him and only him.

  • Steve Schwnek

    But Schwenk wished personal harm on the writer’s **CHILD**.
    Nagourney has no children.

  • http://www.buzzmachine.com Jeff Jarvis

    You are losing whatever points you get for saying once you regret your words.
    You went over the line. Regret it and move on. The more you shuffle your feet, the deeper you dig your hole.
    It does NOT matter whether the man has children. I’ll just bet you did not know that. Your aim was to say something nasty and you said it. Admit it. Apologize. Move on.

  • ZF

    Look, much of this is inevitable as we are all learning how to use this new medium.
    When cars first came along there were a lot of crashes. Now we drive better, and we have jokes about recent immigrants crashing their cars too often (in California ‘DWA’ = ‘Driving While Asian’).
    In England we got sugar from the West Indies in the 1600’s. A whole generation went crazy with it and ruined their teeth, and the next generation got smarter.
    My prediction: manners will improve on the web over time.

  • Steve Schwenk

    I did take responsibility for my actions promptly, right away, in the comments below this post, one of the few places i have posted anything:
    And I am sending Nagourney an apology.
    But what Okrent did to me is something independent of what I did, and should be judged on it’s own merits. I never sent him an e-mail or anything else. I have only sought here to restore and defend my name against his smear, to try to undo some of the damage done, not to justify what I said, which is something I have not attempted to do at all anywhere.
    Thanks for your comments, though, and for the opportunity to comment myself.

  • Steve Schwenk

    I’m posting the quotes below just to supplement the record and to dispel a misimpression i appear to have left, not to extend the discussion. I see no point in extending it any further and do not intend to comment further.
    It is fair criticism to say that the one sentence from my e-mail that Okrent quoted was idiotic and juvenile.

    I agree my choice of words was out of line and wrong. I was angry and made a stupid mistake. An e-mail can be too easy to send sometimes. But these are very emotional topics and issues with high stakes and with the heat turned way up due to the very close and hard fought election. Even decent people can lose their tempers and say stupid things under such circumstances. The Times knows that.
    My error deserves condemnation, and I accept it….
    October 11, 2004 12:09 AM
    Comment From ‘An Editorial Fatwa’

  • http://RuthCalvo Ruth

    good on you, Mr. Scwenk.
    May we all be so gracious, sometimes.

  • http://patterico.com/ Patterico

    Hey Steve Schwenk,
    How about posting the entire content of your e-mail here so we can see the context? I, for one, am curious.
    I am torn about this. On one hand, you seem to agree that you said something over the line. A line of reasoning says: take your lumps.
    On the other, I think what bothers me most is Nagourney’s laugh. He knew you were panicked, he knew the immense power of his paper to destroy people, and he thought it was funny because he was peeved at you, and he figured the response was justifiable because it’s your own fault anyway.
    On that level, the episode seems to illustrate for me the media arrogance that bothers me more than anything else about folks in Big Journalism. They are used to having their way, and they know that you can’t respond effectively because you have a smaller voice than they. And so they become bullies. Generally they feel they have right on their side, of course, but they get drunk with their own power. You are right that the response truly was out of proportion to the offense, and you tried to tell them that, but they don’t care.
    And I’m saying this as a conservative who likely would have been pissed off by your e-mail.
    Which I would still like to read in its entirety.

  • http://the-paris-hilton.blogspot.com/ Bob Spears

    I have often woke up early received comments from clients for example and then responded with extremely harsh comments. I can assure you that I agree with the time out for cooling off before sending an email when you are pissed.