Mad media

Mad media

: Some more thoughts on the Okrent/Schwenk exchange I chronicle reluctantly below:

Folks fire off angry emails … blog posts … columns … talk-show calls … talk-show rants … movies … ads … billboards … forum posts … or whatever….

It’s mad media.

And for a minute, mad media may feel good, like a sniper shot in an arcade game: Got ‘im!

But when and if civility returns, mad media feels disgusting and dirty.

For you forget that you are dealing with a human being.

Whether that human being — your target — is a reporter or a politician or a columnist or a blogger or a someone you see on TV or hear on radio or read online…. it’s still a fellow human being. When you try to inflict pain, you usually will.

You forget that at the peril of your own civility.

That is why I’ve been obsessing on the mud of this campaign: because mud begets mud, it oozes and spreads and dirties everything and everyone around it; it splatters where you don’t expect. It’s hard to contain mud.

In this campaign, far too many people have trafficked in mud: the candidates, their campaigns, newspaper columnists, news executives, news stars, bloggers, commenters, moviemakers, “special-interest groups”….

And what have we all gotten from it? Dirtier and dirtier, that’s all.

In this little Okrent/Nagourney/Schwenk melodrama, we see a story that has gone too far. Schwenk should not have said what he said; it is impardonable to wish ill upon another man’s child — impardonable — and Schwenk, sadly, then got a taste of his own bile when his own children got scared, something that also should not have happened. Nagourney and Okrent also would have had a far better moral to their story if they had indeed confronted Schwenk before the column was printed; I’ll bet he would have seen the error of his words then — when confronted at a human level — and they could have used this to remind us all of our duty to act civilly to each other. Instead, they shot back. So now that’s happening in public. Fine. Let it be a lesson to all:

Mud gets you dirty.

And in this time when the uncivilized of the world are attacking us, it is more important than ever that we preserve civilization and that we behave civilly to each other.

As I said below, the real potential of this new medium is that it can cause conversation — rather than shouting matches. With the immediacy and intimacy and urgency of this medium, we can and should talk and air our issues and we and democracy will be better off for it. I’ve seen it happen online (and I’ve seen it not happen); take your pick. You want to wallow in mud media or do you want to get somewhere? The choice is yours every time you hit the “send” button.

Behave, boys and girls. Please, behave.

  • fat kid

    the real potential of this new medium is that it can cause conversation — rather than shouting matches.

    Only if people take time to post responses, and consider how they will be received. In order for that to happen, a paradigm shift is going to be required.

  • fat kid

    Yes. I know I can’t spell.
    QED, self-fulfilling prophecy? Who’s to say? Hehe.

  • Alaska Jack

    I’ve read the original article, the open letter, and all the comments, and frankly, I’m just not shedding any tears for the guy.
    Shwenk complains: “And when people see in their search results that it is the esteemed New York Times that has branded me an inconsiderate coward, they are, ironically, likely to *believe* it [my emphasis] to be true without any second thought.
    The reason NYT readers might BELIEVE it to be true is because it IS true (or at least, it was). Schwenk really seems to have a problem coming to terms with this. Google is simply showing us, and prospective employers, something that’s true: Schwenk is a guy who might possibly, at some time, say or write something spiteful and hurtful. He might regret it later, but by that time it might be too late. If that gives employers pause, Schwenk has only himself to blame.
    – Alaska Jack

  • sbw

    Some people think the purpose of a comment is to win, when actually it is to understand something more clearly.

  • Andy

    If mud begets mud what does union violence beget?
    A crime that will not be investigated or prosecuted. If campaign violence is not prosecuted will they ever prosecute voter registration fraud?
    If one side does it more than the other, what happens to the one who does it less? How does the one who does it less respond to the loss of rights and election?
    Do we need political parties to become their own vigilante commission to protect their property, volunteers and voters?
    I suggest that the absence of civility and escalation of criminal activity is a direct result of failure to prosecute crimes. If one party cries “political persecution” when the laws are enforced against transgressors what should the other party do?
    Cloaking acts of violence and fraud as political acts and failing to prosecute them only assures an increase.
    Why do you decry the loss of civility and not the rise in violence and fraud? Why do you not support firm prosecution of voter fraud?
    When Guillani went after squeege men, grafitti, panhandling, public urinating what happened to the larger crimes?

  • fat kid

    Socratic questioning: that’s one skill I’ve got to hone up on. :D

  • Tim

    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.

    I doubt that many bloggers encourage their readers to send hostile and/or threatening correspondence to anyone. Most remind to be polite. I wouldn’t be surprised if less thoughtful bloggers on the Left and Right (even high traffic ones) write and invective-laced and hate-inspiring post with the gentile reminder at the end, in disclaimer format, to be nice.
    But I wonder, isn’t Okrent guilty of encouraging hate-mail to Schwenk? First and last name with city is a pretty good indication of a “hunt this guy down” directive, no? Maybe there was a little, want to see what a NYT flash mob is like buddy?

  • Jay

    Tim – I agree. Schwenk didn’t violate any laws. His comment, though vile, isn’t an incitement to violence or a threat. Okrent and the Times come off of this looking petty.

  • Paul Brinkley

    I agree fully with the message you wrote, Jeff, including (and especially) the sentiment.
    Downside: if Nagourney and Okrent had confronted Schwenk before printing, they would have had a better moral, but would anyone have known about it? It seems to me that the issue would have wrapped itself up quietly. Even if Schwenk had the inspirational chops to write a public apology that did proper justice to Okrent, the Times, and bloggers, I doubt I would have ever seen it. (Assuming arrogantly for the moment that if I don’t see it, neither does your typical Average Blogsurfing Joe.)

  • Kim

    As I understand this sordid tale there were email exchanges between Okrent, Nagourney and Schwenk in which Schwenk pleaded with them not to print his name. Does the printing of Schwenk’s name and city mean that the Times has turned over a new leaf on sources? Can we now expect Judith Miller to out her source or does taking your frustration out on a reader somehow come before national security?

  • Steve Schwenk

    I have only a few minutes, so I have to be quick. First of all, Nagourney has no kids, he’s gay. I knew that. And he knows that.
    Given these facts, my wishing his non-existing son die in a non-existing future republican was/is really nothing more than a rhetorical device intended to make a statement. And that statement is that because his reporting (and others, like Judith Miller) is “sloppy” on very important matters, it raises the question as to whether he places adequate value on the lives of other people’s sons who will be affected by the matters on which he is reporting.
    Moan if you like, but had the media done its job, and in particular the NYT, it is very debatable as to whether we would have gone forward with the invasion (or, looking back further, whether GWB would be president). In hindsight, only the hard core partisans hold onto the argument that invading Iraq was the right thing to do even though we now know there was no justification for it. Certainly none of the many justifications that were offered is still standing today. It was all make believe. And 1000+ families paid the price for that, big time. Of course, it’s plain bad manners over at the NYT to tell the truth on some things.
    But Jeff is right, I was in a rush when I wrote the e-mail and should have worded the rhetorical device differently.
    My total e-mail to Nagourney has about 165 words in it. The sentence they quotes has 13 words in it. And I was not, as Okrent claims, complaining that nagourney was pro-bush, but rather that he was a sloppy reporter. It is not absurd to suggest that kids are dead now because of sloppy, weak and ineffective reporting/journalism, or that Bush is President for the same reasons. And pandering is way worse than sloppiness. There’s been plenty of that, plenty. There are consequences, life-and-death consequences.
    And yes, you’re right. There was no warning, no hint they would do this. None. And they were unwilling to even discuss not proceeding once there was contact the Friday evening before publication.
    Lastly, I know how important Steve Schwenk is, and that it is critical for the NYT to punish him severely when he says something that may cross the line or debase the level of discourse in America. But what penalty did the NYT extract from Dick Cheney when he told a U.S. Senator to go “F” himself on the Floor of the US senate? Did they go after him with a vengence and make him pay a price the way they went after me. They decided I had to pay a heavy price; me, a nobody. Was it really for my caustic rhetoric in a private e-mail, or was something else involved?

  • Steve Schwnek

    P.S. I’ve seen more than once comments to the effect that “I have no sympathy for that guy.”
    Hey, who wants sympathy? I never asked for it. According to Nietzsche, it’s lethal anyway.

  • Steve, if that’s really you, thanks for posting. That’s pretty cool of you. I guess my closing remarks on this would be, I don’t have kids either, but I’d be pretty raving mad if you wished they (what was it, get their heads blown off or something?) die in some public forum. *shrugs*
    That being said, pandora’s box was officially opened IMO. Does it make the response appropriate? Again *shrugs* Don’t pretend that in your heart of hearts that you would never expect someone to respond in that manner however. I’m no politico, nor a journalist – just a simple mortgage banker – but I still know better than to expect people to act in a way that’s always going to be beneficial to me.
    In any case, back to the real job //removes pajamas//

  • Kat

    If this Schwenk guy believes that the NYT is pro Bush or that they could have stopped the necessary invasion of Iraq, or that they could have prevented GWB becoming president, he is loonier than a loon and off his rocker.

  • Steve Schwenk

    Well, Kat, I never said any of those things, so I guess I’m off the hook.
    No more from me. But this one was too fun to pass up.

  • kat

    Well, what exactly are you saying? Maybe you were in a rush and should have worded the rhetorical device differently.
    {Moan if you like, but had the media done its job, and in particular the NYT, it is very debatable as to whether we would have gone forward with the invasion (or, looking back further, whether GWB would be president). In hindsight, only the hard core partisans hold onto the argument that invading Iraq was the right thing to do even though we now know there was no justification for it.}

  • Mr. Schwenk-
    Do you really believe that an email sent to people who work for a news organization, sent to their work email address, is “private” correspondence? If so…why?
    I do, however, understand completely how embarrassed you could be now that the powerful New York Times has taken a giant shyte on you, but you do come across in your comments here as though you’re relishing your 15 minutes, and relishing them with no small degree of gusto.
    Embarrassed…and darn proud of it.

  • Steve Schwenk

    Mr. Eklund:
    I must admit that I have felt pretty good today. I finally got a full night’s sleep for the first time since Friday night. And I have been looking forward to the debate all day. But what really has me feeling good is the unbelievable support people have shown me. That has been foremost in my mind all day. It has really been a positive, wonderful thing amongst all the ugliness. I guess it’s showing through in my writing.
    “Embarrassed…and darn proud of it.” No. But I do draw a distinction between my actions amd those of the NYT. Those are two separe events. I can feel gusto in defending myself against what the NYT has done to me because I feel I am in the right and they are wrong. And it’s probably true that the significance of the e-mail has been diminished for me by the NYT’s (Okrtent’s) actions, although I have begun to draft an apology to Mr. Nagourney. I’m sure he could have moved to kill the reference to me in the column, but that’s a separate matter, I still owe him an apology for what I said.
    Thanks for making your point, though, Mr. Eklund. It has been big a help to be able to talk to people about this, and this is one place where I’ve felt safe talking about it. But I think you’re right that this should not be something I appear to enjoy, and I don’t. So I appreciate the heads up and think it’s best to back off for a bit now.
    Thanks very much Jeff for providing a forum to discuss all of this. I’m very appreciative.

  • Steve Schwenk

    It’s more that institutions did not perform their intended functions effectively than that they are/were specifically for or against anything. As to why? Too complex for me.
    We are 500+ days post-invasion and by now just about every justification offered in support of the war has been knocked down. Why didn’t they get knocked down a lot sooner? Like before all the killing started?
    You can’t balme it all on the press, but their role is in part to be a brake on runaway govt. And the rush to get in there was somewhat like a runaway train given that Iraq posed no imminent threat. And we knew that by then.
    I suspect that one reason we rushed into Iraq precisely when we did was that another 2-3 months of inspections would have knocked down the WMD justification completely. It was already teetering. And that was their PR sales pitch. Support for the war with the WMD justification still intact was already soft. Had that justification fallen pre-invasion, there probably would have been no invasion. Tony Blair would have split. Maybe even Powell. The public too.

  • sceptic

    This “Steve Schwenk” is a hoaxer. It’s obvious.
    He’s trying to make a point about “outing” people — thus the whole “Nagourney is gay” schtick.
    And he’s trying to show that people will believe a posting labelled Steve Schwenk even if it’s not from Steve Schwenk.
    The whole little experiment is somewhat problematic however since the Times did indeed verify the e-mail was from Steve Schwenk. Not to mention the fact that Schwenk was outed by himself.
    My guess is this is the fodder for an article in some alternative weekly.
    Takers anyone?

  • Nonexistent kids still are a threat no one needs. I occasionally joke about ‘your first born son” as a price to pay. But no one should threaten them.
    Mr. Schenk, you stepped over a boundary. You have been thoroughly trounced. If every one of us paid for every unfair word we said, there wouldn’t be room enough for all of the emails here.