The weekend taught us that even professional journalists are not immune to hate-reading spirals. Take Bill and Emma Keller, a pair of married journalists who have high-flown bylines at the New York Times (which he used to edit — the whole thing, I mean) and the Guardian, respectively. The Keller household, one gathers, has been obsessing over one Lisa Bonchek Adams, a woman who blogs and tweets about her fight with cancer. Somehow, this person with perhaps 10,000 followers on Twitter drove people with platforms just about as high as this culture offers nuts.
Within days of each other, over the weekend, the Kellers published pieces excoriating Adams for dealing with her illness in way they deemed somehow in poor taste.
Emma Gilbey Keller’s piece came first, last Wednesday. It was focused on Adams’ use of social media. It used a sort of weaselly rhetorical pose, claiming just that its author just wanted to ask questions that, as phrased, demanded that you condemn anyone but the journalist herself:
I couldn’t stop reading – I even set up a dedicated @adamslisa column in Tweetdeck – but I felt embarrassed at my voyeurism. Should there be boundaries in this kind of experience? Is there such a thing as TMI? Are her tweets a grim equivalent of deathbed selfies, one step further than funeral selfies? Why am I so obsessed?
A fair number of people pushed back at this initial column, enough that Keller ended up dropping off Twitter altogether, though not before telling people she’d only respond to comments on the Guardian site proper, a strategy which made her look as though she was trolling for clicks. It turns out that even where, in the piece, she quotes direct messages from Lisa Adams, she didn’t tell Adams that she was speaking on the record, for attribution. Which was allegedly what led the Guardian to pull the piece altogether — though not before several days of angry tweets, many of them from Adams herself, who felt duped and misdescribed. (You can still read it at the Internet Archive.)
Bill Keller, evidently, decided to come to his wife’s rescue. On Sunday, he wrote another editorial. This time, the stated objection to what Adams was doing was less about her tweeting, and more about her personal treatment choices. Contrasting her with his own father-in-law, whose medical choices he evidently deemed exemplary, he questioned whether Lisa Adams should be fighting quite so hard:
Her digital presence is no doubt a comfort to many of her followers. On the other hand, as cancer experts I consulted pointed out, Adams is the standard-bearer for an approach to cancer that honors the warrior, that may raise false hopes, and that, implicitly, seems to peg patients like my father-in-law as failures.
Naturally, this only made matters worse. For one thing, it looked like he and his wife were tag-teaming a person who could only barely be called a “public figure.” For another, he got elementary facts about Adams wrong, including the number of her children. Which suggests a further, larger problem: he also clearly wrote the column without any real knowledge of Adams’ personal medical situation. He read some blogs and had an emotional reaction and tried to create from it a larger critique of the medical system and of collective attitudes towards morality. It’s safe to say he failed in the execution. Even the Times‘ public editor, who was forced to weigh in yesterday, was clearly pretty uncomfortable with the stunt.
I certainly have fallen prey to an internet obsession or two, as I suspect everyone has. Mine tend to be more directed towards the people with personal blogs whose lives appear curated entirely by Anthropologie stylists, though. And I’ve never been tempted to write about them, because mostly these are small blogs. They are not the Pentagon; they are not even a Silicon Valley start-up. Debating their personal choices comes across as weird and bullying and vaguely disquieting.
And, I might add, ironic in a profound way. The Kellers claimed to be criticizing Adams for letting her emotions get the better of her Twitter feed and her medical choices. Yet it felt like both these columns were the product of some kind of emotional trauma that the Kellers themselves had suffered. The only subject they were interested in was their own emotional reaction to this abstracted internet person’s life and choices, so much so that they didn’t worry too hard about how and where they addressed her. And whether or not they got her story right to begin with. Getting treated for cancer is an emotionally, logistically, and morally complex issue for anyone who’s experienced it. And if you’re going to write about it from a third-party perspective, you’d better be damn sure you know what you’re talking about, and not simply spewing an emotional quick reaction of your own.