Saturday, October 12, 2013

On Public Shaming

Well, now that the whole world knows my baseball prognostication is on a par with my stock picking . . .

It was a number of years ago, after the late Michael Hastings dropped his bombshell in Rolling Stone about the frathouse atmosphere and disrespectful behavior of American troops under General Stanley McChrystal in Afghanistan, that CBS News reporter Lara Logan chimed in with her thoughts.

Logan herself had done some reporting from war zones, and her reaction to much of what Hastings reported was, “I wouldn’t have reported that.” It shocked me. Setting aside that Hastings reported no “off the record” stuff, that everyone involved with Hastings knew what he was there for, here was a reporter not only criticizing another reporter for doing his job, but saying that she herself would not have reported it.

Now, I’ll try to say something in Logan’s defense. Perhaps her reporting from war zones made her too close or too chummy with the troops; perhaps her awe at the no doubt extraordinary jobs the vast majority of them do made her skittish about reporting something she knew would reflect badly on them all; maybe, she’s simply starstruck being in the company of people as accomplished as military brass. Who knows?

What I do remember thinking at the time was, I'm not going to trust Lara Logan ever again. I mean, if she’s privileged enough to be granted a front row seat to what was going on in Afghanistan and other war zones and chooses not to report it, then she was not a reporter. Period. I simply no longer trusted her.

Flash forward to the Arab Spring, with brave Egyptians taking to the streets, fighting and dying to depose a dictator, when a CBS newsflash came across my twitter stream stating that CBS News reporter Lara Logan had been raped while covering the Egyptian uprising. My antenna went up. Then, it seemed in an instant, all the good feelings about the “brave Egyptians” went up in smoke, replaced by images of this poor woman being brutalized by Egyptians – Muslims! –  who don’t respect women anyway, amiright? Or so much of the twitter crap in my stream said.

For myself, I remember being cynical about it. After all, here was a CBS News “exclusive” coming only from a single source, who was a CBS reporter. Early reports were it had happened in a crowded square. Perhaps she was rudely manhandled (bad enough) and CBS bungled the reporting? Maybe, inappropriately groped? Horrific, no doubt. But rape? Forgive me for wanting to hear from some witnesses, not trusting to simply take Lara’s word for it. See, I remembered Michael Hastings.

Flash forward again, to the 60 Minutes interview Logan did about her horrific experience. I don’t even remember if I watched it, but I do remember before going to bed that evening, my last two tweets were something snarky about Lara Logan.

Now, I follow just over a hundred people on twitter. On any given day, after waking up and checking in, there might be twenty or thirty tweets awaiting me. Maybe fifty. The morning after my last two tweets were about Lara Logan, I woke up and my heart went into my throat. There were something like 1,500 tweets awaiting my review. I felt the blood rush to my face. There was no doubt what it was about. Though I normally try to be respectful on twitter, snark often bleeds through. Sarcasm. The occasional bad joke. Other than that, I try to be a good citizen.

But there was no doubt in my mind that overnight, I had become a pariah. Armies of Lara Logan supporters and others had come to attack my twitter timeline, to call me every name in the book, to swear they’d never buy or read any of my books. I was certain of it. When I finally got up the courage to click the box containing my unread tweets, I learned that . . .

. . . minutes after I shut down my computer and went to bed, word began leaking of a major news story. The president himself was going to address the nation at 10:30, on a Sunday evening, no less. When he did, the nation learned that American forces had gone into Pakistan and taken out Osama Bin Laden. The explosion in my timeline had nothing to do with me. Or Lara Logan.

I only tell you that to tell you this:

There’s been a (I believe) generally positive movement online to shame people for their behavior, especially on twitter. A guy named Matt Binder has a tumblr called Public Shaming, where he collects the dumb, racist, homophobic things people say and saves them for all eternity. There, you’ll find the less enlightened among us commenting on Martin Luther King’s birthday, Obama’s inauguration, George Zimmerman, DOMA, and pretty much all the hot button political issues of the day.

I remember being particularly ashamed of Boston fans (being one myself) after an African-American scored a goal against the Bruins that swept them out of the playoffs. The “N” word went flying on twitter, and Matt was there to collect and save these tweets for posterity.

This week, a new twitter account was brought to my attention, one that is not just collecting tweets in a tumblr, but retweeting the dumb, racist, or homophobic things fans of one particular sports team are tweeting. Not just collecting them for posterity, but retweeting them in real time, allowing for those with torches and pitchforks (and lots of time on their hands) to immediately make the lives of these sports fans miserable. Now, no doubt many of them deserve it. Still, I’m troubled by it.

Many of these dumb tweets come from young kids, high school or college age, whose brains science has recently shown haven’t even fully formed yet. Doesn’t excuse them for calling the Pittsburgh Pirates the “butt pirates,” or calling fans from other teams “fags,” or recognizing the owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers has HIV and breaking out the AIDS jokes.

But I look at the profiles of some of these kids, normal kids, good kids, some of whom just made a dumb or a stupid joke (not even using the “N” word) and they’re being immediately attacked. Many of these kids are also not anonymous, posting pictures of their friends and family and what schools they go to. I just wonder if the punishment and harassment in many cases exceeds the crimes.

Funny thing too about this real-time shaming twitter account. It’s anonymous. Maybe I’d feel better if this person was brave enough to put his name behind what he’s doing. Maybe, he’s just a better troll than these kids are, because he already has more than 8,000 followers and growing.

Anyway, there’s no good answer. It’s not going to change. Kids whose brains haven’t finished forming yet are still going to say dumb things. And there’ll be people out there with lots of time on their hands to remind them of it.

Hopefully, not for the rest of their lives.

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