Reminder: There is No Such Thing as Private E-Mail

Atrios gets tightly wound over the fact that The New York Times Public Editor Daniel Okrent named someone who had sent a nasty e-mail to a New York Times reporter. This is what Okrent said:

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.

Atrios says:

The fact that the NYT’s public editor, the person who is supposed to represent the *readers*, has chosen to publish the name and a clipped quote from a reader who never intended his name or comments to be published, and made that desire clear multiple times, is disgusting. It doesn’t matter what the person wrote to the reporter. As I’ve said, I’ve been aware of the identities of people who have not only sent me obscene and insulting emails, but who have made an effort to disrupt the comments of this site, for a long time. I never went as far as publishing their *personal* name/address/phone number/email. Why? Because it’s an unfair fight.

In terms of personal handling of e-mail, I’m with Atrios: My personal policy has always been not to air the e-mail I get, unless it’s anonymous or unless I get permission. Most of the time my truly nasty e-mail isn’t worth responding to, anyway; anyone who’s gotten as much hate mail as I have over the years has high standards as to what deserves to be shared with others.

However, I have not even a thimbleful of sympathy for Mr. Schwenk. For one thing, as Mr. Okrent points out, anyone who e-mails a reporter expressing a wish that a specific reporter’s kid gets his or her head blown off has set up a sphincter kiosk on Asshole Avenue and is doing gangbuster business. Perhaps a little public shaming will do him some good, or least keep him from sending anymore e-mails wishing people’s children would die. No doubt Mr. Schwenk is embarrassed and is finding out what it’s like to be on the receiving end of asshole behavior at the moment, and maybe this possibility will give people pause before they send off an e-mail like Schwenk’s. It’s one of those “live by the sphincter, die by the sphincter” teachable moments.

For another thing — and I don’t believe we still have to make this point at this late date in the world — there is no such thing as private e-mail. Certainly not in the case of an e-mail to a reporter; assuming the e-mail was sent to Mr. Nagourney’s New York Times e-mail address, that e-mail is legally the property of the Times, not Mr. Nagourney, and it may do anything it wishes with that e-mail, including giving it over to the Public Editor to write about. Now, I think we can safely assume that as a general rule, the editors of the Times don’t spend a lot of time combing through their reporter’s e-mails looking for juicy bits to air. But legally speaking, they could, and that’s worth drilling into one’s head.

But we don’t need to involve the Times as an institution in all of this, since there’s simply the matter that once one hits the “send” button on the e-mail client, one loses all control of the e-mail one has sent. It’s the recipient who has the privilege of deciding what happens to the e-mail, whether the e-mail is kept private, aired for the public edification or amusement, or simply plonked unread. In this particular case, I suspect that Mr. Nagourney shared the e-mail with Mr. Okrent, Mr. Okrent asked if he could use it, and Mr. Nagourney gave his assent. And why shouldn’t have he? By writing to share his hope of the decapitating death of Mr. Nagourney’s progeny, Mr. Schwenk made it pretty clear he has absolutely no respect for Mr. Nagourney, nor has he made any effort toward common courtesy. By the Golden Rule (a fine metric for human behavior), Mr. Schwenk should expect no less.

As Atrios noted, it’s probably a fine guess that Mr. Schwenk didn’t expect that everyone would learn he thinks it’s just fine to wish death upon the children of people who write newspaper articles that are not to his liking. But I ask: So what? Once he sent that e-mail, it was no longer his choice to make, just as when I send someone e-mail, what happens to it from there is no longer under my control, either. When you send e-mail, you give up control of what happens to your words. If you don’t want to give up that control, don’t send the e-mail. Mr. Schwenk may have been ignorant of this little detail regarding e-mail — or blithely assumed (if Atrios is correct that he said the e-mail was not intended for public consumption) that his own desire to have his vile little e-mail be private obliged Mr. Nagourney to consent to the request. But I don’t see how that should restrict either Mr. Nagourney or Mr. Okrent. In any event, he’s not ignorant of this little detail now.

Live it, learn it, love it: You have no expectation of privacy in e-mail. None. Ever. Presume that you do have an expectation of privacy, and you are going to be sorely disappointed (and, as Mr. Schwenk has discovered, possibly humiliated).

(Would I want some of the e-mail I sent in the past aired for public consumption? Well, no; Hell, there are some I’ve written in the last month I’d prefer not to have seen in the open. However, I recognize that I have no control over those e-mails; as a result, I don’t think I’ve written an e-mail recently that I wouldn’t own up to if it were aired.)

Atrios trots out the public/private individual thing, i.e., that evidence of Mr. Schwenk’s jerkitude should have remained private because he’s not, say, a New York Times reporter. But this isn’t a libel thing, and unless there’s a section of Times v. Sullivan I’m not aware of, there’s no private v. public litmus test in revealing whether one has voluntarily been an ass to another person. After all, it’s not as if Mr. Nagourney had to investigate to discover if Mr. Schwenk hoped his child dead; Mr. Schwenk affirmatively offered up the hope himself, in writing, no less, with name appended. Atrios likewise suggests that it doesn’t matter what Mr. Schwenk wrote, but I find it difficult to imagine a scenario in which Mr. Schwenk had written something complimentary to Mr. Nagourney, and Mr. Okrent had published it and Schwenk’s name, and then Atrios (or anyone else) had worked himself into a rage about how mightily Mr. Schwenk’s personal privacy had been violated.

I’m a little strict on these things, but I believe that one of the trade offs of free speech is the responsibility for your words. Should Mr. Schwenk be held publicly accountable for his words, even if he didn’t expect he would be? Well, why shouldn’t he be? One assumes Mr. Schwenk is a grownup and understands he’s accountable for his actions. He wrote the e-mail, and he signed his name to it. Let him stand by his words or retract them. After all, what’s the point in saying anything to anyone anywhere if we’re not willing to either stand by those words, or admit we were wrong for saying them?

Because he’s been outed as a jerk in the New York Times, does Schwenk deserve to be harassed and abused by other jerks? No, I think being called a coward in the New York Times is enough for most people. As I said, I don’t doubt that Schwenk will be harassed and abused by jerks, and I do feel a measure of pity for him for that, since it’s no fun to be abused and harassed by jerks. On the bright side, now he and Mr. Nagourney will have something in common.

As an aside, I’d just like to note that Democrats (or other political affiliations) saying something is a “Republican War” is no less odious than when Republicans were saying of Clinton that he was not their president. As Americans, we all own the current war; our government called for it, our military fought it, our people are dying in it. The question is what we do about it.

44 thoughts on “Reminder: There is No Such Thing as Private E-Mail

  1. You’ve made an excellent argument that the Times was within its rights to name Steve Schwenk. I agree completely.

    However, Atrios’s point wasn’t that they had no right to do it. His argument is that they were assholes to do so. And I think he’s right about that.

    There’s also the fact that they took one line out of a multi-email exchange between Nagourney and Schwenk, and refused to run anything from Schwenk making note of the context in which his overheated statement was made. (Schwenk has publicly acknowledged that his remark about Nagourney’s hypothetical kids was a bad idea.) The impression created is that Schwenk was just some crazed Internet assassin sending Nagourney poison-pen notes. This is pretty sleazy, and definitely leaves the impression that the real job of Okrent, the Times’s “public editor,” is to slap down the public if they dare to get too stroppy with the grandees of the New York Times.

    Anyway, I completely agree that the Times has every right to publish the names of people who send them rude notes. I also think the set of things we have a “right” to do is not identical to the set of things we deserve praise for doing. Many con-suite libertarians have a hard time with this distinction. I’m a little bit thunderstruck to see you getting tripped up by it. (Yes, this is the awful “You, Of All People” trope.)

  2. This literally brings to life the old saw about not posting anything on the Internet (or USENET, as I first heard it) you wouldn’t be comfortable reading in the New York Times.

  3. PNH says:

    “However, Atrios’s point wasn’t that they had no right to do it. His argument is that they were assholes to do so. And I think he’s right about that.”

    Yes, but *my* point was that expecting privacy in e-mail is folly. I’m not so rebutting Atrios so much as using his post as a springboard to talk about that particular subject.

    “I also think the set of things we have a “right” to do is not identical to the set of things we deserve praise for doing… I’m a little bit thunderstruck to see you getting tripped up by it. ”

    Well, I don’t see where I’m *praising* the NYT or Mr. Okrent for thumping on Mr. Schwenk. Were I Okrent, I wouldn’t have done it (and were I Nagourney, I wouldn’t have passed on the note). But for better or worse I am neither of these men, nor in charge of the New York Times. I do note the thumping may convince Schwenk to be less intense in his word choices for his next e-mail, and perhaps that e-mail’s recipient may be glad for it. But be assured that’s a silver lining on a dark cloud.

    In any event, my own letters policy should make it clear that I, Of All People, understand the difference between “what one can do” vs. “what one should do.” However, I’m also aware that some people — apparently Mr. Okrent is among this number — who don’t have the same moral clarity as we. This entry is to remind folks such people are indeed out there.

    I should note, on the topic of e-mails, that sometimes I’m so tickled by vile e-mail that I actually ask permission to post the e-mail as a superior example; strangely, this just seems to make them angrier. They rarely provide consent. Pity, that.

  4. This isn’t a matter of morality or moral clarity. I have a similar policy to yours–I don’t air e-mail sent to me without asking permission–but it’s only a courtesy, not an obligation, and I reserve the right to change my informal and loosely held policy. And since it is only a courtesy, I don’t think anyone who breaks the rule in response to an extreme discourtesy is particularly bad for doing it. I just kinda like being able to stay above their level by offering more politeness to them than they to me.

    I haven’t had real hate mail since my usenet days, though. There was a period when a few people were sending me explicit death threats, promises to rape my wife and kidnap my children (“Why?” you ask…because I dared to criticize astrology, of all things). I treated them with the contemptuous silence they deserved. I think, though, that if I got such heated and vile e-mail now, when political tempers are so hot, I’d probably decide it was wiser to expose the dangerous-sounding vermin, and courtesy be damned.

    Fortunately, most of what I get is crazy crank rantings and weird mumblings. I ask if I can post it, ’cause it’s darned funny stuff, and they almost always turn me down, too.

  5. and refused to run anything from Schwenk making note of the context in which his overheated statement was made

    Would it have mattered?

  6. Yeah, it would have mattered.

    Speaking as someone who gets and responds to angry emails from strangers. It’s child’s play to use selective editing to make these writers look like fools,

    Most of the time, I refrain from doing so, because it’s obviously unfair, no matter how annoyed I am with the overall thrust of these writers. Evidently the New York Times has a different outlook on this.

  7. It’s child’s play to use selective editing to make these writers look like fools

    Sure. But my understanding here, from the responses to Okrent’s screed, was not “The guy didn’t say that, you took it out of context to look bad,” but rather “He said all kinds of other worthwhile things, so it was unfair of you to focus on the one really fucked-up thing he said.”

  8. PNH writes:

    “Speaking as someone who gets and responds to angry emails from strangers. It’s child’s play to use selective editing to make these writers look like fools.”

    Aside from the issue of whether the comment should have been aired in the NYT at all, is there a context in which telling someone you hope their child’s head is blown off in a war does *not,* in itself, make the writer look like a fool?

  9. Personally I can’t see a conflict here. This is not a private/public thing since I’ve always taken it as given that when you write to anyone at a newspaper, then there is a chance that the newspaper will publish it, in full or in part. And all newspapers, I know reserve the right to edit and spellcheck these letters as they see fit. It says so right on their Letters page and as I tend to see a lot of Mr John Smith (via e-mail), I can only assume that most newspapers treat e-mail exactly as they would a physical letter.

    Though I am curious to know how Mr Schwenk signed off his letter (And why he would include his address).

    Colm

  10. Well I can’t say I have a problem with Schwenk’s comment being aired, I generally respect my correspondent’s privacy out of simple courtesy and expect the same in return, but if someone’s going to go that far overboard they’re fair game to whatever response I can think of enacting :P. I am however wondering what’s up with the dig at bloggers, does Okrent have any indication that Schwenk was motivated by a blog posting? If so why not name n shame the specific odious blogger as well? Seems more like just another convenient excuse to bash blogs yet AGAIN.

  11. Guy Matthews writes:

    “Seems more like just another convenient excuse to bash blogs yet AGAIN.”

    Yeah, I thought it was a gratutitous dig.

    On the other hand, Atrios’ “unfair fight” comment above does seem to imply that within his legions of readers, there may be some who *would* go out of their way to be a pain in the ass to someone, regardless of whether Atrios personally sicced them on someone — which, to be clear, I *don’t* believe he would. And I certainly think it’s possible an especially pissy blogger with a large audience could do it. But as PNH points out, being able to do something and actually doing it are two separate things.

    Anyway, in general I think that when jerks harass other people, they’re doing it of their own initiative. Blaming bloggers is aside the point; blame the jerk who’s doing it.

  12. John’s point is a good one. Rules of email etiquette need to be impressed and re-impressed. Way too many times I’ve pushed the send button one second before I realized that what I’d just written was a big mistake. Careers have been ruined, love affairs discovered, marriages and friendships broken up, and reputations destroyed by a generally too casual attitude toward email. What most email writers forget when they’re writing is that the person on the receiving end can’t *hear* the message. Maybe Schwenk should have put an emoticon in his missive to Nagourney.

    But I think Patrick’s point and Artrios’ trumps John’s in this case. Okrent and Nagourney are being bullies here. They acted as if Schwenk was Dick Cheney saying f*** you on the floor of the Senate and not a nobody who let go with one intemperate remark.

    (Actually, they acted like the Wingnut blogosphere to Teresa Kerry’s “shove it.” An awful lot of huffing and puffing and put on outrage here.)

    Reporters for all newspapers and TV news outlets receive death threats! Their mailboxes overflow with things far more stupid and vile than what Schwenk wrote. If the 22 year old covering the school board for the Iowa City Press Citizen can take it, you’d think a star journalist for the New York Times could have brushed this one off. Nagourney has been insulted publically by the now President and Vice President of the United States. How did Schwenk get under his skin so deeply?

    The NYT can barely bring its collective self to point out that lots of things George Bush says are not quite true. But they can take the time to humiliate one pissed off reader who was a little to quick with an email?

    This is incredible institutional arrogance. It’s as if through Okrent the Times is saying, Don’t you dare criticize us, you nobodies. We only take that kind of talk from heads of state!

    I don’t agree with George Bush on very much, but I think he was right about Nagourney.

    And as Dick Cheney said, Big time.

  13. Email privacy is a matter of mutual trust. That trust is gone when someone starts writing death wishes. Besides, it should be obvious that a person’s statements could become public when they are writing to A NEWSPAPER. Who cares what the Times did with the email? People should be willing to stand by what they write even if it is to say, “that was really stupid of me.” Come on, words mean something.

  14. “Maybe Schwenk should have put an emoticon in his missive to Nagourney.”

    Bah. All emoticons do is turn a message from “I am crapping all over you” to “I think it’s really funny to crap all over you”.

  15. “Reporters for all newspapers and TV news outlets receive death threats!”

    This is the “everybody else speeds, so I shouldn’t get a ticket” defense. It’s just as bogus here as it is in traffic court.

    Yeah, there a lot of jerks out there. Many of them abuse reporters. That doesn’t make Schwenk’s comments better at all.

    If newspapers called out all the abuse they got, they wouldn’t have time to print anything else. That doesn’t make it automatically wrong to discuss *any* of it, though.

    If Schwenk’s upset that he’s getting roasted for his comments, I really have no sympathy. He clearly didn’t care at all about his target’s feelings, so why should his feelings be important?

  16. Dave Reilly says:

    “John’s point is a good one… But I think Patrick’s point and Atrios’ trumps John’s in this case.”

    Well, I don’t think my argument and PNH’s/Atrios’ are in opposition so much as at cross-purposes. Their primary thrust is: The NYT folks acted irresponsibly by posting the fellow’s name. My primary thrust is: Remember you have no control over your e-mail once it’s out of your hands. I don’t disagree at all with PNH’s or Atrios’ argument, although I’m less sympathetic to this fellow than they appear to be. Likewise, I’m pretty sure both of them would agree to the point I make regarding e-mail, and the disposition of such once it’s on its way.

    “It’s as if through Okrent the Times is saying, Don’t you dare criticize us, you nobodies. We only take that kind of talk from heads of state!”

    A head of state has recently said he hopes Adam Nagourney’s kid specifically has his head blown off in a war?

    Point of fact is that saying you hope someone’s child dies violently is not criticism, and I don’t think there’s any value in suggesting that it is. Again, I don’t think Okrent did the smartest thing in outing Schwenk as a jerk, and were I him I wouldn’t have done it. But let’s not pretend that Schwenk *didn’t* step over a line. It’s one thing to hurl invective at someone personally and quite another to go after other people around that person. After being called a “major league asshole” by the standing President, I’m sure Mr. Nagourney can handle whatever someone throws at his own person. But hoping someone’s kid *dies* is another thing entirely — it’s in another category of invective altogether. “Loathsome” is not too strong a word.

  17. No, Nat. It is not the equivalent of saying everybody speeds.

    It might be the equivalent of saying you’re driving down the road in your semi and some jerk in a Dodge Neon blows by you and gives you the finger so you speed up and run the asshole off the road.

    My point is that Nagourney is a big boy and a big wheel and he ought to be able to take criticism from a jerk in a Dodge Neon.

    Schwenk was a jerk. Nagourney and the Times are bullies. And they’re saying to anyone who ticks them off, do it and we’ll humiliate you in print.

    I’m brand new to the blogging game and I haven’t had to deal with ugly trolls taking over my comments section or filling my mailbox with their hate. Since my page isn’t predominantly political , maybe I never will. So I’m not taking any vicarious pleasure in the Times doing to some nitwit what a lot of bloggers wish they could do to the nitwits who plague them.

    But the Times isn’t a blog. When they go after somebody that somebody’s going to pay.

    I think Somerby via Atrios nails it here. The Times set out to put us little peeople in our place.

    http://atrios.blogspot.com/2004/10/okrent.html

  18. Dave, my position isn’t coming from any kind of vicarious bloggy pleasure.

    I just don’t understand this “the NYT is a big organization, so it has to smile, bend over, and take whatever kind of abuse people dish out”. Yeah, the NYT is a big organization. That doesn’t mean the people who work for it aren’t human. Do you think being told that your kid should die is somehow less painful if you work for a big newspaper?

    Schwenk is not an innocent who needs to be protected here. He made an absolutely loathsome comment, and now he’s getting roasted for it.

    If he didn’t want to get roasted for his comment, maybe he shouldn’t have SENT IT TO A REPORTER.

  19. Lets not forget that in many places uttering threats by voice,type or pen is a crime. A type of assault charge. It just boils down to never say anthing you are not willing to stand by and face the consequences for.You do not have the right of privacy if this was a writen letter on paper too. The recipiant of personal corespondance is the rightfull owner, established long ago in law regarding mail letters. Mere seconds for a court to extend that to e-mail.Think of “send” as “give”.

    Excuse my engish John we are haveing one of those days. Where did that dictionary go…?

  20. No worries about the English, Adela.

    “Lets not forget that in many places uttering threats by voice,type or pen is a crime.”

    I don’t want to to go so far as suggesting Mr. Schwenk issued a threat to Mr. Nagourney; hoping for something to happen is different from making it happen. He was rude, not criminal.

  21. xian,

    Good catch! “Before posting on usenet imagine how you feel if it was published in the New York Times!” Thanks for pointing that out. For some reason I LOVE this kind of thing – irony, truth copying fiction, something like that.

    Here is some life wisdom I’ve tried to pass onto my children:

    What you write will have much greater weight than what you say. It can be saved, re-read, bent, twisted, and passed along to everyone in the world. Words on paper (or typed into computer storage) have great power, and that power may be used back it you.

    Be careful about what you say, but be even more careful about what you write.

  22. John, you make a valid point regarding the privacy of email. However, you’ve overstated the loss of control thing just a little. A person does retain some control over their email after sending it, in the form of copyright. The usual laws of copyright do apply to emails.

  23. Dave: Short of re-sending an email as your own with the original person’s name taken off, it’s going to be hard to find a use of email that’s not covered under Fair Use. The original situation here (publishing a line from a personal email) would definitely be a fair use. Even if they’d ran his whole email without his permission, still probably fair use. See, for example, Online Policy Group v. Smith, where a manufacturer’s email archive wasn’t given copyright protection in part because it had no commercial value.

    K

  24. Dave Van writes:

    “The usual laws of copyright do apply to emails.”

    Kevin Q has addressed much of what I would have said regarding fair use, although I would wonder if the ruling he notes would be applicable to a single e-mail rather than a database of e-mails (also, I suspect that in cases when e-mail is not written on company time and property — i.e., a personal e-mail — copyright would still apply).

    It’s also worth noting that some of the more copyright-savvy folks with Web sites have a note somewhere on their site (usually on the Web log, if they have it), that states that by sending the Web site owner e-mail, the sender agrees that the Web site owner is now the owner of that e-mail. I don’t have that sort of disclaimer on my site, but then as I’ve said. I generally don’t publish mail without permission.

    I would be interesting to see what would happen if an individual tried to sue on copyright grounds in terms of someone else publishing that individual’s e-mails. I’ve not heard of any case like it, although if someone has, please speak up.

  25. (FWIW, your TypeKey sign-in system isn’t working. Probably because of a necessary entry missing from your mt.cfg file.)

    Anyway, this post interested me not just because of the email angle, but primarily because of the Level of Discourse issue, not-unrelated issue of the propriety of privacy expectations in personal attacks and issues of personal responsibility for one’s comments. The New York Times v. Sullivan note was just gravy as I recently discussed this myself in an article that analyzed Sullivan in relation to the mis-named Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.

    Most recently in my first semi-reportorial article — I call it “semi-reportorial” because although it contained sprinklings of my opinion on Fresno’s proposed Measure Z, I interviewed USDA, AZA and zoo administration officials via telephone before writing it — the issue arose because of blog commenters wishing to anonymously post vile and slanderous comments about people involved in the campaign.

    I applaud the New York Times reporter in publishing Mr. Schwenk’s name and comment. And I agree wholeheartedly with your own comments on that point. Perhaps if people are held publicly accountable for their comments, fewer would resort to nasty ad hominem attacks and would be forced to reasonable opposition when they feel opposition is warranted.

    Raising the level of discourse is good for us all.

  26. For all those armchair lawyers out there re:copywrite on e-mail.
    http://www.copyright.gov/title17/92chap1.html#102
    Seema to boil down to an argument before a judge is e-mail a literary work or is it a corespondance(extension of conversation)*sigh*

    Oh, John curses vrs threats, its a fine line and varies from country to country. Context is important too. Up here in canucky-land some jerk yelled “I hope you get anthrax” at a store clerk and got his ass arrested and charged(verbal assualt).Made all us working retail that season feel better. Don’t know the end result though. In some parts of the world hexing someone still gets you strung up.

    By the way your, critical metaphors are a work of art.Hugs allround.

  27. “… where a manufacturer’s email archive wasn’t given copyright protection in part because it had no commercial value”

    A literary work does not need to have commercial value in order to be protected by copyright.

    “… is e-mail a literary work …”

    Anything in writing falls within the ambit of literary work, and that definitely includes email.

    by the way, to address the issue at hand, I agree wholeheartedly with the first comment. Patrick Hayden said, “they took one line out of a multi-email exchange between Nagourney and Schwenk, and refused to run anything from Schwenk making note of the context in which his overheated statement was made. The impression created is that Schwenk was just some crazed Internet assassin sending Nagourney poison-pen notes.”

    I seriously doubt that Schwenk actually hoped Okrent’s “kid gets his head blown off in a Republican war.” It was merely impolitic rhetoric. Or maybe not. In any case, context is important and the posting of that email excerpt was just a sleazy way to “win” an argument. One might even say Okrent displayed even less class than Schwenk did.

  28. this context thing is curious.

    who writes a reasonable rational e-mail and just throws in a comment about hoping your kid gets killed?

    i’m sure the “context” wasn’t pretty either.

  29. Dave Van says:

    “In any case, context is important and the posting of that email excerpt was just a sleazy way to ‘win’ an argument.”

    As I’ve said elsewhere, explain to me in what possible context wishing that someone’s child gets his head blown off is anything less than utterly out of bounds.

    In any event, I don’t see it exactly as Okrent trying to “win” an argument; I see it as Okrent saying “the rhetoric is out of control,” and providing an example. And he’s absolutely correct — the fact that Schwenk casually tossed off a death wish against someone’s kid just because he’s got a low opinion of someone’s job performance is ridiculous, and indeed it was justly ridiculed. Now, Okrent could have made this point without outing Schwenk, and just using the quote, although I suspect purely as a matter of impact, it’s better with a name. In the same shoes as Okrent, I’d’ve posted the quote without the attribution, but as I’ve noted before, I’m not sympathetic to Schwenk in regards to his outing.

    The “he probably didn’t mean it” idea doesn’t do much for me. If he didn’t mean it, he shouldn’t have said it. Grown men should have enough self-control not to type out every vile wish that floats around in their head. If he *did* mean it, then a nice public shaming is not too good for him.

  30. Everyone seems to be missing a crucial point here, to the point where I’m wondering if I’m just reading it wrong. Atrios said:

    “The fact that the NYT’s public editor. . . has chosen to publish the name and a clipped quote from a reader who never intended his name or comments to be published, AND MADE THAT DESIRE CLEAR MULTIPLE TIMES, is disgusting.”

    (EMPHASIS mine)

    Sending letters to newspapers as “Name Withheld” is a much older practice than e-mail. If the author asked that his name not be printed, and the NYT did it anyway, then they discourage public discourse by making others who wish to remain anonymous hesitate to send them e-mail. This eventually leads to a mutual admiration society, where only those who agree with you speak up…

  31. I’m a little unclear how someone sending a letter with their name on it to a reporter at a newspaper (or, for that matter, to anyone who has the ability to reach a large number of people) could be surprised when their comments get published with their name attached. The danger with communicating anywhere is that you will be quoted; this risk is increased immensely when you communicate in written form (or any of its close electronic cousins).

    Also, Brian claims that publishing comments without permission will lead to a “mutual admiration society, where only those who agree with you speak up”; personally, I think a bigger danger is a society that is completely unwilling to publish unpopular opinions openly, as this would create an environment of borderline libel done anonymously. If people are going to say things like Mr. Schwenk said, they had better be willing to stand by those remarks in a public forum.

  32. Brian Greenberg said:

    “Sending letters to newspapers as “Name Withheld” is a much older practice than e-mail.”

    My understanding is that Mr. Schwenk sent it to Mr. Nagourney at Nagourney’s private e-mail; Mr. Nagourney was thereby at leave to do as he pleased with it. Also, as I mentioned in another thread, from a journalistic point of view, there’s little journalistically wrong with publishing an e-mail against the wishes of the sender if it’s decided an e-mail has news value (as it apparently had here). The NYT was enjoined to confirm the sender did send the e-mail (which it did) but otherwise had no other journalistic obligation to the sender other than to get the facts straight.

    As I’ve said before, I wouldn’t have published the e-mail, or Mr. Schenk’s name, but the reasons are matters of personal inclination, not of journalistic ethics.

  33. I’m admittedly splitting hairs here, but I’m talking about the difference between publishing teh e-mail (because it has news value) and publishing the name of the author.

    Does the e-mail have any *less* news value if the Times reported it as being sent by “a reader?”

  34. Quoting Steve Schwenk to Daniel Okrent, “One last point, and it’s an important one. In sending my angry e-mail to Mr. Nagourney, I never intended to cause him harm, and did not cause him harm. The same is not true of you and your column in Sunday’s New York Times. Naming me in your column the way you did served only one purpose, and that was to harm me. It served no other purpose whatsoever, certainly none of any journalistic import. Intentionally causing me harm like that was not only grossly unfair, it was hateful and vicious. It was an abuse of your position and power. The damage you have inflicted upon me and my family is real, will last for years and is so wildly disproportionate to the offense at hand that it is outrageous.” I suppose the mosquito I caught feeding on my arm may have had the same view in its low order way, as I smashed it.

  35. “Does the e-mail have any *less* news value if the Times reported it as being sent by “a reader?””

    Yes – if the ‘reader’ is a public figure.
    No – if the ‘reader’ is a nobody.

  36. Scalzi is right on. What has changed is that we live in an Internet, digital culture. The freedom to spout off about anything to an audience of billions–publicly on a web site or privately and instantly in email — is one side of how great this new era is. The other side is that when you post the profane with the sacred, you own what you say. Period. Frankly, Schwenk used the image of a dead child in order to drive home his point—that defines vile and, by not saying that face to face, it is cowardly. He thinks his private email can hide such a terrible remark. Think again. I am glad the NYTimes came down with full force. Email and message board posts tempt those with intemperate behaviors and there is this weird insulation that makes it seem like you can flame anyone with impunity. You can’t. The Internet is a great tool for holding people accountable for their actions and their words. Live by the sword, humiliated by the sword. He should have thought of the downside consequences before he invoked the murder of a child to make a point. I don’t have any empathy at all.

  37. As I’ve said elsewhere, explain to me in what possible context wishing that someone’s child gets his head blown off is anything less than utterly out of bounds.

    Well, we don’t know the real context. But I can think of a couple. Here’s one:

    Schwenk: I disagree with your column. I think the world is less safe now than when Bush took office.
    Nagourney: Oh yeah? I hope your child gets his head blown off by a terrorist bomb!

    If Nagourney said that (and I’m not saying it’s likely he did), which of us would fault Schwenk for his reply? (Well, I would, because he should have forwarded Nagourney’s email to the Washington Post if that happened.) It’s still not right, but it’s a little more forgivable.

    Other contexts could include Nagourney goading Schwenk deliberately in one way or another. None of these imagined scenarios (and mind you I haven’t yet read what Schwenk claims the context was) completely excuses Schwenk, but some of them mitigate his offense to some extent; some, I think, fit the bill of “not utterly out of bounds.”

  38. Oh, arg. I got here from a followup link and never noticed the dates on this until now. How embarrassing.

  39. Xopher:

    “If Nagourney said that (and I’m not saying it’s likely he did), which of us would fault Schwenk for his reply? (Well, I would, because he should have forwarded Nagourney’s email to the Washington Post if that happened.) It’s still not right, but it’s a little more forgivable.”

    Eh. In that case, there would be two people inexcusably acting like assholes, not just the one.

  40. THANK YOU! I agree wholeheartedly.

    Anyone who would be coward enough to write an email to someone, threaten their children (not the person that pissed him off, but the person’s KIDS), and then expect to walk away without a care in the world deserves everything he’s going to get in the coming weeks for being so stupid.

    Maybe if people got into the habit of thinking ‘Do I want the world to see me acting this way?’ there would be a lot less issues, especially with people thinking that the internet is some magical shield that prevents your idiotic behaviour from coming back on you. Kudos to the NYT for NOT taking this man’s crap and dishing it right back at him.

    I don’t care how big of a corporation they are or how well their employees get paid. NO amount of money is worth having your family threatened, either idly or seriously.

Comments are closed.