Cruelty In Obituary Comments Shocks Editor

Read Melinda Henneberger's Politics Daily Piece, "Why Would Any Non-Psychopath Dance On Deborah Howell's Grave?"

A long-time journalist was killed in an accident, and in the comments on her obituary, a small but vocal minority cheered. Melinda Henneberger, editor-in-chief of Politics Daily, wonders whether we are trading our humanity for a little negative attention.

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Last week, a pioneering journalist died in a tragic accident. Deborah Howell died in New Zealand after she was hit by a car. The former ombudsman at The Washington Post is a story in and of herself: a trailblazer as an editor in the Twin Cities; later, Washington bureau chief for Newhouse Newspapers; an inspiration to both women and men.

But what really caught Melinda Henneberger's attention was a string of nasty remarks posted on the comments section of Howell's obituary on the Web site where she works, Politics Daily. She joins us here in Studio 3A. She's the editor-in-chief of Politics Daily. Nice to have you with us today.

Ms. MELINDA HENNEBERGER (Editor-in-chief, Politics Daily): Thank you for having me.

CONAN: And a lot of our listeners will never have heard of Deborah Howell.

Ms. HENNEBERBGER: Well, Deborah Howell had a great career. She was a top editor in Minneapolis and St. Paul. She then came to Washington and ran the Newhouse Newspapers' Washington bureau. She was really ahead of the curve in a lot of the things she did, including bringing coverage of religion, the nexus of religion and politics to the fore. She was beloved - and maybe a little bit feared by a lot of her reporters. And then she went on to become the ombudsman for The Washington Post between '05 and '08.

CONAN: And then retired and...

Ms. HENNEBERGER: That's right.

CONAN: ...and a lifelong ambition to go hiking in New Zealand, and then tragedy strikes.

Ms. HENNEBERGER: That's right. She was killed, as you said, in an accident when she stopped to take a picture along the side of the road in New Zealand.

CONAN: And the fact is, you note in your piece, a lot of the people who posted these nasty comments had never heard of her, either.

Ms. HENNEBERGER: No. That's one of the things that struck me, is that it's not that they had been nursing a grudge against Deborah Howell. They had first seen her name five minutes earlier, read a piece in which there were no references to her personal politics. She didn't write about politics. She didn't direct coverage in a way that was particularly political. But because the readers saw that she was a former newspaper woman, they assumed that that must mean she was a big lefty, and they were thus celebrating her death in a way that I found very upsetting.

CONAN: Celebrating?

Ms. HENNEBERGER: Celebrating. Saying to the effect of good riddance. As one of the posters said, one fewer of these anti-U.S. types to deal with. There were a lot of jokes. And I want to say, right off the top, that I don't see this as only coming from one corner of the political spectrum. We see the same thing -I've seen the same thing on an obit we ran of Irving Kristol, the conservative.

CONAN: A lot of people made some nasty remarks when Rush Limbaugh went to the hospital.

Ms. HENNEBERGER: That's absolutely right. So my question is...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HENNEBERGER: ...what are we turning into as a country? Why this - are we just aping what we see in celebrity culture, where some people seem to be making a pretty good living making really inappropriate, inhumane comments that now are seen as OK, and that I think are really not OK?

CONAN: And where do you draw the line? I mean, we hear about schadenfreude and, you know, taking pleasure in the suffering of others. But it's supposed to be -it's not a particularly graceful emotion to begin with. And, you know, it's supposed to be small things.

Ms. HENNEBERGER: Well, I think that the anonymity of the Internet exacerbates this because it's a very cowardly thing to be able to throw rocks anonymously, and some people seem to really revel in it. But where we're going to - and have been drawing the line on Politics Daily is that we're trying so hard, and of course imperfectly, to have a place where people can disagree, but where we can at least agree not to wish one another harm in the process. And I think that's a very minimal standard.

CONAN: I think so. Are these comment sections, are these moderated?

Ms. HENNEBERGER: Yeah.

CONAN: Is there somebody...

Ms. HENNEBERGER: They are quite heavily moderated. And these comments I'm talking about were deleted but nonetheless, I just found beyond the pale. And this, by the way, is in no way particular to Politics Daily, either. I just saw where a newspaper in Normal, Illinois, my home state, has temporarily closed down its entire comment function. And a lot of other places have done this, too, from time to time for what they called a cooling-off period because they thought that people had just gotten too violent in their speech and too out of hand.

And another thing that I see is kind of a confusion between the idea of censorship and standards, where people say, well, we can't be censored. We can't censor one another.

CONAN: Well...

Ms. HENNEBERGER: Well, censorship comes from the government and standards, we're perfectly free to impose and uphold.

CONAN: So I wonder, in other words, when you delete these comments, you say...

Ms. HENNEBERGER: People complain about being censored, you know? And we can censor our dinner table conversation and our - you know, I - Politics Daily is a business. And so saying that we have to have some modicum of civility in our business establishment is sort of our version of saying no shirt, no shoes, no service.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. We're wondering if in - either privately or even publicly - if our listeners have sometimes cheered for the misfortune of others on - with whom they disagreed politically. Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. And I'd - wonder if we can start with Bob(ph). Bob with us from Scottsdale in Arizona.

BOB (Caller): Yes.

CONAN: And...

BOB: I have had those discussions, and I think that the public airwaves aren't appropriate for some of the style of discussion. As a matter of fact, I would also include your introduction to the lady that's recently deceased. And in introducing her, you said that a lot of people, of course, haven't heard of her...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

BOB: ...rather than asking your guest, for the benefit of those who have never heard of Ms. So and So, would you please give us her background? Now, I would prefer the latter comment, but I hear that kind of statement from hosts -infrequently on NPR, and that's one of the reasons I enjoy listening to NPR. But I firmly believe the host sets the tone, and the host is obligated - and I offer as an example none other than Diane Rehm on your station. One of the most gracious hosts you could ever hope to encounter. And everything she does has that delicacy. She knows how to use firmness, when required. But that's one of the reasons I thoroughly enjoy her show so much, because of the way she conducts herself. And I think that given the environment...

CONAN: Bob, could we get back to the subject at hand?

BOB: We are talking about the subject at hand. And I'm saying that this is what causes people to feel free to do it, because they hear it every day. If you want to make a comment about something in an ingracious way, feel free to do it on the public airways. That's my point.

CONAN: Bob, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it. Here's an email. This is from Candice(ph) in Prescott, Arizona. I really think the important thing here is the Internet. People have always said things like this among their like-minded friends. It's not just the anonymity of the Internet, it's the blurring of public and private that it has birthed.

Ms. HENNEBERGER: Well, I think that one thing that's happened on the Internet is that people seeking attention - you know, OK. So I read all these horrible comments and - about Deborah and about Irving Kristol and others. And I say, you know, assuming we're not turning into a nation of psychopaths, people can't be completely serious. So are they seeking attention? What are they emulating -and I think that this is part of what's happening - emulating people they see who are quite famous who are doing this. Are they emulating Ann Coulter saying ever more outrageous things and making a fabulous living at it? Are they emulating Wanda Sykes, who's invited to entertain at the White House Correspondents' Dinner and makes a joke about hoping Rush Limbaugh's kidneys fail?

I think that when they see incivility on cable shows and on the Internet, that's sort of celebrated in our culture. Then they think if it's OK for those people, it's OK for me. In fact, it's cool, and it's a way to get positive attention.

CONAN: And let's go next to Pam(ph). Pam with us from St. Louis.

PAM (Caller): I think in the case of Limbaugh, you know, what that man projects out into the public discourse is most likely going to come back to him. And I can see where people might root privately, you know, for what he dishes out to others.

CONAN: And presumably, there are others on - who agree with him and would agree that people who you would admire greatly, Pam, would suffer the same kinds of consequences.

PAM: Well, yes, all right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Turnabout being fair play.

PAM: Well, I'm just saying, you know, if you don't have anything nice to say, you shouldn't say it - the old adage that my mother always would put out there. And, you know, when people say terrible things about others, they might - it might come back to them.

CONAN: All right.

Ms. HENNEBERGER: And I take the caller's point. I just think that, you know, what we hear from conservatives is - who are justifying their sometimes over-the-top remarks about the Obama administration is, you know, this is how we saw the Bush administration treated. OK, but who draws the line? Who says basta, you know? You can go back and back and back, and always justify that kind of comment by, our side has also been treated that way.

CONAN: Pam, thanks very much for the call. We're talking with Melinda Henneberger, the editor-in-chief of Politics Daily. You can go to her Web site, that's politicsdaily.com, to see her column about some of the cruel remarks that were made about Deborah Howell. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, coming to you from NPR News.

And here's an email we have from Andy(ph) in Jacksonville, Florida. No one disliked the policies of Ronald Reagan more than myself, but on the day he was shot, I learned that no matter how much antipathy I feel for another, human compassion overwhelms me when they are in real danger. This was a valuable lesson I've never forgotten. And it made me feel better about myself.

Ms. HENNEBERGER: Fantastic. I remember that day. I was living in California, in the Mission District, working as a volunteer in a small social service agency, and was quite disgusted that a lot of our clients came in dancing and laughing that day, specifically in reaction to his shooting. So I guess that says that's nothing new but...

CONAN: I wonder sometimes - and maybe I'm going a little astray here - but the culture of sports partisanship may have infected this to some degree, where people are rooting openly for their team - Yankees, Red Sox, whatever the rivalry maybe. But it's not taken entirely seriously in sports.

Ms. HENNEBERGER: Hmm. Well, I think that partisans are getting rougher. We see more violence around the world associated with it. So maybe it's all part of the same phenomenon.

CONAN: Let's go next to William(ph). William, with us from Sacramento.

WILLIAM (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi there.

WILLIAM: Hey. I think I'm a pretty decent guy, but when I heard the news about Rush, my first thought an instant later was that I hoped he didn't walk out of the hospital. And then a second later, I caught myself thinking that. And I thought, well that's a terrible thing to wish on anybody but - and so I started to think about why am I even thinking that. And it's like, it's about the only way to turn off what I consider to be somebody that's very pompous and arrogant. And it's like you're stuck - you're either stuck with him alive and doing what he does, or wishing him dead. And then it occurred to me that I would have just as soon that he not end up dead in the hospital. But if they said he could never speak again, I think I'd be just as happy with that, so.

CONAN: Hmm. It was interesting when he had his trouble with his hearing, this was something that as a somebody who's worked in radio his whole life, this had great impact on me. It's really hard to do this job if you can't hear what's going on in the programs. And his struggles with overcoming that disability and that new disability, I thought were quite interesting. And I hate to coin a phrase, but I felt his pain, if you will, William. And it's something that maybe, well, I don't know. William, it's an uncharitable thought. And at least you went back and doubled back on it, too.

WILLIAM: Oh, I realized I wasn't wishing him dead. I was just wishing him quiet.

CONAN: OK.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Well, so he can't make a living, but at least he can stay alive. William, thanks very much for the phone call.

WILLIAM: OK.

CONAN: As we get into what everybody agrees, Melinda Henneberger, is a more and more vitriolic, partisan atmosphere in Washington, D.C. - the last two presidents have come in saying that they hoped that this - they would find ways to end this kind of partisan warfare, and it just seems to be getting worse. Is there no way to get some side, somebody to say, as you said, basta - enough?

Ms. HENNEBERGER: Sure. I think there is. I think that's always possible. And I find it even more peculiar that it's been so difficult given that, as I said in the piece, the differences between the Republican Party and the Democratic Party are tiny compared to differences between political parties and political systems in other countries. So I think that our whole, you know - people who are what I call political performance artists, people who are raising money for politicians, try to exaggerate for gain, for political and commercial gain, the differences so that, you know, these fundraising letters who make - that make it seem that our whole way of life is at stake. Because if they told the truth, which is that the differences are not vast, the differences are not catastrophic, then...

CONAN: And the republic would not fall if the other guy got elected.

Ms. HENNEBERGER: That's right. Then who would pony up the, you know, their last dime for the fundraising effort? So I think that there's an entire industry devoted to cranking up the anger, and that it's up to us all as individuals to push back.

And something that I've been doing for years - and with mixed success, but it's kind of interesting - is, I answer a lot of my most hateful mail. And it's interesting how often people are really, almost surprised that there was a person on the other end of that mean, personal letter. And they will almost invariably apologize for their rudeness when to their shock, somebody, a.k.a. a human being, says here I am, and I heard you.

CONAN: Here's an email we got from Virginia in Portland. It might be helpful on blogs to use these comments as teachable moments. Instead of deleting the post, add an informative note: This is name-calling. This poster is expressing strong feelings and demonstrating an inability to make a useful contribution to this dialogue - though I'm not sure that that's going to help.

Anyway, Melinda Henneberger, thank you very much for your time today. We appreciate it.

Ms. HENNEBERGER: Thanks for having me.

CONAN: Melinda Henneberger is editor-in-chief of Politics Daily. She joined us here in Studio 3A.

I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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