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In Regards to the Joe Donovan Article Comment Board Flame War

 

One week ago today ThePhoenix.com posted The Punch That Took Two Lives - an in-depth feature about a 34-year-old East Cambridge man named Joe Donovan who was imprisoned for life in 1993 for a murder that he did not commit. Within hours of my piece going live, a reader named Rafael wrote the following comment: “Sorry - I stopped reading when I got to what the part with the cat. Perhaps he has gotten a bad break, but I have little sympathy for this guy. And it can't be denied that he played a significant role in the murder of the student.”

In haste, I replied: “Rafael - You truly embody all that's wrong with this planet. I'm glad that I researched this story for six months so that you could speed read a couple paragraphs without paying any attention whatsoever to the story line and then make a sweeping generalization. Someone should punch you in the face.” (“Punch you in the face” was relative hyperbole, or so I thought. Regardless, I did apologize to Rafael in a private email.) I can’t believe I have to say this, but I was not advocating violence against Rafael (at the time I knew neither his real name nor address); instead I was expressing outrage that someone would so proudly arrive at such an admittedly uninformed conclusion.

Despite my sensible gripe, I should have expected calls and emails to pour in from readers who were appalled by my initial reaction and follow-up comment. I recognize these opinion mongers from previous flame wars and from the grocery store check-out line - several of them likely run with the canvas bag Mafioso and scold Whole Foods customers for using the wrong trash barrels. This post is not an apology to self-righteous intellectuals who categorically discounted my entire article because of a postscript; this is my attempt to redirect tangential remarks about my comment to this thread and away from the feature article, where ignorant rants and miscalculated observations should address the subject (and not the writer).  

I would have gone the high road and chosen insincere passivity over honest aggression, but this could be productive fodder for the everlasting media dialogue about comment board behavior (Beat the Press on WGBH in Boston covers the topic regularly). In the past week I’ve received several letters from dismayed readers claiming to be former journalists and editors, most of whom agree that I was “out of line” and acted “unprofessionally.” My comment to them - even those whom I respect - is that this is a new media landscape, and there’s no rule that says I have to take criticism on the chin (I’m clearly not comparing myself to him, but I’m sure Walter Cronkite would have been enthusiastic about viewers having the opportunity to flog him on air). In short - I’m not sure why the consensus opinion is that contemporary writers should cordially bend over when readers lash out, but I promise that many of us are becoming more reluctant to do so.   

I’ve learned plenty from this flame war. For one, I’ll do my best from now on to tuck my macho in my beltline whenever I drop sensitive new features. The time I spent fielding unintelligible hate-mails could have been spent working on my next piece. Secondly, I found out that I never want to face a jury of my so-called peers; it’s discomforting how many intolerant readers concluded that Donovan should spend his life in jail for assault whether or not there even was a subsequent stabbing. On a third note, I discovered how many tattle tales are quick to cowardly write to my superiors (instead of directly to me) - as if editors don't disregard such hysterics quicker than restaurant managers do irksome diners who return half-eaten entrees.

As for those who wrote that they no longer plan to read my articles: I would express disappointment over such sad news, but I’m certain that they never checked me in the past anyway. If they were genuinely familiar, then they wouldn’t have been shocked by my comment in the first place.

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