Journalistic Bullying

by admin on March 26, 2008

I’ve been meaning to write on the issue of cyberbullying ever since the blogosphere rebelled against the blatant cyberbullying being inflicted upon bloggers and declared a “no cyberbully” day” last year.  However, it’s obvious from the dearth of posts to this blog that I am not the kind of blogger married to my keyboard day in and day out.  Real life has this way of intruding upon my time to blog and I happily choose to yield to the lovely realities beyond the internet.  I’m a “fire in the belly” kind of writer who needs a cause to get “fired up” about enough to get my writing engines started.  A recent situation has caught my attention and inspired me to once again look into addresssing the issue of cyberbullying. 

The first indication of a problem was that the number of guests visiting the Etiquette Hell forum jumped dramatically followed by a 2000% increase in membership requests over a three day period.  A quick google search yielded a newspaper column written in the Lansing State Journal that contained a link to a specific Etiquette Hell forum thread about one member and her husband’s visit to Monticello and their encounter with a tour group consisting of ill-mannered middle schooled aged children they had been told by both chaperones and tourguides were from Lansing, MI.

Columnist John Schneider titled his column,  Lansing students falsely accused of bad behavior on Web site”.   Mr. Schneider starts his column with,

 Allow me to suggest a project for a Lansing middle school class – or, better yet, several of them.

Log onto the Web site Etiquette Hell Forum (http://www.etiquettehell.com/smf/index.php?topic=26264.0) and pummel it with polite, but pointed, posts explaining why it’s in exceedingly poor taste to spread information that is both false and defamatory.

Also, demand an apology.

Wow, did I read that right?  He’s advocating middle school aged children log onto my forum and “pummel it” with demands for apologies.  Mr. Schneider’s “proof” that Lansing MI students couldn’t have possibly been the culprits is a phone call he made to Stephen Serkaian, public relations spokesperson for the Lansing MI public School district who apparently stated that no Lansing middle schools have taken any out of state trips this year. 

First, Mr. Stephen Serkaian has no jurisdiction nor knowledge regarding the activities of non-public schools such as private schools, charter schools,  homeschool groups or private clubs and groups.  Mr. Schneider made a faulty leap of conclusion that if Mr. Stephen Serkaian says no public school kids were involved,  it could not possibly be ANY Lansing students. 

Mr. Schneider offers no other evidence that Lansing students were incapable of behaving this way.  One would think from Mr. Schneider’s column that it is inconceivable that 12-14 years olds from Lansing would be ill-behaved and that begs the question, do all Lansing students have sterling reputations deserving of Mr. Schneider’s defense?  Mr. Schneider’s own column yields an interesting story from October 19, 2005  regarding some Lansing middle school and high school aged hockey players taught to aggressively bully and fight their opponents and the silence (i.e. condoning of it) by players and parents more interested in protecting potential careers in hockey than any concern for character development.  More recently in 2007,  four Lansing Middle School students physically assaulted their teachers yet were not expelled as state law required according to the teachers filing suit against the school district.  Interestingly, I delved into the Lansing State Journal’s archives using all kinds of combinations of search keywords yet found not one article or column by Mr. Schneider on the assault incident.  Yet he devotes three days’ worth of columns obsessing about one woman’s forum posts as if dissing Lansing middle schoolers was far more newsworthy than four students slapping and throwing chairs at their teachers. 

It is therefore conceivable that if the Lansing School District contains some students who assault their teachers and some students who are instructed by their hockey coaches and condoned by their parents to beat and bloody their teammates in preparation for pummeling their opposition in violation of league and USA Hockey rules, then it is certainly within the realm of possibility that some Lansing MI school kids could be ill-mannered brats while on a school field trip.

Mr. Schneider failed in his pursuit of information to really ferret out exactly what school group was touring Thomas Jefferson’s home that weekend. The only solid information given was the forum member’s eyewitness account of what four boys were wearing (sport jackets with the name of a school on them) and the testimony she received from the bus driver, a chaperone and Monticello tour guides that the group was from Lansing, Michigan.  So, I called Monticello’s tour group coordinator who rifled through her records and proceeded to tell me the group consisted of four tour buses from a middle school located in Troy, MI.  Yes, it was a case of mistaken identity but not done maliciously.

As the evidence kept building over the following days, Mr. Schenider reran the entire column a second time, on February 21st, only this time he changed the column title to,  “Web site is mistaken about misbehaving Lansing kids.   His changing the title was not surprising since journalists are supposed to have a higher standard of ethical reporting and declarative but erroneous statements of intentional and malicious false reporting is, in itself, defamatory.  And let’s get this straight, Mr. Schneider, the entire Etiquette Hell web site nor the 4,000+ forum members were not “mistaken” about anything.  One person was misinformed based on the information she was given.

In a delicious twist of irony, Mr. Schneider’s own mistaken reporting of facts as they were given to him were included in the same days’ columns.  At the very bottom of the February 21st column, he writes about a local Lansing issue regarding an out-of-business  restaurant owner not honoring gift cards,

Well, this week the chef e-mailed me a note naming only the English Inn in Eaton Rapids as a willing recipient of Villegas gift cards.

The problem is, Mr. Schneider failed to verify chef Eric Villegas’ claim that the English Inn would honor his defunct restaurant’s gift cards with English Inn owner Bill Nelson.  Oops!  Mr. Schneider believed what he was told, reported it in his column and when all hell broke lose, he proceeded to explain in minute detail how he came to believe Eric Villagas.  Mr. Schneider devotes an entire February 26th column titled, “English Inn owner says he didn’t OK Villegas’ gift card plan”and describes English Inn owner Bill Nelson as “distraught” .  Schneider further elaborates on Nelson’s dilemma,

So, imagine Nelson’s position. A Villegas gift cardholder shows up at his restaurant expecting a free meal and one of Nelson’s employees has to explain that, contrary to what Villegas implied in the newspaper, The English Inn was not prepared to accept the gift cards unconditionally.

How is the customer likely to feel toward The English Inn?

Exactly. Suddenly, Nelson could find himself in a lose-lose situation.

Wait!  Was was that?  Eric Villegas “implied in the newspaper”?  It isn’t Eric Villegas’s column, it’s Mr. Schneider’s.  Mr. Villegas merely implied in email, Schneider took it another step and reported it in the newspaper.  Great blameshifting!  Schneider failed to doublecheck with Bill Nelson because he had no reason, at that time, to disbelieve Eric Villegas’ word.  Just like DCGirl had no reason to disbelieve chaperones and tour guides who misinformed her that the misbehaving little darlings were from Lansing, MI.

Fresh from his own mistaken reporting debacle that has the potential to materially harm Bill Nelson’s restaurant reputation and business, Mr. Schneider devotes yet another day’s column defending the honor of poor yet wrongly maligned Lansing students by targeting the EtiquetteHell.com storyteller specifically (“DCGirl’s words on wrongly ID’d students rings of DCspeak”).

You would think a regular participant in a Web site forum on etiquette would know how to apologize.

But so far I’m not hearing any conciliatory words from “DCGirl,” the Web poster who recently decried the behavior of “four bus loads of middle-schoolers from Lansing, MI.”

She’s offered no shortage of excuses for wrongfully defaming Lansing students, but 21 pages into the so-called discussion “thread” that followed her original posting, I had not yet seen those magic words: “I’m sorry.”

Everyone I showed this column to, including my lawyer, said the same thing, “This is wrong on so many levels.”  Let’s start with the simple and progress to the serious.

Please, Mr. Schneider, it is really bad manners to repeatedly demand an apology, especially when you owe others apologies for your own identical errors yet seem to conveniently forget to do so.  Instead of an apology from Schneider to Bill Nelson such as, “Mr. Nelson, I am so sorry for not verifying Eric Villegas’ claims with you before I published the news that people can redeem their gift cards at your restaurant,” the readers get treated to journalistic blameshifting as if Mr. Villegas held a gun to Mr. Schneider’s head forcing him to publish the contents of his email unverified. 

I see that readers of Schneider’s  column have addressed his tendency to publish without the benefit of checking his “facts” and even taken it up with his editor only to be told:

I recall, though, being outraged once by Schneider, and the editor at the time said that Schneider was not a reporter and that his column should not be viewed as news, he was not being held to journalistic standards, and so my complaint was null and void.

However, that doesn’t jive with the Lansing State Journal’s  “Principles of Ethic Conduct for Newsrooms” which states,

We will hold factual information in opinion columns and editorials to the same standards of accuracy as news stories.

Other principles related to truthful reporting of the facts include,

  • We will dedicate ourselves to reporting the news accurately, thoroughly and in context.
  • We will be persistent in the pursuit of the whole story.

I’m certain English Inn owner Bill Nelson would have appreciated Mr. Schneider pursuing the whole story so that the news of the gift card redemption could have been reported accurately and thoroughly.

Second, Mr. Schneider is the first journalist of many in my 13 years of operating this site to not afford me the professional courtesy of inquiring with me first about conflicting, interesting or newsworthy statements and stories made by forum posters and story contributors. 

Third, don’t backpedal and claim to have called on “Lansing School defenders” to “pummel” my site with demands of apologies. Mr. Schneider specifically called on “…Lansing middle school class – or, better yet, several of them“. Fortunately, Mr. Schneider’s influence and powers of persuasion must be waning because only two people had the nerve to do his bidding while the vast majority behaved quite nicely and even became good members of the forum. 

Fourth, from a legal standpoint, entire classes of people cannot be defamed.  A plaintiff who is a member of the allegedly defamed group would have to prove that the words would be understood to refer to that plaintiff in particular.  Since there are no individuals identified in the “misbehaving tour group kids” thread, there is no defamation. Mr. Schneider’s repeated whining that Lansing students as a whole have been defamed comes off as ignorant.  However, Mr. Schneider, by specifically targeting the author of the story and making her the subject of your columns, you may be liable for defamation, particularly when you accuse her of falsity and character defects.

Fifth and finally, it’s unlikely he’ll get the grovelling, bootlicking apology he so desperately seems to need from DCGirl so what is next?  Exposing her real name? Following her all over the internet and writing repeated columns until Lansing’s honor is satisfied? That last column certainly looks like an attempt to whip up a cyber witchhunt and that makes Mr. Schneider a bully in my eyes.  As a published columnist in a major newspaper, he has a journalistic duty, both ethically and legally, to maintain higher standards of reporting than say, the average anonymous and non-public person posting to a relatively small forum.  Imo, he abused his journalism privileges to bully a quiet, valued member of my site’s forum trying to first silence her about what she saw, heard and reported and then attempting to discredit her completely.  And that qualifies Mr. Schneider for his own, special corner of Etiquette Hell.

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

cass2591 April 4, 2008 at 12:27 pm

Agreed!!

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catrunning April 6, 2008 at 3:20 pm

I can only believe that since Mr. Schneider can’t let go of this subject, he has some serious “issues”. Does he have a child in the Lansing school system, and is thus construing the comment as an attack on his child? Whatever, he obviously has no sense of proportion.

Having parented middle school children, I can vouch for their occasional rude behavior. I think you find it in every middle school in every type of community. Not every kid, of course, but enough to ruin someone else’s day on a consistent basis.

I especially love the fact that Mr. Schneider is holding DCGirl to a burden of proof that he obviously isn’t practicing himself.

But hey, if he had any kind of ethics, he would volunteer to make good the giftcards at the English Inn. Why does anyone waste paper on his column anyway?

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PeasNCues April 7, 2008 at 7:38 am

Well written! I completely agree!

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DCGirl April 10, 2008 at 2:53 pm

Wow! I didn’t know it kept on going as long as it did. Ehelldame, you missed your calling as an investigative reporter. Thank you for a well-written and exhaustively researched report.

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leigh April 11, 2008 at 7:22 am

I am appalled that a newspaper would allow this kind of thing to go on. I think your blog on this is thoughtful and well written. i have had this site in favorites for a long long time. i have read it from back to front. What you offer is a wealth of information on proper behaviour! thank you so much

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Alida April 16, 2008 at 11:01 pm

I had no idea this was still continuing, so long after the initial bruhaha. Kudos to you, Ehelldame, for all the work you put into researching the facts!

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Shoo May 22, 2008 at 7:57 pm

This is a most awesome essay, Ehelldame! If only all journalists did their research as thoroughly as you, this whole situation might have been avoided in the first place.

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Cady March 24, 2010 at 9:31 pm

I am a former journalist, and one of the reasons I left the industry was a general disillusionment with the U.S. news media as a whole (though I have to say I really enjoyed my last job in newspaper, and most of the journalists I know are hard-working people who really do believe in integrity and the truth).

Part of traditional media’s problem is that they’ve lost credibility with the public, and this story exemplifies why. Lack of integrity in fact-checking and inconsistencies in following one’s own publication’s policies are part of the reason circulation is down. It’s not just the internet.

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Javin October 7, 2011 at 3:45 pm

@Cady:
You are absolutely right. It’s precisely because of the garbage that’s printed (such as Mr. Schneider’s) that I no longer read newspapers at all. I find that with some minor fact checking of my own, I can get a far more unbiased and accurate story through google on most current events.

Side note: Having gone to high school in small-town Durand Michigan, and knowing people from Troy (which is closer to Detroit), Lansing, and Flint, (with family still in all of them) I can assure you there’s little difference. Mr. Schneider really chose a weak soap box to stand on.

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