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Monday, July 10, 2006

WATB Jason Zengerle fears the internets

The internets are after me

Eric Alterman takes on the truth-challenged former fact checker for Stephen Glass and fake e-mail printer, Jason Zengerle

I don’t know about you, but when I see the words “death threat” in my daily newspaper, I expect to read about an actual threat of death to someone somewhere. [Wikipedia agrees: “death threat is a threat (often made anonymously) against a person to kill him or her.” Here .] I got a threat once from an angry reader on the phone and I called the police and that was not even regarding my impending “death”; just a broken leg or two.

For reasons I cannot fully explain, I became briefly obsessed on Friday afternoon with the Boston Globe’s report of “death threats” against The New Republic’s Jason Zengerle by members of the Kos community who did not like his reporting on Jerome Armstrong and Moulitsas Zúniga. The article, which was written by Globe intern, Michael M. Grynbaum, here, struck me as playing to all the clichés the mainstream media offers about the liberal blogosphere, but nowhere more than in the reporting of alleged “death threats” against Zengerle, which when I read it, I knew simply could not be true. (Why the article made no mention of what struck me as a central fact of the drama ­Zengerle’s employment of an accusatory e-mail that turned out to be a forgery ­also piqued my curiosity/annoyance, but remains another story.)

Anyway, on Friday afternoon, I made a few calls and reached both Globe Washington bureau chief Peter Canellos and Jason Zengerle. (I could not reach the article’s author, Grynbaum, who was not in the office, and does not have voicemail on the system.) I spoke to Zengerle first and asked him to describe the threat. He read to me the contents of an e-mail that, in rather graphic, sick and disgusting terms­relating to concentration camps ­explained to him that the writer wished he would one day die a similar death. It was clearly the product of a sick mind and no doubt disturbing to receive, but nothing in it could conceivably be labeled a “threat” of any kind. When I told Zengerle that while I found the letter to be “both insane and obscene,” I couldn’t find anything threatening in its contents, he found my conclusions disturbing. First he sent me an e-mail in which he said, “If you write about this, I expect you will print the attached e-mail in its entirety (with edits for the two instances of profanity in the last paragraph, if necessary) so that you can then explain to your readers how this note ­which I received because Moulitsas put my personal e-mail address on his website at the end of a long screed attacking me and the magazine I work for­ is not, in your definition of the term, a death threat.”

When I told him that I would characterize the note as best as I could but that for reasons of taste and space I could not imagine that my editors at would want to print it, he sent me a second e-mail in which he insisted, “The fact that we're even discussing whether it constitutes a "death threat" is insane and obscene.” He then went on to explain the fact that he had received hundreds of e-mails as a result of the fact that “Moulitsas printed my personal e-mail address on his website, and “a handful wishing me death and/or some sort of bodily harm. I deleted virtually all of them, but I did hang on to the one I forwarded to you, because I found it particularly unsettling. I assumed you would feel the same way. Look, if a note from an anonymous e-mailer wishing for me, a Jew, to be put in a concentration camp and then tortured by Nazi guards until I choke on human feces is not, in your mind, a death threat, well, that's your opinion. But that's not an opinion I share. It's not as if this e-mailer was hoping that people defecate in my mouth as part of a fraternity prank. He was hoping for this to happen to me in Auschwitz! Do you think the Nazi guards, in the e-mailer's scenario, ultimately perform the Heimlich on the choking Kapo and save his life? I don't. If you want to have a debate about all this--in which you basically soft-pedal or in some sense defend this e-mail--then we can have it. But I'd really rather not. Therefore, I'd really rather you not write about this on your blog. To try to turn this difference of opinion into a "gotcha" item strikes me as unfair and unworthy of you.”

Now I’ve never spoken to Zengerle before and know nothing about him. And I’ve not waded too deeply into the waters of TNR’s fight with Kos and company. So I’m staying clear of those issues. But this is not a matter of “gotcha” journalism, nor for God’s sake an attempt b me to me to “soft-pedal or in some sense defend this e-mail” which after all, I characterized to Zengerle as “both insane and obscene.” It’s a matter of the meaning of words. I once heard Susan Sontag and Nadine Gordimer describe the purpose of intellectuals is to defend the language. I agree. There was no “death threat” here; just the kind of e-mails that are the price of putting strong opinions on the Internet­something that happens with unhappy frequency here at Altercation, and the main reason I pay somebody to screen them for me.

The real question here is not why Zengerle allowed his judgment to be clouded by his reaction to the upsetting e-mails, but why the Boston Globe employed his mistaken characterization; one that, by coincidence, happens to play into the current cliché about what dangerous lunatics liberal bloggers are; wanting to defeat poor ol’ Joe Lieberman one day, threatening death to TNR writers the next. Yes, the article was written by an intern, but it edited by real editors. When I spoke to Peter Canellos, he was quite friendly and forthcoming, but took issue with the above reading of the article. He described it as merely an attempt to show that the rough and tumble of real politics had now spread to the liberal blogosphere and here we had a kind of political coming-of-age story. Perhaps many people read it that way. I didn’t. I still don’t. Zengerle’s e-mailer may have been crazy but he was not threatening. And if words are to have any meaning at all, somebody needs to point that out. Whether that’s “unworthy” of me, I’ll let others be the judge.

In Mexico, a death threat for a reporter comes with a gun and a threat. Not a nasty e-mail. Personal e-mail? What the fuck is he talking about?

What he's telling Alterman is that his personal e-mail box was flooded with obscene e-mails, calling it a death threat is a bit much. But Kos only printed his work e-mail box. Unless he's stupid enough to use that for personal e-mail, then he's nuts.

His work e-mail is fair game for people to express opinions. If Zengerle felt the e-mail posed a danger to him, he needed to contact that person's ISP and the police. Not whine about it to Alterman or in his TNR blog of questionable virtue.

A death threat is a serious business, and if he had felt one had been made, he should have treated it seriously, not whine about it.

posted by Steve @ 5:15:00 PM

5:15:00 PM

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