Reporter gets rude emailer in trouble with boss, saves world

WSJ reporter boasts of squashing reader who dared to use a curse words, thus restoring civility to the world.

WSJ reporter boasts of squashing reader who dared to use a curse words, thus restoring civility to the world.

There are two ways to respond to crude insults. One way is to remain above them, either ignoring the jerk or responding politely. The other way is to embrace the insult as an excuse to behave like a jerk yourself. Guess which way a reporter for the Wall Street Journal took recently?

The screenshot accompanying this post was provided to media writer emeritus Jim Romenesko. (I’ve blurred the face and name of the reporter because this post is about an issue, not a person.) In brief, the reporter got an insulting email that accused him of making a grammatical error he insists he did not. The reporter was appalled that the emailer used a curse word. (The WSJ newsroom apparently is convent-like in its propriety.) The reporter wrote back (mistake No. 1), asking why the reader felt the need to curse. (Because it was a day of the week ending in a Y? Just guessing.)

The reader responded with sarcasm. Unable to contain his outrage, and noting that the reader had used work email, the reporter contacted (No. 2) the company (No. 3). The company president responded with an apology. The Facebook post (No. 4) concludes (No. 5):

He (the reader) won’t be fired and I don’t want him to be fired. I just want him and everyone else out there to think twice before firing off their obnoxious emails to people they don’t know who have done them no wrong. And yes, he (expletive deleted) with the wrong guy today.

Every reporter has a bad day, and I’d ignore this episode except that the response to Romenesko’s post included a lot of apparent journalists defending the reporter’s actions. Wrote one person:

I love that this reporter finds himself on the receiving end of a nasty letter from a jerk, does something about it, and is now being flamed for not having thick enough skin. He is not the bad guy here. His troll is the bad guy.

Well, yes, the troll is a bad guy. But that doesn’t mean the reporter must be the good guy. He gave up that designation when he lowered himself to the troll’s level. I’ll leave it to whatever profession the troll is a member of to police itself. I’m a journalist.

Journalists like to call their field a profession. With that, however, must come some responsibilities, including the duty to act like a professional. Where did this reporter go wrong?

  1. He chose to respond to a jerk, not just by answering the question, but by questioning the jerk’s cursing. This essentially invites a sarcastic reply. The reporter could have ignored the email completely, or simply responded with an explanation of the grammatical issue. He chose to turn it from a discussion of journalism to one of etiquette.
  2. When the response was sarcasm, he kept going. There’s no point to this. It’s not a reporter’s job to try to improve the social skills of a reader — and he certainly wasn’t going to make an impact on the rest of the world by responding via email to one person.
  3. It would be unprofessional for any journalist to escalate the matter by contacting the company over something as minor as a curse. It’s egregious when that reporter represents the Wall Street Journal. Of course the company president is going to respond: it’s the WSJ, the daily diary of the American dream. The reporter was using his status as a WSJ reporter to obtain something unrelated to his job: an apology for having offended his delicate sensibilities.
  4. He then boasted about it on Facebook. We all screw up. But to think that acting like a jerk is something to be proud of? Words fail me.
  5. He blustered about being the wrong guy to F with. This should count as several mistakes. He’s put the lie to his claim that using a curse word offends him. He’s confused keyboard skills with toughness. And he’s made it clear that the line about not wanting the guy fired is BS.

I sympathize with the urge to give as good (or bad) as you get. It’s human nature. But professionals should be better than that, particularly when they work for something as large and mainstream as the WSJ. Even if you don’t accept that logic, take it from a long-time comment moderator: In the long run, it doesn’t work. This reporter isn’t making the world a more civil place; he’s actually encouraging keyboard warriors.

(This post was updated to correct the description of how the company got involved.)

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