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Jan 13 / King Kaufman

Why you should never call your online critics names, even if you edit the N.Y. Times

The headline on the latest piece by Poynter media ethics columnist Kelly McBride made me think of drive-in movie critic Joe Bob Briggs, who often writes, “I’m surprised I have to explain this.” As in this observation from 1992: “The star of a horror flick—and they’re always women—defeats the psycho killer. The female star of an ”erotic thriller’ is the psycho killer. I’m surprised I have to explain this to you people.”

Here’s the headline: Why editors shouldn’t call readers a**holes

Got that? Thus endeth the lesson.

Oh, all right, here are some details. On his Facebook page, USC journalism professor Marc Cooper shared New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan’s blog post about the paper’s decision not to print cartoons from the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo that are seen as key to the massacre at the paper’s Paris office last week.

“A question for NYTimes editor Dean Baquet,” Copper wrote. “Exactly how many people have to be shot in cold blood before your paper rules that you can show us what provoked the killers? Apparently 23 shot including 11 dead is not enough. What absolute cowardice.”

Baquet responded with a comment: “Dear Marc, appreciate the self righteous second guessing without even considering there might be another point of view. Hope your students are more open minded. Asshole.”

That comment went viral, with Cooper gleefully sharing coverage from Politico,, the Washington Post, Gawker and others. There was some back and forth in the Facebook comments, with Baquet calling Cooper self-righteous and pompous and Cooper reiterating his point that the Times had no good argument for withholding the images, and taking the high road by not engaging in name-calling.

Here’s McBride:

I’m sure Baquet expected the scrutiny. Teachers, politicians, newspaper editors, cops—they all hold power over others. They all have the ability to force others to listen. They command a microphone and a spotlight.

I’m not saying they should roll over. Almost everything else Baquet said in his comment was legitimate dialogue. Even the wish that Professor Cooper’s students are more open-minded was fair game.

But the name-calling diverted our attention. I bet it felt good in the moment. And for others, perhaps it provided a vicarious moment of satisfaction in the face of smug self-righteousness. But in the long run, calling Cooper an asshole harms the very condition that Baquet and the rest of journalism strives to create: an informed and engaged citizenry.

Name-calling starts when reasonable listening stops. In doing so, Baquet signaled that he was no longer listening.

It’s easy to get pulled into flame wars on social media, whether it’s by a troll just looking to stir things up or by our own fatigue, frustration, anger or whatever negative feelings we’ve got going for whatever reason. As McBride points out about Baquet’s outburst, it’s not a good idea. Listening and civil discourse are bigger wins than the mental high-five you give yourself after calling someone an asshole on Twitter.