ChicagoNow You See It, Now You Don’t

Something very unfortunate happened in the Chicago blogosphere late last week. A popular blogger on ChicagoNow wrote an injudicious blog post, the leader of a major Chicago weekly took very personal–and very public–exception to said blog post, and ultimately, ChicagoNow took the blog post down. Except it wasn’t as cut and dried as all that, and after a weekend of thinking about it I still have no clear answer. But one thing is for sure: things got really ugly.

Last Thursday  Tuesday, Arresting Tales blogger “Joe the Cop” wrote a blog post describing a “Ghetto Shooting Template,” based on his experience as a Chicagoland police officer. In the scenario, a black man with an arrest record is shot and killed by police, witnesses come forward but refuse to divulge what they know, and the family of the deceased files a civil lawsuit. According to Joe, all of that happens again and again in Chicago and even a casual reader of the major dailies would find it hard to argue with the pattern. But Joe did three objectionable things in the eyes of a lot of people. He used the word “ghetto.” (Hurray for a word that isn’t politically correct.) He cited police statistics to point out that 75% of Chicago murder victims and murder offenders are black men. (Hard to argue with official records.)

And…he said of an actual repeat offender shot and killed by police that he would probably be worth more to his family dead, as the subject of a civil lawsuit, than alive. And whether that’s true, it’s a pretty callous thing to say about a recently deceased person whose loved ones might read your words. And they did read, and comment angrily. And so did Time Out Chicago (TOC) editor-in-chief Frank Sennett. Over the course of the week Joe was called a racist for his words. Sennett took to Twitter–were he proceeded to write around one-hundred critical tweets–and on Thursday took to the TOC Blog, in both places lambasting Joe and ChicagoNow and labeling Joe a racist.

I talked to Joe at the ChicagoNow tweetup on Thursday evening and he seemed taken aback at the idea that merely pointing out statistics and observing a verifiable trend would be cause to call anyone a racist. I happen to agree. I don’t even think Joe’s callous words merit a charge of racism. That’s such a kitchen-sink word liberal-minded detractors like to throw about when they don’t like someone telling things as they are.

But just because Sennett and his fellow critics were confusing racism with bad judgment, that doesn’t mean they didn’t have a point. I don’t know whether Joe got their point Thursday night, and even if he did, I don’t know that there was any cause for him to delete his post. In fact, Joe wrote a rebuttal post that night, explaining why he said what he said, in great detail. You can find that post (for now) in the Google cache here. Unfortunately, you can’t find it anywhere else, because over the weekend ChicagoNow decided to take down both Joe’s original post and his follow-up.

ChicagoNow had a point in doing so. They promulgate Terms of Use to all bloggers and reserve the right to take down posts that violate those terms. In general, controversially opinionated posts are okay. But posts that create unnecessary discord are not. From ChicagoNow’s viewpoint, I assume causing needless pain to the family of a man who’s just been killed was the catalyst for deleting the posts. While I don’t agree with their removal, I can understand the reasoning behind doing so which was explained on the Chicago Now Staff Blog.

What I can’t understand, though, is why the leader of a major Chicago weekly decided to set himself up as the Internet police, harass ChicagoNow through an unnecessary stream of angry tweets, champion Internet censorship, and then take credit for doing all of that in the online pages of TOC. Sennett swears he’s not a censor, yet he makes it clear he’s angry Joe still has a position as a ChicagoNow blogger.

Here’s the deal. Take it from a former Internet bully. Regular readers of this blog know that in the past I’ve been highly ad hominem and unfair towards other people because I didn’t agree with their opinions. Though I’ve spent a lot of time lately atoning for acting that way, the fact is I did and though I’m ashamed of my past actions, I won’t deny them. In fact, more than once Sennett, himself, took me to task publicly, on Twitter, for being an Internet bully. So why did Sennett decide to make himself into just that–an Internet bully–last week?

I’ll tell you from deep personal experience, when you’re really angry, and you have an axe to grind, and you have a public pulpit, it can be intoxicating to go on the attack and it can be very hard to realize how you’re coming across to other people, or that you’re even being unfair at all. I really hope that’s the explanation for Sennett’s actions, because I think harassing a colleague publication and a rank-and-file blogger in the way Sennett did last week is just not becoming of the editor-in-chief of a prominent Chicago weekly.

What’s more, just because Sennett decided he was the Internet police, ChicagoNow didn’t have to agree with him. I respect their decision and reasoning for taking down Joe’s posts. (And if you’ve been with me awhile, as you might imagine I’m letting go of past criticisms because it’s just not my job to try and “fix” ChicagoNow, and I’ve made my amends for personal attacks made in February.) But I can’t help but see it as self-censorship on a platform that hangs its hat on being a home to open debate. Couldn’t ChicagoNow have worked all of this out in the relevant comment threads, in a follow-up post, or perhaps even in a special community forum or live discussion on the issue? That’s how controversies of all sorts are generally worked out on the blogosphere. It’s very rare a post actually gets pulled. (For example, in the five years I’ve written Chicago Carless, I’ve pulled down a grand total of one post, and that’s out of more than 600.)

At this point, I think it’s very much to ChicagoNow’s credit that they’ve left up posts by other CN bloggers who have protested the deletion of Joe’s posts. Dissenting posts have come from very popular blogs, too, including District 299, A League of Her Own (which quotes a lengthier explanation from CN staff), and Chicago Muckrakers (which reposts some of Sennett’s tweets.) ChicagoNow should leave these posts up to underscore that open, unfettered community debate is still alive and well in its virtual pages. In fact, I think the best thing to do would be to republish Joe’s original posts. As the Google cache demonstrates, it isn’t as if they’re not still out there.

As for Joe, himself, I don’t think he needs to do much more than keep being honest and open about his words and motives–as he very much was in his follow-up post–except maybe to think a little more about the compassion quotient in his posts. Next time he names names on his blog or anywhere else, it would help to try and put himself in the other person’s shoes first, to get some perspective on how he may be coming across to others. Take it from me.

You too, Frank.

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What do you think?