Sunday, October 24, 2004

Re:    Raising the Level of Political Discourse in America

Steven X. Schwenk
San Francisco, California

October 12, 2004

Daniel Okrent, Public Editor
The New York Times
229 West 43rd Street
New York, NY  10036

                 Re:    Raising the Level of Political Discourse in America

Dear Mr. Okrent:

                In Sunday's New York Times, you quoted an angry sentence from a private e-mail I wrote to political reporter Adam Nagourney to make the point of  "just how debased the level of discourse has become."  Fair enough.  That sentence was indeed shocking and uncivil.  And you are right, civil discourse is important, if not vital, in a democracy.  And I also agree with you that if the public editor of the nation's most important newspaper discerns a dramatic decline in the level of political discourse, it is incumbent upon him to bring it to the nation's attention and to lead the way toward restoring civility.

        Unfortunately, you did nothing of the sort in your column.  Instead of leading your readers down the path of civility, you the led them down the path of hatred, calling me a "coward," implying that  I am a despicable person and holding me up for public ridicule and scorn.  Not only that, you identified me both by name and by city of residence, even after I pleaded with your assistant and Mr. Nagourney not to.

                I pleaded with them because, in this age of internets, I knew what the result would be, and obviously you did too, given the topic of your column.  As expected, the angry, hateful e-mails came pouring in.  But they were the least of it.  The angry and hateful phone calls were worse, much worse, mostly because they frightened my children, who now jump whenever the phone rings.  But at least the phone calls will go away. 

            What won't go away for years, if ever, are the results of the Google search of my name every prospective employer, professional colleague, new friend or potential spouse is likely to conduct in the future.  When you search my name now, you learn right away that the Public Editor of the New York Times called me a coward and a despicable person incapable of consideration of others.  As Mr. Nagourney well knows, Google is brutal and unforgiving.  It forgets nothing.  And everybody uses it.  And when people see in their search results that it is the esteemed New York Times that has branded me an inconsiderate coward, they are, ironically, likely to believe it to be true without any second thought.
         One last point, and it's an important one.  In sending my angry e-mail to Mr. Nagourney, I never intended to cause him harm, and did not cause him harm.  The same is not true of you and your column in Sunday's New York Times.  Naming me in your column the way you did served only one purpose, and that was to harm me.  It served no other purpose whatsoever, certainly none of any journalistic import.  Intentionally causing me harm like that was not only grossly unfair, it was hateful and vicious.  It was an abuse of your position and power.  The damage you have inflicted upon me and my family is real, will last for years and is so wildly disproportionate to the offense at hand that it is outrageous. 

        Let me close by pledging that, henceforth, I shall write all of my e-mails as though they will be published in the New York Times.  I shall write them with the care, consideration and respect for civil discourse that one would expect from the public editor of the nation's leading newspaper.  I will write them as though I am writing a respected column that will be read by people around the world, and that will be captured in Google forever.  My parting request to you, Mr. Okrent, should you choose not to do the honorable thing and resign, is that you pledge to never again write a column for the New York Times as though you are writing a private, angry and hostile e-mail to an audience of one.


Steve Schwenk