Gender and the female journalist who dares read the Internet

Internet trolls and anonymous slurs are a plague of these wired times. For journalists the rambling threats and hateful attacks that used to be scrawled sideways on postcards and mailed are now amped up in ugliness and posted across the Internet. The words tend to be more brutal if the reporter is Jewish or gay, or if the byline can have any race, ethnicity, religion or nationality read into it by the name-parsing haters of America. [My all-time personal favorite came on a postcard and said "you must be a Catholic or a Jew or both."] For women, the ravings of the loners and the angry — and the designed-to-hurt arrows of the hired mouthpieces of this cause or that — will also too predictably make reference to some mixture of looks, presumed female traits, sex acts or personal violence. Almost always.

This online bullying of women affects a much bigger swath than journalists, of course. Los Angeles writer Amanda Hess wrote a devastating piece this month in Pacific Standard making a case that many women have simply quit the Internet or curtailed their engagement over the nastiness. That's a huge, pointless loss to society. "These relentless messages are an assault on women’s careers, their psychological bandwidth, and their freedom to live online," Hess says. When I stopped giving the angry ranters an anonymous forum at LA Observed several years ago — they always had more time to comment than the sane and thoughtful — I was struck by how many women said thanks. Without comments the site gave up a facade of community that sometimes added in the good way, and we lost countless clicks, but the actual community of readers grew and I felt better about not enabling creeps and bullies. My daughter can read LA Observed. (And now Facebook can weed out most of the anti-social, but that's another story.)

Hess often writes personally about sex and hot-button subjects in her freelance career, a combination that sets off the crazies. She also documents police departments that dismiss rape and death threats by asking "what is Twitter?" Now Los Angeles Magazine's Amy Wallace has an opinion piece in the New York Times that shows how female journalists don't have to touch on sex to have gender turned back against them.

In 2009, I wrote a cover story for Wired magazine about the anti-vaccine movement and profiled Paul Offit, a leading proponent of vaccines for children. Dr. Offit is a man. I am a woman. That was sufficient grounds for things to get ugly....

In online comments and over email, I was called a prostitute and the C-word. J. B. Handley, a critic of childhood vaccination and the founder of the autism group Generation Rescue, affiliated with the actress Jenny McCarthy, sent me an essay titled, “Paul Offit Rapes (intellectually) Amy Wallace and Wired Magazine.” In it, he implied that my subject had slipped me a date-rape drug. Later, an anti-vaccine website Photoshopped my head onto the body of a woman in a strapless dress who sat next to Dr. Offit at a festive dinner table. The main course? A human baby.

The recent incident that set off Wallace was similar treatment — "another Photoshop hack job" — aimed at NYT national reporter Amy Harmon, who dared to point out that many of the arguments for a proposed ban on genetically modified organisms in Hawaii did not have science behind them. It wasn't lonely old men who went after Harmon but Food Democracy Now, an advocacy group. FDN pasted her head on a picture of a woman in a leopard-skin bathing suit and portrayed Harmon holding hands on a beach with the chief executive of Monsanto. When this was posted on the group's Facebook page, the trolls came out.

Not long afterward, one commenter wrote, “Evil Bitchweed.” Another taunted, “Hey Amy ... C U Next Tuesday,” an evocation of that C-word, again. When some commenters complained that the image of Ms. Harmon was inconsonant with the values of a group espousing progressive activism, FDN defended it as “satire, not sexism.”

So a few journalists get heckled, you may be thinking. Why should we care? Here’s why: This kind of vitriol is not designed to hold reporters accountable for the fairness and accuracy of their work. Instead, it seeks to intimidate and, ultimately, to silence female journalists who write about controversial topics. As often as not, even if they’ve won two Pulitzers, as Ms. Harmon has, these women find their bodies — not their intellects — under attack.

“When I first saw it, I felt a flush of embarrassment — even though it wasn’t really my body, or my bathing suit,” Ms. Harmon told me. She said colleagues of both genders commiserated. Many had received their own hate mail in the past: death threats, for example, or anti-Semitic missives. But for the men, at least, their bodies weren’t part of the conversation. The FDN attack, Ms. Harmon said, was “a kind of visual shorthand that can’t really be used in the same way to dismiss or demean a male reporter.”

At the Atlantic, Venice-based writer Conor Friedersdorf followed on the Hess essay with his own experiences as a blogger and editor.

For years, I've been convinced that gendered nastiness and harassment was one factor responsible for the emergence of a blogosphere so disproportionately inhabited by men. And it's the biggest factor that changed my mind about how heavy-handed bloggers and editors ought to be about moderating comments sections.

Let's take a trip back to the early aughts, when political blogs and arguing about politics on Internet message boards went mainstream. As a college student and later as a newspaper reporter, I was subject to all manner of vile and ad hominem insults in comments. I nevertheless subscribed to the prevailing ethos of the time: that unmoderated comments were the least bad approach, because they acted as an important check on the writer or publication that was hosting them, a particularly important feature in an era when anyone could publish anything. My 25-year-old self felt confident that, having been subject to vitriol as serious as death threats, I was fully aware of the costs of the approach I advocated. Like many bloggers, I quickly developed thick skin, especially with regard to trolls. It wasn't always easy, but it seemed a small price to pay for all the excellent comments I got to read as compared to the prior world of boring letters to the editor.

Then I guest-blogged for Megan McArdle. At the time, she was employed here at The Atlantic. My stint running her page while she vacationed included the keys to the blog's inbox. Even as someone who'd previously blogged about immigration in California's Inland Empire, fielding insults and aggressive invective as vile as any I could imagine, I was shocked by a subset of her blog's correspondence. To this day, I don't know if I was experiencing a typical or atypical week. Perhaps in the abstract, there isn't any threat more extreme than the death threats I'd received and brushed off as unserious. But I read emails and comments addressed at McArdle that expanded my notion of how disturbing online vitriol could be. And it took my actually reading them for my perspective to change.

I'd never been exposed to anything like it before.

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