One time I wrote a piece about a ballplayer whose name had come up in connection with doping, in which I noted that lots of people take drugs and that it is easy to condemn someone for doing something you might do if you were him. I got a lot of emails about it, and one of them was from his wife. She was glad someone had taken the time to think about what the world might look like to a young athlete.
Recently I wrote about Nick Diaz, a pretty famously cantankerous fighter who gave me quite the runaround when it came time to get him on the phone and wasn’t, to say the least, much in the mood to talk to some random guy once I finally got him. Instead of hatcheting him I just reported what I’d heard from talking to him and people around him and what I’d learned from following him over the years, and I got a lot of emails about it, and among them were a few from people who know him and just wanted to write to tell me that they thought I’d caught him pretty well and were glad someone had written fairly about him.
These are the first two examples that come to mind, but there have been other occasions where I’ve written something about someone who’s been taking some shots and heard privately from involved people who were glad I hadn’t joined in. I don’t bring it up to portray myself as someone who understands athletes especially well, but just to point out that I know at first hand that even an obscure journo will have people close to his subjects (or his subjects themselves) reading him and that those people will, when they feel the journo has done right by their man, reach out and let him know. I also happen to have been in the fishbowl myself—did I ever tell you about that time when my best friend and I quit our jobs because our publisher wouldn’t let us run cartoons that had sparked riots in Muslim lands and thus became a cause celebre for like a day, culminating in absurd appearances on MSNBC and NPR and CNN and FOX News where we called other editors pussies for being afraid that terrorists would blow up their offices if they ran not especially offensive images that were already widely available online?—and that taught me a lot, too.
Anyway, my point here is that while yes, it can be dismaying to do a vanity search and discover that people you’ve never talked to think you’re a douchebag, there are two things worth keeping in mind. One is that there there is an inverse dynamic, whereby if you write well or fairly people will reach out to you and let you know that they noticed and that this means something to them, and that this is worth far more than money to anyone who is writing for honest reasons, and well worth random people saying that your headshot makes you look a twat, something facilitated by the same technology. The other is that any journo who has ever taken a shot at someone he’s never talked to (this would be all of them) has been in the exact same position as some random guy on the internets calling random journos douchebags, except that he is much more likely to have actually hurt someone’s feelings or caused actual harm. The series of tubes, in other words, just reveals to the journo that like his subjects he is both a person and a synthetic image about which people form judgments and about which they may not think generously, and if this revelation causes the journo any discomfiture the fitting end of it should probably just be to make him more generous and cautious and aware that his words have mass and meaning.