In August, shortly before journalists descended on New Orleans for a week of coverage and events the city had hashtagged #Katrina10, Chicago Tribune editorial board member Kristen McQueary (aka @StatehouseChick on Twitter) sent a tweet:
"'Chicago is so good at hiding its rot.' My Friday column. Wishing for a #HurricaneKatrina #RahmEmanuel"
The column, which was headlined "In Chicago, Wishing For a Hurricane Katrina," expressed McQueary's desire for "An unpredictable, haughty, devastating swirl of fury. A dramatic levee break. Geysers bursting through manhole covers. A sleeping city, forced onto the rooftops."
Why would a Chicagoan want that graphic nightmare visited upon her city? "That's what it took to hit the reset button in New Orleans," she concluded.
Within hours, the headline was changed to the more innocuous "Chicago, New Orleans, and Rebirth," and the story was rewritten to reflect McQueary's wish for a "figurative" storm, one that would sweep away Chicago's "rot." (There was nothing figurative about the original column.) But the images of New Orleans' destruction as a metaphor for fixing Chicago's infrastructure remained.
New Orleanians are used to unfortunate references to Katrina, whether it's former House Speaker Dennis Hastert's suggestion that the city be bulldozed, or website commenters who call the Big Easy a pit, a sewer, a place that was improved by the levee collapses. What was different in this case was the source: an editorial board member of one of the country's largest newspapers.
The reaction was predictable — in both Chicago and New Orleans. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a McQueary adversary, denounced the column, calling it "morally reprehensible." Salon.com called it "the most appalling op-ed of the year." The National Association of Black Journalists' Chicago chapter demanded a public apology from McQueary (who is white) and asked that she be suspended for two weeks.
Within minutes of sending her tweet and posting her column, McQueary had a violent social media backlash, with people on Facebook and Twitter accusing her of heartlessness at best and racism at worst. "Scum," "bitch" and "cunt" were among the hundreds of epithets aimed at her; some people said she should die. Three weeks after her column appeared, McQueary still was getting angry tweets. "RACIST FILTH," one person wrote. Another tweeted, "She is vile and deserves a private Katrina."
In his new book So You've Been Publicly Shamed, Jon Ronson notes, "I suppose that when shamings are delivered like remotely administered drone strikes nobody needs to think about how ferocious our collective power might be. The snowflake never needs to feel responsible for the avalanche."
I wondered: What is it like at the bottom of that avalanche? I had a trip planned to Chicago. So I emailed McQueary, asking to meet her, and when she didn't respond, I tried again.
In "The Coddling of the American Mind," the cover story in this month's The Atlantic, authors Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt note, "When speech comes to be seen as a form of violence, vindictive protectiveness can justify a hostile, and perhaps even violent response."
"One of the ways "vindictive protectiveness" manifests: public shaming. It's a centuries-old tradition, but today it takes the form of a keyboard instead of stocks in the public square."
One of the ways "vindictive protectiveness" manifests: public shaming. It's a centuries-old tradition, but today it takes the form of a keyboard instead of stocks in the public square.
In his book, Ronson relates what happened to Justine Sacco, a public relations executive who achieved instant notoriety in 2013 for an idiotic tweet she fired off just before a long plane flight: "Going to Africa. Hope I don't get AIDS. Just kidding. I'm white!"
Over the next few hours, the comment was retweeted around the world; for a while, Ronson writes, "Justine Sacco" was the world's top trending topic on Twitter. Sacco found out about her worldwide infamy only when she landed 11 hours later. She lost her job. In December 2013, "Justine Sacco" was Googled 1.2 million times.
More recently, Texan Monica Foy attempted to make a bitter joke about the way some attempt to dig into the past of black men killed by police in order to prove that the deceased was "no angel" or something similar. "I can't believe so many people care about a dead cop and NO ONE has thought to ask what he did to deserve it. He had creepy perv eyes," Foy wrote. That comment went around the world as well; Foy recently told New York magazine she's had dozens of death threats.
It doesn't take that much to be provocative. Earlier this month, the Kenner car dealership Lamarque Ford got into hot water after a local Twitter user, @YesICan- dice, tweeted, "Has anyone seen the HORRIBLE new Ronnie Lamarque commercial?! TER- RIBLE!!!!!!" The official @LamarqueFord account snapped back, "Not as horrible as those eyebrows of yours, quit hating on people who actually DO shit. Those commercials are perfection."
Nearly four hours later, after the company had taken a thorough bashing in the New Orleans Twitter community, Lamarque Ford tweeted an apology, adding "Actions have been taken."
Chicago columnists long have been known for tough talk and bluff pronouncements. In 1996, the city's dean of newspaper columnists, Mike Royko, wrote a column that created an uproar among Hispanics.
"There is no reason for Mexico to be such a mess except that it is run by Mexicans, who have clearly established that they don't know what the heck they are doing," Royko wrote. "Just name one thing that Mexico has done this century that has been of any genuine use to the rest of this planet. Besides giving us tequila. See? You can't. If you are honest, you will admit that it is kind of a useless country. And before its entire population sneaks across the border, we should seize it and make it a colony. We should grab it, privatize the whole country and turn a neat profit by giving Club Med the franchise."
Outrageous? Racist? Royko was lampooning then-presidential candidate Pat Buchan- an's position on illegal immigration. Some people didn't get it. Others did, and still didn't like it. In those pre-social media days, people responded via 20th century means, including a demonstration outside the Tribune and hundreds of out-raged phone calls, including one that said "You lousy motherf—, I'm gonna put two bullets in your head." (Royko included it in a subsequent column, adding, "How wasteful. One would do the job.")
Like Royko, McQueary leads with her chin in print (last year, she taunted Emanuel, calling him a "walking personality disorder") and isn't inclined to apologize. But she attempted to explain her Katrina column in a terse followup titled "Hurricane Katrina and What Was in My Heart," writing, "I wrote what I did not out of lack of empathy, or racism, but out of longstanding frustration with Chicago's poorly man-aged finances."
McQueary added, "I am horrified and sickened at how that column was read to mean I would be gunning for actual death and destruction." But that, as readers pointed out, was exactly what she had written, and in graphic terms. Moreover, what they wanted was an apology, not an explanation.
A few people said McQueary had nothing for which to apologize. Michael Miner, the longtime media critic for the Chicago Reader, defended her in a column which received such blowback of its own that Miner wrote his own followup, acknowledging, "I will say simply that the offended black voices of New Orleans have every right to complain that McQueary treated them cavalierly" — as if it were purely a racial issue and ignoring that plenty of "white voices" and Chicagoans were offended as well.
(One commenter on Miner's story wrote, "The things that McQueary was extolling as a cure for Chicago's ills are broken here. I moved from Chicago to New Orleans 7 years ago and I LONG for some Chicago-style corruption. Or infrastructure at least.")
Some continued to call for McQueary to be fired. Tribune editorial page director Bruce Dold finally issued a statement to Chicago's WGN-TV that said, "McQueary's column credits the resilience and ingenuity of the people of New Orleans and pleads for dramatic change in Chicago, which has not faced up to its financial crisis. That is her point.
"Her use of Hurricane Katrina as metaphor has unfortunately been misconstrued."
Sometimes people online are pilloried even for things they didn't do.
Last November, Campbell Robertson, the New Orleans-based reporter for The New York Times, was in Ferguson, Missouri, awaiting the grand jury decision in the Michael Brown case. Brown was the 18-year-old man shot and killed by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson; like dozens of other journalists, Robertson was awaiting the release of the grand jury report. In the meantime, there was little to write about, so when he got a tip that Wilson recently had married, he paid $4 to a St. Louis County clerk for a copy of Wilson's marriage license. He and fellow Times reporter Julie Bosman wrote a quick online story about the wedding, a brief item that never saw print.
"McQueary added, "I am horrified and sickened at how that column was read to mean I would be gunning for actual death and destruction." But that, as readers pointed out, was exactly what she had written, and in graphic terms."
Almost immediately afterward, the grand jury deci-sion — thousands of pages long — came down, so Robertson got to work and forgot about the wedding story.
The Internet, however, did not.
"I was up all night reading thousands of pages of grand jury material," Robertson says, "and I don't believe I was aware anything was going on at that time." After a three-hour nap, he awoke to find "my phone had blown up," he says. People were saying he and Bosman had published Wilson's home address in their story, in a photo of the marriage license.
Robertson was horrified. Printing Wilson's address would have been a serious violation of ethics, and could put the Wilson family in danger. Surely he and Bosman couldn't have done such a thing. Could they? He called his editors.
While the story did include the name of Wilson's street (which had appeared before in many other news accounts), the image of the wedding license had an address on it. But it wasn't Wilson's home address; it was the address of Wilson's lawyer's office.
In an attempt to stanch the furor, an editor took down the image of the license and appended a note to the end of the story: "An earlier version of this post included a photograph that contained information that should not have been made public. The image has been removed." That, as it turned out, made things worse.
"It made it look like we had run it," Robertson says. "And that wasn't squared away for several days."
Soon after, Robertson received a text from his father in Alabama, saying that a muckraking blogger named Charles C. Johnson was looking for him.
"And within a couple of hours," Robertson says, "my Twitter account exploded."
Johnson had published Robertson and Bosman's home addresses (with their house numbers), which were being shared on social media.
"I called my wife and the phone was ringing off the hook," Robertson says. "I told her to get out of the house and take our 1-year-old."
One website posted Robertson's address to Facebook; it was shared nearly a million times. Photos of the Robertson residence were posted on social media and websites.
"Anybody up for a good ole fashioned lynchin'?" wondered one commenter. "Maybe draw swastikas and SS bolts and KKK symbols on him and a big bulls eye on his ass and drop him off tied up around the 9th ward in his drawers? Maybe hire a couple basketball players and homeless guys to run the good ole sodomy express through him first?" On another website, "Anon Emus" took on Bosman: "Send some big guys to beat the crap out of this Bitch. Wait for her to come to work or leave and beat her until she's unrecognizable... same goes for the guy too."
Robertson's wife and son did not return to New Orleans for a month.
"What McQueary wrote was dumb and tone-deaf, but plenty of people have said much worse things about New Orleans. Why, I wondered, had she reaped this particular whirlwind? And what did she intend to do about it?"
The next night, Fox News personality Sean Hannity made reference to the story. "We have another issue surrounding this debacle in Ferguson, and this one has to do with the media," Hannity said, "with The New York Times releasing the actual home address of officer Darren Wilson."
"No way," said guest Deroy Murdock.
"There you have it right there," Hannity said grimly, showing a screenshot of the Times story with a black bar over the street name — implying it was concealing a street name and house number.
At the bottom of the screen, in large capital letters, were the names JULIE BOSMAN and CAMPBELL ROBERTSON.
"They are literally putting that man and his family in mortal danger," Murdock said — referring to Wilson, not Robertson.
"I was back in the house a week later and the phone was still ringing every two minutes," Robertson remembers. "I didn't check voicemail. But I got hundreds of handwritten letters. There were a lot of just 'Go to hell.' A lot of it was just vulgar, 'You suck.' There was obviously really some racially horrific stuff — just a handful out of hundreds that were generally disconcerting."
Robertson didn't go back to work for a month. During that time, someone called the New Orleans Police Department, impersonating him and saying there was a health emergency at the house. Another person put an ad on Craigslist, advertising a moving sale at Robertson's house. Others used his name to subscribe to catalogs and magazines. And the letters kept coming for weeks, finally slowing to a trickle.
"It would be very different if I didn't have a wife and a kid," he says now, nearly a year later. "It was more weird than anxiety-inducing."
Unlike McQueary or Sacco, though, he hadn't written the words for which he was being pilloried.
"It's not like you did something stupid and you can apologize for it," Robertson says. "And it's not something you did you think was right, something you can defend. It was some weird minor thing that wasn't even done.
"It's all a complete, post-modern, strange nightmare."
Like a tornado, public shaming and Internet attacks can level one house, while leaving identical houses untouched.
In July, Minnesota dentist Walter Palmer was briefly the most hated man on social media when it emerged he had paid tens of thousands of dollars to shoot Cecil, a beloved lion who lived in a national park in Zimbabwe. Photos of Palmer posing proudly with the big cat's corpse drew such vilification he closed his dental practice temporarily and went into hiding. But Palmer certainly isn't the only trophy hunter in the world. Jimmy John Liautaud, CEO of the Jimmy John's sandwich shops, has posed, grinning and with thumbs-up, on the corpse of an elephant he shot for sport. Presidential candidate Donald Trump has defended his sons after photos of them holding up a dead cheetah and an elephant's severed tail were made public. They're all public figures, but none received the worldwide condemnation that Palmer did.
What McQueary wrote was dumb and tone-deaf, but plenty of people have said much worse things about New Orleans. Why, I wondered, had she reaped this particular whirlwind? And what did she intend to do about it?
A week after I contacted her, McQueary emailed back. She hadn't spoken to the press about the column except to issue the followup, but she said she'd be "grateful" to have coffee. In a subsequent email, she wrote, "Will you be writing off of this? I need to know because I have not spoken publicly about the column and am a little gun shy to do so. But not necessarily opposed. Just want to know your intentions."
I followed up with a note: "I thought we could talk off the record for a bit and just speak personally about the column. ... While I certainly can understand your gun-shyness, I would like then to go on the record."
I checked her Twitter account later that day. She had long moved on from the topic of Katrina and had just written another column slamming Emanuel, this time over property taxes. But readers had not moved on.
One person responded, "How much would he have to raise property tax-es after a Katrina — like the one you wished for?"
Over Labor Day weekend, I met McQueary in a coffee shop on the bottom floor of the Tribune offices on Michigan Avenue, the posh shopping boulevard Chicago has dubbed the Magnificent Mile. Here, at least, the city needs no "reset button"; kayakers cruise past on the Chicago River, medians are planted with flowers and that day there was a pop-up Nordstrom store across the street in Pioneer Court.
We talked for half an hour — off the record. I told her though I disagreed with the column, I was sorry for the viciousness aimed her way. I shared a few stories of New Orleanians after the levee collapses: people who lost everything, one friend who tried to kill himself.
I told her that much of the recovery she envies was due to billions of dollars in federal disaster relief and insurance payouts, and that an infusion of that sort of cash would improve Chicago's schools and infrastructure even without a hurricane. I asked what her life's been like since her name went around the world as a symbol of callousness.
That's about all I can say about our meeting, because in the end, McQueary declined to speak on the record.
We shook hands, and she left the coffee shop quickly, going back to her editorial writing and her post-avalanche life.
I don't think Kristen McQueary is a monster. I don't think she bore any conscious malice. And I still don't think she gets it.
In the end, stupid statements are just words, and public shaming, destructive and upsetting as it can be, is just more words. Palmer, the lion-killing dentist, is back at work. Robertson is reporting again. Sacco told Ronson she's rebuild-ing her life in a new job.
McQueary came off better than any of them. Unlike many of the people who've felt the wrath of social media and its torrent-to-trickle of outrage, she has a family, a job, a house and bosses who still have her back.
Two weeks later, I checked her Twitter account. "Arcane law in PA could cause more than 1,300 bottles of wine to be poured down the drain," she noted, posting a Tribune story.
The first response: "But is it a 'Katrina-level' disaster?"