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Steve Blow is a columnist at the Dallas Morning News who typically writes homespun, slice-of-life reflections on life in Big D and its suburbs. But he finds his professional ox in a massive ditch today because of a tossed-off blog post (since removed) he put up on his DMN blog yesterday. The post was titled “A refreshing pervy priest.” It was his snarky remark on allegations that a local Catholic priest had been making unwelcome sexual advances on women. Blow wisenheimered that it was “sad to say,” but the stories about priests diddling little boys had been coming in for so long that it was almost a relief to hear about a priest accused of “good old-fashioned heterosexual perviness.”
Blow got blasted for his insensitivity to victims of sexual abuse. A friend of mine in Dallas who was molested by a male family member as a child wrote to say how upset she was over it. The paper took down the Blow blog post, but it’s still a mess there.
Tim Rogers, editor of D, the Dallas city magazine, whacked Blow hard over this, but said something true and important:
I’ve got empathy for Blow when it comes to the pickle he’s gotten himself into. I am in no way defending the joke he made. But anyone who works at a media outlet who has been asked to blog and tweet and tumble and facebook knows how Blow got himself in trouble and has trod similar territory. There’s a bottomless bucket that we’re all asked to fill each day with posts and opinion and entertaining nuggets. We’re all publishing more words than ever, which necessarily means we’re giving them less thought. Hey, much of the time it’s a blast. It can be fun to work without a safety net and get instant feedback on what you write. But the pitfall is what Blow fell into yesterday.
That’s so true. Truth to tell, I’ve heard variations on that joke made among small groups of Catholics, and I understood what was being said by it. It wasn’t to make light of any kind of sexual abuse, but rather a black-humor attempt to lessen the sting of yet more abysmal news on the clerical sex abuse front. Everybody who heard those jokes in the groups I was in understood exactly what was being said by them — and it most definitely wasn’t literally an expression of relief that the abuse victims weren’t boys. Still, I think every one of us in that group had enough sense to know that this black humor ought not be indulged outside a small group of people who understood enough of the context to realize that it wasn’t really an attempt to make light of the suffering of abuse victims. Most people who deal with intense and painful situations — especially cops, doctors and firefighters — develop a sense of black humor to diffuse the emotional intensity of the sort of things they face. The Catholics I’ve heard make this joke were people for whom the scandal was a lacerating ongoing event. That common pain was shared among the group, which is why the joke was not taken seriously.
Still, as I said, I think everyone in that group would have had the sense not to make the same remark in front of others, because it’s far too easy to misinterpret it. I don’t really know Steve Blow that well, but I don’t for a minute think that he truly believes it’s “refreshing” to have a priest who hits on women as opposed to little boys. He ought not to have made that remark, but I don’t think the remark reflects his convictions, only his poor attempt at humor. And believe me, I have been there.
The problem with blogs, though, is that we get into the habit of having no unblogged thoughts, because a blog really is a diary, and it gives the blogger the illusion that he’s free to say what he’s really thinking. This blog your reading now typically gets more than 400,000 page views per month, which is a pretty big audience. Yet to me, it all seems so intimate. I have had to learn the hard way to put more of a governor on myself here, so I don’t end up becoming a victim of myself in the way Tim Rogers identifies.
But Tim brings up another good point about the Blow mess:
Whatever disciplinary action the paper takes, it’s going to cast a pall over all of the paper’s blogs. What newspaper reporter wants to risk his job for a joke?
You got that right. People complain about how dull mainstream newspapers are, and mostly they’re right. But if you want more interesting newspapers, you’re going to have to give journalists, especially opinion writers like Blow, the leeway to take the risk of saying stupid things, and forgive them for it when they screw up and apologize. I would rather have a columnist make insulting and insensitive remarks, and sincerely apologize for them later, than have a columnist who never writes anything interesting because he’s so afraid of being lambasted and even fired when a lynch mob comes after him. If we want more interesting media, we’re going to have to develop thicker skins.
Besides, anybody who has never made an insensitive or mean remark that they would dearly like to have been able to take back is free to cast the first stone at Steve Blow. I just got an e-mail from an old New York journalist colleague who wrote, of Blow’s travail, “There but for the grace of God go I.” It’s true for most of us, I think — though most of us don’t have a blog or a byline through which we can broadcast our moments of temporary idiocy.
I wish to associate myself with the remarks of my Dallas friend Rawlins Gilliland — who is as liberal as the day is long, if that matters to anybody — who said here:
Honestly, for all Steve Blow’s whatever catalog of shortcomings, he has clearly not a mean or subversive or sexist or racist bone in his aging body of work. Let’s put in perspective the quip he meant to say in the sardonic thud room where it belongs. Blow is an easy target here but I am asking us to not make this a gang bang. He’s undoubtedly a decent guy who made a careless insensitive attempt at ironic humor & it bombed for what should have been obvious reasons to anyone, certainly in these days of ‘gotcha’ PC quick sand. At this point there are plenty of reasons to blow this guy off but let’s not treat him like he intended to idealize any form of molestation. He’s a proud granddad & that’s about the last thing he would ever intend.
“The Sardonic Thud Room.” I like that concept.