The day I killed Hubert Humphrey – A cautionary tale for the Internet age

In the early 1970s, I was the editor of an international supplementary news service. Before technology forces us to change how we (and every other wire service) did business, the procedure we followed was a simple one.

After the news reports or opinion pieces for the day were edited, I would choose the ones to be released over “the wire,” placing all the “live” copy into a bin. Our teletype operators would take copy from the bin, sit down at their machines, type the edited copy, and finally send it out to our list of clients here and overseas.

Among the rules we lived by was that no one in the newsroom must ever fool around by writing false stories for our amusement, because every now and then one of those stories would accidentally make it to the teletype machine.

That brings me to a late afternoon during the Watergate era, when I killed Senator Hubert H. Humphrey.

I had begun to work on a biography of the Minnesota Democrat and former vice president, which was published after his death in 1978. Humphrey, on this particular day, was very much alive and very active, but I had time on my hands after lunch, and used some of it to update Humphrey’s eventual obituary. (It is standard practice in many media outlets to prepare drafts of obituaries of famous people, in order to get a beat on everyone else when those people died.)

Around 7 p.m., the phones began ringing off the hook. All the callers had the same basic question: Why were we the only wire service reporting on Humphrey’s death?

In my haste to get back to meeting the day’s deadlines, it seems, I had put the Humphrey obituary into the live copy bin.

Fortunately, we were able to issue a kill notice before any newspaper published the obituary (we had no broadcast outlets), so no harm was done. If the same mistake was made in today’s Internet age, however, that obituary would have gone viral within minutes of someone hitting the send button.

That brings me to a spreadsheet that appeared on Google in October, the title of which includes the words “Media Men,” but begins with a word not printable here. According to its creator, Moira Donegan, the spreadsheet “collected a range of rumors and allegations of sexual misconduct, much of it violent, by men in magazines and publishing.” The purpose of this crowdsourced document, Donegan wrote in an article for New York magazine’s web-based upscale magazine for women, the Cut, was to help women protect themselves from sexual harassment and assault.

The spreadsheet was active for only a few hours before Donegan sensed the danger it posed and took it down, but that was more than enough time for it to go viral. By that time, she wrote, “more than 70 men had been named on the version that I was managing (other versions, assembled after the spreadsheet was taken offline, appeared later).” Fourteen of the men on the list had more than one accusation of sexual assault or rape. Eventually, “some of those men left their jobs or were fired,” Donegan wrote.

“Many of the incidents reported there were physical, but there were also accounts of repeated sexual remarks, persistent inappropriate passes, unsolicited drunken messages,” Donegan added. Over the next few hours, Donegan realized that far more women were using the document than she had ever imagined. “I realized that I had created something that had grown rapidly beyond my control,” she wrote. “I was overwhelmed and scared.”

She should have been scared, and so should anyone who provides a forum for the dissemination of unchecked, unverified, unconfirmed reports about people or institutions. Donegal, of course, did not set out to do any such thing. She knew from the outset that the spreadsheet was “vulnerable to false accusations,” she wrote, but she expected—naively, she says—that those accusations would be properly investigated before being believed:

“I hoped that women reporters who saw the document might use it as a tip sheet and take it upon themselves to do the reporting that the document couldn’t do and find evidence, if there was any, of the allegations made there.”

Women were among the first not only to criticize the Media Men list publicly, but also to express concern over the rush to judgment that seems to dominate the entire so-called “Me Too” movement. Katie Roiphe discussed the issue with several “professional women,” as she described them, for an essay in Harper’s. These two comments are typical of what she heard:

• “If someone had sent me the Media Men list 10 years ago, when I was 25, I would have called a harmlessly enamored guy a ‘stalker’ and a sloppy drunken encounter [a] ‘sexual assault.’ I’d hate myself now for wrecking two lives.”

• “What seems truly dangerous to me is the complete disregard the movement shows for a sacred principle of the American criminal justice system: the presumption of innocence.”

There are sexual predators out there disguised as employers, supervisors, colleagues, and so forth, and women have a right to know who they are. Wronging someone is a sin, and that includes failing to reveal information that could protect that person from harm. Therefore, halacha would not have prevented Donegan from publishing her spreadsheet, but it would have required a much more cautious and thought-out approach on her part.

That more cautious and thought-out approach would have to take into account several factors, including especially the potential harm to the falsely accused. Also, under Jewish law, telling Person A something about Person B that Person A has no “need to know,” regardless of whether the information is true or false, violates the rules of lashon hara, bad speech.

The day I killed Hubert Humphrey, I learned a valuable lesson about the power of words once they are released into the atmosphere. It is a lesson Moira Donegan learned in a much harder way than I (she lost her job, some of her friends, and possibly even her career).

It is a lesson all of us must learn before we Tweet and text and post.

About the Author
Shammai Engelmayer is rabbi of Temple Israel Community Center, in Cliffside Park, and Temple Beth El of North Bergen, both in New Jersey. A former president of the North Jersey Board of Rabbis, he chose to work as a journalist after being ordained. That career helped him hone the skills that serve him so well on the pulpit, and helped him become a popular adult Jewish education teacher in Northern New Jersey.
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