The Washington Post’s Missing Monument to Trolling
On Saturday evening, the Washington Post opinion section removed an op-ed after a writer for Poynter was unable to find any evidence on the Web that its author, Jason Huntmann, exists. Michael Larabee, the Post's letters and local opinion editor, told Poynter's Jeremy Barr that although Huntmann had provided a copy of his phone bill to verify his identity, "your question has prompted us to make further inquiries, which are pending. While we wait to learn more, we are taking the piece down from the site.”
Today, Larabee threw up his hands. “Basically, we can’t verify the byline,” he told Poynter. “The writer has not responded to repeated phone and e-mail messages since Saturday afternoon. Also, early this week, the e-mail account he had been using was closed."
In the place of the original opinion piece, titled "D.C., you’re depressing," sits an editor's note, which reads:
The commentary posted here on Jan. 17, “D.C., you’re depressing,” was removed a day later because of questions about whether the author was using his real name, as Post policy requires. Subsequent efforts to reach the writer to verify authorship have been unsuccessful.
Owning up to the error—that's the first thing newspapers should do when they've violated their readers' trust. Here, the Post definitely did: Even in an era in which readers have become less accountable for their feedback—the Post's online commenters (Washington City Paper's, too) don't have to use their real names—the paper's opinion pages remains a highly visible platform. We should know the motives of who's opining to us.
It's too bad, however, that in this case the Post took down the hard evidence of its failure. The op-ed should've been left online with an editor's note, although not as a monument to the opinion section's ID-verification shortcomings. It'd make a better memorial to the kind of deeply shitty trolling that the Post opinion pages ought to be above.
At best, "D.C., you're depressing" is a recent arrival's meditation on his transit-related culture shock. To my eyes, it's a disingenuous tirade whose only identifiable aim is to provoke. Every mundane detail is cranked up to dystopian:
It’s been just a few months since I came to the District from California, and already it is Crystal City clear: D.C. is a downer.
Look no further than the Metro at 7 a.m. for a pure view into the city’s heart and soul. You will pass a slumped homeless veteran holding out a McDonald’s cup for money. The signage as you enter the station warns you to secure personal belongings lest they be stolen. The odds of being victimized are particularly high if you are a senior citizen. Classy.
After committing to pay a senseless amount of money for the day’s trip, you are inside the gates; easy going from here. Say “good morning” to the people gathered in the gloom, and you will quickly learn that this is not acceptable behavior. No hellos, no smiles. Every morning it’s the same: people with blank stares and the saddest-looking faces imaginable.
"They are like cattle in a winter storm, gazing into space, waiting for their ride to the slaughter house," it continues, like a bad Frank Miller sentence. The Metro has rats, the piece tells us. The trains are grimy and noisy. During rush hour, they're even crowded!
The irony runs deep. The capital of America the Beautiful is, in fact, ugly and uninspiring. The city houses elected officials cheering the bright and shining American Dream, but the citizens who work around them appear to be enduring unspeakable oppression.
The Metro is D.C., and D.C. is America. Please, keep your mouths shut and your eyes fixed on whatever little empty space you can find.
When I read this on Saturday, I was reminded of Cindy Adams' spasmodic rant about the "Nation's crap-itol," which the Page Six columnist wrote in the New York Post last February (and which was ably dismissed by the Post's own Dan Zak). In both cases, the authors look at D.C. and see an extra-special national shame where anyone else would see, well, a city. These arguments aren't just manipulative, though. (You mean commuters don't want to say hello at 7 a.m.? And a homeless man is actually panhandling?) They're trite, too.
But what was the Washington Post expecting when it ran this? An equally hyperbolic reaction, maybe, but probably not much else. Surely that was the intention of the author, whoever he or she is. If I submitted this to a newspaper, I wouldn't put my real name on it, either.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery