I don’t know how many of you caught Lindy West’s segment on “This American Life” recently, but she reprised and expanded on it a bit in this piece for the Guardian. It’s about her experience with her worst internet troll, a man who created a Twitter and Gmail account in the name of her recently deceased father, and used it to harass her. The story has an unusual ending, and it is most definitely worth your time. I thought I knew from hate mail; reader, I didn’t.
But I, too, once had a troll, a certain troll, a particular troll. For all I know, I still do. (I’ve long since stopped allowing him to stay rent-free in my head.) I’ve mentioned him in passing here a time or two. His name is Rich Reynolds, he lived in Fort Wayne when I did and for years, he insulted me without mercy in the guise of being a self-appointed media critic.
Here’s how it went: Starting in the early 90s, once or twice a week, sometimes more, he would send out a fax called Media Watch. It went to all the newsrooms in town. The librarian would take it off the machine and post it on the bulletin board. Everybody read it.
From the beginning it was pretty lame, and years of practice did not improve it. He seemed to base his authority on a claim to have once worked for my very own newspaper, phrasing it something like this: “When we” — he always referred to himself as we — “worked for Stewart Spencer at the News-Sentinel…” He was never on staff, although as I recall he had once been a stringer in “the region,” as the outer counties were called. You newspaper people know that stringers =/= staff, but whatever. I know Stewart Spencer probably couldn’t have picked him out of a police lineup, anyway.
As I said, he was no David Carr, or even Howard Kurtz. His criticisms were things like lists of who was cool and who wasn’t, who was pretty and who wasn’t, etc. Physical attractiveness was something of an obsession with him, and it was there that he always started in on me: “Why is the News-Sentinel publishing Nancy Nall, when she’s so ugly?” Yes, really. “She offends our aesthetic sensibilities,” etc. It’s standard practice for newspaper columnists to have their work run under a mugshot, and mine offended him. I was also regularly called fat and a terrible, terrible writer.
(When he devoted an entire issue to my awfulness, he was fond of illustrating it with one of Lucien Freud’s obese nudes. Like this one.)
I could go on, but the details are boring and rapidly fading from memory. I’ve always understood that writing a column is a special sort of job, and a certain amount of abuse and hate mail is part of the deal. Hey, I had a column! Some people would simply be predisposed to dislike me because they didn’t have a column. And I’ve always made a policy of not talking (much) about him, but for casual mentions here and there. But this passage from West’s essay stuck with me:
Over and over, those of us who work on the internet are told, “Don’t feed the trolls. Don’t talk back. It’s what they want.” But is that true? Does ignoring trolls actually stop trolling? Can somebody show me concrete numbers on that? Anecdotally, I’ve ignored far more trolls than I’ve “fed”, and my inbox hasn’t become any quieter. When I speak my mind and receive a howling hurricane of abuse in return, it doesn’t feel like a plea for my attention – it feels like a demand for my silence.
And some trolls are explicit about it. “If you can’t handle it, get off the internet.” That’s a persistent refrain my colleagues and I hear when we confront our harassers. But why? Why don’t YOU get off the internet? Why should I have to rearrange my life – and change careers, essentially – because you wet your pants every time a woman talks?
My friends say, “Just don’t read the comments.” But just the other day, for instance, I got a tweet that said, “May your bloodied head rest on the edge of an Isis blade.” Colleagues and friends of mine have had their phone numbers and addresses published online (a harassment tactic known as “doxing”) and had trolls show up at their public events or threaten mass shootings. So if we don’t keep an eye on what people are saying, how do we know when a line has been crossed and law enforcement should be involved?
To be sure, Rich Reynolds never threatened me (although he’s a person of interest in another matter I’ll get to in a moment) and confined his attacks to repetitive remarks about my looks, weight, arrogance, how much all my co-workers hated my guts and so forth, interspersed with demands that I be fired. In this matter, he was like a mental patient painting my picture with his own feces on the walls of his cell (an image my friend and fellow blogger Lance Mannion came up with). Never have I felt so deliberately misunderstood. I’ll cite one example, because I happen to have the column in these very archives. It’s the one I wrote about my retiring boss, Joe, and part of it went like this:
At work, unlike any other area in our lives, we can be almost entirely self-invented. We write the script of an endless movie starring ourselves: “The Receptionist No One Appreciated,” “The Secret Life of Tech Services,” and that famous documentary, “Payroll: What They Know About You, You Can’t Even Imagine.”
Everyone else in the office is watching our movie, perhaps coming away with a message different from the one the director intended. And we’re all one another’s supporting players; in one, we’re the sympathetic friend, in another, the villain. Sometimes both.
This, he said, was preposterous; now this woman considers herself a movie star? How big is her ego, anyway?
I know what you’re thinking: He’s crazy. I’m in full agreement! But at some point, it didn’t matter. Because as time went on, his targets dwindled until there were only a few – me, a couple people at the other paper, some others. More were singled out for lavish, generic praise, along the lines of “we’ve never read anything as smart as X, by Y. He’s as good as anyone working in Chicago or New York,” etc. And that is a very powerful thing, especially when you’re 23 or so.
See, Fort Wayne is an entry-level media market, and lots of people who work for the TV stations and newspapers are either fresh out of college or close to it. What do they know from a real media critic? Not bloody much. No one likes to be called awful names, even by a fool. And soon, it became obvious who came in for abuse and who for praise in Media Watch: If you talked to him and made him feel important, you were golden. If you wouldn’t return his calls or hung up on him (as I did, twice in one day; he never called again), he’d start with the needles.
I’ll never forget walking past the desk of a colleague whom I liked, a fellow sassy malcontent. As I came up behind her, I could see she was working on an email. Addressed to Reynolds. The opening line, “Dear Rich, Thank you so much for including me on your list of…” I was stunned. And there was one editor for whom I never had much respect, but the day I heard her tell a reporter on the phone, “The Media Watch guys think you’re doing a great job,” what shreds there were blew away like cobwebs in a hurricane. Conversely, there was a TV weather lady who was, y’know, a TV weather lady, and not someone I’d be naturally inclined toward. But she never would truck with him, and bore his insults with grace and humor. I had to like her after that.
I knew a TV producer who would chitchat with him as a form of insurance against abuse. He was tight with the wife of an editorial writer for a time. And I can only assume that one local TV anchor must have taken him out for lunch or something, because the encomiums he heaped on her blonde head would have embarrassed a Kardashian.
I really, really tried not to feed this troll. But on the day the column I linked above appeared, besides the by now familiar comments on my looks, he gave the shank a twist: I made a reference in the lead to the last years of my mother’s life, when she was in a nursing home. He thought a person who would put their mother in a nursing home deserved some abuse, and delivered. It wasn’t exactly setting up a fake Twitter account in her name, but it was close, in terms of the effect it had. I wrote a letter to my own colleagues, which I posted on the bulletin board. I said that I knew some people talked to him and fed him information, but that I wanted them to be very clear who they were dealing with. If you’re envious of my job or salary, that’s one thing, I said, but if you funnel it through this guy, please be aware of what you’re aiding and abetting: This is your friend. This is the shit he does.
It was a shaming letter, and I don’t know if it was effective. But damn, it sure felt good to write.
Back to Lindy West: I’m spoiling her essay slightly by telling you her troll eventually revealed himself to her, apologized, shut down the fake accounts and explained himself: He was abusive because he was in a miserable place in his life, and he came clean and apologized when he found his way to a better one. From the known facts about Reynolds – that he had some measure of family wealth, mainly – I can only assume something similar, that he found himself living in this D-list media market and couldn’t break in higher than regional-stringer level. Sometimes money provides a cushion so soft that you can find yourself spending the days watching local TV, reading the papers, and wanting to be part of the action. Even in Fort Wayne goddamn Indiana.
It’s almost enough to make you feel sorry for the guy. But that thing I mentioned above, about never threatening me? A while back, years after I left Fort Wayne, a member of this blog’s commenting community was called into the boss’ office and shown a letter, purportedly from an “internet monitoring service,” calling the company’s attention to their employee’s commenting activity on this very blog, during business hours.
“And he copied and pasted, without any context, every comment I’d ever made at your site. Years’ and years’ worth,” the subject of the attack wrote me this week. (If he wants to reveal himself, he can.) We later heard from the proprietor of another popular Fort Wayne blog that the same thing was done to at least one of his commenters, too.
I’m not making any accusations, y’understand, even though right around the time this happened, Media Watch published a blog item complaining about internet goofing off on company time. I’m sure it was just a coincidence. And no, no action was taken against our commenter, nor the others.
Reynolds always styled himself a great scholar of the classics; I recall him mentioning a reporter covering some story “needs to read Aquinas” or some such. So I’ll sign off with a line from Miranda in Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” but in the great tradition of Reynoldsian point-missing, I’ll twist its intent from the original:
O brave new world,
That has such people in’t!
And aren’t we all the poorer for it?
Ann said on February 5, 2015 at 8:35 am
Geez, what a creep. What a story. It’s good to remember, though, that the internet didn’t invent trolls, it just made their lives so much easier.
adrianne said on February 5, 2015 at 8:47 am
You know that Lance’s real recommendation was that Alan should go over and beat the living crap out of Rich Reynolds, but alas, what does violence ever solve, etc.? The worst part of this story is your colleagues aiding and abetting this creep. Jesus, these people.
alex said on February 5, 2015 at 8:58 am
Google “Rich Reynolds” or “RRR Group” or the combination of both and see what comes up.
It looks as though his obsession with Nancy and Fort Wayne media personalities was eventually supplanted by an obsession with UFOs, and that in short order he managed to make himself both a minor celebrity and persona non grata in the strange cyberworld of Roswell conspiracy theorists.
I’d forgotten his florid prose style rife with malapropisms. It’s singular; I’ll give it that.
Peter said on February 5, 2015 at 9:32 am
Wow – the saddest part was hearing about the rest of the lame ass newsroom. I would have thought that at least someone would have started to sing “Nancy has a boyfriend…Nancy has a boyfriend…”
Peter said on February 5, 2015 at 9:34 am
And another thing – I think I can speak for many when I say that I wish I was as thin as you – even my inner me, after losing 30 pounds,would still say that.
4dbirds said on February 5, 2015 at 9:47 am
Wow. I’m not sure if my younger self could have survived that, although I’d like to think it would make me tougher. Spending a career in a male dominated field gave me lots of calluses but I wasn’t repeatedly called fat or ugly (at least to my face). I admire you Nancy.
brian stouder said on February 5, 2015 at 10:17 am
I’m with what 4dbirds concluded, indeed!
Deborah said on February 5, 2015 at 10:36 am
I listened to the TAL segment about Lindy West’s troll a couple of days ago, it’s quite amazing. I know I would have fallen completely apart if I had had to put up with anything like what you Nancy, and she had to endure. I can’t even imagine what makes people do and say things like that, thier lives must be miserable.
Julie Robinson said on February 5, 2015 at 11:14 am
Eww. How can people be so mean? I’m sorry you had to endure that, Nancy.
On a happier note, we have escaped the latest in midwest storms by visiting our kids in Florida. Now I’m realizing that all that snow will still be on our driveway, and on our car at the airport. It’s gonna be a very rude awakening, come Monday afternoon. Raining today, but other than that we’ve had lovely weather. This is a good time of year to be here.
Judybusy said on February 5, 2015 at 11:35 am
Nancy, that sounds just awful. I am glad you were able to persevere, as you’ve enriched so manylives! It would be interesting to know if this happens more frequently to female journos.
nancy said on February 5, 2015 at 11:55 am
At the time, I never associated it with being a woman, but in the fullness of time, I’m sure it happens more to females, because they’re easier to threaten and demean. Put it this way: Unless a high-profile male journalist is remarkable in some physical way — if they’re very fat, for instance, or have some other distinguishing characteristic — their appearance will not be an issue, even when they’re being harshly criticized.
Here’s one more MW anecdote: Once, a couple of young reporters wondered just how easy it would be to plant a fake item in Media Watch. The assistant managing editor’s job was open at the time, and so one called Rich up and said that I’d applied for the job, and “the rest of us are terrified she might get it.” Literally minutes later, the fax machine ground out a hot update. As I stood at the bulletin board, reading it and guffawing, I wondered aloud where they get shit like this. The guilty party sheepishly raised a hand and explained. We all had a laff over it. Sometime later, I mentioned it on a radio show. RR went insane and once again, proving how twisted his perceptions were where I was concerned, published an issue about how I masterminded the whole thing, and WHEN IS SHE GOING TO BE FIRED, ANYWAY?
When both of the young reporters who were actually behind it left the paper, they were given a warm sendoff by RR. One now works at the Las Vegas Review-Journal and the other is a respected foreign correspondent in the Middle East.
adrianne said on February 5, 2015 at 12:01 pm
Well, finally, Twitter CEO admits they’ve failed horribly at keeping trolls away and now he’s going to make sure the company does something about it: http://www.salon.com/2015/02/05/twitter_ceo_we_suck_at_dealing_with_abuse_and_trolls/?utm_source=twitter&utm_medium=socialflow
beb said on February 5, 2015 at 12:26 pm
I think I would have ended up a grease spot on the highway if I had had to endure what you did.
There is a great story from the early days of science fiction fandom. Someone said something horrible insulting to another fan. They lives on opposite ends of the continent so that’s where was it going to end, but them the insulted man got some unexpected money, a tax refund or something, bought a plane ticket, flew out there and punched the other guy in the mouth. And went back home.
Jeff (the mild-mannered one) said on February 5, 2015 at 12:37 pm
As a weekly columnist, I get lots of unpleasant mail, but I have yet to have any attacks on me personally in terms of description, personal appeal, my history, my associations. There’s another male counterpart (he’s Sundays, I’m Saturdays) and he confirms the same thing. There are two female columnists here, and they share that their nastygrams or hate mail is almost all aimed at *them* as far as comments on their looks, their relationships, their statements in a column twisted around to imply some darker elements of who they are or what their likes and dislikes might be.
There’s really no other explanation for this than the wide stream of sexism flowing through our culture. Most of my negative e-mail is bordering on the deranged (“you seem to think the earthworks here were built by Native Americans to define roadways, but in fact it is obvious that the long parallel wall structures are intended to guide migratory birds as they pass overhead” is a recent one), but I just don’t get personal attacks.
Robertson Davies, who spent decades as the managing editor of a local paper in Peterborough, Ontario, had a funny take on this which I’ll have to see if I can dig out from his essays, and got a whole novel out of one aspect of it, “Leaven of Malice” that starts with a fake letter to the editor that gets accidentally published. Still worth a read.
Deborah said on February 5, 2015 at 1:05 pm
Nancy, I can’t get today’s post out of my head. I Googled your troll (as Alex suggested) he has a twitter account, what a creep. I have asked my sister (via email) who used to have a column in a small town newspaper in Minnesota if she ever had problems with trolls. It will be interesting to see what she says. I just can’t get over how much hate there is in the world, the internet has certainly brought the dark underbelly of it into the light. Depressing.
Basset said on February 5, 2015 at 1:24 pm
I’m with Lance, an ass-kicking was in order. Reminds me of the time I was covering a flood and a cop walked up to ask if a certain proudly obnoxious reporter was with us… “The fine for simple assault is eighty-two fifty, and I’d pay that to cave his ass in!”
Jolene said on February 5, 2015 at 1:24 pm
I had a taste of attacks such as this when I was teaching at the University of Arizona. Someone, a student by all indicators, started posting hateful, explicitly misogynistic statements on a mail sorter on the wall outside my office. The first time I saw one of these messages I was shocked and hurt. I then learned that there had been others that my colleagues had removed.
I reported the message that I found to my department head, who took a target-hardening approach. That is, we took down the mail sorter, and, so far as I know, there were no more messages. I don’t know why, really, because the perp could just as easily have pasted messages on the door to the office or the wall beside it. Perhaps the indication that something was being done made the person fear being caught. So, compared to what Nancy describes, it was a brief and mild form of harassment, But it scared me then, and I still shiver when I think about it.
Jolene said on February 5, 2015 at 1:34 pm
On the less dismal news front: Just for grins, I’ve been keeping a eye on the Go Fund Me account of James Robertson, the long-distance walker. He’s now received slightly more than $300,000, mostly in donations of less than $100. So many, many people have contributed.
Tomorrow, there’s going to be an announcement re a car; presumably some dealership is going to give him one. And the banker who occasionally gave him rides has, at Robertson’s request, has pulled together a small committee to help him figure out how to use the money. Pretty amazing.
susan said on February 5, 2015 at 1:49 pm
PZ has a post up this morning about a male harassing a couple of women who were looking for an experienced science-writer for their site. They had the temerity to turn him down, well, because, he was not qualified! Be sure and read the link to their site. PZ thought they were being too nice to him; they should have at least revealed his NAME.
Connie said on February 5, 2015 at 2:21 pm
Suburban Ford in Sterling Heights is giving Robertson a Ford Taurus.
Dexter said on February 5, 2015 at 3:09 pm
The walker reminded me of the old gent who had worked more than 50 years in the Ford Rouge Plant, lived sparingly with another old factory dude in a tiny apartment close to the plant, drove a twenty-eight year old Ford Escort to work and to the grocery and doctor, and just watched TV when he was off duty. After his rent and grocery bill, every dime he had left went to a fund he had started for the post-secodary education of Detroit underprivileged school children…this old man had sent dozens of kids to colleges, from community colleges to universities. Now that guy was a saint. I never read a follow-up…if alive, he’s gotta be about 90 now.
And I feel no animosity towards Brian Williams for spicing up his war story.
I don’t hate draft dodgers or deserters, either. One must follow his own star./
The hatred kicks in with Cheney getting five deferments and then sending countless soldiers , sailors,and marines and airmen to their deaths.
It really culminates with Senator Richard Blumenthal, though, who also secured five deferments and then secured a place in the US Marine Corps Reserves guaranteeing no Vietnam, service.
Then this motherfucker addressed a gathering of veterans , telling them of his horrible days in the jungles of Vietnam.
THAT, my friends, is a despicable asshole, worthy of no respect whatsoever. Worse than draft dodgers, worse than deserters, worse than plagiarists. Not as bad as a murderer, but close.
Jolene said on February 5, 2015 at 3:41 pm
Andrew Sullivan, pioneer of blogging, has long been bald and bearded. He has, for several years, hosted a feature called “The View from Your Window,” which consists of photos taken from their windows by readers all over the world.
He is closing his blog tomorrow and, as a sort of farewell present, one of his friends from his days at Oxford has sent in a view from a window there, as well as some pics of Andrew as a college student.
Really striking to see what a sweet-looking young man he was. He looks fine now too but, gee whiz, time, what it does to us.
Sherri said on February 5, 2015 at 3:57 pm
The animosity I feel towards Brian Williams is over his “I would not have chosen to make this mistake” statement. What, he’s Flip Wilson, and the devil made him do it? I know memory is a tricky thing, and maybe he honestly did get confused, but he did it, just take responsibility for it.
It’s an “I’m sorry, but” apology, and I hate those.
Deborah said on February 5, 2015 at 4:24 pm
Jolene, I was a Dish reader, never subscribed, not because I didn’t try, for some reason I couldn’t get the subscription process on his site to work for me and I gave up. I loved the View From a Window posts and contests. One time the view was almost exactly my view from my bedroom in Chicago, so it must have been sent in by one of my neighbors. A few times I spent some time trying to figure out the contest views, but I was always way off. Sullivan pissed me off from time to time, but mostly I enjoyed what he had to say. I can certainly understand how he would want to call it quits after all this time. My hat is off to Nancy for doing this blog and posting as frequently as she does without monetary reward, and I hope she keeps doing it forever.
Deborah said on February 5, 2015 at 4:43 pm
I heard from my sister, a former columnist for a small town paper (extremely small town). She said she never had a troll but plenty of people called the paper and suggested she should be fired for things that she wrote. She is very right wing, but so are most of the people in the community that the paper served, she didn’t elaborate on what they complained about. She eventually did get laid off when the economy tanked. And she complained mightily about her editor who at some point died suddenly and unexpectantly. I joked that my sister probably had hired a hit man, my sister was not amused.
Julie Robinson said on February 5, 2015 at 7:05 pm
My Dad was a radio news and sports guy in the very small town where I grew up and the closet thing to a celebrity the town had. I don’t remember him ever talking about a troll and thought we heard everything, from the insider police news to the ACT scores of local athletes. Since Dad was missing an arm, I’d think he would’ve been easy troll bait. Maybe he was, and just never told us. BTW, my very small town has doubled its population since I lived there, and has gone from blue collar to upper middle class, based on the strength of its school system.
Telling Tales was always my favorite part of the N-S and always seemed wildly out of step with the rest of the paper. These days I only read the comics because everything else just pisses me off. I’d drop it in a heartbeat but hubby says no one else in his office gets it, and sometimes there’s a story he wants. Besides, they give us the retiree rate.
David C. said on February 5, 2015 at 7:19 pm
I’m glad engineers don’t have trolls, other than HR and marketing and they’re easily ignored. I think I would be jumping off a bridge if I had to deal with that. I imagine things were better when the troll had to put pen to paper and drop it in the US Mail. At least they had to put some effort in to it and without spell checking it must have been a little more amusing.
Sherri said on February 5, 2015 at 8:15 pm
David C., female engineers do have trolls.
David C. said on February 5, 2015 at 9:37 pm
I’ve only listened to the first three tracks. Pretty good so far.
basset said on February 5, 2015 at 9:42 pm
Not the kind of stuff I usually seek out but they seem to be quite good at it. And in the time-honored music business tradition, the producer gets credit, not the band.
Deborah said on February 5, 2015 at 10:37 pm
The big picture surrounding the walker, James Robinson (good for him but more is needed) http://bit.ly/1EIJXwg
Dexter said on February 6, 2015 at 1:16 am
Julie, me too. I used to buy The Trib, The Freep, The Blade, the Detroit News, and the local every day, but the days “Telling Tales” was in the News-Sentinel, I’d grab that one too.
Why so many? Of course I didn’t have time to read all the news and all the sections, but each paper had columnists which I just had to read…sports, politics, general topic guys and women…I was addicted. Some of my faves: Mike Royko, Bill Granger, Bill Stokes, Eugene Robinson, Jim Fitzgerald, Bob Talbert, Shelby Strother, Tom Gage, and of course Mitch Albom, who replaced Mike Downey on the sports page at The Freep. Downey went to LA, I liked him too. Not a lot of woman columnists but I always read Susan Watson of The Freep. George Cantor was a great one also.
That’s enough, hell, I used to read Drew Pearson who was syndicated in the FW JG, now that was a long damn time ago. Jack Anderson took over when Pearson passed away, continuing “The Washington Merry-Go-Round”.
Crazycatlady said on February 6, 2015 at 1:55 am
On a sort of Trolling subject, I saw a video called ‘Richard Dawkins Reads His Hate Mail’. Dawkins wrote ‘The God Delusion’ and other books on Science and Atheism. Many of the messages are profanity-laced hateful tirades about how he will burn in Hell and God will punish him, ect,ect. It really is a hoot to see how low the trolls will go.
ROGirl said on February 6, 2015 at 5:51 am
I listened to the TML story, and it’s still incomprehensible to me why the guy who trolled Lindy West did what he did. Yes, he apologized and explained that his life was in a bad place so he lashed out, but it was so specific, elaborate, arbitrary and deeply disturbing — and of course, anonymous. At least he didn’t take it beyond the internet, but that doesn’t excuse what he did.