On Tuesday, I devoted my weekly Newsday column to the ridiculous Southern Poverty Law Center report naming human rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali and liberal Muslim activist and author Maajid Nawaz among “anti-Muslim extremists.” In passing, I mentioned Geller, also on SPLC’s list, as an example of an actual anti-Muslim extremist who traffics in nasty generalizations and smears against individual Muslims (or people she thinks are secret Muslims). I have written about Geller before and then replied to a “rebuttal” by her and her ally, self-styled “scholar of Islam” Robert Spencer.
On Wednesday, I got on Twitter to find this bizarre accusation:
Since the column I sent in mentioned only that Geller was from Long Island (a well-known fact), I was rather taken aback. When I checked the published version, it turned out that the text had been changed to “anti-‘Islamization’ activist Pamela Geller of Hewlett Harbor.” I figured that the paper’s standard policy when referring to Long Islanders (since Newsday is a Long Island paper) is to mention the town to give it a local angle.
I will say that after searching the Newsday site, I found a number of older references to Geller (including in a previous column of mine) that did not mention either the town or her Long Island background. It may be a policy change. The reason I even thought of mentioning Long Island is that last May, when I wrote about the 10th anniversary of the Duke University rape hoax, my editor told me that one of the accused men was from Long Island and that this fact should be noted, since it’s always good to highlight a local angle if there is one.
I also saw other tweets stating that the location I (supposedly) gave for Geller is incorrect, and a quick Google search confirmed that Hewlett Harbor is Geller’s (widely reported) native town and former residence. (I don’t think that affects Newsday‘s wording; the added text in my Duke column referred to “Colin Finnerty of Garden City,” even though, to my knowledge, he no longer lives there.) In other words: Newsday did not actually give out Geller’s current location and send jihadists after her.
When I pointed it all out to Spencer, his responses grew increasingly unhinged; witness, for instance, this exchange:
He also asserted that if I know Geller does not currently live in the town, it contradicts my claim that Newsday mentions the township for local people. (Incorrect: It applies to anyone from Long Island.) At the same time, he bizarrely continued to insist that not removing the information was “endangering” Geller. Meanwhile, certain people whipped up by his faux outrage were suggesting that I should be reported to the FBI or the police for wanton endangerment or that my home address be posted online. (To his credit, somewhere in this long thread Spencer asked people not to do that, but it’s entirely possible that many people won’t see his admonishment and others will ignore it.) Incidentally, many people clearly thought that I had actually disclosed Geller’s current or former full address (as if a mainstream publication would ever run such a thing). Spencer’s vague reference to “location” actively fosters such a misunderstanding.
Oh, and Geller weighed in with a lengthy and even more unhinged post of her own, the main gist of which is that I’m ugly.
I’m not posting this to complain about Twitter abuse. Generally, it’s nothing that changing your settings to “only people you follow” can’t deal with, and I’m pretty jaded about Twitter threats. Mainly, I wanted to explain the situation, for those who have seen something about this on Twitter and are wondering what’s going on. But this is also, in miniature, an example of the kind of knee-jerk, fact-free, thought-free vitriol that dominates much of the social media today.
By the way, had Geller or Spencer asked me to have the name of the town removed from the article without making absurd accusations or whipping up a hysterical mob, I would have asked the editors at Newsday to remove it. Even with the hysteria, I absolutely would have asked them to remove it if Geller still lived in Hewlett Harbor. Even awful people who are potential targets of terrorism deserve protection and safety.
As it is, the reference to the town simply restates a fact mentioned in numerous other sources including Wikipedia. No one is being endangered, and I don’t believe in giving in to bullying. So the article stays as it is.