Who Wins When the Internet Plays Judge, Jury, and Executioner?

Are we too quick to judge on the Internet? No question: Absolutely, yes.

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Are we too quick to judge on the Internet? No question: Absolutely, yes. The Internet demands that we be harsh and merciless, fast and thorough. We (particularly bloggers, but writers of all varieties) see something and run with it, and often don't look back. There's no time. Surely, in a different era, perhaps pre-computer, perhaps paleolithic, things would be different. But this is our contemporary reality, and we're doing what we can in the circumstances we find ourselves living and working in.

The speed of judgment and recrimination is faster and harsher when we turn to racism, sexism, violence, and all sorts of perceived-to-be-blatant wrongdoings, since writing about those topics often generates huge page views. We're so fast and critical, we often forget that real life people are affected by the lightning speed at which we determine, yes, this was right, or no, this was wrong, turning some of the recipients of the Internet's instant-judgment into "sacrificial lambs." The split-second decisions that media types—and commenters, people on Facebook, and tweeters—make and walk away from can last a lifetime online, destroying people's reputations in the process.

I'm not talking about mistakes which, while bad, don't actually fall into the grey area of "judgment"—at least corrections for those can be issued, and things hopefully made right. I'm talking about the more vague process set in motion against, say, Rainn Wilson for making an unfunny rape joke (a tautology in itself). That went something like this: unhappy retweets and DMs that prompt a conversation with his publicist (we're guessing) and the deletion of the offensive tweet followed by the issuing of a public apology. That happens in less than a day, and no one ends up boycotting The Office. But Wilson is famous. He's beloved among so many that he'll move on from this mistake without so much as a scratch.

On the other hand, there's Anthony Federico, the guy who wrote the "racist" (or, definitely, cliche-ist) headline about Jeremy Lin on ESPN.com. He posted it, right there on the page: "A chink in the armor," an awkward, offensive play on words that was seen by many as racist. ESPN was horribly embarrassed, notwithstanding the fact that the phrase has been used by many a sports writer, not to mention an announcer, in the past (and present).

But in this context, or at least the perceived context, it was far, far worse. And even though plenty of racist, stupid expressions have been used when writing about sports and other things over time, what befell Federico was essentially the opposite of the Rainn Wilson case. In the ESPN situation, we have a marginal character—a low level working guy writing about sports, living his dream— who wrote something ill advised on a large platform about someone spiking in popularity, thus ensuring that everyone would notice. On ESPN, a "small" person messed up "big"—so instead of a call to a publicist, a deletion, a public apology, and the entire internet moving on, Federico got fired. Not just fired, actually: Federico continues to be blasted across the Internet. The best case scenario for his mistake, he's an idiot with a penchant for poor word choices. Worst case scenario... well, that's far worse. I'm not taking particular issue with his firing; in this day and age, news organizations fire people for what they write and tweet all the time. A headline writer should know better. But there is some sort of a hypocrisy here—or, at least a punishment not quite commensurate with the crime.

I've felt complicated emotions about Federico being fired since it happened, and it's because it seems to support something happening on the Internet (as I've mentioned before) that it feels like we're not prepared to deal with, or not doing quite right. It's our shared willingness to pass immediate and final judgment on someone for their worst (undeniably worst!) moments in public and never give a thought to the person behind the blunder. These are mistakes, not war crimes. We've all made them.

Today, Federico tried to explain himself via Twitlonger, making a small step to remind people he's not his mistake: He's a person. In his post, he explains, "I wrote the headline in reference to the tone of the column and not to Jeremy Lin’s race. It was a lapse in judgment and not a racist pun. It was an awful editorial omission and it cost me my job. I owe an apology to Jeremy Lin and all people offended. I am truly sorry."

He goes on to describe himself as a Knicks fan, a Jeremy Lin supporter, a writer of "thousands and thousands" of headlines who was praised during his 5 years at ESPN, and a budding sports columnist "who has always tried to help rather than hurt people":

If those who vilify me would take a deeper look at my life they would see that I am the exact opposite of how some are portraying me. 

They would see that on the day of the incident I got a call from a friend – who happens to be homeless – and rushed to his aid. He was collapsed on the side of the road due to exposure and hunger. They would see how I picked him up and got him a hotel room and fed him. They would see I used my vacation time last year to volunteer in the orphanages of Haiti. They would see how I ‘adopted’ an elderly Alzheimer’s patient and visited him every week for a year. They would see that every winter I organize a coat drive for those less fortunate in New Haven. They would see how I raised $10,000 for a friend in need when his kids were born four months premature. They would see how I have worked in soup kitchens and convalescent homes since I was a kid. They would see my actions speak louder than my words. They would see that these acts were not done for my glory, but for God’s. They would see that each day I live and will continue to live a life of joy and service.

Just because you do good things or profess a certain religion doesn't mean you're not a racist, or prone to the occasional racist mumbling -- or the maker of a stupid mistake. But to my ear at least, Federico doesn't come off as someone who's faking. 

In any case, he was fired, and he needs a new job. In the old days, there wouldn't have been an entire history of your fireable offense available for everyone to read in less than a minute of Googling. Federico's Twitlonger explanation doesn't even come up on the first page of a Google search of his name, though his mistake certainly does and will for some time. The question is not did he deserve to be fired, but does he deserve the wrath heaped upon him by people who don't even know the whole story and will likely forget about it in a week or two? Does he deserve for his entire life, or employment history, to be tainted by this mistake? What was a big story for few days on the Web has been, I imagine, a truly awful time for the real life Federico. We may be done writing about him, but that doesn't mean he can turn around and move to the next thing so easily.

Most people do believe in second chances. You have to wonder if those are really even possible anymore with the Internet storing our every bad—or merely dumb—deed in perpetuity. You also have to wonder whether Federico's firing, not to mention the comments and vitriol it prompted, will do anything at all to stamp out the racism people wanted to see at the heart of his mistake. Somehow, I doubt it.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.