Missing Comma: The Kellers Vs. Blogging

Over the weekend, Bill and Emma Keller declared which side they were on in the ongoing blogger vs. journalist debate, and they did it in the worst way I could conceive of: They tag-team attacked a woman with stage four breast cancer for daring to tweet about her experiences, and daring to be optimistic about her chances of survival.

Bill Keller is the former Executive Editor of the New York Times, so his arrival at this position, from up at the peak of the ivory tower, is at least understandable (though no less abhorrent). His wife, Emma? A cancer survivor.

Emma Keller’s post at the Guardian, titled “Forget funeral selfies. What are the ethics of tweeting a terminal illness?” has already been deleted “with the agreement of the subject because it is inconsistent with the Guardian editorial code.” Thanks to the Wayback Machine, we’re able to knock back the clock and see exactly what she said.

“Lisa Bonchek Adams is dying,” Emma Keller writes. “She has Stage IV breast cancer and now it’s metastasized to her bones, joints, hips, spine, liver and lungs. She’s in terrible pain. She knows there is no cure, and she wants you to know all about what she is going through. Adams is dying out loud. On her blog and, especially, on Twitter.”

Is this mockery? I can’t tell. If I wasn’t aware of the title or theme of the article, I would probably say that this was just a very succinct, radio-friendly lede. But it becomes clear very quickly that this is no mere profile of a dying woman. Keller’s distaste of Adams’s practices is apparent by the second paragraph. It is apparently notable that Adams tweets “dozens of times an hour,” and that some of the people who follow her do so like they would a reality television show.

Keller doesn’t mention until further down that she herself is one of those people:

“The clinical drug trial she was on wasn’t working. Her disease seemed to be rampaging through her body. She could hardly breathe, her lungs were filled with copious amounts of fluid causing her to be bedridden over Christmas. As her condition declined, her tweets amped up both in frequency and intensity. I couldn’t stop reading – I even set up a dedicated @adamslisa column in Tweetdeck – but I felt embarrassed at my voyeurism. Should there be boundaries in this kind of experience? Is there such a thing as TMI? Are her tweets a grim equivalent of deathbed selfies, one step further than funeral selfies? Why am I so obsessed?”

If this article were directed at the doubtless innumerable tourists of the internet, then I would most likely have no need to devote blog space to it. But it isn’t. Keller criticizes Adams for using social media as a way to keep herself going.

“It’s clear that tweeting as compulsively as Lisa Adams does is an attempt to exercise some kind of control over her experience,” Keller writes.

“She was enraged a few days ago when a couple of people turned up to visit her unannounced. She’s living out loud online, but she wants her privacy in real life,” she said. “In some ways she has invited us all in.”

Emma Keller ends her piece by saying,

“Will our memories be the ones she wants? What is the appeal of watching someone trying to stay alive? Is this the new way of death? You can put a “no visitors sign” on the door of your hospital room, but you welcome the world into your orbit and describe every last Fentanyl patch. Would we, the readers, be more dignified if we turned away? Or is this part of the human experience?”

Emma seems to oscillate between being frustrated with herself that she has allowed a compelling story to hold her attention, and angry at Lisa Adams for creating that compelling content.

Bill’s article is still standing strong over at the New York Times, and while the snarkiness of his concern-trolling is more subdued, it’s still emblematic of a larger issue the Kellers seem to take with the medium.

He begins his less-virulent hit-job with a more-or-less stone-faced appraisal of Adams’s activity as a blogger over the last seven years. He writes,

“Since a mammogram detected the first toxic seeds of cancer in her left breast when she was 37, she has blogged and tweeted copiously about her contest with the advancing disease.”

The way he describes Adams’s fight with cancer from this point on is reminiscent of a war zone, and that’s not an accident: later in the piece, he reminisces about the time his father-in-law died from cancer in a British hospital, where,

“more routinely than in the United States, patients are offered the option of being unplugged from everything except pain killers and allowed to slip peacefully from life. His death seemed to me a humane and honorable alternative to the frantic medical trench warfare that often makes an expensive misery of death in America.

Yet Adams, despite the advanced nature of her cancer, does not seem to be miserable; as Keller notes, she is currently receiving care from the New York Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, the oldest private cancer research center in the world. Her tweets have lost some of their optimism, but she’s continuing to fight.

That she’s doing it in the public eye apparently deserves the ire of old media. If Adams had taken the time between painful and debilitating chemotherapy treatments to pen a memoir, or, as other writers have quipped, hundreds of thousands of sentences for the New Yorker, Keller (Emma and Bill both) would be weeping over her beautiful eloquence and inspiring prolificness. But because Adams decided to blog, this is not worthy of attention and we should question her motives.

It’s clear that, at least in the minds of some of the old media guard, blogging isn’t just “not-journalism.” It’s not fit for existence. That others are proving them wrong is inspiring in itself.

Adams’s story is not that of attention-seeking. It is emblematic of the struggle for human flourishing, despite astronomical odds against them. That she’s blogging it makes it no less powerful.

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