Before last Wednesday you probably hadn’t heard of Lisa Bonchek Adams, a Connecticut mother of three who has been tweeting and blogging about her experience living with, and being treated for, stage IV breast cancer. Adams’ moderate following occupies a niche realm, consisting largely of cancer activists and those afflicted with the disease, and there would’ve been little way for her frequent updates to make their way onto the press radar—aside from a short feature on Adams in USA Today published in 2011 (the piece didn’t mention her internet presence).
Then Bill and Emma Keller took it upon themselves to chaperone her feeds to a new breed of internet fame, in a husband-wife one-two punch: Emma published a controversial piece on Adams in The Guardian Wednesday and Bill wrote an editorial on the same subject for Monday’s New York Times.
His justification: Adams is a public figure and should be treated as such—“even by contemporary standards of social-media self-disclosure, she is a phenomenon,” he writes. The problem with that line of reasoning is that the extent to which Adams is a public figure doesn’t even begin to compare to the stature and power that the Kellers wield. Even after Bill drove 1,000 additional followers to Adams’ Twitter account with his column this morning, she has a paltry 9,335, while 59,012 read Bill Keller’s feed. And her followers angered by the Kellers’ columns had to take to The Guardian and the Times’ comments sections to defend her, since they didn’t have major media platforms at their disposal. (Emma Keller did not respond to CJR’s request for comment, while Bill Keller wrote that he had spoken to Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan and “prefer[red] not to spend the day repeating myself.”)
In the scant hours since the former Times executive editor published his post, a roster of blog posts have criticized the power couple. Salon called the actions “bizarre” while The Nation’s Greg Mitchell titled his analysis “No Shame.” In the Atlantic, Megan Garber expressed discomfort with how the couple equated the personal feed with universal sentiment, transforming Adams’ experience “into a broader, more succulent truth.”
The critiques reached such fever pitch that The Guardian pulled Emma Keller’s piece from their website this afternoon, writing initially that the piece was “inconsistent with their editorial code” and then changing the explanation to read that it was “removed pending investigation.” A Guardian spokesperson told CJR that the decision was made “with the agreement of Lisa Adams.” It’s unclear whether this makes anything better. (“The @guardian has set a worrisome precedent by removing the controversial @emmagkeller cancer column,” tweeted Columbia Journalism School Dean of Students Bill Grueskin. It’s also a strange precedent in that, if there were so many problems with the column, why was it left up until Bill Keller’s comment went live and readers starting reacting to both pieces in tandem?) Most of the criticism levied by the press at the piece has centered around the Kellers undermining Adams’ worth—not their treatment of a highly vulnerable subject, or the misuse of The New York Times as a platform for personal vendettas.
And the irony in the Kellers’ media blitz is that, if she wasn’t a public figure before it, Adams probably is now—whether she wants to be or not. (A breast cancer survivor, Emma Keller fits into Adams’ pre-blitz audience.)
At this point the fallout over the Guardian piece is well documented. Adams fans and Guardian readers lashed out at Emma Keller, not just for the piece’s chastisement of a cancer patient for tweeting “funeral selfies” and “TMI,” but also for a host of alleged ethical lapses against her subject. She didn’t warn Adams that the very personal piece was about to go live, she published private direct messages from Adams without explicit consent, and she failed to quote Adams at all in the profile. This kind of treatment might be appropriate for a sensitive investigation into a media-savvy subject. But it reads inappropriately for a subject who, aside from a blog and twitter, has largely remained private—and is suffering from a chronic illness, and possibly from its traumatic side effects.
All of which would have been an excellent place for Bill to begin his Times column, which disclosed that his wife had also written about Adams but failed to mention the hostile reaction her piece elicited. He avoids his wife’s most prominent misstep by quoting Adams prominently throughout the piece. (Including an Adams quote, “I am not on my deathbed,” which could only be a response to his wife’s description of Adams in The Guardian as “dying of cancer,” though he makes no mention of the connection.)
Though his language is more measured, his point is similar to his wife’s—both Kellers feel uncomfortable with Adams’ disclosure of her illness on the internet—and his piece reads as an implicit defense of her column.
Bet they didn't think about fact it might cause backlash and more people would actually donate to the research fund. #whoopsie— Lisa Bonchek Adams (@AdamsLisa) January 13, 2014