It is common knowledge that House Speaker John Boehner is a notoriously hard drinker. So after the F.B.I. arrested a Cincinnati country club bartender for conspiring to poison Boehner’s Merlot, an editor at Boston.com wrote a post with the following light-hearted joke: “Had he been poisoned as planned, perhaps his pickled liver could have filtered out the toxins.” Predictably, Boehner’s office complained about the joke. Less predictably: The site retracted the joke about Boehner’s liver and issued a formal apology.
“I would have thought it would be obvious to any sentient human being that your item mocking the threats against the speaker and his family was completely insensitive and inappropriate,” Steel wrote. “Should you wish to offer an explanation, or—better—an apology, feel free to respond.”
That drew an even smarmier response from the CEO of Boston.com and the Globe’s parent company:
Mike Sheehan, the chief executive of Boston Globe Media Partners LLC, said he spoke with Boehner’s office and sent a note of apology Wednesday afternoon. “It’s very difficult to hit the epicenter of tasteless, mean-spirited, and humorless in one fell swoop,” Sheehan said in an interview.
Boston.com immediately capitulated. “The original column ... reflected the opinions of one of our writers,” an editor’s note attached to the post reads. “What it did not reflect, by any standards, were the site’s collective values.”
What are those values, though?
The Globe suggests the joke’s retraction is part of a broader pattern: “This is not the first time Boston.com has gotten in trouble because of editorial decisions.” The first time, apparently, was when editor Hilary Sargent “was suspended for creating T-shirts that supported a Chinese restaurant in its dispute with a Harvard Business School professor—a popular story Sargent had reported.”
There is indeed an important pattern here, but it is not the one the Globe is talking about. Both incidents involved a Boston.com staffer being mildly, harmlessly edgy—only to draw wildly disproportionate punitive measures from their own bosses. What these two incidents have in common isn’t a lack of supervision, but a lack of conviction.
What does Boston.com want to be?
Update: The author of the post has been fired:
Ordered silent yesterday. Now I can comment: The story I wrote was awful. Tasteless. Mean. Bosses felt it was inexcusable. They fired me.
— Victor Paul Alvarez (@vpaulalvarez) January 15, 2015