The Tampa Bay Times has set off a meta firestorm in the world of journalism after a story it published about a 39-year-old woman who suffered from persistent genital arousal disorder committed suicide after the story went live on the Times‘ website.
I’ve inflamed this firestorm by suggesting that the Times has “blood on its hands” for using this woman’s story to launch the newspaper’s new monthly version of its Floridian section. My blogging has made its way to Jim Romensko’s site, while also earning a smackdown from no less than the Washington Post‘s Gene Weingarten, as well as several Times reporters who invariably revert to a cultish defense of the paper when it is criticized.
This situation has been on my mind all weekend, for an important reason I’ll explain in a subsequent post. Right now, I want to discuss the Times‘ reaction to the situation.
The Times is taking the position that the woman, Gretchen Molannen, welcomed the story. To support this claim, the Times has shared a thank-you email Molannen wrote:
“Thank YOU for taking an interest in doing a story for me! I am flattered that you cared so much to want to help. I just hope this will educate people that this is serious and really exists, and that other women who are suffering in silence will now have the courage to talk to a doctor about it. If men have suffered with the shame of impotence or even priapism, now it’s time for women to get help as well. Thank you for your patience with me and for devoting so much time to this. I’m sure your editor is very proud of your work and I’m excited to see my own story online.”
Just think for a second about what the Times has done here: they are using some of the last thoughts of someone so mentally unstable that she committed suicide a week later as part of its defense for running this sensational story.
The Times knew the story was hinky, otherwise, as Romensko notes, since when does a newspaper read entire stories to profile subjects prior to publishing?
Bottom line, the newspaper knew what it had here: a sensational, sexually-oriented story ideal for making a splash when launching a new section.
Do I believe this woman committed suicide because of the story? I genuinely don’t know. I am beginning to believe having her story told was some sort of final act Molannen wanted to see performed before taking her life. But, again, neither myself, nor anyone else will ever really know why she killed herself.
Not to be cold, but that’s not what I’m concerned about. What concerns me is a media company which, in the course of the last two months, first published a horribly bogus story about a billion dollar real estate buy and now a tragic story about a woman who deliberately or unwittingly has made the newspaper an accomplice in her suicide.
This is tremendous power — and no one at the Times appears willing to take responsibility for it.