There's no reason that The Washington Post or I should be granted the benefit of the doubt. The publication and its writers are imbued with a readership that confers a lot of power, and that's something of which my colleagues and I are aware — always tacitly, occasionally explicitly.
On Monday, I wrote a piece exploring what I considered an interesting question: Why was it that Bernie Sanders's average campaign contribution had stayed at $27 for months? It was a question I'd seen on Twitter on the not-infrequent occasions in which Sanders brought it up, and it's something that I figured I could answer. So I answered it. The reasons? First, averages involving millions of numbers change slowly. Second, the campaign encourages a $27 donation explicitly (with a button on its fundraising page) and implicitly (by making it a point of pride). And, third, it actually does waver from that point, apparently by decent margins, but the effect is still the same.
Shortly after the piece went live under a headline that highlighted the fact that the $27 isn't constant, I began receiving a steady barrage of negative feedback on social media from Sanders supporters. That by itself isn't uncommon and isn't actually representative of the real world. (I wrote about this in February.) But the tenor and volume of that feedback was unusual — particularly given that the piece was innocuous, as I saw it. It wasn't a fact-check; it was a math lesson. But by the end of the day, I'd received thousands of negative tweets, negative comments on Facebook, and any number of emails — excluding the scores of spam emails I'm getting because someone signed me up for them in bulk. Someone called my editor to complain. Someone else posted my home address on Twitter.
It's clear from the story itself that I don't see this as any sort of lie on the part of the Sanders campaign, but then who reads the story anymore? Part of the problem, though, is that the headline was viewed as suggesting dishonesty on the part of Sanders's campaign. The working headline for the piece was "How does Bernie Sanders's average donation stay at $27?", but we (my editors and I) ended up choosing a headline that was more provocative. And provocative headlines provoke.
Why the ferocity in this particular case? I think a few reasons.
First, it was viewed as an attack on the heart of what appeals to many Sanders supporters: his lack of big donors. The article itself notes that this is a rallying cry for the candidate, so it should not come as a surprise that the issue would evince a lot of emotion.
Second, it came from The Washington Post, an outlet that some Sanders supporters view as being either biased or representative of the power structures that Sanders is challenging. The Post has been lumped in with all sorts of ne'er-do-wells over the course of the campaign, and that it was The Post that appeared to be questioning Sanders's sincerity amplified the complaints.
Third, it came at a moment — just before the heated New York primary — when emotions are running high. The Democratic race has gotten increasingly nasty over the past few weeks, with new NBC/Wall Street Journal polling showing that the negative sentiment is far stronger from Sanders supporters against Hillary Clinton than vice versa.
Clinton voters' views of Sanders in NBC/WSJ: 60% positive, 19% negative
Sanders voters' views of Clinton: 40% positive, 41% negative
— Mark Murray (@mmurraypolitics) April 18, 2016
And, fourth, there is an obvious willingness by Sanders supporters to assume that institutions of power are out to get them — and to lash out in response. This goes back to the original point. I'm not owed the benefit of the doubt that my goal was not to disparage Sanders's contributions but to explain them. But neither I nor anyone else writing critically about Sanders deserves the sort of response that has been received. No, Twitter isn't life. But irrational fury that leads to abusive behavior isn't the sort of thing that should be ignored.
The article on Sanders's fundraising average swayed no votes in one direction or the other, I am fully confident. Which is fine, since that was in no way its intent. So I recognize, too, that suggesting that there's a tendency to overreact to perceived attacks will similarly fall on deaf ears.
I served on a jury once, and learned during deliberations that there is no way to counter emotion with rationality. What I can do is provide context to the piece itself and describe the aftermath. To, as best I can, acknowledge the response, though I disagree with it.
And to brace for another wave of negative feedback.