Column: Fake News Brought Me a Barrage of Hate

For the Valley News
Saturday, February 18, 2017

On Jan. 25, Sen. Bernie Sanders announced the winners of his annual State of the Union essay contest for Vermont high school students. My granddaughter, Quinn Nelson Mayo, won first prize with an essay proposing media literacy education in all public schools. I’m a proud grandparent, of course, but little did I know how prescient she was. Two weeks later I found myself in the crosshairs of a faux media frenzy. It has been a harrowing and revealing experience. I do not recommend it.

Several weeks ago my Valley News column was an excerpt from a letter I sent to my school community. In that letter I suggested that the current political environment was more troubling than at any time in my life, including Watergate, civil rights unrest and post-9/11. I went on to urge civility, to work to protect the environment and our freedoms, and to focus on participation in government.

The New York Post published an article titled, “Principal Says Trump Presidency Is ‘More Troubling’ Than 9/11. My article did not include “Trump,” “president” or “presidency.” Shortly thereafter I began to receive angry messages: hateful email as well as threatening phone calls and obscene posts on my school’s website and Facebook page.

Fox News picked up the story verbatim without any effort to confirm the assertions. I was on the home page of the Fox News website with a picture taken, apparently, from our website. The story was then picked up by an unknown number of conservative or far-right bloggers and websites, once again with no attempt to verify or clarify. We were off to the ugly races.

“You should be veeeeeeeeerrrrrrry careful ... traitors like you are the reason we are going to fight FIRE with FIRE! Stop dividing and pushing your unintelligent agenda on children ... this is not over!!”

“You might be the worst person to walk the earth. If there is someone worse than you we can’t find them and we have looked. It must suck getting up everyday and knowing your married to the nanny state. ... Luckily for America you have entered your twilight years and the grim reaper is coming ... May poor health follow you the rest of your short life.”

“As far as a rifle barrel, only one thing goes in it, and it sure ... isn’t a flower. I’m hoping liberal brats try rioting and kicking in windows in my city, we’ll give them high speed lead poisoning. Maybe we need a civil war, we can exterminate the Libtards and reclaim our once great country. It would only take about two days since the Muslim Loving Baby Killer Democrats don’t like guns.”

There have been several hundred messages, many profane and more threatening than these examples. It is not knowable how much of this angry sentiment fueled Trump’s election, but it was not — is not — an insignificant factor. Irresponsible sources like the New York Post and Fox News have no shame. There is no “liberal” equivalent. Scores of millions of Americans are being stirred to violent anger by this gratuitous, dishonest media.

But not all were fooled.

The silver lining in this dark cloud was gratifying. In addition to an outpouring of support from my own community and from schools around the country, I had remarkable exchanges with 40 or 50 Trump supporters. I responded to every hateful email with a respectful message. I included my actual letter, and here is a sampling of responses I received.

One originally furious man posted this on his Linkedin account: “I feel compelled and responsible to share this information with you all. I sent Mr. Steve Nelson an email detailing my disgust. He replied with more civility and professionalism than I afforded him, as well as a full transcript of what he sent the parents of his students. Suffice it to say that I owed him an apology, and I gave him one. Lesson learned ... don’t believe everything you read, much is taken out of context for the purpose of an agenda. I am a retired Navy Mustang, conservative, independent and a thinking individual. But today I failed myself and fell for the divisive bait. Don’t repeat my mistake.”

“You’re correct in that I don’t agree with your thoughts. However, I see how you were totally misrepresented. Please accept my sincere apology. Looks like you have a valid lawsuit to file if you choose to do so.”

“Wow, totally unexpected. my apologies. Very well written and thoughtful.”

“Thank you for the response! It was unexpected and truly appreciated. I am deeply moved. After reading your message I believe we have a perfect example of the importance of respectful dialogue. Not only do I see things in a different light but I can honestly say that I agree with so much of what you so eloquently wrote that I plan to revisit my thoughts on the only point of contention I have. I personally have not been viewing the immigration ban as being a race/religion driven program. Out of respect for your moving message and my agreement with most every word I think it makes sense to make sure I am more informed on the issue.”

These messages restored my faith in civil dialogue. We Americans can agree to disagree, but our republic is in deep trouble if we don’t have a common understanding of truth.

My granddaughter is wise beyond her years. Children must learn from an early age to carefully consider sources of information and their motivations.

Steve Nelson lives in Sharon and New York City, where he is the head of the Calhoun School, a private school. He can be reached at steve.nelson@calhoun.org.