Journalism power couple creates furore with criticism of cancer blogger

Then-New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller poses for a photo at a book party in February 2010. Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption New York Times columnist and former editor Bill Keller and his wife have been under intense criticism since writing about cancer blogger Lisa Bonchek Adams

Lisa Bonchek Adams found out she had breast cancer seven years ago and has since spent her time in treatment for the disease - and prolifically sharing her experiences on her blog and Twitter, as her condition becomes more grave. Guardian writer Emma G Keller and her husband, New York Times columnist Bill Keller, write that it might be better if the Connecticut mother of three kept more of her thoughts to herself.

"Should there be boundaries in this kind of experience?" Ms Keller writes. "Is there such a thing as TMI [too much information]? Are her tweets a grim equivalent of deathbed selfies, one step further than funeral selfies?"

Of course, these are questions - so Ms Keller could think the answer is no. But later in the piece, she seems acknowledge that "yes" is a valid answer: "The ethical questions abound. Make your own judgement."

Two days later, Mr Keller (former executive editor of the Times) stepped in with his own take. Perhaps in defence of his wife, he notes that her father died of cancer - but if he was looking disarm critics of the Guardian piece, he was resoundingly unsuccessful.

He writes that it's "a more complicated question" whether Ms Adams's "campaign has been a public service".

"Her digital presence is no doubt a comfort to many of her followers," Mr Keller continues. "On the other hand, as cancer experts I consulted pointed out, Adams is the standard-bearer for an approach to cancer that honors the warrior, that may raise false hopes, and that, implicitly, seems to peg patients like my father-in-law as failures."

The one-two punch from the journalism power couple has set off a fury of criticism in print and on the Internet over whether they have the right to criticise how Ms Adams, whose stage 4 cancer has spread throughout her body, has dealt with her disease.

If Ms Keller were really bothered by Ms Adams's tweets, writes the Atlantic's Megan Garber, she could simply stop following her:

But that would be too easy. Or, rather, that would prevent the writer from gathering the fodder required to write a properly substantiated think piece. To ignore Adams would be to foreclose the possibility of extruding her experience into pliable column material - and to reject the casual entitlement that converts lived suffering into moral questioning.

In These Times's Lindsay Beyerstein writes that Mr Keller's column has a not-so-hidden message:

Keller cites his father-in-law's low-key death in hospice to illustrate how Our Kind of People expire, namely, without heroic measures or social media. You heard him, cancer sufferers: put down the cell phones, drop the pricey puppies, and die like an elderly British peer. Who cares if you're a woman in her forties with three children? Who cares about your prognosis? Who cares what you want? That's how it's done.

Gawker's Adam Weinstein writes that the Kellers' reaction tells us an uncomfortable truth about our own mortality, and the reluctance of many to come to terms with it:

We all like to fool ourselves into believing that disease and mortality are generally easy things. They come in your sleep, when you're old and it's natural - or else, they come in a car crash or a furnace accident, and then they're quick about it. Prolonged suffering is something that happens to other people, and it's not polite for sick people or their friends and families to share stories of infirmity and pain and messiness, because Jesus God, who the hell wants to hear that? We're going to die in peace, so let us live in peace, all right?

Salon's Daniel D'Addario writes that part of the problem is that Ms Keller shared private messages she had received from Ms Adams: "This is a breach of ethics of a high order in addition to just being evidence that Ms. Keller has not a leg to stand on in her vague insinuation that Adams is giving 'TMI' by blogging about cancer - if her case were sturdy, would she need to bolster it by leaking private correspondence?"

Following the uproar, Ms Keller posted a message at the end of her column:

Since this article was published two days ago, there's been a lot of negative comment on Twitter and below the line. Lisa Adams herself was upset by it. I had been in communication with her a number of times in recent weeks; given her health, I could have given her advance warning about the article and should have told her that I planned to quote from our conversations. I regret not doing so.

On Monday afternoon, the Guardian took down Ms Keller's original post.

First, the paper explained: "This post has been deleted with the agreement of the subject because it is inconsistent with the Guardian editorial code." Then, it changed it to simply read: "This post has been removed pending investigation."

Meanwhile, on Monday Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan weighed in: "I don't make a practice of commenting on whether or not I agree with columnists, or whether or not I like their columns in general or on a particular day."

She added, however: "In this case, I'll go so far as to say that there are issues here of tone and sensitivity." She also quoted Mr Keller, who defended his column:

I think some readers have misread my point, and some - the most vociferous - seem to believe that anything short of an unqualified "right on, Lisa!" is inhumane or sacrilegious. But I've heard from readers who understood the point and found it worth grappling with.

And his wife's:

Except for the snarky headline, which Emma didn't write, I thought she wrote a sensitive and provocative piece, clearly aimed at stimulating a reader discussion of this hyper-transparent world we inhabit.

And in a Times article on the Guardian decision to take down Ms Keller's column, he blamed "a tide of political correctness" and added: "The most perverse aspect - of many - is the idea that Emma, who endured her own double mastectomy in 2012, is somehow lacking in empathy for victims of breast cancer."

As for Ms Adams, it appears she is trying to find a silver lining. On Monday, she tweeted: "In October I tried every which way to be interviewed as part of Breast Cancer Awareness Month. No one wanted to talk to metastatic patient… Now, you won't be surprised to hear, I have endless interview offers. Interesting change."

And on Tuesday, now with more than 11,000 Twitter followers, she wrote: "If [the Kellers] had actually really been following my writing since metastatic diag[nosis] in 2012, they [would] know I spend very few tweets complaining... 'Tweeting suffering' is not what I do. Obviously I want to educate about what my life is like. But done right, this is not depressing."

Medium's Zeynep Tufekci says that this is the policy angle that the Kellers miss in their columns - Ms Adams is an advocate for late-stage cancer treatment, which has been ignored by researchers in the push for early detection and treatment.

"The disease kills many, including those who do everything right, despite early detection; yet fairly little research funding goes to studying the disease in this last (so-called fourth) stage," she writes. "People like Lisa Adams are serving an important role in challenging the dominant, pink-drenched ribbon of early detection, hardship, survival and happily-ever-long-after."

This topic has generated considerable heat, and much of it is likely because it's easy to get angry at a pair of elite journalists who criticise a cancer stricken New England mother, no matter how public she has been about the details of her life. And then there's the taboo in Western culture surrounding end-of-life situations, which makes any discussion of the topic uncomfortable for many.

There should be a constructive way to talk about how we as a society deal with the sick and the dying and even to argue, right or wrong, that some policies and some behaviour are better than others. By focusing their writing around Ms Adams and addressing (and misrepresenting, some contend) her actions, however, it seems clear the Kellers haven't found that way.