Orange Country Register columnist Mark Whicker asked readers Wednesday to forgive his “lapse of professionalism” in writing a column that noted all the sports milestones that Jaycee Dugard missed after being kidnapped and held in captivity for 18 years.
But in a phone interview, he defended the premise of his column and suggested that the fast-moving, quick-to-judge culture of the Web was behind the wave of criticism.
“I vehemently believe I wasn’t insensitive about the fact that she was kidnapped,” he said Wednesday evening while at his son’s soccer practice. “I never made light about the fact that this woman was abducted. I don’t think anyone can cite anything in the column that says I did.”
In his widely criticized column Whicker noted all the sporting events and activities Dugard missed as she was confined to a shed behind her kidnapper’s house. “She was not allowed to spike a volleyball. Or pitch a softball. Or smack a forehand down the line. Or run in a 5-footer for double bogey,” wrote Whicker, who’s been in the business for 35 years. “Now, that’s deprivation.”
“I tried to incorporate some humor,” Whicker said, “but I certainly don’t think I mocked that woman.”
This isn’t the first time the columnist has penned something like this. In 1991 he followed up on journalist Terry Anderson’s release after being held captive in Lebanon for close to seven years by writing about all the sports news he had missed:
Whicker said he didn’t get any feedback on the Anderson column, which was published long before the paper started posting stories online. (He e-mailed the passage to me.) He doubts this week’s column would have gotten as much attention were it not for the “speed and the enormity of the Internet.”
“I’m a little saddened by the tone of some of the responses because I think it says a lot about what’s out there in computer-land,” Whicker said. “I’ve had some e-mailers say, ‘Why don’t you write about 9/11 while you’re at it?’ Another person said, ‘Why don’t you write about the Holocaust next?’ I think that’s a really obscene thing to say.”
Whicker said that as of Tuesday night, he had received just one critical e-mail about his Dugard column. By Wednesday night, after people had tweeted and blogged about it, he had about 100 e-mails in his inbox.
Slate’s Jack Shafer picked up on a tweet that called the column “the worst sports column in history.” The Huffington Post’s Jason Linkins wrote that it was “eye-searingly, soul-hurtingly awful.” Another blogger wrote a satire based on imagined responses from Dugard that drive home what Whicker never mentioned in his column — that, according to police, Dugard had been raped during her 18 years in captivity.
“Yes, Mark,” commented a reader with the username macarr on Whicker’s column, “I am sure that while being raped, tortured and held captive and while her parents dealt with the unbelievable horror of grieving for their lost daughter and being the prime suspects, that what Jaycee was thinking was, ‘Darn, I’m missing free BEACH TOWEL NIGHT!’”
Readers say attempt to relate Dugard’s kidnapping to sports fell flat
Whicker’s failure to mention Dugard’s suffering was compounded by the last line of his column in which he riffed on a term for home runs: “Congratulations, Jaycee. You left the yard.”
A reader by the username blogreader2009, for instance, posted this comment on Whicker’s column: “How about this; you get smashed over the head with a baseball bat, and go into a coma … And then, we can make a list of all of the sports stories you miss. Congratulations, you’ve left the yard, dude.”
Whicker responded to such criticism by saying that Dugard “basically left the yard when she was released, so I didn’t find it offensive, but apparently a lot of people did.”
He added that more than anything, the piece was intended to celebrate — not mock — Dugard’s return home. “The troubling thing for me is whether this means I’m out of touch,” he said. “I realize what a horrific thing [the kidnapping] was, but I thought the fact that they found her alive was good news.”
In addition to trying to add perspective to Dugard’s kidnapping, Whicker said he was trying to show how sports and hard news intersect, which he has done before.
How did this column get past an editor?
Some readers criticized the editors who approved the column as much as they did Whicker. He said, however, that he didn’t get any calls from the newsroom after he submitted his column over Labor Day weekend.
Assistant Sports Editor Todd Harmonson said in a phone interview Wednesday that someone else filled in for him in editing the column because he was off, though he declined to say who. The column went through both a content and copy edit.
For much of Wednesday he fielded calls and e-mails from readers who asked why the paper ran the column. “I understood why some people would be concerned, but I also know Mark well enough to know that he had no ill intentions,” Harmonson said. “He’s the ultimate professional, and if he missed the mark on this one, he’s made up for that with decades in this business.”
He said the sports management team asked Whicker to write a response to readers, and Whicker offered to apologize.
“I probably learned to be a little more clear and specific about what the intent of the column is, rather than assuming everyone is going to see it the way I do,” Whicker said. “I don’t think I’ll be writing about kidnapping victims anytime soon.”