A 67-year-old man in a wheelchair dies, then gets smeared by internet trolls

Syracuse University Marshall Street

Gertis McDowell, last April on the campus of Syracuse University. Gertis died this month at age 67.

The recent passing of Syracuse icon Gertis McDowell is instructive for two very different reasons.

One, we can all learn from his upbeat attitude and the happiness he spread to strangers even when he was in pain.

Two, we can try to put a stop to media outlets that allow “trolls” to hide behind anonymity as they write hurtful comments on the internet.

I wrote about Gertis here last April. He was a 67-year-old diabetic who used a wheelchair and sat at a corner on the Syracuse University campus, shaking a cup of coins and greeting strangers with a cheerful “Hey, Big Papi!” and “Hey, pretty lady!”

He was always happy, friendly and certainly non-threatening. Students enjoyed his presence; some filmed videos about him for YouTube and Vimeo.

When a former SU student, Robert Axelrod, wrote a tribute to Gertis that ran on syracuse.com (the digital outlet of The Post-Standard newspaper), the haters pounced. That’s easy to do when you’re a coward who can hide behind a “cute” user name.

I waited a couple of weeks after his death to post this, to make sure the short-attention-span trolls had directed their venom to new targets who can’t defend themselves. (By my count, there were initially 72 comments about Gertis; almost half were then deleted by the web site’s moderators, but not until after they had been published.)

I won’t give examples, and I can only hope if Gertis had family, they didn’t see any of them. Trust me, some of the comments were despicable, hateful and just wrong.

I’ve challenged syracuse.com on the anonymous troll issue before (over comments about 12-year-old twins who use wheelchairs because of a disease), and have yet to hear a satisfactory explanation of their policy. The moderator didn’t respond to my last reply about the Gertis tribute, when I pointed out that 30-some comments had to be taken down. I asked her, “This is journalism?” . . . Crickets.

Some media outlets have adopted tighter policies in an effort to curb nastiness, or they’ve done away with anonymous comments altogether. Some in the media defend anonymous policies, saying it fosters “community engagement,” gives web users a voice and the freedom to speak without fear of retribution.

That’s part of the problem. They can hide. I maintain that if you have something to say that’s controversial or might offend someone, have the balls to put your name on it. And please, say something that adds to the discussion, an enlightening nuance that others can learn from as part of civil discourse. Freedom of speech carries the weight of responsibility and accountability; it is not a free pass to engage in borderline hate speech.

As for media outlets, what’s stopping them from investing in the staff or technology to moderate comments before they see the light of day and hurt people?

Speaking of money, I’d pay a good sum to watch a well-paid executive at syracuse.com meet face-to-face with Gertis’ family. The exec could go through the hateful comments line by line and explain to Gertis’ family (sitting uncomfortably close, I hope) why those comments were published for tens of thousands of people to read.

And I would love to hear the higher-up’s answer when a family member looks him or her in the eye and asks, “What if this were your loved one being called these names?”

Blog readers, if the media outlets where you live allow anonymous hate speech and you’ve had enough of their pandering to the lowest common denominator, I encourage you to challenge them on it.

And by the way, Gertis — rest in peace. You made a lot of people happy over the years and will be remembered long after the sorry, hateful trolls are forgotten. Then again, we don’t know who they are.


About Jim McKeever

Writer, father, runner, advocate based in Central New York.
This entry was posted in college, Irish Investigations, language, poverty, Technology, writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

31 Responses to A 67-year-old man in a wheelchair dies, then gets smeared by internet trolls

  1. Mark says:

    sadly the answer to why is an easy one, money. Though you won’t get that. If the anonymous trolls weren’t engaged there wouldn’t be 70 comments there would be 7. 63 fewer comments likely represents 100 or more, less views of he advertising that keeps sites afloat.


    • Jim McKeever says:

      I think you’re correct, Mark. It’s all about the “hits,” or clicks that can justify advertising rates. I remember the first lesson in Journalism 101 — Q. What’s a newspaper’s primary function? (A. to make money.). I just don’t think this is what they had in mind.


      • Mark says:

        Yeah making money by having content that people want to read is one thing. And it makes sense when it is a 1:1 relationship between writer and reader. Each reader then has the chance to share with people close to them. Online comments change the dynamic.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. chmjr2 says:

    I was taught a long time ago that if I had anything to say I had to be up front about it. Also I had to be respectful at all times. This was a rule we had when growing up in my family. I could state any view point I had (I cringe when I think of a few that I had then) even to the adults but had to be done face to face. I was taught that freedom of speech had to be done in the open, otherwise it was not really free speech. My family loved to debate the issues in a way most people today would find uncomfortable. I will not say or write anything without taking ownership. I will be respectful (this is a consent effort) because not to be detracts from what I am trying to say.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. First of all, my thoughts and prayers are with all those who loved and lost Gertis. Jim thank you for bringing up such an important point. If something is worth saying and one feels their opinion has validity, they should not feel a need to hide. I completely agree and you say it so well in the sentence below Jim.

    I maintain that if you have something to say that’s controversial or might offend someone, have the balls to put your name on it.

    Diana xo

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Jim McKeever says:

    Thank you, Diana. Just because technology allows corporations to do something that makes a profit, it doesn’t mean they should engage in it.


  5. I appreciate this post Jim. I don’t understand the cheap and pointless need to vocalize such garbage. Any credible news source would not want to allow such trash. So allowing it, tells me the news source puts themselves in a category that I would not want to respect or value.

    If I was this man’s family I would be very appreciative of you and your tribute to my loved one.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. markbialczak says:

    The loss of Gertis makes Marshall Street less cheery, for sure, Jim. RIP, happy man who said hello to me hundred of times in my life. I know I always gave you at least a smile and nod of my head, though I wished it could have been more.

    The trolls and anonymous commenting is an onion of an issue that brings tears to my eyes as each layer gets peeled, Jim. There really are no winners involved. Not the site, not the readers, not the advertisers, not the administrators, not even the idiot trolls, because as they are swelling their chests with pride for their bile, they are despised by people with names attached to them.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. memorris55 says:

    I knew him well . . . spent many of my lunch breaks up on the hill talking with him! He was a joy and he blessed me, every time I had an opportunity to see him . . . just follow the sound of the tin can . .I’ll be listening for him and waiting to see that amazing smile on the other side! Those who did not know him have no right to comment . . . I will miss him for now . . .

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Jim … I used to work at the Observer-Dispatch in Utica, New York. At one time they had an anonymous line that people could comment on. For good reasons – the ones you raise here – they discontinued it. You’re right. The haters’ comments are mean spirited and easy to make because no one knows who they are.

    “This American Life” ran a story on this topic on their radio show on Friday. A female writer said someone had gone so far as to use her dead father’s name to open an account to write horrid things to her. She responded about how painful that was and was stunned to get an apology from the troll. On the radio program, she talked with him about why he did so. He admitted that he was filled with self-loathing and has since changed his ways. If only all trolls would do the same.

    Thanks for shaming those who continue to troll.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jim McKeever says:

      Thank you, Judy … I didn’t know that about the O-D. Good move. And I share your wish that other trolls follow the lead of the self-loathing radio interviewee. My hunch is, that’s a shared trait among that demographic.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Win Thurlow says:

    Jim: I, too, have challenged Syracuse.com on its irresponsible behavior in this regard and have also been blown off. I appreciate the business demands facing news organizations and I’m not naive to the appeal of anonymous posting. What I’d like, however, is some honesty from Messrs. Rogers, Kennedy and others about this aspect of their operation. The closest they’ve come to acknowledging the nature of the problem is to suggest that readers should voluntarily post their names. While that could help, it also exposes responsible posters to ridicule, bullying and name calling by the trolls who wish to remain secret. Let’s be truthful about what is going on here: the owners of these sites have created bathroom walls filled with piles of magic markers. The defenders of freedom of speech should be creating a marketplace of ideas, not a back alley for cretinous behavior.


    • Jim McKeever says:

      Thanks, Win, and your metaphor of a bathroom wall is very apt. I’ve yet to hear any response from SMG execs, nor do I expect to. Just last night, in the comments about a 20-year-old stabbed to death in Syracuse, one of the first comments was something along the lines of “that’s one less person on welfare.” It stayed up there for hours, and may still be up there for the person’s family to see. Even if he did turn out to be on public assistance, it’s irrelevant and hateful. Yet SMG encourages this kind of ignorance — or is it hate speech? — day after day.


  10. kathe32 says:

    I think they just see it as the price of admission. Every click and comment puts them closer to the top spot in market penetration. So huge numbers, whether trolls or respectable news consumers, are the goal. Very sad. I, too, featured a couple Gertis pics on my blog after he passed away, and saw nothing but wonderful comments. (BTW, I enjoy your writing very much.)

    Liked by 1 person

  11. lilypup says:

    Came over from community pool to check this out. Thanks for sharing this and bringing awareness to this nasty topic. Don’t get me started on the damage the internet can do. I’m too old, I guess, the fascination with tearing people down. http://lilypupslife.wordpress.com/

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Shelley says:

    Terrible to read. Such a shame.


  13. This is such an important piece you have written.
    Thank you.


  14. Hello again. I do a regular feature where I visit websites and then write about what I find. This week it is called Forward March: Sunday Blog Visits and I am featuring your website. My best to you.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. cat9984 says:

    It’s funny how the print media required writers to use their names years ago to be published on the op-ed page, but something that has so much more power to hurt and offend has no such rules.


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