Former NYT Editor Bill Keller - And His Wife - Are Being Hammered Over Columns Questioning Cancer Patient Lisa Adams

Columnist and former New York Times editor Bill Keller. Photo: The New York Times/Getty Images

It must be hard finding something interesting to write about week-in, week-out when you’re an Op-Ed columnist, but looking like seagulls squabbling over a chip is never a good look.

Now two columns, the first by English-born, American-based Emma G. Keller, about cancer patient Lisa Bonchek Adams in The Guardian, followed a few days later by a column in The New York Times by her husband, former editor Bill Keller, have provoked outrage in social media circles, smack-down responses in a range of other forums and the removal of Ms Keller’s essay from The Guardian website for investigation following concerns that it was “inconsistent with The Guardian editorial code.”

Under headline “Forget funeral selfies. What are the ethics of tweeting a terminal illness?” Ms Keller wrote:

“As her condition declined, her tweets amped up both in frequency and intensity. I couldn’t stop reading – I even set up a dedicated @adamslisa column in Tweetdeck – but I felt embarrassed at my voyeurism. Should there be boundaries in this kind of experience? Is there such a thing as TMI? Are her tweets a grim equivalent of deathbed selfies, one step further than funeral selfies? Why am I so obsessed?”

She also disclosed Twitter direct message responses from her subject, but failed to tell Adams that she was planning to write about her, or seek permission to use them. She refused to engage with critics on Twitter, telling them to leave comments on The Guardian website.

She acknowledged her mistake there too, writing:

“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.”

Adams is a mother of three, in her early 40s, with stage four breast cancer. She is a prolific presence on social media, using it to detail her life and treatment.

Ms Keller’s column started a small wave of protest. When her husband weighed in on Monday, writing his father-in-law’s death was “a humane and honorable alternative to the frantic medical trench warfare that often makes an expensive misery of death in America”, it turned into a tsunami.

Mr Keller described Ms Adams as the opposite to his father-in-law’s “calm death”.

“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.”

He even seemed to call into question the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Centre’s animal program, with dogs for patients to cuddle, in an aside: “Neither Adams nor Sloan-Kettering would tell me what all this costs or whether it is covered by insurance.”

A prominent hawk when it came to US foreign policy, Keller presented Adams’ approach to her treatment as a “war” – terminology the patient strongly objects to – and critics summed up his column as telling a cancer patient she wasn’t dying in an appropriate fashion.

Ms Adams was gobsmacked.

The medical profession weighed in too:

Keller also wrote that Ms Adams has two children. She has three.

Salon writer Mary Beth Williams, who had stage 4 cancer and recovered, was livid, berating the couple on Twitter.

Another journalist, Xeni Jardin, who chronicled her own cancer treatment two years ago, was blunt.

Ken Jennings wittily captured the zeitgeist.

And then a firestorm of rebuttal began.

In The Nation, where Keller was accused of “bullying”.

The Atlantic

Gawker.

On Medium.

The Wire called it a tag-team troll.

If columns are meant to provoke debate, Mr and Mrs Keller have set the gold standard.

The New York Times Public Editor weighed into the debate, noting the controversy surrounding both columns.

Tellingly, she said of his constant references to war and battle that:

“It suggests that Mr. Keller didn’t make a full effort to understand the point of view of the person he’s writing about”.

And Keller himself offered some defence:

“Some of the reaction (especially on Twitter, which as a medium encourages reflexes rather than reflection) has been raw, and some (especially in comments posted to the article online, where there is space for nuance) has been thoughtful and valuable. I tried to be clear in the column that I respect Lisa Adams’s choices, and I meant it.”

“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.”

“I don’t think either of the Keller pieces was a “slam” of Lisa Adams or her choices.”

There has been an upside.

Donations to Lisa Adams fundraising page have risen dramatically.

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