Wednesday, October 3, 2012

About obesity and bullying

Yahoo! News repeated this morning's story about an obese on-air TV personality, the viewer who called her out on her obesity, and her response to him. Oh, and everyone else's response, too.

(This next paragraph should be read in a snarky tone.) Because I have my very own blog, I'm going to comment about the issue here, rather than letting my comments get lost in the noise at Yahoo! or at WKBT-TV. (Okay, no more snarkiness. Let's get serious now.)

Jennifer Livingston is a TV news anchor at WKBT-TV in La Crosse, Wisconsin. She has been obese for several years. She has a husband and three children, none of whom (to my knowledge) are obese.

One of WKBT-TV's viewers, identified as Kenneth W. Krause, wrote a letter to Ms. Livingston, chastisting her for her continued obesity, and on the surface, although the letter is kind of rude in parts, it's not obscene or mean-spirited. It's actually a rather well-written, short, persuasive essay. Here's how it appeared on the FB page of her husband and co-worker, news anchor Mike Thompson:
"It's unusual that I see your morning show, but I did so for a very short time today. I was surprised indeed to witness that your physical condition hasn't improved for many years. Surely you don't consider yourself a suitable example for this community's young people, girls in particular. Obesity is one of the worst choices a person can make and one of the most dangerous habits to maintain. I leave you this note hoping that you'll reconsider your responsibility as a local public personality to present and promote a healthy lifestyle."
What Mr. Krause didn't know was that Ms. Livingston has a thyroid condition that makes it difficult for her to shed the unwanted weight, that aside from her weight she's in pretty good physical shape, that she works out regularly and that she participates in 5K runs and triathlons. Had he been in possession of these facts, he may have worded the letter differently or not written it at all.

(Who first publicized the letter? Did WKBT-TV or Mike Thompson get Mr. Krause's permission to post his letter online? If they didn't, they may have violated the law, or at least simple etiquette. And no, two wrongs do not make a right.)

Ms. Livingston has many friends. I don't know her personally, but I think it would be easy to be friends with her. There's just this one little thing that bothers me: her response to Mr. Krause.

Ms. Livingston's employer, co-workers, family and friends rushed to her defense, publicly and privately. Her husband appeared on Good Morning America with her, talking about the letter. Ms. Livingston did an on-air editorial on WKBT-TV about the letter, and here's where I disagree with her handling of the situation.

She said, "I think, in his mind, he [Krause] views himself as being helpful which is what I think a little bit of the problem is. ... He doesn't see that the way that he approached it was clearly hurtful to me. He's trying to shame me into losing weight. That's not being helpful. That's being a bully." She followed that with a reference to October being National Anti-Bullying Month, and went on to speak, passionately and articulately, about the problem of bullying.

But Mr. Krause wasn't a bully. And his letter didn't constitute bullying.

If the text I quoted really was the full content of his letter, then you can call it criticism or negative feedback, which is always hard to take (and even harder to hand out without sounding rude). Or you can call it off-base, because he didn't have all the facts. But reread his letter. It's not a "bullying" letter.

Krause wasn't picking on Livingston just because she was fat, or vulnerable, or a member of a target group. Nor was he picking on her repeatedly, or from a position of power or invulnerability. Nor was he anonymous. As far as we can tell, this was the first time he'd written her, even though he'd been observing her for many years. Nor was his decision to write her a spontaneous thing: if you read his words carefully, you'll see that the thought about it for a long time before writing. He even offered constructive suggestions in addition to his criticisms.

Instead of going public with her accusations of bullying, Ms. Livingston could have phoned Mr. Krause and engaged him in a private dialogue, and then gone public with the dialogue and a resolution. That would have demonstrated some real class. Instead, she overreacted, tagged him with a label he didn't deserve, turned the tables on Mr. Krause, and and subjected him to "bullying."

You may not think so, but look at what happened: hundreds of WKBT-TV viewers (and then the whole country) dogpiled onto him, throwing insults and verbal abuse his way, on the WKBT-TV website, Mr. Thompson's FB page, and dozens of other websites that carried the story, without giving him a chance to resolve the issue amicably, present his side of the story, or fight back. That is bullying.

(Actually, Mr. Krause did submit a follow-up statement to WKBT-TV, which they published and Yahoo! repeated. Interestingly, he's sticking to his guns.)

More importantly, Ms. Livingston has cheapened the terms bully and bullying. Any time someone throws out an accusation like bully, racist or sexist, falsely or without justification, it diminishes the power of the accusation and makes things more difficult for the next person who needs to use it legitimately. Remember the parable of the boy who cried wolf.

To conclude: While Mr. Krause may owe Ms. Livingston an apology for not getting all the facts before he wrote his letter, Ms. Livingston, Mr. Thompson, WKBT-TV and many other people owe Mr. Krause an apology for labeling him a bully and giving him his undeserved 15 minutes of living hell.


Zyzmog said...

Just to make something clear: people are overweight for a WIDE variety of reasons. Modern society is too quick to blame weight problems on improper diet and exercise. By judging someone on their outward appearance, we short-circuit the need to actually find out something about them. In doing so, we deny ourselves the chance to meet the absolutely delightful person inside that extra-large body.

Amanda said...

I was glad to see this! I saw this story on the news while I was at work today, and I couldn't agree with you more.

Amanda said...

I completely agree. I think it could have been handled better on both sides of the disagreement.

Froggage said...

Thank you, I have been thinking about this a lot since the flame war broke out. Well said.

Zyzmog said...

Rereading this article months later, and Googling on the topic for any updates to the story, I still thing that Ms. Livingston and company were the bad guys here. They handled the situation VERY poorly, they blew it up into something MUCH bigger than it needed to be, and they made a (mostly) innocent man's life miserable. THEY bullied HIM.