The last few days have been some of the most interesting and terrible and educational of my professional life, maybe my life in general. For those who may not have heard, famed astrophysicist Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson schooled me in an online reply to my column about him: “Neil deGrasse Tyson is a horse’s astrophysicist.” In the rush to get the column finished, days before, I sloppily and irresponsibly referenced a fake news story from a fake news site. Stupid mistake on my part, for which I have apologized publicly. Additionally, I have apologized to Dr. Tyson for using the story and mischaracterizing him as an atheist. And I add to that an apology for my less-than-mature equine reference, intended more as a clever play on words than a harmful insult. I, indeed, was the horse’s ass.
What transpired in the 48 hours after Dr. Tyson’s impressive and methodical destruction of my column, was nothing less than surreal. As near as I can tell, Idaho AP political reporter Kimberlee Kruesi first tweeted about Tyson’s takedown. It was then picked up by the Idaho Statesman. Before long, the Daily Kos, Huffington Post, Raw Story, Dead State, and a host of similar national sites had picked it up rapidly, all bearing a similar headline, that the beloved astrophysicist had destroyed a conservative radio talk show host and columnist.
If the Internet’s intention in response to my stumbles was to reciprocate harm, it worked. In the same way that it’s no fun to be called a horse’s astrophysicist, it was a nightmare receiving scores of Tweets calling me a “F—-ing moron!” or informing me that I’m a warm container of semen, that I should drink poison, or that it’s a shame I “spawned” five children. After a while, I simply had to stop paying attention — deleting dozens of emails, changing privacy settings on my social media profiles, and turning off my Twitter notifications. For those in the national spotlight, this is probably old hat, but I wasn’t equipped to handle the influx, logistically or emotionally. If anyone had sent a kind word or more gentle and constructive criticism, I apologize because I probably missed it in the onslaught of hate.
With all of these media sites highlighting my new-found fame, I could only watch it happen, helplessly. For all of their indignation over my journalistic failure, not a single one of the national or statewide outlets reached out to me. Not one. How is it that scores of internet trolls can find my email address, but the Huffington Post and the Idaho AP can’t? Then again, I probably would have ignored it anyway because there was no way they were going to allow an ounce of redemption, and I knew it. They had their delicious narrative. I was the buffoon and no comment was necessary. The instant it was picked up nationally, I was checkmated. I had no recourse, no comparable media platform at my disposal. It was as terrible and as helpless as you can imagine. Even more disappointing, a few people that I honestly thought were friends, shared online my unfortunate story with glee.
The night after it began, in the height of the Twitterstorm from Hell, I left my smartphone at home and took a walk alone in the cool air. I tried to feel a sense of silence and peace even knowing a hurricane of hatred and ridicule was swirling around this sudden national caricature of me. And I was faced with a few questions: How bad will this get? What impact does something like this have on my wife and kids and other family? Can I write past what I’ve now become, and do I even want to try?
To those who have regularly read my column, agreed, and enjoyed it, thank you. To those who read it and thoughtfully disagreed, thank you even more for your measured civility. To those who despise me, feel I am terrible and let me know it without reservation, wishing this newspaper would stop carrying my column, I have good news for you. As you can tell by now, I’m pulling the plug.
I love writing. I mean I really love writing. Not that I’m good at it, but it’s therapeutic. It’s an escape. It forces me to order my thoughts. It’s an alternate form of expression. It’s all the reasons writers write. In my field I write to persuade. But for me, right now, I’m conceding defeat to a machine that is horrifyingly efficient in destroying people who make a thoughtless, foolish mistake. Perhaps I’d have the mettle to power through this had there not been so much personal collateral damage.
One day maybe I’ll take another crack at it, possibly when the stigma of being the nation’s laughing stock wears off and I can write with a cleaner slate. Let me end on a note of gratitude, first to the editor of this paper for carrying my column, and to the readers for reading it. And finally, to those who encouraged me this past week and did not pile on when you could have. You mean the world to me.
For now, farewell.
Neal Larson of Idaho Falls was a newspaper columnist.