Sunday, July 17, 2005

Meta-Blogging 19: The Nanny Diary [Updated]

When a well-heeled New Yorker admits, essentially, to firing her nanny over her blogging, the blogosphere's reaction is a little predictable.

Helaine Olen writes a seamy little story for the NY Times Style section about how she became an obsessional reader of her nanny's blog and "discovered" things about her nanny's private life that made her uncomfortable. Her nanny has sex, for one thing, thought of her job as work, and sometimes goes out with friends to bars. Oren's piece goes through a fair amount of torturous liberal self-justification for finally firing the nanny--the husband, by the way, does the deed, explaining away the termination on other grounds.

The blogging nanny, naturally, blogs her response to this NYT drive-by. Her name is Tessy, she is currently a grad student working on Victorian novels, and she has a good employment situation now. The post is pretty impressivs. In it, Tessy refutes the charges, defends her character and right to blog, and amazingly, doesn't get vindictive. (She does call the household "careless and inappropriate," however.)

Bitch PhD, who blogrolled Tessy from back in the day, discovers the post and summarizes the Olen's perspective thus: "because she wrote well enough to engage her reader, Tessa was a bad nanny."

Amanda Marcotte, blogging at Pandagon, jumps on Olen's use of the word "promiscuous"--a charge which Tessy emphatically refutes--and gets angry at the sensationalism and hypocrisy involved in the article.

And since Atrios has picked the story up this morning, Tessy's response to her ex-employer's smear will have a gigantic circulation.

One of the more curious elements of this story is that Tessy gave her employer her blog url sometimes near the beginning of the gig. She clearly thought that what she wrote about there wouldn't be controversial. (In this earlier post from when she first found out about the NYT article, she explains some of her motivations for starting up her blog.) The content of Tessy's blog is personal, perhaps too much so to share with an employer. A determined employer could probably find an employee's online writings, but it is naive, as Tessy writes, not to protect oneself, at least a little.

After reading the blogospheric reactions, I then reread Olen's piece. As Professor B. points out, the piece is less about Tessy than it is about Olen. And Olen feels tremendously guilty about the whole episode: she felt guilty reading the blog, she felt guilty knowing about Tessy's private life, she felt guilty pretending that her interest in the blog was innocent, and she felt guilty that her relationship to Tessy's blogging made her husband want to fire Tessy (projection?). I suspect that she probably feels guilty about the article, as well she should. Olen knows that she's the bad guy in her own story, and this comes through in the article, despite the vague, slanderous charges against Tessy's character.

So what did the NYT editors see in this article to justify its publication? I suspect it has something to do with the exposition of one person's over-reaction to private details, which are increasingly made accessible, if not public. (There's also the trendy nexus of a blogging story and a bad-nanny story, very marketable.) It's an ironic morality tale; its moral turns against its writer. Like the pseudonymous Ivan Tribble, Helaine Olen reveals that she is deeply uncomfortable with new cultural forms, and that she is in a position to punish (and profit).

Be careful, folks.

[UPDATE 1: Majikthise has an excellent summary of the story and a followup, in which she points out:
Olen wasn't really interested in friendship. She didn't want to be the stodgy boss, but she didn't want to be a real confidante either. What she really wanted was a pseudo-relationship that was all about her. When her manipulative pose got her into uncomfortable emotional territory, she eliminated the source of her discomfort without a second thought. Then she wrote a "reflective" essay about the situation in which she congratulates herself for recognizing her own motives, while taking for granted that her self-centered manipulative behavior was acceptable.]

[UPDATE 2: Atrios has delivered his promised analysis of the case, and I mostly agree with him. I agree that blaming Tessy for her blogging is unhelpful. Atrios: "the fact that something opens you up to asshole treatment by assholes doesn't excuse the asshole behavior anymore than having a few drinks at a meat market bar late at night excuses the behavior of a rapist." Atrios focuses his indignation at the NYT:
It's that the Times took a private individual and made her life public, over her protestations, for its readers without any justifiable news angle. It's that it's somehow acceptable for an employer to talk shit about an employee in a national newspaper but not okay for an employee to briefly mention her personal employment on her weblog.
This is the point at which I simply sigh. While Atrios is right to say that "Most people have a reasonable expectation that they won't suddenly find their personal details splashed across a national newspaper's pages," almost nobody can be guaranteed that their personal details will remain private. Newspapers do this sort of thing all the time: they take quotes out of context, publish skewed perspectives, put distorted magnifying glasses on all kinds of public, semi-public, and private individuals. The decision to go ahead with the story, despite Tessy's pleading emails, was cruel but shouldn't be seen as unusual.]


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