In cyberspace, everyone can hear you scream. And the sound echoes on...and on...and on.
The fireworks started on July 4, when Deborah Frisch decided to troll the Web and toss a few firecrackers at conservatives. She came across a post that Jeff Goldstein had made on his blog, proteinwisdom.com, criticizing the New York Times for threatening national security, and ended her response with the query "Got neurons?"
"That's where she first showed up," remembers Goldstein, a fiction writer, former teacher at the University of Denver and now stay-at-home Denver dad and blogger who's part of Pajamas Media. "She was coming in to start a fight with me and my commentators."
Frisch begs to differ. "I was signaling that I was a troll, but a friendly, funny one," she says. "At first it was playful, what I wanted. Right-wing nuts call people like me -- people to the left of Michael Moore -- 'moonbats,' but I like the moon." She also liked the fact that her own blog, South(west)paw at debfrisch.com, was seeing more traffic as the discussion grew louder.
"She seemed to be convinced she could get me to ban her from my site," says Goldstein, "but I wouldn't ban her. She was making such a fool of herself, and I thought, if this is the way she wants to be seen, I'll let her be seen that way." After two days of increasingly testy -- and personal -- comments, both Frisch and Goldstein were online at the same time July 6 when she posted this: "You live in Colorado, I see. Hope no one JonBenets your baby." For emphasis, she added: "I reiterate: If some nutcase kidnapped your child tomorrow and did to him what was done to your fellow Coloradan, JonBenet Ramsey, I wouldn't give a damn."
Almost ten years after her death, cover stories about JonBenét still make tabloids fly off the newsstands -- and her name propelled the spat through the blogosphere. It moved to hyperspeed when Goldstein's supporters discovered that Frisch had previously invoked a Colorado name that's even more notorious: that of Ward Churchill. Back in February 2005, Frisch -- an adjunct lecturer at the University of Arizona -- had weighed in on Boulder's nutty professor, offering "A Psychologist's Defense of Ward Churchill" and noting that he "was under fire, literally and metaphorically, for stringing together 15 letters: Little Eichmanns."
JonBenét? Ward Churchill? Those were fighting words.
The day after her JonBenét post, Frisch was at a fair in Eugene, Oregon, when she checked the Internet at an independent media booth and saw that the controversy was taking off. "I e-mailed my boss a heads-up that this was escalating," she says. She offered to resign, but her University of Arizona department chair said they'd talk about it Monday. Over the next 24 hours, he received hundreds of irate e-mails about Frisch.
"People with nothing better to do on a Saturday than metaphorically stalk a moonbat," she says. She went ahead and submitted her resignation -- "I was looking for an excuse not to go back to Tucson," Frisch explains -- and by Monday, Alfred Kasniak, head of the psychology department, had accepted it. And that day she posted an apology: "In hindsight, the things I wrote were over the line of nastiness. I apologize to Mr. Goldstein. I have resigned from the University of Arizona, so there is no need for enraged people to write administrators there."
But the screams didn't stop. While Goldstein's site was attacked three times that weekend, others spoke up in his enforced silence. On her blog, columnist Michelle Malkin called Frisch "the unhinged academic of the year." Blackfive turned her name into a verb: "To Frisch: Writing something on the Internet so creepy and offensive that you are forced to quit your job before getting canned."
On June 10, Goldstein's site -- which he says has "a bit of a cult following" -- was back up, and he quickly weighed in on an Inside Higher Ed piece that made the fracas look more like a free-speech issue than the free-for-all it was: "I had been prepared to let this go...but now that Frisch has decided to try to parlay her infamy into victimized Truth Speaker status, I'm prepared to follow through and make it clear once and for all that Ms. Frisch is a very sad case indeed. In fact, the only reason she's a 'target' at all is that she has worked hard at setting herself up as one."
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If so, she got her wish. While Goldstein returned to his usual blogging last week -- "I don't take myself seriously as a journalist," he says. "I constantly make fun of myself" -- Frisch posted a picture of him as "Count Cockula." And then she referred to his wife as "Cunt Cockula" and named Goldstein's two-year-old. That's when Goldstein reported Frisch to the FBI. "She could say whatever she wanted to about me and I wouldn't care," he says. "Count Cockula, go ahead and say that kind of thing. But don't bring my son and wife into it."
"This guy just pisses people off right and left," counters Frisch, who blogged on Monday that Goldstein's site is "more a dungeons and dragons/soft-porn playground for really bored young men with no lives and isn't a political site at all."
"My site is open," Goldstein concludes, "and people have opinions and they can get heated, but there is a line that everyone's aware of, and she crossed that line. She was told she was crossing that line."
And Frisch got the message: "I regret stooping to the level of these pathetic right-wing pissants," she says. She's on a troll.