Susan J. Demas: Modern-Day Journalism and the Surrealness of Internet Hate

I’m a political columnist, the owner of a well-established publication, and yes, the owner of ovaries. So Twitter trolls, online harassment and even a couple death threats (though not recently) are nothing new.

But the last few days have been nothing if not surreal. I published a longform piece in Salon on the Flint water crisis, Gov. Rick Snyder and his predecessor, Jennifer Granholm –– which was excerpted by Deadline Detroit. It started as a column and blossomed into something more. It was a labor of love about the state I love, which has been torn apart by horrible decisions and indifference in the current administration. I have to say, the positive reaction from readers –– especially from some who have been my frequent adversaries –– has been humbling.

Now there are always naysayers. Not everyone agreed with my decision several months ago, for instance, to cut ties with Bill Ballenger, from whom I bought Inside Michigan Politics in 2013. But Bill’s comments about the Flint water crisis weren’t just insensitive; they were inaccurate. The main issue was, as CNN put it in a big subhead: “Scientists not in agreement with Ballenger.” As a journalist, I believe everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts.

But in the last few days, I’ve become a bit of a focal point for another journalist, Steve Neavling, a frequent critic of Deadline Detroit, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and well, lots of things.

It started out innocently enough when I noticed a Michigan Bernie Sanders group tweet that I was married to Democratic political consultant Joe DiSano (who’s been a vocal critic of the presidential candidate). I confirmed my marital status.

Neavling decided to chime in, tweeting, “It will be a great day when we have objective political observers w/o personal ties and biases.” I honestly thought he was joking, as my response indicates: “Absolutely. I think that if you write about politics, you shouldn't be allowed to have a family.”

But Neavling was serious.

Now the only other person I’ve ever heard make this type of argument is now-state Rep. Gary Glenn (R-Midland), back when he was head of the anti-LGBT group American Family Association of Michigan (AFAM). Glenn responded to my pro-gay rights column, in which I quoted political analyst Jack Lessenberry, by informing me that Lessenberry shouldn’t be allowed to comment on “homosexual” issues because his brother is gay.

In other words, this is a truly silly line of attack.

But because Neavling is a journalist and someone I had known a bit a decade ago, I engaged him –– and with levity, at first. In the spirit of full disclosure, he worked for the Bay City Times when I was at the Saginaw News. I was friends with his girlfriend, and they broke up. I followed his very public firing from the Detroit Free Press with some sympathy. I’ve been fired, too. I thought it was cool that he’d started his own blog, Motor City Muckraker. I now run my own publication, as well.

So it was fine that Neavling then moved on to jabbing me on my quite admittedly wrong prediction that Hillary Clinton would win Michigan’s primary. I was a bit surprised that it escalated to Neavling declaring on Twitter: “I take journalism ethics very seriously. You apparently don’t.”

Of course, I’m not the one who mixed up Michigan Democratic Party Chair Brandon Dillon for former Snyder Treasurer Andy Dillon in a March 2 Motor City Muckraker story. PR guru Graham Davis pointed out Neavling’s error on Facebook. Apparently, Neavling changed that part in his story, but there’s no evidence of a correction, which is an odd decision for a paragon of journalistic ethics.

From there, Neavling sneered on Facebook that I was “capitalist, not a journalist.” As the owner of two successful businesses and a syndicated columnist, I am proudly both. He then accused me of “selling columns to the highest bidder,” which I suppose means that I am supposed to work for free. That’s odd, too, since Motor City Muckraker runs ads and asks for donations.

Neavling also derisively referred to me as “wifey” when my husband defended me on Twitter. Neavling then condescendingly instructed me to “read slowly” and announced that I “argue like a 5-year-old” when I had the audacity to respond to his insults. But I’m sure Neavling wasn’t being sexist, no sirree, just as I’m sure my business success doesn’t stick in his craw.

Outrage shoppers are always looking for their next target. Neavling found one in in my husband. Out of fairness, Joe didn’t help matters by claiming Neavling was fired from three papers. Neavling says it’s just one and I really don’t care about his employment record.

Neavling then went full Donald Trump on the insult front. He repeatedly accused Joe of being a “sick pervert” and “sick son of a bitch” over a lawsuit he settled regarding a 2012 state House candidate’s alleged hobby of taking nude photos. Joe has publicly admitted he was wrong and did so again on Facebook.

Chad Selweski, the reporter who broke the story on this typically nasty Macomb County race, told Neavling on Facebook that Joe “perhaps took things a bit too far,” but noted he has screencaps of the candidate’s photography website.

Neavling wouldn’t back down, however, from his frankly libelous statements about my husband. He went on to declare that I am “sick,” too. Maybe he’ll come after our children next.

In hindsight, I shouldn’t have engaged Neavling, but it started with professional courtesy. As he became increasingly belligerent about my husband, it obviously became personal. No one enjoys seeing the love of their life baselessly vilified.

Now Neavling is threatening to write a big exposé on Joe, which will probably consist of candidates he’s beaten over the years complaining he’s too mean. What Neavling doesn’t get is that his story will probably backfire and only boost my husband’s business. Politics ain’t beanbag and candidates like consultants who know how to win.

Moreover, Joe is the most generous person I know. There are few people in Michigan politics he hasn’t helped at one time or another, never asking for anything in return. He’s widely respected by Democrats and Republicans alike. And he’s deeply passionate about fighting for the underdog and championing issues like LGBT rights, minimum wage increases and labor rights. You’d think he and Neavling, who claims to advocate for the dispossessed, would be on the same side.

This whole episode makes me very sad. I know that bullying, threats and stalking are too often the cost of doing business in the internet age, especially for women in journalism. But a time when we need more journalists covering critical events in Michigan, Neavling devotes far too much of his time trying to get even with folks at the Freep, sniping at my Deadline Detroit editor, Alan Stamm, and going after me.

And his attacks on my husband are just way off the deep end. I’ll take a thousand trolls threatening “Second Amendment” remedies against me over a fellow journalist grotesquely attacking my husband, who’s done more to help people than anyone I know.

Susan J. Demas is Publisher and Editor of Inside Michigan Politics, a nationally acclaimed, biweekly political newsletter. Her political columns can be found at Follow her on Twitter here.