Stefan Sharkansky, perhaps this state's most prominent right-wing blogger (www.soundpolitics.com), has a reputation for making personal attacks. He's referred to political opponents as serial liars (blogger Michael Hood), barking lunatics (Seattle School Board member Brita Butler-Wall), and nutcases (too many to mention).
But last week, Sharkansky's sights were set on a far more obscure target: 37-year-old single mother Steffany Bell, who until last Friday worked as a waiter at the Fremont Classic Pizzeria and Trattoria. Bell's offense? Granting an anonymous, tongue-in-cheek "interview" to an obscure blogger (and friend of hers) named Nate Gerard about her experience waiting on Sharkansky and his family at Fremont Classic. Among other things, Bell reported that she and her fellow waiters referred to Sharkansky as "Mr. Ten Percent" because he left lousy tips, and described the Sharkanskys' 5-year-old son as poorly disciplined and out of control. "Might as well be a monkey," Gerard quoted Bell as saying. "The kid did everything except reach in his pants and throw feces on the wall. His parents just allowed it, which said to me: A) Parents allow it all the time [or] B) Parents beat him all the time (except in public)."
Harsh charges—but charges that would have certainly languished in obscurity, had Sharkansky not gotten wind of Gerard's post, and sent a clear message, through the comments thread on the post, that Gerard could either take the "interview" down or see Bell face the consequences. "Stefan said, 'Look, take that post down or I'll post [Bell's] name'" on Sound Politics, Sharkansky's wife, Irene Song, says. "You can't be making vicious, untrue statements about my family. I'll defend myself." Although Sharkansky refused to comment for this story, he corroborated his wife's account on rival left-wing blogger David Goldstein's 710 KIRO radio show on Sunday, August 26, asserting that "the language this woman used about my son... was so ridiculous and disgusting [that] it made me very upset.... I said, 'Take down these false and defamatory statements, or I might post something to defend myself.'"
Gerard, who confirmed the basic facts of the story by e-mail, refused to take the post down—"honestly thinking," according to Bell, "that it wouldn't blow up in my face." But that's exactly what happened.
Sharkansky, it turns out, had been doing his homework on Bell. It's not clear where Sharkansky first saw Gerard's post about Bell, but an excerpt of it had shown up on the more visible blog, Blatherwatch. Within hours of that, Sharkansky posted Bell's full name and linked to her MySpace page and anonymous personal blog, which consisted largely of creative writing and anecdotes about her experiences as a waiter. Sharkansky also excerpted her blog at length, including several passages about Bell's relationship with her ex-husband, the fact that she sought assistance from a domestic-violence group, and personal information about her 15-year-old son. "I've decided to name Steffany Bell and post excerpts from her blog so anybody who reads her story about my son can read more about Steffany in her own words and make up their own minds about her character and credibility," Sharkansky wrote.
Sharkansky e-mailed Bell as well, writing, "I don't wish to spend another minute of my time responding to this incident which you brought upon yourself."
In the comments thread on Sharkansky's original post, his readers attacked the waiter, calling her a "tramp," "clueless," and "a neurotic nutcase," and said she was asking for Sharkansky's (extremely public) attack by putting her "pitiful personal life details" on her friend's (extremely obscure) blog. "Actions have consequences, don't they?" one commenter wrote. "Should of [sic] thought of that before you ran your mouth."
After a groveling apology in the comments thread on Sharkansky's post (which read, in part: "My place is to smile and serve food.... I was wrong and I do not intend to work in food service in the future so to avoid perhaps offending another unsuspecting family") and a formal retraction from Bell, Sharkansky finally pulled the original post from his blog and noted Bell had apologized.
But Sharkansky wasn't the only one working to make sure Bell learned her lesson; his wife, Song, did her part, calling Fremont Classic owner Doug Armitage at home to alert him to the post about her family and other posts Bell had written on her blog about waiting tables. By Friday, Bell was out of a job. (Both Bell and Armitage say it was by mutual agreement.) On Monday, Song defended her behavior, saying she was only protecting her family from "slander" and "defamation." "She was saying over-the-top things. She was portraying him to be a demon child," Song says. "Maybe he was bratty on one occasion, but he's a normal 5-year-old. He got into an elite school. [What Bell said] was malicious."
Sharkansky's rival, HorsesAss Blogger Goldstein, also a father, disputes this characterization: "So she accused his kid of acting up in a restaurant. My god—what 5-year-old hasn't? How you take that much offense by that is beyond my understanding."
As for the allegation that Sharkansky is a poor tipper, Song says, "He may have tipped this woman 10 percent on one occasion, but I've got a slew of receipts—I'm sure it would come out to at least 15 percent consistently." Besides, Song adds, Bell didn't seem very happy with her job to begin with. "It's very clear that this woman was ready to move on." Song acknowledges that Bell needed the job to make ends meet, but adds, "The fact that you're a single mom doesn't give you a license to behave badly."
What Song and Sharkansky have both failed to acknowledge is that there's a difference between major political bloggers, like Sharkansky and Goldstein, and obscure personal bloggers with Blogspot accounts, like, until recently, Bell. (Bell took her account down and no longer blogs.) Sharkansky is a public figure; Bell is not. "As the proprietor of the most widely read political blog in Washington State," Goldstein says of Sharkansky, "you have power, and this woman had none. You don't use a position of power to attack the powerless." Bell says that until the blowup over Gerard's blog post, she "had no idea who Sharkansky was." She says, she's learned her lesson. "I'll never put anything on the internet again, ever," Bell says.
Sharkansky deleted his original post, he says, to protect Bell and keep things from getting worse. But given that the damage has already been done, Goldstein says, why shouldn't Sharkansky leave the evidence of his actions—along with Bell's apology—on the web? "You don't change the record," he says. "If he's removing posts and editing posts [now], then who's to say what else has he edited or removed?"