Boston.com retracts claim about racist email from professor

The tale of the Harvard Business School professor who flipped out because he’d been overcharged $4 by a Chinese restaurant took an ugly turn Wednesday night. Boston.com, which first reported the story, posted a follow-up claiming that Ben Edelman had sent a racist email to the restaurant owner — and then replaced the follow-up with an “Editor’s Note,” explaining that the authenticity of the email couldn’t be verified. The Boston Herald has a summary of what went wrong. (Boston.com is part of The Boston Globe’s network of websites.)

The original story about Edelman, by Boston.com’s Hilary Sargent, had gone viral. Who, after all, can resist reading about a privileged Harvard professor threatening legal action against a hard-working business owner because the prices on his website hadn’t been updated for a while? So when Boston.com retracted its explosive allegation (carrying Sargent and Roberto Scalese’s bylines) that Edelman was not just a contentious jerk but a racist as well, Twitter exploded.

So what did Boston.com publish? It wasn’t long before screen grabs started to make their way around the intertubes. J. Alain Ferry posted a copy here. What happened was that after Edelman apologized to Ran Duan, whose family owns the Sichuan Garden restaurant in Brookline, someone claiming to be Edelman sent another email to the restaurant owner, writing, “You may have won the battle Duan, but at least we can agree your menu is a little less slanty-eyed.” That’s followed up by an apology for accidentally sending what was meant as a private joke, which has the effect of making the mail seem more authentic.

Edelman’s domain name, benedelman.org, is easily found on the Web, and it’s not difficult to send an email using any address you like. The Sichuan Garden website offers an email form that lets you do exactly that. One clue is that all of the legitimate emails Boston.com has posted from Edelman are marked as coming from “Ben Edelman,” whereas the racist email and subsequent apology were from “ben@benedelman.org.”

Despite the retraction, Boston.com as of this moment is still all-in on the rest of its Edelman package. We’ll see what, if anything, comes next.

Update: Kyle Alspach just posted on this at BostInno. He’s got some really interesting technical stuff.

Update II: Here’s a screen image of a tweet Sargent sent out last night that she subsequently took down:

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