Loose cannon or vanilla ice cream?

Thinking Out Loud

Posted: Sunday, February 04, 2001

It is not merely beauty that lies in the eye of the beholder.

Behold Word of Mouth. Or at least take a look at what a recent critic had to say:

"Word of Mouth ... allows wildly inaccurate allegations to - in effect - be interpreted by the reader as fact, simply because the allegations take the form of ink on paper. Half-baked opinions and often simply stupid comments find life in the warped journalism of Word of Mouth."

Now look at what another recent critic had to say:

"Word of Mouth used to be a lot of fun, but now you guys are just cowards. Word of Mouth was meant to rile people up and get people thinking. Now you have this dumb politically correct version."

So, readers are mad at WOM because of the traditional reasons: It is a loose cannon of wildly inaccurate allegations, half-baked opinions and stupid comments; and because it no longer is any of those things and instead has become a politically correct scoop of vanilla ice cream.

Thanks to the critics for caring enough to comment. You both can be irked by WOM but, with all due respect, Word cannot be irresponsible and as offensive as ever and at the same time be politically correct and bland.

(It is moments like this that remind me how much I love this job.)

It is not for me to say critic A is right and critic B is wrong or vice versa, but I can share my thoughts - again - about Word of Mouth. (Is once every six months too often?)

I love letters to the editor. They are like gold, except that the price never falls. We are honored when a reader takes the time to compose a letter and submit it to the Empire. We love being your venue of choice. Send us a letter, sign it and, barring content that is libelous or filled with wildly inaccurate allegations, we'll print it.

I know what you're thinking: Word of Mouth comments aren't signed and, if not quite libelous, they often are wildly inaccurate allegations.

But don't get in a rush to shout "gotcha!"

Word of Mouth is not what it once was - an unpoliced insult exchange in which the most common adjective was "stupid" and the most common advice was "get out of town."

As for "wildly inaccurate allegations," yes, they were in play as well. Like I said, WOM was unpoliced.

Yet often amid the gratuitous insults, mean-spirited slams and wildly inaccurate allegations lurked a germ of social commentary.

So, in August, I began to lop of the "To the stupid clown who called yesterday ..." beginnings and the "... so get a life or get out of town, you stupid loser" endings while retaining the aforementioned germs.

And I tried to catch and toss out the wildly inaccurate allegations because I agreed that they could damage innocent targets. And WOM became a lot more work.

Is policing WOM the same as making it politically correct? I don't think so, although I did worry it would be reduced to a smiley-faced compliment forum in which punch and cookies were served and a good time was had by one and all. In which case I expected Word to wither and die.

We are getting as many calls as ever - often more than we have room for. WOM remains a forum for social commentary. But it is more content-driven now than tone-driven. The people on the garbage bear, excuse me, urban bear committee got the message recently - admitting that a strong backlash in WOM influenced their reconsideration of recommendations for dealing with the bear problem.

In this space last summer, I described Word of Mouth as the drive-thru window of opinion, a place for the harried members of our community to acknowledge the good or vent about the bad in 60 seconds or less.

Some people simply never will write a letter to the newspaper or to anyone else. They don't belong to a neighborhood association, a civic club or the PTA. But stuff happens, stirring them to ... opinion. Take away Word of Mouth and they become a little less empowered and a little more frustrated.

At the risk of sounding like Motel 6 flackmeister Tom Bodett, call 586-4636. We'll leave the phone on for you.

Steve Reed is managing editor of the Empire. He can be reached at streed@juneauempire.com.

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