Communicating in a civil manner

My turn

Posted: Monday, February 05, 2001

I am not a letter to the editor type of guy. I can count on one hand with fingers to spare, the times I have written one. I have no shortage of opinions on things, and am generally content sharing them with coworkers, friends and acquaintances. If my opinion doesn't make it to the op/ed page, I have no one but myself to blame. Your newspaper does not owe me a voice.

What moves me to write now, is the current discussion on Word of Mouth. It has bothered me from day one, and I thank Jerry Reinwand and others speaking up against this experiment in public discourse that I believe has no place in a responsible daily newspaper. I know and appreciate that the incidence of blatant distortions and name calling has been toned down since the change of management at your paper, but my basic issue remains, and is reflected in today's reactions in WOM to Mr. Reinwand's My Turn. What possible benefit to your readership, to your newspaper sales, and contribution to civil public discourse is served by printing anonymous advice to this private citizen to "find something better to do" with his time? There was recently a number of comments in WOM about a school board member who was misquoted in your paper, and then had to endure multiple unsubstantiated attacks in the column. What purpose does it serve for you to provide this instant anonymous gratification in a 60-second phone call, to someone who wants to bad mouth the efforts and opinion of another, often based on incomplete or erroneous information?

I think you set yourself up for a dicey role as the arbiter of good taste, by admitting in your editorial related to WOM in the Sunday paper that you need to "police" the column. How do you decide who gets to sling anonymous mud, even if there may be a "germ" of truth to it? That's what talk radio is for, where listeners can read between the lines of tone, nuance, volume, etc., with the help of a host to offer counterpoint and control in a defined talk show format. A listener can develop a credibility judgment instantaneously. Print media cannot provide that discernment. It also has a half-life in public opinion that far exceeds the influence of talk radio.

People tend to put more credence in something they read in the paper, just because it's printed. As to whether your column becomes plain vanilla-politically correct, we are not talking about politics here: It's a question of your complicity in supplying anonymous mudslingers a bully pulpit to abuse people brave enough to sign their name to, or to take a public position on something. I can't help but wonder what nameless person(s) will now use the opportunity, granted by your column, to bad mouth me for taking the time to comment on this.

If you want to print anonymous complaints about human behavior, like speeding, or government boondoggles or the weather, that's fine, but when you print anonymous negative remarks about citizens of our community, whether they have public roles or not, even if there exists your threshold germ of truth, I think you do us all a disservice. I have never seen a column like this in any other daily newspaper, and I am embarrassed for our community when thousands of tourists and other visitors read it. It continues to be a divisive influence in a town that needs all the help it can get to find ways to communicate in a civil (what you call politically correct) manner. What's wrong with that? Is it really necessary to lower the standards of accountability in order to hear all voices in our community? If you really believe WOM supplies needed insight into the opinions of an otherwise silent, and significant portion of our community, consider looking for sponsors of a monthly public opinion survey, conducted with statistically defensible methods and print that instead.

I challenge you to take your op/ed experiment one step further get rid of WOM, and if there is an enduring hue and cry, and your circulation drops, report that. Then bring it back if you must, but at the very least I implore you to consider an immediate restriction in the content. No names. Anonymous callers should not get the luxury of referring to people by name.

Let them call Problem Corner, the host there will keep them in line.

Loren Gerhard is executive director of Southeast Conference, an organization that promotes economic development in Southeast Alaska.



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