Back in my days as an editorial-page editor in New England, I would eat breakfast in the same diner each morning. And, each morning, the diner regulars and not-so-regulars would grace me with their learned opinion of my bylined commentary or editorial of the day before:
“That was just plain wrong.” Or the Leno line: “What the hell were you thinking?” Or the ever-popular “That’s bullshit” and “You’re a moron.”
Then, in I-know-better-than-you fashion, they’d tell me what the column or editorial should have said. I’d take out my reporter’s notebook and write down what they were saying. They’d notice and ask what I was doing.
“Well, your point is interesting,” I’d say. “I believe in running opinion on the editorial page that disagrees with our editorials or my columns. So I’m going to put your opinion in the paper. All I need is your name, please.”
None ever offered a name. None was willing to attach his or her name to an opinion in public. None stood up for what he or she believed. That’s the point Tom Grubisich makes about Internet opinion in today’s Washington Post. Internet opinion or commentary is much like that diner: No real names required.
Here’s Tom’s lede:
These days we want “transparency” in all institutions, even private ones. There’s one massive exception — the Internet. It is, we are told, a giant town hall. Indeed, it has millions of people speaking out in millions of online forums. But most of them are wearing the equivalent of paper bags over their heads. We know them only by their Internet “handles” — gotalife, runningwithscissors, stoptheplanet and myriad other inventive names.
Some newspaper editors may be to blame for the perception that the press likes readers’ opinions without real names attached. As early as the ’80s, back in my news biz days, some papers would install comment phone lines. You, the reader, could simply phone in your opinion and not leave your name. The newspaper would transcribe the phone recordings and print them.
Watch some CNN news programs. The same nameless protocol applies. Take the “Cafferty File” on Wolf Blitzer’s “Situation Room” program. Jack Cafferty, early in the program, offers an opinion. (No problem there; he attaches his name and makes it clear it’s his opinion.) Then he asks viewers to respond by e-mail to a question. At the end of the program, he reads some answers on air. Others are posted online.
None has a full name attached. CNN’s not alone in doing this, either.
Newspapers and television news programming have lent sanction to the notion of unsourced opinion from readers and viewers. Newspaper and broadcast reporters have been overusing unnamed sources in their stories for decades. Is it any wonder that the Internet has become a haven for any opinion — and no attach-your-name-you-wimp requirement?
Consider what unfiltered, unsigned opinion has done. Some really good ideas for fostering community commentary have gone down literally in Internet “flames.” Witness the Los Angeles Times’ wiki editorial experiment. Would posters and commenters be so quick to act like profane jerks if they could be quickly and clearly identified?
Mr. Grubisich notes that some news organizations that operate blogs and wikis are beginning to change their philosophies by requiring more disclosure on the part of bloggers and commenters.
It’s in the best interest of those who value good opinion. And a good opinion does not have to be one I agree with. It just has to be sufficiently credible to make me think and reconsider an idea or issue.
Writing opinion is hard work: It takes research, reflection, common sense, attention to detail — and a real name attached to it. That lends credibility. Shooting from the hip — with no name attached — fails to advance critical thinking on any issue.
I covered town meetings in New England for many years — the real ones, in which townspeople argued about issues and the town budget, not the fake, televised and scripted “town meetings” favored by politicians.
People stood up and said: “My name is John Smith. Here’s what I think …”
The Internet — and the press — would do well to emulate that New England exercise in opinion and governance.
My name is Denny Wilkins.
xpost: 5th Estate