More than a decade ago, I was the city editor for the Gilroy Dispatch. One of my responsibilities was laying out page A2, the main component of which was a column called Take 2. At the time, the Dispatch published five papers each week, and Take 2 rotated among five local writers.
In January of 2002, one of the A2 columnists ended his column and I faced a hole to fill with very little notice. I decided that the fastest solution was to fill it myself, so that evening I wrote a column and submitted it to editor Mark Derry; thus, my stint as a regular newspaper columnist began.
Take 2 consisted of personal, non-political commentary. My first columns focused on non-controversial topics ranging from the anniversary of my daughter’s leukemia diagnosis (the subject of my first column), to travel travails and DIY dilemmas, for example.
The number of printed issues per week isn’t the only change that’s occurred at the local newspapers over the last 11 years. In 2002, classified ads were still a big part of the newspaper business model. The classified ad reps sat not far from the Dispatch newsroom, and I could hear them on the phone with customers, quoting prices and confirming ad copy. Craig’s List had not yet decimated newspapers’ classified ad revenue.
Another big difference: Early in the 21st century, the local newspapers did not have web sites or online comments sections. All content was printed on paper, none on pixels.
After a little more than a year of writing for Take 2, Derry moved my column to the opinion page. That change meant that my column shifted to a more political focus, or as I wrote at the time, “fewer tree-toppling kittens, more weighty issues.” Looking back, I’d amend that description of the opinion page issues to “more hate mail-generating topics.”
Because the newspaper did not have an online presence, reader responses took the form of email messages, snail mail letters, phone calls and in-person discussions. Generally, those methods of expressing one’s opinion do not allow for anonymity. Anyone who wanted share his opinion more broadly had to submit a letter to the editor, which, if it was coherent enough to be published, was printed with the author’s name and city.
Today, most folks who disagree with me share their thoughts in the newspapers’ online comments section, which offers anonymity, or at least the illusion of it. Meanwhile, the columns to which these online commenters are reacting bear my name, email address and photo. Online critics are not required to subject themselves to even one of those levels of accountability.
I realized the implications of this inequity very quickly after the debut of the newspaper’s online comments feature. That’s why I rarely read online comments, and when I make infrequent exceptions, I give anonymous comments the same amount of credibility as the commenters’ level of accountability, that is to say, almost none. (This policy extends to all web sites with anonymous comments, not just to comments about my columns.)
A sense of anonymity frees some people to post stunningly vile comments that they would never express if they had to say them face to face or using another method that imposes the accountability that attaching one’s identity to one’s words brings. Combined with the increasing disregard for facts that’s so prevalent in what passes for political “debate” today (the subject of my penultimate column), you’ve got a toxic brew that’s poisoning our democracy and our communities. When we ignore facts, we cannot think critically. When the illusion of anonymity leads us to disregard the humanity of those with whom we disagree, we squelch debate.
During the nearly 11 years that I’ve been writing columns, I’ve worked hard to use the platform to champion critical thinking, reason and logic; to promote tolerance and equality; and to advocate for policies and actions that would improve South County. It’s been my great privilege and pleasure. But now it’s my turn to end a column.
The decision to end my column is largely driven by personal factors that make it difficult to find the time to research prospective column topics and come up with 750 relevant words of wisdom. However, the trend toward fact-free, venom-filled, accountability-deficient “debates” is also a factor. At one time, the debate invigorated me; increasingly, it worries me. I suspect it’s time for a fresh critical-thinking, reality-based writer to take my regular spot on the opinion page.