Faria: Free speech and anonymity is an age-old tradition

A great many Telegraph posters and avid readers are disappointed and fuming because The Telegraph issued a new directive that henceforth the paper would use Facebook (and not Discus) for online commenting.

Sherrie Marshall, the executive editor, wrote in Sunday’s paper, “story commenting initially was welcomed as a way to extend the life of a story, get news tips, and rally readers around an Facebook logoimportant issue, but it quickly became a major headache for editors and reporters” because “offensive, crude posts and ceaseless name-calling too often drown out thoughtful and civil discourse.”

As an example of how “nasty comments can get,” she mentioned that a school official had advised his staff not to read posted comments. Many of those comments about the flagging Bibb County education system were brutal and, perhaps, needing moderation, but the school system had been foundering for years, and critical comments were helpful at stimulating discussion and prodding for new ways to improve the system. Valid criticisms were called for without repercussions to people within the system.

Freedom of SpeechMarshall then graciously directed posters who did not have Facebook accounts to create one, but as one local lawyer once told me, he had not done so “because he did not want his old girlfriends to find him.” A humorous admission that also brings up the important topic of personal privacy and possible unwarranted repercussions.

Marshall went on, “Our new commenting procedure isn’t ... meant to water down comments or criticism.” But that is exactly what it will do, and Marshall and those who promoted this policy know it will. Moreover, “The Telegraph news staff will continue to expect our share of barbs and brickbats.” Some of that goes with the territory and it is fitting, as this is necessary, not only to sharpen journalistic accuracy in “the Age of Communication,” but also prevent the erosion of freedom of speech and keep the air of liberty circulating.

Finally, she adds, “Whatever the message, the messenger will need to own his or her words.” Fair enough; it is true the new policy may prevent persons posting rude comments from “hiding behind the shield of anonymity.” But it may also impede critical speech oiling the machinery of freedom.Cato's Letters

Despite the Internet, free speech has gradually been curtailed with the impositions of political correctness and the fear of offending tender sensitivities. Never mind the Supreme Court has ruled there is no constitutional right of protection against being offended. Flag burning, nude dancing and other forms of offensive speech have been sanctioned. The justices have even ruled that as offensive as the Westboro Baptist Church funeral protests were, nevertheless, they were protected free speech.

Anonymity in journalism is as old as the idea of liberty and freedom of the press in the Anglo-American tradition. Apostles of liberty, such as British John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon published “Cato’s Letters” from 1720 to 1723 under the pseudonym of the great Roman Sir Philip Francispatriot, Cato the Stoic (95–46 BC), to politically educate the British public.

Also in England, Sir Philip Francis (1740-1818; photo, left), granted not a very likable character, nevertheless, used the pseudonym “Junius,” after another great Roman -- i.e., Marcus Junius Brutus, the hero of ancient Republican Rome -- to bring about needed reform in the government of King George III. And writing anonymously has also been attributed to John Wilkes (1727-97), colorful character, political troublemaker and leader of the “Parliamentary radicals,” who later became a respectable conservative.

And in America, many of the Founding Fathers used pseudonyms to expose colonial mismanagement and encourage the struggle for American independence. After the birth of the new American Republic, James Madison, John Jay and Alexander Hamilton used the pseudonyms including “Publius” -- after Publius Valerius Publicola, yet another Roman patriot -- to educate the citizenry about the powers and limitations of the federal government in the Federalist Papers. Their opponents, the anti-Federalists, among Richard Henry Leethem, Richard Henry Lee (photo, right), George Mason and Melancton Smith, used the pseudonym “Federal Farmer.”

Liberals love “freedom of the press” until the critical speech is directed toward them and then it becomes abusive. This episode reminds me of Katie Couric’s debut as anchor of CBS News in 2006. She announced that conservatives and critics would be invited to participate in her segment as guests, but that lasted less than a week. Liberal bias soon returned and her news segment remained a distant third.

When she left in 2011, she was making $15 million annually, not bad for a “failed” performance. Perhaps, after all, the new directive at The Telegraph is not really about abusive speech but a business decision about increased circulation (via Facebook) and greater profits. If that were the case, it would have been understandable and proper -- and could have saved me writing this educational commentary.

Miguel A. Faria Jr., M.D. is an Associate Editor in Chief and World Affairs Editor of Surgical Neurology International. His website: www.haciendapub.com.

This editorial was published in the Macon Telegraph on September 20, 2013.

Copyright ©2013 Miguel A. Faria, Jr., M.D.

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Yellow Journalism

Media Myth Alert: Yellow journalism: A sneer is born
By W. Joseph Campbell

It’s a little-recognized, never-celebrated anniversary in American journalism, granted. But today marks the 113th year since the term “yellow journalism” first appeared in print, in the New York Press, edited by the austere Ervin Wardman.

The phrase “the Yellow Journalism” appeared in a small headline on the Press’ editorial page on January 31, 1897. The phrase also appeared that day in the Press’ editorial page gossip column, “On the Tip of the Tongue.” “Yellow journalism” caught on quickly, as a way to denigrate what then was called the “new journalism” of William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal and of Joseph Pulitzer‘s New York World.  By the end of March 1897, references to “yellow journalism” had appeared in newspapers in Providence, Richmond, and San Francisco.

In the decades since then, “yellow journalism” has become a widely popular sneer, a derisive shorthand for denouncing sensationalism and journalistic misconduct of all kinds, real and imagined. “It is,” as I noted in my 2001 book Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies, “an evocative term that has been diffused internationally, in contexts as diverse as Greece and Nigeria, as Israel and India.”

Precisely how Wardman and the Press landed on the phrase “yellow journalism” is not clear. The newspaper’s own, brief discussion of the origins was vague and unrevealing: “We called them Yellow because they are Yellow,” it said in 1898 about the Journal and the World. In the 1890s, the color yellow sometimes was associated with depraved literature, which may have been an inspiration to the Harvard-educated Wardman, a figure largely lost to New York newspaper history.

Wardman was tall and stern-looking. He once was described as showing his “Calvinistic ancestry in every line of his face.” He did little to conceal his disdain for Hearst and Hearst’s journalism. His contempt was readily apparent in the columns of the Press, of which Wardman became editor in chief in 1896 at the age of 31. (The Press is long defunct; it is not to be confused with the contemporary alternative weekly by the same name.)

Wardman’s Press took to taunting Hearst, Hearst’s mother, and Hearst’s support for Democratic candidate William Jennings Bryan in the 1896 presidential election. Hearst’s Journal was virtually alone among New York newspapers in supporting Bryan’s “free silver” candidacy. The Press disparaged Hearst, then 34, as a mama’s boy, as “Billy” and “little Willie.” It referred to the Journal as “our silverite, or silver-wrong, contemporary...”

Anonymity and Free Speech II

Charles Richardson: I couldn't disagree with you more. People have a right to rant and rave as they wish, however, they do not have the right to do it on our privately-owned website. We own it and can make the rules. And they can still rant and rave, they just have to identify themselves, the same as you and I do when we submit a piece for publication. If those afraid of retribution are too cowardly to stand behind their caustic words, they shouldn't utter them.

Dr Faria: You wrote, "People have a right to rant and rave as they wish, however, they do not have the right to do it on our privately-owned website."

I agree. I just think it is a wrong policy to do so because of the reasons I stated in the article. Interestingly, the government uses anonymous informants for various operations involving the IRS, FBI, the DEA, and so do journalists!

You wrote: "And they can still rant and rave, they just have to identify themselves, the same as you and I do when we submit a piece for publication."

Curiously enough, I edited several paragraphs in my article to make it shorter (as I frequently have to do). In one of them I wrote: "I have expected and received my share of nasty comments when I have had articles published in the MT. Usually the attacks and nasty criticisms come from people who use pseudonyms and are poorly informed. But acceptance of that goes with the territory." I deleted that sentence.

You wrote: "If those afraid of retribution are too cowardly to stand behind their caustic words, they shouldn't utter them."

In the final analysis, I agree. But these caustic or malicious comments can also be moderated or deleted as I do in my website, and the MT has done in the past. Moreover, some people who should have something to say, like whistleblowers lacking sufficient courage but aware of wrongdoings and with inside information, will not come forward because they want to protect their jobs and security. Not everyone is like you and I, willing to stand for our beliefs.

And Charles that brings me to the final point, and that is it is a pleasure to disagree with one who stands by his beliefs, disagrees cordially, and is always sincere. I prefer this to one who agrees but "double speaks," is insincere, and does not stand for what he believes. Our discussion here brings back good memories at the morning radio show many years ago.

Mr. Richardson: When you are I are attacked, the least the person should do is say who they are. I stand by my statement. Those who attack in the blind are cowards.

Charles E. Richardson is The Telegraph Opinion Page Editor and Center for Collaborative Journalism Mercer University, Macon, Georgia

Anonymity and Free Speech

The following discussion was held in the Macon Telegraph (MT) when this article was posted there.

September 19, 2013

Spyros Alvonellos: "Dr Faria you are correct it was intended to shut down the conversation but I suspect in the end it will not work. Conservatives stand behind their words and have no fear of exposure. It's just a change and it will not alter the path we have been advocating."

Detcord: "I find the new requirement of FB to not affect my anonymity at all. Whether I'm writing under my actual name, or nom de plume, the integrity of my view point is at stake and I take that very seriously. A screen name is subject to the same scrutiny, consistency in doctrine, and verifiability as with one's actual name if one is to remain a respected contributor.

As stated by Daisy Jonesing it is foolish to be open with one's identity on a public forum. The prospect for employment or in the case of a businessman, the prospective customer base may be jeopardized. Not jeopardized because of uncivil discourse, but because of valid but opposing political, religious, or social views of a prospective employer or customer. Moreover, in the modern criminal environment, it is prudent to avoid tying one's actual identity to commentary that may elude to one's comings and goings. The bad guys of today look for a comment about a road trip or work schedule for an opportunity to burgle, just as the bad guys of old looked for an accumulation of newspapers in the driveway.

I, for one, am myself above all, regardless of moniker. Anonymity doesn't embolden me to incite hostile exchanges. It does however, release me to use examples from my private life in my comments that I may not ordinarily disclose. Whether I use my actual identity or not, I still reserve the right to respond in-kind. I will always withhold the use of pejoratives and insensitivities unless deserved.

Maybe after retirement in a couple of years I'll come over from the dark side. :^) Right now I'm concerned about left-wing loonies like that Obama supporter at the Navy Yard.

Fred Dixon: I now post my real name (maybe :)), I have no more reticence than under my former pseudonym to correct the less informed. I would not have posted my real (?)) name prior to my retirement. Given the propensity of Obama supporters to single out large crowds in gun-free zones, perhaps my humble abode won't be worth the low return. Not to mention it is not "gun-free". :^)

Daisy Jonesing: Spot on article Dr. Faria. And as we know Many employers have indeed used the words of those on Facebook AGAINST their own employees as well as those they intended to hire. Which tells a 'private citizen' they have NO life outside employment; Not only does the government OWN us now but employers also OWNS us. BUT the News Media can "protect their sources" and the Government will uphold that though!

Dr. Richard Elliot: The main virtue of anonymity in making comments, it seems to me, is that there is less fear of reprisal for taking certain political stands. This might hold today, for example, for those whose views differ from the views of their employers, friends, or family members. But such anonymity must be balanced against the lack of accountability that goes with anonymity, and I support the Telegraph's new policy. I believe the scales have tipped too far in the past towards poor accountability, leading to ad hominem attacks, poorly conceived arguments, and uncivil discourse. Let us have the courage of our convictions and be willing to put our names to our opinions, as you have done so often and so well, Dr. Faria.

Ben Damron: "But such anonymity must be balanced against the lack of accountability that goes with anonymity." Who says it has to be balanced? "If everyone's anonymous," it is equal, sir Doctor [Elliott], so what was wrong with the old system? My pic being on here certainly isn't going to preclude me from calling liberals out when it's appropriate and the time presents itself!

September 22, 2013

Daisy Jonesing: MT can 'identify' anyone they wanted at anytime. They had our IP addresses along with our Names and addresses. So that isn't the real excuse iMO. It was their step in trying to stifle speech but they'll darn sure go to jail to "Protect" their "sources" on stories they don't want known. It's a two way street when it comes to '"Free Speech""..The MEDIA and government aren't the only folks PROTECTED!

Ben Damron: It's that and I just betcha FB is a lot cheaper than what they were paying for DISQUS! ...I’m not totally against the new commenting system, but a lot of folks don’t like to post who they really are and some aren’t happy about it going on Facebook, either.