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 important 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.
Marshall 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.
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 patriot, 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 them, 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.