Giving voice to people who hide behind the cloak of anonymity

By Jayson Jacoby July 09, 2010 11:55 am

Gary Dielman posed the question, in a recent e-mail, why it is that the Herald allows anonymous comments to be posted on the paper’s Web site even though that practice is prohibited in the paper edition.

His question is a good one.

Timely, too, since barely more than a month has passed since we added the comment feature to our site.

My answer, in its simplest form, is that the Web page, though it shares the “Baker City Herald” moniker, is an altogether different animal.

If you’ll forgive my straining the limits of the analogy, I liken the newspaper to a lion in the zoo, and the Web site to a lion on the Serengeti.

The newspaper is a controlled environment, with its own versions of stout fences and padlocked gates.

We invite readers to tell us what they think, but we won’t publish their opinions unless they tell us who they are. And like a caged lion, their diet is limited: 350 words every 15 days.

The Web site, in common with the whole of the Internet, is a rather messier place.

If you’ve ever seen film of a lion bringing down a wildebeest you understand that the scene, with its spurting blood and bared incisors, is quite distinct from the sylvan setting of the zoo, where the great cat, like as not, dozes while children with ice cream glistening on their chins look on.

Yet the hot-blooded kill, unsettling though it may be, is of course infinitely more natural — more pure, if you will — than the spoon-feeding that goes on at the zoo.

(I realize that no spoons are actually involved in satiating lions.)

The Web site, it seems to me, is the First Amendment in raw form, the digital equivalent of a man standing in the public square, shouting his grievances.

This hypothetical shouter answers to no editor and recognizes no word limits. This is due to the wisdom of those great thinkers who created our Constitution, and as always I’m glad they worried so much about our man, were so bent on defending his decibels.

I don’t mean to imply, by the way, that Gary sides with the censors.

He makes it clear in his e-mail that he shares my affinity for Americans’ right to unfettered expression.

“I believe in free speech,” he wrote, “even when it appears to me to be ignorant and obnoxious. But I want to know the source.”

His is a common desire, and I think a reasonable one.

But I also believe that one of the better measures yet devised for the vitality of a society is the breadth of information readily available to its citizens.

And to that extent I think our collective digestion is eased rather than constricted when we’re allowed to ingest, to borrow Gary’s adjectives, the ignorant and the obnoxious viewpoints along with the intelligent and the gentle ones.

In America, a great sprawling place with space enough for George Will and some blogger who rants about the Bilderberg Group and the Masons, it seems to me that a little newspaper ought to accommodate a similar philosophical spread.

I trust, in any case, that the greater number of people will, in the end, recognize and prefer the nourishment of a signed opinion well-stated as against the ersatz concoction of the nameless thug.

And I’d argue that the framers, having made no distinction between the two in their timeless treatise on freedom of expression, reached a similar conclusion on the matter.

Getting back to Gary’s question, though, I believe the Herald contributes more to the public discourse by using our Web site as a second forum, and one which isn’t as heavily filtered as the paper version that lands on your porch.

The other reason I appreciated Gary’s query, besides its timeliness, is that it reminded me that in our initial announcement that readers could submit comments to the Web site, we didn’t fully explain the process.

The key point we left out is that commenters are not given free reign.

Comments that contain neither profanity nor a link to another site (unscrupulous promoters sometimes try to use Web sites for free advertising — can you imagine?) are automatically posted at the bottom of the story about which the comment was made.

But responses that include certain words (George Carlin’s famous list will give you a flavor; Google it if you’re not familiar with the list) are, rather than posted, sent by e-mail to me and to the Herald’s other Web site moderators, reporter Chris Collins and publisher Kari Borgen.

We read the flagged message and decide whether to post it.

This system doesn’t, of course, remove that cloak of anonymity that bothers Gary.

“Anonymous comment,” he wrote in his e-mail, “is synonymous with cowardly comment.”

This seems to me a sharp, but ultimately fair, criticism.

As a person who has, under my own conspicuously presented name, published a fair number of words, some of them uncomplimentary of certain people or institutions, I share with Gary an instinctive disdain for people who aren’t as comfortable exposing their opinions to similar scrutiny.

Except I still want to know what those people think.

.        .        .

The economy continues to sputter, according to people who study such things, in the manner of a car with fresh spark plugs but a still-clogged fuel filter.

But I wonder if the situation isn’t improving a trifle faster than the experts contend.

My research method, I’ll concede, lacks any shred of scientific credibility.

Still and all, based on the cacophony that echoed through my neighborhood the night of Independence Day, I can’t help but conclude that there’s a fair amount of disposable income around.

Or at least there was until the equally disposable lighters were brought to bear.

For the better part of an hour, on either side of dusk, it sounded like the Battle of Verdun outside.

And most of this incendiary activity was quite obviously of the extralegal variety.

Which of course means the ordinance was acquired outside Oregon’s borders, and thus exempt from any taxes our cash-strapped state might have realized from the transactions.

For a state which brandishes with pride its various examples of non-conformity, none seems to me as peculiar, and as downright silly, as our strict control of fireworks.

Safety is a convenient excuse, but it doesn’t persuade me.

The basic premise behind Oregon’s laws is that fireworks that fly are inherently more dangerous than those that don’t.

But it seems to me that a device which tosses most of its sparks while it’s 50 feet up poses a lesser risk to the people, and the dry grass, far below than one that spews fire from ground level.

I watched as flame was put to the fuse of some legal fireworks and I was struck (almost literally, in one case) by the sheer volume of their combustion.

Think of it this way: If you need to ignite a campfire would you choose the misdemeanor bottle rocket, or the perfectly legal “fountain” of fire?

Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.