David Klinger (UNC JOMC, 1976) was a resident of Berkeley County for 14 years and a Journal “community columnist” for two. He now lives in Idaho, recovering from his West Virginia experience, but still regularly reading the paper.

Author’s addendum: This opinion piece was submitted in early January 2014 to the Martinsburg (West Virginia) Journal for publication, but has never been published or acknowledged. The Journal’s anonymous online comment line was quietly removed shortly thereafter, however.

 

 by David Klinger

In a less politically correct era, when on the receiving end of particularly insulting, offensive, or profane mail from constituents, the late Senator Stephen Young of Ohio pulled no punches.

“Some lunatic keeps sending me crazy letters,” Senator Young typically would reply to the worst of the incoming diatribes. “He’s signing your name to them and I thought you should know about it.”

Well, someone keeps sending vicious comments to the Martinsburg Journal. They keep getting printed in the “Journal Junction” and the newspaper’s online comment section under false names … and I thought you should know about it.

As if it’s any surprise.

Yep, it’s each morning’s daily assault on the sensibilities of many readers of what once was a family newspaper, known as “Journal Junction” and its twisted sister, the Journal’s online comment board.

Hateful, snarky, spiteful, and often racially- or culturally-demeaning insults and barbs, aimed at everyone from presidents to schoolteachers to the homeless, from cops on the beat to lotto winners to hospice patients, are dished up as daily fare under the guise of free speech and heightened readership.

“Liars,” “zombies,” “goon squad,” and “sociopaths,” are four of the provocative epithets hurled back-and-forth in just the past week in these vengeful playpens of bad behavior.

Whether they cloak their identities behind anonymous monikers like “Majoritarian” or “Don’t Tread on Me” or “Some More Equal” or the increasingly tumescent “Hugh Jorgen,” the temptation to take mean, nasty, and often pointless cheap shots at others is equaled only by the newspaper’s willingness to tolerate them.

And they should stop.

In the interest of full disclosure, let me say that I’ve sent in my share of comments — anonymously — to “Journal Junction” through the years. If the “Junction’s” rules mandated names, I’d ask that mine be printed. Since it doesn’t, well, I suppose anonymity’s the game and the price of admission to this conversational circus.

Yet I’ve always tried to focus my comments on overarching issues and problems and not on personalities or individuals. Demeaning remarks that impugn someone’s race or religion or orientation or personal circumstance are always out-of-bounds, in my view. In a region as rich with festering problems and unmet community needs as the Eastern Panhandle, there’s hardly a need to personalize the debate.

Similarly anonymous, the Journal’s online news and editorial comment section is a mucky mosh-pit of cyber rage, vented largely by a half-dozen or so frustrated regulars that launches every midnight and continues throughout the day. In that risky venue, I’ve always provided my name — on those few occasions when I dared risk an opinion and the inevitable slime fest that ensued. Appeals for enlightened self-restraint are routinely derided and ignored.

Classical training at one of the South’s finest journalism schools and a career spent on two newspapers and in writing and public information has taught me the importance and value of free speech. Provocative, challenging, and often distasteful public discourse is the First Amendment’s price we pay for a free press and a free citizenry.

I am for free and unfettered speech. I am also for responsibility in how that free speech is exercised.

I wrote “community columns” for the “Journal” for two years, under my own name, believing that anyone offering opinions on local issues should have the strength of character to stand by them by signing their name.

Today, that standard seems charmingly quaint.

The Internet revolution radically has broadened the rhetorical playing field into a truly global conversation, an electronic “tower of Babel” where anonymity emboldens the haters and shouters among us. It has ramped up the volume to a screeching decibel level, allowing anyone with a computer screen to bellow their opinions, regardless of relevance, experience, qualifications, or simple good manners. What has emerged is largely a mean-spirited forum where parentless words cut and slash like stiletto knives, debasing the concept of civil discourse.

Apparently a growing number of newspapers in the United States agree.

The Associated Press puts it this way, in a recent national feature story you probably didn’t read in the Journal:

“Mix blatant bigotry with poor spelling. Add a dash of ALL CAPS. Top it off with a violent threat. And there you have it: a recipe for the worst of online comments, scourge of the Internet.

“Blame anonymity, blame politicians, blame human nature. But a growing number of websites are reining in the Wild West of online commentary. Companies including Google and the Huffington Post are trying everything from deploying moderators to forcing people to use their real names in order to restore civil discourse.”

The AP cites a University of Houston study that found that nearly 49 percent of the 137 largest newspapers in the U.S. have banned anonymous commenting in an effort to restore civility to their Web sites.

The Huffington Post’s managing editor, Jimmy Soni, says that simply requiring names with comments has resulted in “significantly fewer things that we would not be able to share with our mothers” on that online news service.

It’s time the Journal follows suit with some much-needed reform of its public comment arenas. It could take an experimental baby-step as early as tomorrow, by requiring names for a month and seeing how that improves the complexion and tone of local comments.

Undoubtedly some will cry “Censorship!” They ignore the fact that newspapers are private businesses, with every right to decide what they will and won’t publish. The First Amendment checks government’s ability to restrict press freedom, not a newspaper’s inherent right to set its own standards of fair comment and decorum.

The easiest solution for disaffected Journal readers, of course, would be simply to ignore the rhetorical excesses of the “Journal Junction.” If you don’t like it, don’t go there. Turn the page, switch off the computer … or just don’t bother reading the paper altogether.

But that’s surrendering to the lowest common denominator. Asking the responsible majority to remain silent and to tolerate a pattern of abuse is like accepting the first couple of broken windows in a vacant factory. Ignore them long enough, and soon the entire building will be destroyed.

In the perverse world of today’s newspaper industry, economically buffeted by the cyber revolution, there’s a tendency by newspapers to drum up much-needed revenue by turning a blind eye to the worst of the Internet’s excesses. Mouse clicks equal pennies, and pennies spell the bottom line to a diminishing number of once-predominant daily newspapers. Anything to retain readers, no matter how low the conversation sinks, unfortunately has become the standard.

Yet far beyond their financial self-interest, I’ve learned that newspapers possess a dual responsibility: to uphold freedom of the press but also to contribute to the enlightened betterment of their communities.

The “Journal Junction” as it is presently structured weakens the community fabric. Its value as a daily “sounding board” is compromised by its two greatest deficiencies — results and cost. Nearly two decades of loud “Journal Junction” ranting have provoked very little change or demonstrable improvement in how things get done in Berkeley County. But the price of that ineffectual chatter has been high, in personal and community hurt, antagonism, and demoralization.

As a high school student in Winston-Salem in the 1970s, I was privileged to work with my local daily newspaper on the expose of some long-standing water pollution issues in that city. For that, coupled with an in-depth investigation of a proposed bauxite strip mining operation in the North Carolina mountains, the Winston-Salem Journal won the Pulitzer Prize for public service reporting in 1971.

That taught me that newspapers, like other great institutions forming our national “social contract” — museums, public schools, free libraries, hospitals — bear a responsibility not just to their users, but to the community and its overall well-being. They are the great elevating features of civic life that lift us from the mud, that enlighten and educate, and that set the tone for fruitful human interaction.

Newspapers must speak freely … but they must also speak wisely because of that responsibility.

The “Journal Junction” and its online counterpart have degenerated into something radically different from the “constructive forum” its editors once professed they wanted. It’s past time for a change.

The Journal’s readers — and their community — deserve better.

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