Saturday, February 7, 2009

Leaving in the anonymous smears

People who read my journalism blog Etaoin Shrdlu sometimes ask why I publish anonymous comments that simply trash me in one way or another. Given that these don’t come attached to the authority of an individual, and usually don’t provide any evidence, how is it helpful to publish a comment like the recent example that said, in its entirety, “Howard, you are a liar and thief. Plain and simple.”

The first reason is that it’s a habit. I’ve always thought, as a newspaper editor, that I ought to take my licks in public when they come. I’ve been privileged over many years to enjoy platforms that let me write what I learned and thought about things pretty much the way I wanted. That’s pissed off a fair number of people over the years, and when one of them hollered back, I felt obliged to print it.

The second reason is that it gives me a chance to model behavior I’d like to see practiced generally: open and unfettered debate that gives nearly everybody a shot. I think the cure to bad speech is good speech, not prohibited speech.

Third, I think letting assholes have their say in public is generally the best way to discredit them. Most readers know these things are appearing on my blog, and that I don’t have to allow them. I get some small credit for being open; more to the point, the more outlandish attacks are generally dumb and unpersuasive anyhow.

I am neither a liar nor a thief, and I don’t feel threatened or hurt when some anonymous commenter says I am. I figure people reading the debate will learn a little something about me by the fact that such comments are included, and so it’s probably slightly to my advantage to allow it.

Finally, there’s always a chance the critics are right. I suppose if I was a thief, I’d have found a way to justify my behavior to myself by now, so maybe I really need somebody to point it out for me. Granted, I’d be forced to take the criticism more seriously if there was a name attached, but nonetheless, I want to listen.

For the record, I do often refuse comments that are no more than ad hominem attacks on third parties – that is, somebody other than me. Those people don’t have the same access to my blog to fight back, and I don’t see any benefit in allowing that kind of name-calling or character assassination.


-30- said...

I hope that another reason you allowed anonymous comments was that you knew that as a Corporate Vice President there was a certain amount of -- real or imagined -- risk in publicly disagreeing with you.

By allowing for anonymous comments you facilitated a forum for the McClatchy rank and file to "call 'em like they see 'em" and many were grateful (even if some of us did just use the forum to call you an asshole).

Acton said...

David Mamet – a guy who knows a little bit about writing – said he refuses to give himself over to the adulation of critics because then he has to give himself over to their criticisms, which are generally mean spirited and never intended to be of any help for future projects. And he's right. It is one thing to criticize constructively, quite another to do so destructively. Your anonymous poster's comments are not designed to illuminate a fresh course of thought or intelligent discourse among equals; rather, they are corrosive and meant to attrite your resolve and willingness to share an insight they either do not understand or with which they do not agree but are intellectually bankrupt to defend. In the words of Billy Muldoon, "Fuck 'em."

bktruitt said...

Plain and simple? Thievery is pretty straight forward. You take somebody's stuff and now you have more than you had. But I'm not sure it's simple. You have to hide the stuff, sometimes share the loot with a fence. Could involve a chase (If in L.A. you'll be on TV). Then there's often arrest and trial. Now there's lawyers now we're into endless complexity. So plain, maybe. But simple, no.

The Rev. James Richardson said...

I have the luxury of signing my name, and I know others don't. And I appreciate what -30- says above, and basically agree. However, those posters who only call you names, though sometimes amusing, are contributing nothing and your calling them out, though sometimes amusing, doesn't add much either. Is there some way to get this conversation one notch above talk radio? And, Howard, thanks for giving this forum. Cheers, Jim