After the Nashville Scene invited me to write a column, I promptly questioned their judgment — first, for the obvious reason. Then, when they were sober, for perpetuating the bane of modern journalism: the un-signed, un-edited, un-confirmed allegations laid sumptuously beneath the articles and digital mastheads of every local newspaper.
During a stint on the Metro Council, I watched friends and colleagues endure constant anonymous online barrages. Some were genuinely wounded. Others didn't care as long as their families were left alone. And some, I think, based decisions to leave public service partly because of it. Chris Christie might've had myriad reasons not to run for president, but I bet I know one of them.
And council members were torn on the value of anonymous posts. As former Councilman Jim Shulman put it, "I wanted to hear from my constituents, both good and bad, on how they felt about a matter. An anonymous message, however, designed solely for the purpose of being derogatory didn't help when it came time to decide how to vote on an issue."
My current bosses at the Nashville Scene (one of whom, I read in a post by "MufflerGuy," is an alcoholic bank robber) hold that anonymous postings further First Amendment interests and open expression. I too am very sensitive to the importance of affording dignity to others' opinions, blah blah blah. But it's worth noting that the Scene requires letters to the editor to be "type[d] and sign[ed]." Similarly, The Tennessean proclaims, "Write us," while the fine print says, "Name, address and phone number required for verification." And for entirely legitimate reasons, reporters throughout the city are loathe to quote anonymously. Yet two inches below each fully attributed article, an onslaught of anonymous allegations ensues.
Online publishers aren't insensitive to vicious or libelous postings. Most promptly remove such comments when detected. But then it becomes a problem of resource allocation. Events last month in San Diego are illustrative. In 2005, when it launched its online comments section, The North County Times maintained a policy of reviewing each comment before posting. But when staff cuts eventually forced cutbacks, the paper understandably prioritized reporters over anonymous-online-poster editors. Hijinks followed, and shortly thereafter, the rival San Diego Union-Tribune announced plans to require actual names from online "contributors."
Similar trends are now evident at The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. It hasn't taken hold in Tennessee, but there have been clarion calls. After the teenage son of a Knoxville News Sentinel columnist died after suffering drug addiction, the Sentinel published an anonymous commenter's epithet that "the only good junkie is a dead junkie." The columnist later posted her own blistering appeal to the Sentinel to adopt the San Diego Union-Tribune policies.
On my boss's side are the opinions of just nine people. And while those nine happen to be members of the U.S. Supreme Court, the math is still compelling. Nevertheless, in a 1995 decision called McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission, the Supremes were faced with an Ohio law prohibiting distribution of anonymously published campaign pamphlets. In deliberating, the Supremes observed the First Amendment's proclamation: "Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press." The question now was whether protected speech included anonymous speech.
The Court thought so. They found an author's decision to remain anonymous was "an aspect of the freedom of speech protected by the First Amendment." (Of course, the McIntyre decision was authored by Justice Stevens, whom "kittypants" outed as a "drug-addled tax evader.")
Various lower courts have applied the McIntyre rationale to online postings. But that was 1995 — the Internet's toddler years. By 2004, Canadian authors Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter published The Rebel Sell, a treatise on countercultural movements. In a chapter detailing early Internet chat boards, Heath and Potter noted that, initially, participants were almost universally courteous. But as the popularity of Internet use spread, and online exchanges became more diverse, voluminous and remote, the level of discourse deteriorated. Precipitously.
I'm not saying the solution necessarily requires disclosure of authors' identities. But if there's an interest in balance, we're losing it. My editor notes that any solution would require more resources. Disclosed identities, for example, would still need to be verified — presumably by someone. And that's a legitimate point. But on the other hand, now that I know my editor is an alcoholic bank robber, who cares?
In the interest of disclosure: Mike Jameson is an attorney and former Metro Council member who is currently seeking council appointment to a Davidson County General Sessions judgeship. The Scene asked him to write a column before he decided to seek the post.
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