I am damned proud to have started the forums that caused New Jersey Assemblyman Peter Biondi to propose the stupidest legislation in memory (well, at least since Raritan, NJ, tried to outlaw cursing).
Lots of people — newspaper editors and politicians chief among them — don’t like or understsand the value of these forums. That, to me, indicates that they don’t truly understand the value of listening — though you’d think that in their lines of work, they would see conversation as an essential skill. And at least the editors should see the value of getting story tips and ideas from the public they are bound to serve.
When I was still working in the company that started those forums, I suffered no end of complaint from editors and politicians as well as some cops and coaches because a few people in those forums could get a little rude. But you know what allowed that to happen? The people in these forums feel as if they are shouting at the castle wall and if no one listens, they will shout louder. If any of those editors or pols actually came into the forums and spoke with their constituents, I guarantee that once the shock wore off, the tone of the conversation would improve (excepting a few folks who forgot their meds). But after a forever of owning the conversation, this is precisely what scares the powerful about the internet. Conversation alone is a ceding of power.
Now I will readily admit that there are bozos in any forum and no end of conversation will change that. But as I said in giving advice to the Washington Post after its blog-comment kerfuffle, we all know who the bozos are and it’s not a newspaper’s — or a politician’s — job to shield us from those bozo, to perform bozo cleansing on our society. Life is messy and so is democracy. The world comes with bozos. Let’s concede that and now move on.
Now when people misbehave merely for the sake of misbehaving, there’s nothing wrong with cleaning up their graffiti but that should be done because the community — not the powerful and the threatened — want that. At Advance, we had teams of people who responded to alerts from the community members to confiscate a few cans of spray paint. Their job was to take out the stupidly rude and offensive but not the controvesial.
I will also concede that forums are not the highest form of interactivity. I’ve argued for five years that blogs are a notch up the evolutionary scale of conversation for two reasons: First, there is a proprietorship, an ownership and a pride in blogs. People put their names or their brands behind what they say and they don’t want to mess that up. Second, the links mean that the cream — by any definition — rises.
Long ago, when I started comments on this blog, I had a guy who was misbehaving and I took him to the woodshed, in public. I said, listen, you’re acting like this is a forum, which is more like Saturday night at the bar, where you can say anything and the next morning you won’t remember what you said and no one will remember you. This is my blog, which is like a party in my house. So please don’t crap on the carpet. The guy got it and gave the same lecture to others who started to misbehave and if I had more time, I’d give it more often.
One more thing: I do believe in the value of identity. I tell people all the time that I will value what they say more if they have the courage of their convictions sufficient to put their name behind what they say or to put a link to their space in this world, their brand. But I also see the importance sometimes of anonymity, of pamphleteering and also of whistleblowing.
Having said all that, I will still stand up and strongly defend and sell the value of the forums at a place like NJ.com.
It’s just people talking. It’s your constituents or readers or customers or students or neighbors saying what they think. On the whole, how can that ever be bad. If you are trying to serve those people, as a public official or journalist, how is it not useful to hear what they have to say?
But as Declan McCullugh reveals in his column on Biondi’s silly bill, this isn’t just about being rude to politicians — which they often deserve. It is also about watchdogging those politicians and public employees. And they hate it. The most frequent source of subpoenas attempting to ascertain the identity of posters in the forums I ran was police chiefs and mayors, who were also the most frequent targets of complaint by employees and citizens who had reason to stay anonymous. There are a million Deep Throats out there ready to tell you what’s going on in our towns but, just like Deep Throat, they see a need for anonymity. Says McCullugh:
The site’s forum for Somerset County–that is, Biondi’s home district–is home to a slew of pseudonymous posts that tend to be less than kind to local politicians.
When news reports revealed that Somerset County Sheriff Frank Provenzano appropriated more than $5,000 from a petty cash account to pay for his dry cleaning, the NJ.com posts were not flattering. One message from “nodoubletalk” called Provenzano a “thief, plain and simple,” while one from “xyzzy” quipped: “That’s what we get for voting Republican.”
Peter Biondi Peter Biondi
Another local flap involved Stephen Obal, the Bridgewater, N.J. police chief criticized for spending two hours a day at the department’s gym when he should have been at work. On NJ.com, “frenchtoast2” called Obal and the mayor “masters of deception, partners in corruption.”
Others on NJ.com have taken potshots at Biondi himself, chafing at what “glennvl” labeled the assemblyman’s “arrogance.”
Those remarks violate Biondi’s sense of political propriety. “What it’s turned into is people just bashing each other, name-calling, personal issues, that kind of thing,” Biondi’s chief of staff, Scott Ross, told me on Friday. “It’s all anonymous. Nobody knows who’s calling who what.”
The intent of the legislation is “to try to bring back a little civility back into that kind of thing,” Ross said. “It’s degenerating into name-calling. It’s a local problem we’re having, in several cities.”
That is not your job, sir. Your job is to act as a responsible steward of our government and our resources.
This bill of yours, Mr. Biondi, is an irresponsible waste of those resources. That is why people are calling you arrogant and stupid. You deserve it. And to do so is our precious American right.
So I am proud to have had a role in creating the forum where people can tell their politicians exactly what they think.
: UPDATE: Britt Blaser and others put up Biondi’s response in the comments. Here’s the meat of it:
Based on the number of negative responses I have received about this legislation I have asked the NJ Office of Legislative Services to prepare an opinion regarding this bill’s enforceability and constitutionality.
Oh, good, another waste of taxpayer resources in a time of tight budgets. Good use of our tax dollars. Damn those tax-and-spend Republicans.
I did not draft this bill with intent to limit freedom of speech.
But that’s exactly what it would do.
The intent behind this legislation was to bring some civility back to public forums, in particular the forums on www.nj.com.
And who the hell says that is your job? Do you go to hockey games and tell players to be nice? Do you hang out on I-78 at rush hour and tell drivers to calm down? Do you go to the playground and tell the third graders to get along? Who made you the cop of civility? What incredible hubris. What incredible stupidity.
As I receive more feedback from, literally, around the country, it is becoming apparent that the bill may be too broad in scope and in reality not enforceable.
As an aside, this bill was only introduced in January. There have been no committee hearings regarding this bill and there are none scheduled to my knowledge. I am getting inundated with responses which I will review and use to better educate myself on the implications of this bill. If, after reviewing all of the correspondence and the opinion of OLS, it turns out that the bill is, in fact, unworkable, I will certainly reconsider and withdraw it. In other words, this is not something that will happen overnight.
Another legislative time-waster, oh joy.
It is unfortunate, from my perspective, that while my intention here was civility and respectfulness, it turns out that it may have gone too far.
You are a master of the understatement, sir.
Drop the damned bill and go back into hiding.
But just remember: I am a voter in your district. I’m ordering up the lawn signs, T-shirts, and buttons now. What slogan should I use:
BIONDI IS UNAMERICAN…. BIONDI WANTS TO SHUT YOU UP…. BIONDI WASTES TAX DOLLARS…. BIONDI’S AN IDIOT…. BIONDI IS A NOSEYBODY….
So many possibilities. I can’t wait for the election season.