A letter to the editor from a Bryson City reader criticizing Donald Trump was printed in last week’s edition of this newspaper, posted on our website, and then a link was posted on our Facebook page. Since we founded The Smoky Mountain News in 1999, we’ve run thousands of letters from readers. Most are thoughtful and informative, but some are potshots at national political figures on the left or the right.
In those nearly 19 years we’ve been through four presidents and three governors and some tough times from 9/11 to the recent Las Vegas shooting. People get upset at our leaders and, rightfully, they turn to one of their local papers to sound off.
When people criticize national leaders and even those in Raleigh, we give them a bit more leeway than we do when they are talking about our local state delegation and especially leaders at the county or municipal level. When you get down to talking about those people and issues that we actively cover, we know the facts better than anyone and usually know when a letter writer is simply lying rather than stretching the truth.
But, letter writing and using newspapers as forums for discussion have a long and important tradition in this country that wrote press freedoms into its founding document. It used to be anonymity and pseudonyms (think Silence Dogood, the pseudonym used by a young Benjamin Franklin in his first foray in to newspaper writing) were common in all newspapers. By the 1970s, however, nearly all newspapers had done away with anonymous letters.
The letter in question, which can be found in our online archives or on our Facebook page, was fact-based and opinionated. The writer does not like Donald Trump, and that seems to have been what led to the crazy number of comments.
Look, we’ve run other letters about Trump that I personally think were much more questionable, and we’ve run plenty of letters from readers raking those on the Left — particularly Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama — over the coals. It makes perfect sense that whomever is in office bears the brunt of the criticism from readers.
The posting of last week’s letter to the editor on Facebook has reached more than 10,000 people and garnered about 60 comments as of Monday morning, and once something like that goes viral the numbers just keep going up. Unfortunately, for those of you who put up meaningful comments that added to the dialogue and conversation, too many others chose to go vile and tasteless, harassing other posters or using vulgar words and terms to describe those who perhaps hold a different ideological view.
And therein lies the most basic, hard-to-solve problem with the internet and journalism. We want online readership, but by seeking comment and giving readers a forum to post we lose some control unless we constantly edit — which we can’t do 24 hours a day.
Those of us who make a living in the world of words know that nuance is a skill lost on many who spend too much time in the online world. It’s much faster — and less intellectually taxing — to just attack those who think differently rather than work through their argument to find its weakness.
And too often, as happened in this case, the comments go veer off the rails. Name-calling and worse start showing up in the comments. And so our news editor gets busy having to delete posts and try to bring the conversation back around to something resembling reasonable.
Criticize journalism all you want, but every print media editor I know works very hard to be objective in their news stories, opinionated but respectful in their opinions, and a force for civil, reasoned discourse in their community. I’ve worked alongside several editors of papers in this area and I know they champion similar visions, as do those I don’t know personally.
Criticize, wring your hands, or gnash your teeth about the quality of journalism today, but many of us still value objective news and strong but reasonable opinion pieces. Nothing fake, nothing vulgar and insulting.
The anonymity and distance from one’s foe that the internet provides breeds a false courage and a smug, sometimes savage, sense of intellectual superiority.
We can’t stop people from posting crude comments online, but we will take down those that cross the line. And just for the record, I’d prefer you just don’t “waste our readers” time or my editor’s time by making those posts. There’s plenty of websites looking for click bait of any kind, but we’re not one of them.