My very favorite reader insult ever came from a lady who told me I was a disgrace to Edward R. Murrow. Obviously, I disagree, but I was loved the insult, which showed both intelligence and respect for the craft. For a week after she said that my Facebook profile picture was that of Mr. Murrow.
The Gabber matters to you; I’ve learned over the past eight years how very seriously you all take the words in front of the classified ads. I love that about this paper, and I love that about all of you. We make mistakes, just like every other paper in the world, and, like every other paper, we cringe when we do, because we take our responsibility to our community seriously. We want you to trust that we’ve checked the facts, asked the right questions, and tried our best to recognize and eliminate our bias from what what we write.
But what if we couldn’t? What would the world be like if we had no way of telling what was real and what was made up? What would our lives be like if we didn’t know who we were quoting?
What would our opinions be if we couldn’t trust where we got the facts?
Welcome to the Internet.
Yes, yes, I know, it’s not exactly a new invention, but lately it seems that things have ramped up on certain social media sites – that’s right, Facebook, I’m looking at you – and we are suffering from a marked lack of accountability and a noticeable decrease in civility.
I’m tired of the people who use the web as an excuse to be nasty. I’m exhausted from the sheer amount of opinion masquerading as fact online. I’m over the cowards.
Last week I received a letter calling me an overpaid Wop. On the regular, my readers either tell me I’m going to hell or give me instructions on how to get there. That doesn’t bother me; mostly, I can laugh it off. Plus, I’m putting myself out there – I can’t tell 15,000 readers I think that at least a few of you may be “cherry crusted nutbars” and not expect some sort of reaction, right?
But here’s the thing. While newspaper folk – columnists doubly so – have long received nasty letters, the Internet makes it easier than ever for regular people to take bring their A-game of nasty to the rest of the world, whether or not the rest of the world deserves it.
I’m referring most heartily to the pusillanimous miscreants who are too cowardly to sign their name to their version of the facts, insults and, in some cases libelous statements. I have no respect for these people, much less anything they post online.
There are a wealth of pages popping up on Facebook – Gulfport Good Girls, Heard in Gulfport, Gulfport Live, Visually Polluted and Blighted Homes of Gulfport – and every one of these sites exists, it seems, solely to pick at other people behind a white-livered veil of secrecy. They throwing stones at people, post photos of homes and make fun of them, spread rumors and, as far as I can tell, generally act like bullies who never quite graduated eighth grade. Big words from small people, it seems. They’re quick to insult the community, but who are they? Are they people out there, working for what they believe and trying to effect a change, or are they simply cherry-crusted nutbars, posting from their back room at 3 a.m. in a Wild Turkey-induced stupor?
Before these secret groups accuse me of whining, let me assure you I can take anything you can dish out – about me. You are not the great and powerful Oz you think you are; you little more than a scared little man behind the curtain. You do not matter.
Of course, if for our readers whose homes have been plastered on Facebook and identified as blighted, or for a member of the community who had seen their name dragged through the mud by some anonymous group, it matters.
I don’t know why or how these things became acceptable, but somehow it seems that people think if they don’t have to show their face or sign their names they can show the ugliness in their soul. The assumed anonymity of the web somehow makes these people think it’s OK to insult each other. This isn’t just about those faceless groups, either: people I know in real life who appear to be decent and kind morph into these hideous cyber-people who act like they’re back at the junior high lunch table.
It wouldn’t be so bad, I suppose, if people didn’t read these exchanges and give them the same weight as they do reported news items from credible sources. By this I mean that I can spend the bulk of my work week researching an article, talking to sources, making sure I’ve quoted them accurately and reported the available facts. My editor checks my work. Only then does it get published in print and online.
By comparison, some anonymous person can post on Facebook that President Obama was born in East Germany and is the child of Nazi communists who don’t put their trash cans away after the garbage man comes. To far too many people, since both of these things are online, they are both equally true.
There is no way to change people. There will always be ugliness in some. People will always lie to make their point and further their agenda. The only power you have – the only power – is not to read. Remember that a real news source isn’t afraid to show itself. A real news source will tell you where it heard what it just said. A real news source doesn’t need to hide.
That chicken-hearted crap is not real. It’s the Internet. Real life is your neighbor, the people you see, the places you visit. No matter what we think we know about what we’re told online, we don’t know it. We don’t know who’s behind these “secret” web sites. We don’t know who anyone is at all online. We don’t know who’s talking about the latest rumor heard at O’Maddy’s and who’s doing their best to maintain the standards of the fourth estate.
It’s enough to make Edward R. Murrow weep.