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Editorial: Walking a fine line between civility and suppression

NORWALK, Conn. – NancyOnNorwalk needs to clamp down on its commenters.

That was the premise of a Letter to the Editor from frequent flier Peter I. Berman, former college professor, former adviser in the Gov. John Rowland administration, former Norwalk mayoral candidate and current gadfly.

Mr. Berman is offended by the frequency and tone of the comments others leave – mostly behind the emboldening cloak of anonymity – about their public servants, and each other. He suggests that, in addition to weeding out the bashers, we put a cap on the number of comments we allow from any one person on a given story, or in a given week.

This all came in a 1,317-word letter to the editor, about three times the length permitted by most other professional news outlets, but typical, and perhaps a bit short, for him – he shattered the 2,000-word mark in a recent comment. (To be fair, Mike Mushak and Spanner also tend to run long.)

What Mr. Berman wrote is something that has come up with several NoN readers offline (and, sometimes, online), and has been a subject of national debate in journalism circles: It can be downright nasty out there.

We have had the debate internally and among readers, news sources and our fledgling Board of Directors. Should we allow screen names, or insist on real names in the comment section?

There are three people named Chapman involved in this discussion. Two share the opinion that yes, we need to permit phony names, which is why we continue to do so. The third – me – would much rather see people have the courage of their convictions and stand behind their words. It is an opinion shared by Mayor Harry Rilling, former Mayor Richard Moccia, Planning Commission member Bill Dunne and Republican Town Committee Chairman Peter Torrano, among many others. My guess is they would not be so quick to hurl mud balls, and worse.

Mr. Berman points the finger at NoN as enablers of the toxic discourse that permeates Norwalk, but we hasten to point out that we have a relatively strict code of conduct for commenters. Check out some of the other sites, and try some of the local blogs. Some of the stuff is pretty rough, and some wouldn’t have a chance of getting printed here.

Thing is, though, if you are going to allow comments, you cannot overdo the policing. To do so is to run the risk of being accused, if you can imagine, of being biased. We apply the same standards to everyone. (Note to First Amendment defenders: Freedom of Speech applies to the government not limiting what you can say and is intended to allow public dissent. It does not apply to private businesses or non-profits deciding what they will allow to be said under their banner.)

But there’s more. We ask that commenters speak to the issue at hand. We request they comment on the issue rather than each other, that they aim their barbs at the officials’ actions and words, not at the person. We give some leeway, but pull back when things get dicey. It is subjective, yes, but there is no way for it not to be.

We have a great deal of respect for Peter Berman’s devotion to Norwalk, or what used to be Norwalk in the “halcyon days” to which he often refers. We share his nostalgia for a simpler time when people were more respectful, at least in public, and when discussions revolved around issues and actions. We respect his intellect and his attempts to affect change, even if we disagree with some of what he has to say.

And we greatly respect that Peter Berman signs his real name to his opinions. We have the utmost respect to all who do. It is much easier to take those people seriously.

The digital world has removed much personal contact and accountability from the social equation. Screen names rule. School kids are bullied and driven to suicide by the same type of people who habitually flame public servants on news sites. Bosses send terse emails to their employees, emails that take on more weight stripped bare of inflection and nuance. Malaysian officials even texted some families of the people lost in the recent aircraft disaster/mystery, infuriating many because of the insensitivity.

The bottom line is that this is, for better or worse, a new day, a new age. The Internet changed everything. Newspapers are passé, relics of a bygone era, paper-and-ink dinosaurs that are headed for the digital tar pits. The old way of doing things is gone, and those of us who are doing what we do are pioneers, exploring the new world of journalism, attempting to keep what’s right and needed from the old model while adapting to the changing world.

That is to say, basically, we are making up the rules as we go, while clinging to the tenets of journalistic integrity and the ideal of watchdog journalism. Mistakes are made and will continue to be made as we – not just NoN, but all of the new, independent, hyperlocal sites – try to figure out how best to fulfill our mission of keeping the taxpayer informed about their government.

38 comments

Piberman March 27, 2014 at 5:26 am

Thank you Mark. With an occasional lapse the Hour always insisted real names be attached to letters and OpEds. And speakers at public meetings were required to identify themselves. These elemental safeguards have long been considered essential safeguards to public discourse integrity in democratic societies. Not so in authorial societies. Ask any who have lived in the ladder. No society has yet demonstrated it can protect our cherished civil liberties when citizens are allowed to hide their identities when involved in public discourse. Our government requires transparency. So too corporate and institutions. Save some marketing,employees and illegal and some enforcement agencies are expected to use their real names. Why would anyone believe that citizen governance can be improved when commentators hide their identities ? Would we relish paid reporters and journalists hiding behind real names ? Do we require our police and hov’t employees show their identities ?

Civility in public governance is a separate issue than hiding identities. Newspapers have long had a self imposed obligation to observe a community standard. The disrespect to public officials, appointees and other commentators sometimes appearing in NON is appalling and hurtful to our communal well being. You might ask your readers for a vote on whether they the readers consider “open season” serving our best interests. NON reflects community standards. My strong hunch from informal discussions among readers is that NON needs tighten up standards of expression. Again ask the community. Are readers likely to support a new style newspaper financially when they object to its standards of expression ? Ditto advertisers.

Finally, if we want citizens to step up to the plate and do public service do we expect they receive some civility. Or is it anything goes ? By citizens hiding their identities ? Do we want a community where our school athletes list their names on their uniforms but adults can criticize publicly in complete forums ? We don’t allow our public employees to hide their identities. What other group in town can hide save NON readers ? What are they hiding from ? That’s the real question my friends. Is the land of the free, home of the brave now the land of those hiding their identities ?

Mark Chapman March 27, 2014 at 5:39 am

@ PIBerman

I don’t really need a lesson in newspaper history, having worked in them going on 36 years. I have been signing my real name to what I write for my entire lif, aand, until the Internet, we threw out anything not signed.

And while I stated my preference in the editorial, I have to accept, unlike some, that the world has changed. You think discourse in Washington is civil? Do you listen to cable “news” channels? Talk (Hate) radio? People whose faces and names are attached to the words say vile things. I abhor it.

If a majority of NoN readers came out in favor of requiring real names, I think we could do it. At least try it. But we would need a pretty solid sampling. Just for chuckles. lets see how man people weigh in here.

John Hamlin March 27, 2014 at 7:33 am

The Hour and Nancy on Norwalk should require real names for all posts. Most of the time the comments worth reading are the ones by those committed enough to put their names to their words — and that way readers can get a sense of whether there’s a conflict or bias (like someone’s spouse supporting their candidacy for public office). I suspect it’s not required because it would take monitoring of some sort — but it would make the comments more worthwhile to read.

Piberman March 27, 2014 at 8:01 am

One more thought. Maybe we should just ask those who served our country whether they believe its ok to comment in NON hiding their identity. And another list of those who have provided significant financial support to NON – do they believe its ok to hide, too. I’d bet the first list is real, real small amongst those who fought to protect our freedom. And, the second not much larger.

Cynthia Sila March 27, 2014 at 8:01 am

I am an elementary school teacher here in Norwalk. I have always told my students and my own children that if they are uncomfortable saying something directly to a person, then they definitely should not text, email or post that comment, especially anonymously. Online bullying is a huge issue these days. If your readers want to post a comment, they should be required to provide their real name. I predict that your comments section will decline significantly.

Piberman March 27, 2014 at 8:21 am

Let’s have a list of those who served their country defending our freedoms and favor hiding and those who think we ought to stand tall with full disclosure of their names when commenting. It’s really just that simple. Stand up and be counted. Or hide..

Inquiring Mind March 27, 2014 at 8:52 am

Mark, thank you for your thoughtful article. I appreciate your monitoring policies because there is an awful lot of free floating anger out there. I personally prefer using a screen name simply as a means of protection on a few levels.
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There are a number of posters on another Norwalk site that have been so vocal and so vitriolic that I wouldn’t get into an elevator with them if I knew who they were. I don’t know if those posters are “sock puppets”; people who are “spoofing” just to create a controversy or separate individuals who apparently have some real psychological issues. I don’t know them, but more importantly, they can’t identify me.
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Internet rage has been a topic that has recently turned up in a number of e-journals that I receive. And ironically, an article about kids bragging on YouTube about having their teachers fired over bogus complaints surfaced yesterday from another source. Having actually been threatened by someone years ago that they would see that I was fired due to my mere presence at a gathering, the anonymity of the screen name allows me to have a dialog with other individuals I might not normally come in contact with but also provides a level of safety.
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So, for what it is worth, those are my reasons for being in favor of the screen names and also in favor of your monitoring policies.

Publius-Schmublius March 27, 2014 at 9:00 am

“No society has yet demonstrated it can protect our cherished civil liberties when citizens are allowed to hide their identities when involved in public discourse.”

I disagree.

In fact, the very founding discourse of our representative democracy — the debate concerning the ratification of the U.S. Constitution — was carried out largely by political figures using pseudonyms. Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, John Jay, each chose to “hide their identities” under the pseudonym “Publius” in what came to be known as The Federalist Papers. Anti-federalists such as George Clinton answered under pseudonyms. It is notable that two of Connecticut’s delegation to the Constitutional Convention, Oliver Ellsworth and Roger Sherman, are believed to have taken part in the public ratification debate under pseudonyms. Thus what is widely acknowledged as one of the most substantive, important episodes of public discourse in our nation’s history — the source code for so much of our debates over the role of government that continue today — was carried out by political figures hiding their identities.

Nor is the value of pseudonymity limited to the 18th century. “The Sources of Soviet Conduct”, published in 1947 in Foreign Affairs, was one of the most influential journal articles in American history, setting out for the first time the framework of the containment doctrine that guided American foreign policy through the course of the Cold War. The late George F. Kennan published that article under the pseudonym “X”. Had he not been able to hide his identity, he would not have published, and the American public would have been denied the benefit of his knowledge and insight, and our public discourse would have been all the poorer.

Nor is the use of pseudonyms in public discourse in Norwalk itself something that arrived with the Internet. For many years prior to the 1990’s, the halcyon days of blessed memory, The Hour DID publish letters to the editor under pseudonyms, as long as the writer identified himself or herself to the editor himself.

Using anonymity as a shield behind which to hide when launching personal attacks is wrong. But anonymity itself is not the enemy of wise public discourse. Indeed, by allowing the reader to focus on what is being said rather than on who is saying it can make for more substantive discourse, in which the reader engages with ideas rather than with personalities. Anonymity, like any tool, can be misused. But it can also be used well, to bring into debate people who have something to add but who do not wish to become themselves the subject of discussion.

None of what I’ve written is new or original, of course. But it bears repeating from time to time – even anonymously.

Suzanne March 27, 2014 at 9:17 am

Under the title of the article called “Nymwars”: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nymwars, verified by numerous references and, in spite of Wikipedia’s reputation as inaccurate: the exception to using pseudonyms would be when someone is threatening someone else with abuse or violence. Google Plus unsuccessfully tried to use a policy eliminating pseudonym/nickname users:

A number of high-profile commentators have publicly criticized Google’s policies, including technologists Jamie Zawinski,[24] Kevin Marks,[25] and Robert Scoble[26] and organisations such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation.[12]

Criticisms have been wide-ranging, for example:

The policy fails to acknowledge long-standing Internet culture and conventions.[12]

Using real names online can disadvantage or endanger some individuals, such as victims of violence or harassment.[27]

Using a pseudonym is different from anonymity, and a pseudonym used consistently denotes an “authentic personality”.[28]

Google’s arguments fail to address the financial gain represented by connecting personal data to real-world identities.[29]

Google has inconsistently enforced their policy, especially by making exceptions for celebrities using pseudonyms and mononyms.[30]

The policy as stated is insufficient for preventing spam.

The policy may run afoul of legal constraints such as the German “Telemediengesetz” federal law, which makes anonymous access to online services a legal requirement.[31]

The policy does not prevent trolls. It is up to social medias to encourage the growth of healthy social norms, and forcefully telling people how they must behave cannot be efficient.[32]

Facebook[edit]

In November 2011, Facebook suspended Salman Rushdie’s account, and then reinstated it under his little-used first name Ahmed, before backing down and restoring it to his preferred name.[33][34]
U.S. Department of Justice[edit]

In November 2011 the United States Department of Justice said that it wants to retain the ability under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act to prosecute people who provide false information online with the intent to harm others. This statement coming as it did on the heels of the Google+ and Facebook actions, raised fears that web users could face criminal prosecution for using pseudonyms. The Justice Department said it would use that power only in select cases, such as a recent case where it prosecuted a woman who used a MySpace account under a fake name to bully a 13-year-old girl who eventually committed suicide.[34]

http://journalistsresource.org/studies/society/internet/the-state-of-internet-privacy-in-2013-research-roundup#

A collection of article references including a summary on why anonymity while using the internet is important including the frequency of data-mining, hacking, the recent NSA debacle violating privacy and the general use of online information that violates privacy laws.

I think the above points should be heeded. In the local, often contentious political climate that is Norwalk, I choose not to use my real name so I can be frank and free to comment without inhibition. To seek civility in discourse by censure just does not work. Censoring unless real names are used might make it uncomfortable for some but, then, it is uncomfortable out in the world when people are unkind. We have numerous tools at our disposal to deal with those situations and we have numerous tools at our disposal to deal with incivility on the Internet.

While I understand the desire to make discourse more civil, I don’t think using real names is the answer. I do think creating content that is relevant to the article’s issue should be while spam and trolls to a given issue eliminated.

There is ample community action within Congress and Britain’s government, the two with which I am currently familiar, that would not be upheld using the standards suggested including name-calling, character assassination, etc. Good, bad or ugly, we still live in a democracy where freedom of expression is allowed and should continue to be allowed using pseudonyms on this forum.

I think NON’s policy’s are pretty clear. They are well-enforced. Not wanting to read response does not make censorship agreeable or desirable. We do live in the 21st Century where an open forum exists in the Internet that includes ALL aspects of humans and culture. Some of it is pleasant. Some of it is not.

John Hamlin March 27, 2014 at 9:28 am

If you want to cut back on the rabid, out of control insults, if you want to promote more thoughtful, reasoned exchanges and comments, then require names. If you are satisfied with the level of discourse, do nothing. If you aren’t willing to stand behind your words, then think about saying nothing. As for the founding fathers, the postings on The Hour or NoN are not The Federalist Papers — different time, different culture, unfortunately (and fortunately). The internet changed everything.

Jlightfield March 27, 2014 at 9:33 am

There is no easy answer in how to moderate comments these days. I think the NYT has a decent system where they promote good comments and display those first, or prominently as editorial picks. The rest are still there but you have to click a bit more to get at them. Other sites just hid low ranked comments by letting readers up-post or rate the quail it’s of the comment. NON does a fine job.

dianelauricella March 27, 2014 at 9:39 am

I vote for a display of only the person’s real identity.

Please NON lovers, let’s do an experiment. Please request that this change. Don’t let people hide. Don’t endorse and enable folks displaying “happy talk” at City Hall and backstabbing B.S. on these “pages”.

Make all commenters sign their real names.
Make them accountable for their words.

That is the measure of the person’s character.
As a target of haters, I appreciate that NON has a system of moderating commenters, which is much more than the Norwalk Hour currently does. I just think the system should include having commenters sign their real names.

Please note that when an Hour commenter recently wrote that my mere help organizing a petition about holding a public hearing allowed by law prior to a renewal of the city sewage treatment plant should be considered a “criminal” act, I thought this ridiculous, serious charge went too far and called the Editor and various Editors of the HOUR only to find that the News Editor claimed that “they did not have the personnel to monitor their commenters”, even apparently the most egregious, potentially libelous comments. They refused to pull the comment. We need to demand this if them as well.

@Inquiringmind There are very few people that may experience your story. If this identity standard changed, it would become the new normal. It would “lift all boats”, not sink them. Other national surviving online news outlets are moving in this direction. While there may be a drop off of comments initially, once folks again realize the value of your real investigative reporting, they will return.

At times some, even NON, seem to wax sentimental with comparisons to the first online news system in Norwalk called YourCT where the Editor even encouraged people to file anonymously as a way to encourage “expression” as a cover for expressing hate. This site was one of the first local entres to vicious cyberbullying and aided the last administration to cut down any citizen who spoke up. That format was pulled once the Editor wisely tried to do an image makeover in order to gain public grant money. But the tone that was set by this caused much harm. It set a nasty tone. Even to this day. It frightened folks away from speaking.

Please do not allow anyone to hide behind their nasty words.
You are better than that.

David March 27, 2014 at 10:28 am

I vote for anonymity. You are right, vitriol seems to have increased in our society – you what else has? Cyber-stalking. I simply don’t trust that other commentators on this site will leave things at the virtual, walk away and agree to disagree. Last thing I want is someone knocking on my door saying “I want to talk to you about the BOE vote”.
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I’ve had more than a few comments directed at me run afoul of the commenting policy. I don’t know what they said, but it was obviously not good. That usually happens when people lose an argument – they attack the person, not the argument.
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The system in place is working just fine, in my opinion.

jlightfield March 27, 2014 at 10:34 am

@dianelauricella ROTFLMAO. (Ms. Lightfield takes issue with Ms. Lauricella’s version of the genesis of the comment policy on Ms. Lightifield’s former blog. We have summarized this response in accordance with our comments policy, which, given the current debate, shall be enforced more rigorously.)

Silence Dogood March 27, 2014 at 10:55 am

Publius is spot on. Defamatory remarks should not be published, but the discourse can and should continue through the cloak of anonymity as long as there are political and social repercussions potential to those who would voice their opinions. There are many one the council who pledge the allegiance as a matter of show, but would stamp out your first amendment rights the first chance they could get. Don’t kid yourself here. Some of the posters here would do well to understand how much their image and reputation has been tarnished for daring to be vocal even when they aren’t always right.

Suzanne March 27, 2014 at 11:12 am

Diane has a very thick skin. As an addendum to my comments above: I attended and gave a written statement timed to the correct number of minutes to a particular Norwalk Town Committee in a room of about 125 people. The Committee Chair did not like what I said. He started the fist pounding on the table, the vitriol, the name-calling, etc. His peanut gallery, sitting in another part of the room, began this same thing, only louder. The rest of the Committee either looked embarrassed or joined in. They then told me my three minutes (or whatever) was up. I said no, that I would complete my statement because I had been rudely interrupted and I did. After the meeting, the Chair of this Committee came right up to me and made a comment that was threatening (and there was no other way to construe that.) Granted, this was under the old administration but why should my ongoing comments be denied because of fear of retribution or harassment? I did not return behavior in kind but I was able to make salient comments (at least to me) under my pseudonym and continue in the conversation about a community issue. I could not have done that using my real name. Or maybe I would not have – frankly, these people, whether perceived as “their bark being bigger than their bite” scared me and I do not choose to live with that fear. Eliminating me because I am somehow “not committed” or “not held accountable” or “not honorable” or some other such judgement is just a form of censorship. There are times when one can assume the best and pretend motives are honorable and other times when it is important to use the tools available to self-protect. This is what I choose to do. If I then eliminate myself from the right of comment on this venue, then so be it. I rescind my right to participate in the community here and, I believe, that would be a loss just like with everyone who would have to, for their own reasons, that have nothing to do with accountability, dishonesty or respect.

Mike Lyons March 27, 2014 at 12:07 pm

Mark, as you know I always use my real name when commenting. This subjects me to more attacks than if I stayed anonymous (John Mosby has actually filed a “citizen’s complaint” against me at the BoE because I disagreed with him here!), but I think the value of my comments is enhanced by letting people know its me. On balance, I think more people stay anonymous so they can attack without consequence than who do so because they have any legitimate fear of retribution (though I acknowledge that some of the latter may occur). If you decide to maintain protection for anonymity, however, NON’s active monitoring of the blog to remove the truly vicious comments is essential to its survival. I have looked at some unmonitored local blogs where the nastiness is genuinely shocking, and it turns those blogs into screaming matches without even a semblance of rational discourse. I keep commenting on NON because, even with anonymous comments of dubious value, there is enough intelligent discussion here to make it worthwhile to participate.

dianelauricella March 27, 2014 at 1:29 pm

I guess I take back some of my feelings about NON’s monitoring skills.

@jlightfield Ouch! I can see what happens when one tries to state the truth about one example of online journalism gone-bad.

Those that really know me know that what you just posted is false … I am not perfect but sincerely attempt to share ideas, “inconvenient” facts and express my opinion, like you are allowed to do.

This comment has been edited to conform with our policy.

Suzanne March 27, 2014 at 2:09 pm

Diane, what you have just said proves that real names means absolutely nothing when it comes to personally attacking someone or showing incivility. While this interchange seems to be more of a reflection upon the participants, real names have meant nothing in terms of conducting social, responsible and civil discussion. Show me where your real names has now resulted in anything but dubious accusations and personal attack. If this is the result of “real” names, then how can anonymity be harmful? Whether you “stand by your words” or not, they are certainly not an honorable expression whether real names were used or not.

Mark Chapman March 27, 2014 at 2:32 pm

@ John Hamlin

I read 98 percent of the comments now, with a few slipping by when I am sleeping (not enough) or otherwise occupied, and I don’t go back far enough when I’m checking. The system gives us the ability to either allow comments to go up as they are submitted or to be held for moderation. We have several people on moderation because of their past comments. New commenters, or those post under a new name/email, automatically get held for moderation. And then there is our banned commenter list. It’s not long, but long enough, with trolls and people who have tried multiple times to post libelous comments or have otherwise tried to dodge the rules (sock puppets, for instance). Monitoring is not the problem.

EveT March 27, 2014 at 3:11 pm

I vote for screen names. I agree that “Defamatory remarks should not be published, but the discourse can and should continue through the cloak of anonymity as long as there are political and social repercussions potential to those who would voice their opinions.”

For many people it is just too risky to express political opinions, no matter how politely they do so, when their employer or potential customers or clients can see those postings and identify the person. There would be people going, “Oh, that’s my dentist — I disagree with his politics — I guess I’ll switch to a different dentist!” Or a boss reading what a lower-level employee has posted and deciding to give that employee a bad performance review because the boss disagrees with the employee’s political views.

Further, people with distinctive names are more at risk. Someone with a very common name could always get the benefit of the doubt — maybe it was a different Mary Johnson and not the Mary Johnson that the employer is thinking of. Someone with a very uncommon name, OTOH, would be easily identified. And not just by local Norwalk residents. The entire Internet can be searched for a certain name, and if someone has a distinctive, unusual name, a very quick search can turn up everything that person has ever posted using their real name, whereas an Internet search for a common name will turn up fairly useless results of hundreds of people with that name.

And then are you going to require only the person’s full legal name as shown on their driver’s license? Would Bob Duff be required to be “Robert [middle name] Duff”? What if someone is known by a nickname, like Pat Buchanan’s sister “Bay” Buchanan? Would you require her to use her real name? What if someone is known by their middle name, like Princess Diana’s sister Sarah (full name Elizabeth Sarah Lavinia)?

EveT March 27, 2014 at 3:55 pm

Another thought. There are people who are retired and therefore don’t have to worry about how their views, or their tone in expressing their views, will affect their employment.

There are also people who are students, and they currently don’t have to worry about effects on employment, but they may not realize that a prospective employer at any time in the future could read what they posted. Should they be judged by views they expressed years ago? That is what will happen, like it or not, if everyone is required to use their full real name.

j.doe March 27, 2014 at 4:10 pm

Did we just morph into Turkey, China? Blocking truths, dissent? Absolutely, some comments are off the wall, in many forums, not just here. Check out reddit. However, censoring, is just that and that is not the basis of our constitution nor in the spirit of the document or the values we live by and for. Yes it gets off track and yes the personal attacks and ignoramus comments are over the top and should be better tempered but, but it is a new world and in this new world where retaliation is common place especially in employment and your face is now digitally recorded and everything you ever wrote is now but a few clicks away, everything. Nope, no debate from my point of view. I will put up with the nonsense and bigotry just to get those few voices shielded that have something valuable to contribute. Facts that the public should know but does not. But what do I know, I vote for Snowden’s pardon and Nobel award as a true patriot that gave up his home and family to use his own name to inform us all. Is this the country our vets sacrificed so very much for? To vilify and imprison dissent? Some want to imprison even kill Snowden yet they listen to Rush Limbaugh and Alex Jones and follow every word of Joel Olsteen. We live in a world of venom and evilness and yes ignorance. Dosent go away if we shut our eyes. I have confidence, in the long run, intelligence will eventually trump ignorance. So, strong support from this anon to keep freedom of speech, a basic pillar of who we are, free and if chosen, anonymous. Stupid is, stupid does, and those that follow always have but stupid should never muffle smart or fact..

Mark Chapman March 27, 2014 at 4:53 pm

@EveT

Just to play devil’s advocate: I have access to a lot of information that we get as journalists, information that we get off the record or that we get because we know where and when to look, while most of the general public does not. But, as a responsible journalist bound by a professional and personal sense of ethics, I cannot print that information because it is not completely verified. I also spend the better part of my waking hours immersed in this stuff. So what if I were to adopt a screen name and, using my “insider” knowledge, started attacking other Norwalkers? Worse, what if I simply started making nasty comment to and about people with whom I disagree, using innuendo we have heard but not verified? Not pretty, huh? One local pol who has taken issue with some of our reporting has told us that “some people” believe I have already done that, that I am LWitherspoon. For the record, I have not, and I am not.

However, I can tell you that there are people you vote for or against, or who are appointed by people you vote for or against, who make nasty, unsubstantiated, sometimes inaccurate and sometimes racist comments under the cloak of anonymity. I would guess that if those people were exposed for who they really are when the lights are out, they would lose their positions and, perhaps, their jobs. But these people cannot bee held accountable for the things they say because they are allowed anonymity, and it would be unethical for us to expose them despite our stated mission to shine a light on your government and how it conducts business in your name.

Of course, NOT letting them say things anonymously does not mean they would not still THINK the same way or speak the same way in private. So the pendulum swings back — should this behavior be buried to spare some feelings and to be politically correct? Or should it be allowed, so everyone is aware of what is swirling about then in the shadows as we go about our daily business? Despite my age and experience, I had no idea how racist a society we still live in until Obama got the nomination in 2008. The calls I took in the Daily Journal newsroom in Vineland, NJ, seconds after he was declared the winner of the presidency were horrid and vile, and the drumbeat has risen since then on TV and hate radio, and not always anonymously.

This is a conversation worth having, and I wish I knew the answer. I don’t. I have an opinion, but opinion is subject to change. And so is our policy, or at least the way it is enforced. Nancy is one who believes that insisting on real names would cut a substantial number of voices out of the debate, leaving the microphone to those who already have a booming voice because of their position as a public official or a retired person with nothing to lose (think stereotype old person blurting out things like “I see you’ve put on weight”; “Who did you hair? You should sue them!”; and, “Well, you know, ou can;t trust THOSE kind of people”).

Lifelong Teacher March 27, 2014 at 5:55 pm

I think NON does an excellent job moderating here. This has become hands down the best news source for the city, and I wouldn’t change a thing.

I read it every day, multiple times a day, and comment when I want to weigh in on a topic or correct misinformation. I don’t think I have ever crossed the line in any way, however, working for the city there is a very real chance that participation could adversely effect my employment. There are many others in the same position. Requiring real names will silence many voices.

Please continue moderating as you do, and let our voices be heard.

Mary C Pugh March 27, 2014 at 6:32 pm

IMHO, me thinks that for the most part, readers regard vicious anom posts as people with an agenda. When a large number of vicious posts appear, me thinks that for the most part, readers assume one person is either drunk or is sadly creating names and vicious comments.

ANOM posters must realize that NON can look at the IP address of the communications…and use that tool to :clean up:

BTW…my name is not Mary C Pugh… I just use that.

hah j/k

Mr. Ludlow March 27, 2014 at 6:43 pm

Perhaps I’m not Norwalk’s founder- or maybe I’m delusional enough to think I am– but both coward and space cadet have the same right to fill the blogosphere with their opinions.
If individuals are offended by pen names, they are free to discount what is said. Lord knows many of us do that when we see a posting by “PIBerman”.

Debora March 27, 2014 at 7:20 pm

ote for anonymous posting for many of the same reasons as the others. Retaliation is real and alive here in Norwalk. We would lose valuable voices. Most importantly, I agree with the concept of allowing the words and information being the focus, not the poster. I value several regular anonymous posters because they have proven reliable and thoughtful. Would I still think so if I knew who they were? I’d like to think so, but couldn’t be sure. People are like that. Information can stand on its own.
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I find it interesting that nobody considered the third possibility–to only use screen names. Like a uniform at school, this would put everyone on equal footing. Even those elected officials and notable quotable would have to stand on the reliability of their information, and not the authority of their position.
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I also find it interesting that we are having this debate on an “I believe” basis. There is plenty of data or there on how anonymous posting affects behavior, so there is no reason to rely on opinion. In general, discourse gets sharper and nastier with anonymity. Page views and posts go down with real names.
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Sites that have found a balance have done what NON does, establish a strong policy and enforce it. I take responsibility for this on my part as well. I skip those posters whom I know are axe-grinders, unreliable or just plain nasty and sometimes just chalk one up to someone having a bad day.
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And more page views means more revenue for NON, so lets give them some room to do what they do best.

n
e

LWitherspoon March 27, 2014 at 7:45 pm

@Mark Chapman
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Anyone who thinks you and I are the same person must not have noticed the frequency with which our opinions diverge. That person has effectively accused you of writing an opinion piece and then posting comments challenging your own opinion piece!
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I’m far more concerned with a commenter’s use of logic and fact in presenting a thoughtful and coherent statement than I am with whether or not the commenter signs his name. A persuasive argument stands on its own. I agree with those who have noted that our country has a long history of using pen names to express opinions that are controversial. I am not persuaded by those who claim that we are now in some new era where nobody could possibly need anonymity anymore.
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The most frequently cited argument in favor of banning pen names seems to be that it will reduce animosity and increase civility. Yet on these very pages someone who posts under his own name, and another individual seeking higher office, accused me of cowardice for writing under a pen name. Those uncivil comments were made despite the fact that we all knew who they were. Both situations involved people making ad hominem attacks against me rather than addressing the content of my comments. The fact that they chose to go that route said a lot more about them than they ever said about me.
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Let’s also keep things in perspective. Signing your name to an online comment is not some great act of courage. There will not be any medals of valor handed out to those individuals who post under their own names. In fact, for some individuals, posting without a pen name would be foolhardy. In my opinion, I am one such individual. I am involved in several non-partisan, non-political organizations that benefit Norwalk. I have witnessed the gamesmanship and retribution that is sadly so prevalent among some of Norwalk’s elected officials, and I don’t care to risk any of that retribution falling on these organizations in any way.
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My concern for the organizations in which I’m involved should not limit my ability to express my views on current events. As long as comments are well-moderated, which they are, the worry over flame attacks is unfounded.
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In closing, listen to your wife. She’s right.

Mark Chapman March 27, 2014 at 8:27 pm

@ LWitherspoon

Given your closing sentence, anyone who thought we were the same person HAS to be disabused of that notion! 🙂

I do understand why many people choose pen names, and respect that. And we have no plans to require real names. I do plan to keep a tighter lid on some of the personal stuff, but I also think it i important for readers to see what is out there in the atmosphere. However, I still have serious problems with elected officials and, potentially, department heads posting things under pseudonyms that would, if the voters knew, have a huge impact on elections.

Piberman March 27, 2014 at 8:42 pm

So far we haven’t heard from any Norwalk Veterans who’ve served to protect our freedoms on hiding identities. Or our elected officials. Nor those who have actually lived under authoritarian regimes where survival requires hiding identities. If we can hide at NON why not also when making public comments at City meetings ? Can we hide our addresses to forestall neighbors knowing our tax responsibilities ? Beach stickers ? Should all IDs be removed from City workers ? Auto tags ?

Should Mike Lyons answer only identified critics ? Would that change the discussion ?

Oyster March 28, 2014 at 5:46 pm

Mark, your frustration is apparent and indicates the high ethical position in which you stand on, specifically of your chosen trade. Your experienced, been around the block enough to know the deal. So, instead of attempting to express and/or suppress that frustration, work on that puzzle, do your homework and put the pieces together. It may not be your specialty and certainly is time consuming and will utilize many if not all the skills you have learned thus far but you know how to walk that mile. Really, if your gonna do the job than do it and do it right. Dont think for a nanosecond you are some supreme one that can judge where the light shines and where it is dimmed, not as a stated (indy) journalist with a respectable reputation. How can you make that mesh with your stated commitment to independent journalism? Use your skills and talents and give your readers the information they need to know to make rational choices. Posting under a pseudonym, for protection from reprisals and crazy’s, to expose what needs exposing, is common sense, is it not? You may be having too many discussions about theatrical puppets and stage hands and too little, if any, about the actual string pullers. Your trying to get something off your chest but the way you are going about it wont provide relief because its not on your chest, its on your shoulders. Just stating, summarizing; “if you guys knew what I knew, the town would flip out,” does what, for whom? Is that pressure and frustration magically relieved? Well, is it? So ask yourself what are you going to do? Continue whining, slacking,(yes we have noticed), pointing fingers and playing ethical cerebral power trip games with yourself, or do the grunt work and really shine the light, like you have stated repeatedly you have devoted your career to, as well your commitment to make a real difference? Or, are you, also,frightened to seek out truths? Are you a real journalist at heart or a paper pusher riding behind an imaginary cloak editorial shield. In short, put up or shut up and go back to writing from ringside as humans knock the hell out of each other and about puppies and what the ladies are knitting for the holidays. You wanna run with the big dogs, than run already, nothing and no one is in your way, just your own psychological barriers but enough of the pointless barking and sock sniffing. You have a story than research it, write it and print it or assign it to someone that will. PS. Dont expect you will publish this but sure hope the message is received and properly absorbed.

Oldtimer March 29, 2014 at 6:38 pm

The secret ballot is a long established principle in most democracies, but expressing an opinion possibly divergent from popular opinion should require attaching a given name ? Why ? There are hypocrites who comment here under phony names that look like given names and then complain about those of us who use obvious pen names. I personally use “Oldtimer”, my given name, and sometimes other pen names. As long as the secret ballot is part of the law, I will continue to use a pen name when that suits the conversation, and my given name when it suits, in my opinion. Anyone who believes all the names used in letters to the editor of the HOUR, and other papers, are VERIFIED given names is naïve.

Steve Colarossi March 30, 2014 at 2:16 am

Thomas Paine originally published “Common Sense” anonymously. The Federalist Papers (which were designed to sway public opinion to supporting the adoption of the Constitution) were published under a pen name. Though some might suggest that anonymous blogging is somehow offensive to the underpinnings of our democracy and to the sacrifices of those who have fought to preserve that democracy, history would suggest otherwise.
Free speech isn’t always pretty (and, having been critiqued by both signed and unsigned expressions on the city’s blogs, I can attest to the hurt that half-truth inflict on one’s psyche). Whether they are anonymously penned or signed, blog posts and letters to the editors do contribute to the marketplace of ideas. They do serve as a deterrent to bad decisions. And, they do influence the decisions made by elected officials- and who knows, maybe they even influence blog publishers.

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