To the Editor
By now, even NON’s critics acknowledge that NON has made a significant difference is city political “discourse,” even by those concerned that NON appears either an arm or has readership aligned with Democratic “values and principals.” NON has staying power. So what’s the problem ? After all, even the celebrated (once) NY Times rarely receives kudos for advocating conservative values.
All news media inherently have biases. NON included. But web-based news delivery does have a unique feature that’s worth some attention — extensive interaction between readers and sometimes between readers and editors. That’s a game changer. And, its unclear whether unfettered “freedom of expression” doesn’t have some objectionable consequences. After all, no innovation ever comes with some unforeseen consequences.
First, some local history. Until several decades ago during Norwalk’s acknowledged “Golden Age,” the city had an unbelievably strong and vigorous community of long-established local small business owners who oversaw local governance with an enthusiasm that would astonish today’s newer residents. Public meetings were actively attended and there were no shortage of sharp-eye small business folks who knew how to grill elected and appointed officials and city heads. It was a joy to watch. We had a continuous “town meeting” right here in Norwalk.
Moreover, most of the several hundred really active citizens knew each other, socialized and met frequently in both formal and informal settings. Lots of stuff behind the scenes, but we were friendly to our adversaries who just belonged to a different party. Moreover, we had a vigorous Independent Party watching over local taxes. In those halcyon days, city employees were not paid well and only the superintendent had a serious wage. Most city workers lived in town. In his heyday, Mayor Esposito literally knew by name just about everyone who walked into City Hall. And, getting to city officials was easy — they actually answered their phones. No one dared to call either the Council, BET or BOE just an “amen chorus.”
To be sure, Norwalk was not unique in those halcyon times. The state’s other major papers — Hartford Courant, Waterbury Republican, New Haven Register, New England Day — were not only thriving but, unlike The Hour, actually made respectable payments for accepted OpEds, from $50 to $125. Not enough to make a living to be sure, but enough to demonstrate “value added.” CT was in its heyday with its defense industries booming. In the early 1980’s newcomers quickly learned to make good contacts with real estate agents in Fairfield County. Often the houses were sold before being “officially listed.”
Well, those days are gone and all the state’s newspapers are more or less in disarray. OpEds are typically imported from “outside” for just a few dollars. Besides, reading newspapers has gone out of fashion in the world of tablets. CT’s economic decline both statewide and amongst the towns mirrors the decline in opportunities for public discourse. And we lost the discipline of getting in a good letter in order to reach readers. And answering one.
Public opinion mattered and there was a certain “civility” inherent in public discourse. Saving “favorite” OpEds was common. Indeed, the sole reward in writing hundreds of OpEds for The Hour over the decades was that readers took notice often calling by phone to straighten me out. More frequently by answering point by point in response.
Fast forward to NON. As strong believers in free speech, the Chapmans bend over backwards to allow expressions that would certainly have been filtered out in the halcyon days. Moreover, we now have readers literally going after each other in a literary reality show. Sometimes barely civil. OpEds, at least measured by the old standards, are infrequent. Even public officials are sometimes showered with critical comments that would have been unimaginable in the old days. Anyone can criticize the mayor. In the old days it wasn’t so easy to criticize public officials. One had to get in print first. And public officials had their team of “defenders.” There was no public forum to throw away a few sentences of criticism against the mayor or anyone else without making a coherent case.
Moreover, in the old days, Council members more often than not took up pen and ink and let the public know their views. Today ,absent Rep. Cafero or Ms. Lavielle, well thought-out OpEds are pretty scarce. Some of us old timers have drawers full of first-rate OpEds by our public officials, many of whom never saw college. But knew how to spin a yarn. OpEds were the training camp for getting into public service.
We’re now, courtesy of NON, able to criticize our public officials without much thought, frequently as we desire and without any consequence. And, if I look in the mirror occasionally, I’ve been occasionally “hooked,” as they say. But I suggest that there’s a certain destruction of public confidence going on here if its always “open season” on elected officials. Mayors, particularly in Norwalk, were held in respect, even when they were rarely at their desks. Council members, too. BOE members weren’t so lucky.
There’s no easy, ideal solution here. Self policing when it come to commentaries and criticisms doesn’t seem to work, either here or elsewhere. Its one thing to posit well-argued, knowledgeable and reasoned epistles, quite another just to sound off.
One casualty of the new “media wars” is a dramatic reduction in the willingness of successful citizens to participate in governance. Both parties are affected. Why anyone would subject themselves to the nasties of the last Democratic primary would have astonished citizens a decade ago. Nor are pre-election “debates” either well attended or newsworthy, for the most part. For the benefit of instantaneous ability to comment on local affairs, we’ve reduced the numbers of citizens willing to participate. Mayor Rilling is subject to public abuse that never would have been possible in halcyon days. Just because there are no practical constraints on sounding off in NON.
Maybe the Chapmans could try an experiment. Readers get one commentary per story. Maybe another shot after 3, 4 or 5 days later. And, readers get 5 or 6 short sentences to get their points across. Now that will encourage OpEds and thoughtful letters. Just like in the old days. Maybe some columns such as the “Mayor Speaks” every couple of weeks. Otherwise, if the free for all continues where anyone can say anything without any consequence, most level headed citizens will say “who needs this xxx”?
Let me end on a hopeful note. Employers everywhere have long put constraints on “freedom of expression.” Calling the CEO a “toady” behind the scenes is one thing, but not in public. Ditto in the Army. The best advise I ever received was “pretending I was always speaking before the Supreme Court.” That self-imposed discipline kept me in check in both public and private communications in a wide range of employments where I was often “in the public eye.” To take full advantage of our new media, may I suggest we do need to practice some serious self restraint. If its open season anytime, anyplace, well, then there are consequences. We’re still young in the game on how to best use our newfound “news freedom.” But my hunch is that open-season criticism without institutional constraints will not improve local governance.
Faculty at colleges are most jealous of their “freedom of expression.” In my “retirement job” I taught at a few private and public universities. And, faculty do speak out. But, and its a big but, there are some acknowledged constraints of what’s acceptable criticism. Even with tenure in a public university there are constraints in how criticism can be allowed to “flourish.” By that standard, NON should not be without constraints. How those constraints are established will be for better minds to propose.
Norwalk’s future depends in part on dramatically improving our governance and civil discourse. Anyone reading the record can only be embarrassed at some of the stuff that appears in NON. Looking back, none of the many wonderful “real” public servants over the decades that made strong contributions to Norwalk would blandly accept our non-stop criticisms.
Peter I Berman