I had an interesting exchange with an E-FORUM subscriber about journalistic ethics that resulted from a comment I published without attribution from an attendee of the September 17 Candidates Forum. I also included an article from Richmond Confidential.
The subscriber asked: “I'm still wondering (per email some time ago) what your thinking is on distributing letters to e-forum without the author's name. As I said before, it seems to me e-forum is journalism and therefore good journalism protocols re anonymity might be appropriate. Transparency is a healthy thing, it seems to me. Letters to the Editor in newspapers always, I believe, require a name and city/town/country I.D. Am I wrong about this? Thanks for the distribution.”
I responded: “I don't want to discourage candid comments by including the author's identity. If there are really egregious responses, I seldom print them, like overtly racist comments.”
The subscriber continues to take issue: “I appreciate your quick response, but don't admire your policy. People should be willing to put their names to what they say. It would encourage civility, honesty, courage and maybe a little clarity. If you are the judge of egregiousness, there's always the opportunity for editorializing there. Of course, it's your microphone, so you are entitled to editorialize. People can read or not, as they wish, but transparency will build readership. The characterization of Nat in the letter about a recent candidates' night and the gratuitous recitation of Jim Roger's history as a lawyer does not, perhaps, strike you as egregious. OK. But shouldn't your readers know the source of the comment? Candor, yes! Courage of convictions, Yes, Yes.”
I started the E-FORUM in 1999, and archives back to 2002 are posted on my website http://www.tombutt.com/e-forum/e-forum.htm. My original motivation was to provide my opinions and the selected opinions of others, news about Richmond and useful information to people living and working in Richmond. Although I have never knowingly written anything false or inaccurate, unless subsequently corrected, I have never had the journalistic objective of trying to provide every point of view. The E-FORUM is my forum, and I hope it is persuasive when I use it editorially.
I get a lot of responses to E-FORUM posts, and I read every one of them. I do not often respond because it would take more time than I have. I get a lot of good information from readers and subscribers that I pass along if it fits the E-FORUM objective, but I have to pick and choose; I can’t do them all. I also get lots of tips about political scandals and City problems and mismanagement that would not come my way if I revealed their source publicly.
Is the E-FORUM journalism? Is it a blog? Maybe a little of both, but neither. Wikipedia says, “A blog (a blend of the term web log) is a type of website or part of a website. Blogs are usually maintained by an individual with regular entries of commentary, descriptions of events, or other material such as graphics or video. Entries are commonly displayed in reverse-chronological order. Blog can also be used as a verb, meaning to maintain or add content to a blog. Most blogs are interactive, allowing visitors to leave comments and even message each other via widgets on the blogs and it is this interactivity that distinguishes them from other static websites. Many blogs provide commentary or news on a particular subject; others function as more personal online diaries. A typical blog combines text, images, and links to other blogs, Web pages, and other media related to its topic. The ability of readers to leave comments in an interactive format is an important part of many blogs.”
Well, the E-FORUM is not a website, but all messages are archived on my website. It has the content of a blog, but it is not interactive. I think it would be interesting to make it interactive, but I just don’t have the time to deal with it. If someone wants to volunteer to do that, let me know. Simply put, it is a subscriber-based email message generator that is archived on the web. The content is totally mone, and I take full responsibility for it.
Ascribing good journalism attributes to media that publish letters doesn’t even apply, in my opinion, to most mainstream media. You can write to your local newspaper, but there is no guarantee your letter will be printed. They pick and choose what to print. If it’s too long, they won’t print it, although it sometimes takes more than a few paragraphs to do justice to complex issues. They will also edit letters, cutting, pasting and reshaping them to fit their idea of how a proper letter should be composed, and if you don’t like their version, they won’t print it.
In any event, I periodically publish digests of comments from readers, and when I do, I never attribute comments to specific individuals. If someone specifically asked me to include their name, I would probably do it. The footer of every E-FORUM states, “ Comments, arguments and corrections are welcome.” When I do include digests of comments, I typically include everything, even if it is contrary to my point of view. The only place I draw the line at are comments that are so egregiously racist, they serve no purpose in civilized debate.
So, here are the rest of the comments I received from those who responded to the E-FORUM of September 18 or were sent to me via the North and East Yahoo Group listserve:
- Not sure what Bates' definition of the environment bending a little is...that's certainly not clear. I read all the N&E posts about planting trees and their importance...how many trees will we need to counter poor decisions about the heaviest polluters? I grew up here. This is my home, still. It begins now, better had it been yesterday, to stop the damage we are doing to this beautiful, bountiful planet/universe that supports us. Jobs will develop through thinking it out and planning - not jumping to an APPARENT solution, part of which is responsible for the economic mess we're in. my 2 cents...
- One of our questions for Bates was "Given your apparent disdain for environmentalism and your support for large business, what will you do to protect the health of Richmond residents?"
- what was his response, if any?
- He started by responding to the "apparent disdain for environmentalism" and his time expired. When pressed to answer the gist of the question, if I remember well, he said something like, "Jobs and encouraging industry are very important and, if sometimes the environment is impacted, that's the price to pay." This is NOT a direct quote. And I hope someone else who was there would confirm (or unconfirm) my comment.
- Surprise - he didn't answer the question. Just more "jobs blah blah jobs" talk. Frankly, I don't think he even makes the connection between citizens' health and environmental decisions. A low moment for me was his spiel about numbers of registered voters in Richmond - Dems, Repubs, independents, Greens etc. The final number he cited was 400-something Greens - "and our Green Mayor has been holding us hostage" or words to that effect. His contempt for the Mayor throughout was offensive to me. Nat Bates: enough of him already. One question that Corky didn't answer - & it's a softball - was about Richmond's image and how it could be improved. He waffled, ran out the clock, & then asked for the question to be repeated! The question was posed again later to... Viramontes, as I recall, who framed her answer in terms of council members not getting along. Talk about solipsism. Hello? Richmond has a bad image in the media. This is such a crucial question to address. As long as it's not dealt with, we're not going to be attracting jobs, economic development, all the stuff Team Bates claims to want. Tom Butt & the Mayor are the real Richmond boosters on the council, IMO; the ones who are countering skewed perceptions of Richmond with actual information about positive developments in the city. My two cents & change!
- This requires an equally biased conservative riposte (which I cannot provide).
- Who'll step up to the plate for Mr. Bates?
- Batting for Bates would be a sacrifice fly. I'm not a conservative but, since we're weighing in…There's some truth to what Bates says about the Richmond Greens "holding us hostage". It's common for the RPA and Greens to rally a loud and sometimes downright obnoxious group at public meetings, while the silent majority of Richmond's residents are at home or sit quietly by just listening. While I support certain protests like demanding a proper EIR for the Chevron project, I won't tolerate shrill rhetoric for sake of obtaining political objectives. Just because a minority group is loud doesn't mean they're right, or that they can force their demands on the greater population. Corky could've done better on his answers. But he's been around long enough, and helped accomplish so many things, that we can easily see past his response. To his credit, I think he tried to craft an answer rather than deflect it like so many other candidates do. What I did not like was that exchange between him and Viramontes. I was most impressed by the thoughtful and direct responses that Virginia Finlay provided. I may not agree with everything she supports but I feel like she will treat all sides fairly and objectively. By the way, the reason she was late was because she had planned a major fundraising event for that evening months ago. I also thought Myrna Lopez did rather well and she seems to have hit her stride as a councilperson. Despite the good intentions, I don't feel like there's much substance behind the visions described by Beckles or Martinez. Every candidate wants jobs, education, and reduced crime; so tell us a realistic way that YOU will bring this to Richmond on a scale that will make a difference. Pilot or pet projects don't count, nor do politically driven ideas that just get mired in controversy. We want results, and results that we can afford. I thought John Z. did fine. We intentionally put the screws to him to take a position on a casino at Pt. Molate. But I'll accept his reply, which was that he does want some kind of development but he's simply going to see how the public votes on Measure U. That tells me he's not opposed to a casino but if the public is largely against it then he'll support their decision. Sounds like representative government to me! Reducing crime is key to improving Richmond's image and every candidate recognizes this. I'm sure they all care about our city and boost Richmond in their own way. They may not have the same audience that Tom does, or the liberal activists that Gayle does, but I don't doubt they do what they can.
- I too appreciated John Z's response about casino...
- I did not appreciate John Z's non-response re casino. His coyness makes him seem like a stealth candidate - the issue is too important for each and every candidate not to make his/her views known. Throughout the evening he emphasized the need for leadership. Well, on this topic he showed no leadership. Disingenuous to the max!
- I have a problem accepting John Z.'s reason for not answering the question about the casino. It's great that he says he'll support what the voters want - but that's what he's supposed to do, whether he agrees with it or not. But what does that have to do with saying where he stands? Isn't that how you decide who to vote for - by asking where they stand on issues that are important to you?
- By deferring to the voters he effectively eliminates the Pt. Molate casino as a litmus test on his candidacy. I'm sure that pisses the anti-casino crowd off but it's a clever move and frankly it's what a democracy is supposed to be. Just wait until after November to see how many other councilmembers obey the vote of the people, vs. those who will continue to push their personal agendas. To me, leadership is building consensus on our fractious city council. Idealogues moralizing from the dais is just more of the same BS that's crippled our state and national government. Whatever the result of Measure U, let's work to make that resolution as amenable as possible to the opposing side and move on.
- I still think it would be nice to know how he feels - simply because it would tell us more about how he feels about different issues. That would be like someone running for president and saying they don't want to say where they stand on, oh, let's say gun rights, because he wants to leave it up to the people. Knowing how he feels might tell us more about how he follows the will of the people, anyway - if he states one position, and the other wins, and he followed what the voters asked for, that would say a lot.