The Problem with Anonymity

The very first letter-to-the-editor I ever wrote to this newspaper carried the headline “Does God Use a Tape Measure?” It was dated December 9, 1987 and expressed my opinion that the Cookeville City Council was making much ado about nothing in their debate over how to measure the distance between a church and an establishment that sold beer.

When I saw my letter and my name in print, I was hooked. Several letters-to-the-editor followed before then-editor Charles Denning invited me to become a Herald-Citizen columnist in the mid-1990s. In all that time, I have never sent the paper a single word that I was unwilling to sign my name to.

Not that I could have gotten away with such a thing, at least in this paper. The Herald-Citizen, like most other legitimate newspapers in the United States, requires that all published articles and opinion pieces include the name of the author. Editor Buddy Pearson assures me that letters-to-the-editor that appear in this paper are verified, meaning that he or someone else in the newsroom has called the phone number provided to make sure of the letter’s authenticity. Every time.

Apparently that’s not the case with the Carteret County News-Times out of Morehead City, North Carolina.

On January 23 of this year, that paper published a letter signed only PROUD TO BE A DEMOCRAT. No name. The letter was filled with nonsense. One example: “When it comes to gun violence, Chicago is a lot safer than Morehead City.” And this: The Constitution, “written a hundred years ago,” isn’t all that great and President Obama needs to change it. As for the Constitutional requirement that a person must be a natural-born citizen to run for President? It isn’t fair to those whose mothers had to have a C-section. (One of the funniest lines I’ve ever read. Anywhere.)

The last sentence of the letter says “Please withhold my name because I don’t want to get crank calls.” And so the News-Times did.

Not surprisingly, after Rush Limbaugh caught wind of the letter and read it on his February 15 show, it went viral. I learned about it in a Facebook post a couple of days later. And all I could do was shake my head in amazement that anyone actually took the letter seriously. It screams HOAX! JOKE! PARODY! SPOOF! so loudly that anyone who passed eighth-grade English with a D-minus ought to get it.

But apparently, judging from the thousands of outraged comments the letter elicited, a lot of people didn’t. Or chose not to. And therein lies the problem.

Defending the policy of allowing anonymous letters, the New-Times editor says, in part, “Some letters, with names withheld, are controversial. But should controversial matters be avoided simply because they’re controversial? If that occurs, then restrictions are placed on opinion and freedom…which can only lead to timidity and conformity and ultimately to silence. We respect other people’s privacy and can’t impose our will (by requiring that names be published) on them.”

Poppycock. Any newspaper that allows idiots or cowards or even extraordinarily clever political satirists to hide behind a wall of anonymity invites and encourages idiocy and cowardice and satire. Which leads to confusion, finger-pointing, name-calling, anger, fear, and a whole lot of other bad stuff. Most of which is posted on Facebook.

Had PROUD TO BE A DEMOCRAT written to the Cookeville Herald-Citizen, all of this hoopla would have been avoided. Because he or she would have had to either claim authorship of the letter or have it tossed in the trash can.
Which is exactly as it should be.

(February 24, 2013)

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