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Friday, 12 May 2017 11:24

Editor's blog: Intimidation is futile

Written by 

You can try to stifle a person from speaking out, but you can't stifle an idea. Just like the arcade game Whac-A-Mole, ideas -- both good and bad -- persist.

Just last week, a regular contributor to our Perspectives page received an anonymous letter in the mail criticizing what the contributor had written a week earlier in the paper.

This particular contributor to our letters to the editor section, whose opinions fall on the left-leaning side of the political spectrum, described the letter as intimidating and was concerned because someone had taken the time to track down their home address.

I suggested a call to the police, just so they would have something on file. But they made it clear they didn't want to stop writing letters to the paper.

Honestly, it doesn't need to come to this.

Rather than trying to intimidate someone into holding back from sharing their opinion, I'd suggest readers of differing opinions craft an even more convincing point of view.

Last Sunday's Perspectives page was a perfect example of how ideas can be presented on both the right and the left.

In fact, we had three of each, along with letters responding to previous editions.

I realize we're a throwback -- letters to the editor in a printed paper -- where writers are required to sign their names and confirm their identities.

Other than Facebook, anonymous comments are everywhere online. But they leave out important context.

Here's why it's important to know the identity of the author.

Say, for example, there is an upcoming referendum for a fire station, and anonymous letters appear in the paper supporting the plan.

Context is important. If the letter writer is someone who would benefit from a new fire station -- a contractor, landowner or vendor -- that would sway readers one way.

If the letter writer was a resident who thought their neighborhood was underserved by fire protection, that would sway people another way.

If the only people supporting the plan were those who had a financial interest and none who had a safety interest, wouldn't voters need to know that to make the best decisions with their tax dollars?

People certainly have the right to anonymous speech, and they can exercise it in many different forums. Whistleblowers, for example, might not reveal wrongdoing if they couldn't do it anonymously.

But that's not what our letters forum is all about.

We believe the most powerful speech is that which has a name behind it.

Would you buy a car or TV without looking at the brand name? Why are designer clothes more valuable than unnamed brands?

Partly, it's a problem that newspapers have brought upon themselves. They go on at length to explain that there is a wall between editorial opinions and news operations and that one does not influence the other.

Having been on the inside of the newspaper business, I know that in most cases that's clearly true.

I've also answered enough calls from readers to know that few of them believe it.

Yet newspapers continue to run unsigned editorials or publish anonymous reader telephone comments.

For our papers, I think our calling is a greater one. Rather than advocating one point of view or other, we have a responsibility to the strength of our democracy.

The best ideas, argued skillfully and without deception, will win the day.

There may be nothing more powerful in a free society than the ability to express one's ideas.

But to the person who wrote the threatening letter to our Perspectives page contributor, I encourage them to stand behind their opinions like all of our other letter writers.

It's as simple as signing your name and sending it in.

Dan Plutchak is editor of CSI Media, which publishes Walworth County Sunday, the Stateline News and the Janesville Messenger.

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