Writings and observations

The Spokane Spokesman-Review has become a national symbol – in journalistic and web circles anyway – in the discussion on anonymity on the web … a subject a lot of journalists feel some real angst about.

On one hand, there’s little doubt that anonymous sources can be highly useful, not just to reporters but to readers and to the public. I’ve seen several such cases at fairly close range (though I’ve never had to rely much on them myself).

Supplying data on the q.t., as a whistle-blowing maneuver, is one thing. But the kind of crud that infests so many comment sections of so many web sites surely are something else. Have you read the garbage people wrote about Andy Griffith after his death on news sites? Andy Griffith?

So we were coming here: An anonymous commenter on the (excellent) Huckleberries blog, run by the Spokesman-Review, made unsubstantiated allegations of illegality against a Kootenai County Republican official, and the office sued the paper for the names of three anonymous commenters involved. A judge ruled that there was no need to release two of them, since what they said clearly wasn’t libelous, but that one statement may in fact have been – and the name has to be released. The paper hasn’t yet responded. The case has the potential to become something of a landmark.

Standing up for the anonymity of participants in news discussions has long been a firm tenet among news people. But there’s clearly angst.

It’s worth quoting this blog post from Shawn Vestal, of the Spokesman, who notes first the journalistic tradition, then:

But what has emerged in the era of online commenting is, about three-quarters of the time, a sewer of stupidity and insults and shallowness. The visions of a digital public square, with less gatekeeping and more democratic forums for discourse, seem quaint and comical in the light of what has actually come to pass.

I have mostly stopped reading the comment threads on the newspaper’s website, because it is almost always infuriating and pointless. It is especially so when I have persuaded someone to share their story – only to see them mocked for their painful experiences or physical appearance. Which is common.

The idea that the newspaper has to spend time and treasure defending this nonsense – not protecting a whistleblower; not battling the government for access to public records – is repulsive.

He makes a strong point.

When I worked on daily newspaper editorial pages, one absolute requirement of letters to the editor was that they be signed, and that those signatures be verified. (I know this: I often had to make those phone calls to verify identity.) That rule generally still applies, at many papers. Why then should comments be so anonymous?

(Don’t talk to me about unsigned editorials, either; the people in charge at the paper, most usually and principally the publisher, can reasonably be attached to those.)

This site, by the way, still allows anonymous commenting. For now. But that could change, as many other sites have, in recent years, changed. It’s just that the anonymity hasn’t been a big problem for us. Yet.

This may be something newspapers, and a lot of other organizations, soon have to confront.

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Washington

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Chris Carlson
Carlson Chronicles

I saw the other day where Idaho’s illustrious Superintendent for Public Instruction, the Honorable Tom Luna, said it did not bother him in the least that Idaho ranked 48th or 49th in state support for public education.

That statement alone makes him a certifiable idiot. That his PR flacks try to portray his rationalizations for Idaho’s pecuniary as cutting edge innovation is laughable. That he is supposedly a key advisor on educational policy to the presidential campaign of Mitt Romney is appalling.

Luna, along with every state legislator and every member of Governor C. L. “Butch” Otter’s administration ought to read an article in the latest Atlantic Monthly by Chrystia Freeland entitled “The Triumph of the Family Farm.”

The article describes the transformation of farming due to technological innovation and global integration which, along with the growth of a middle class that has become an increasingly demanding market for better food, has led to impressive financial success for family farms.

Yup, despite what you might read about their demise and the rise of corporate farms the fact is in 2010, of all the farms with at least $1 million in revenues, 88 percent were family farms.

Buried within the article though is an absolute diamond.

Calling it one of the great forgotten triumphs of American society and government she points out how smoothly farmers negotiated the creative destruction (the loss of farm jobs due to modernization) of the early 20th century. She quotes esteemed labor economist and Harvard professor Lawrence Katz regarding how the farming community adapted.

Luna will be stunned by this, but the key according to Katz, was heavy investment in education. “Iowa, Nebraska, the Dakotas, California – those were the leaders in the high school movement,” Katz stated. It was a deliberate response to rapid technological change in both farming and manufacturing.

They built more schools and invested more money as a deliberate strategic response so that their children would be better equipped to deal with and adapt to rapid change. The strategy worked. It made for better farmers for those who stayed on the farm and more adaptive workers for those that migrated to urban areas.

Today’s challenge is the same, only a high school education is no longer sufficient. Students today know they need a college education with an emphasis on analytic skills. Katz, though, points out the obvious: the Luna’s of the world are not making an equivalent investment in the future by even adequately funding basic and higher education today.

Instead they hide behind a mantra about not throwing more money at the challenge, trying to sell bilge-water to the public that Idaho can do more with less. Instead of being ashamed regarding the declining support for public education they try to make a virtue out of disgraceful conduct. What’s that saying about putting lip stick on a pig?

To their way of thinking, innovation and more financial support for education are mutually exclusive propositions. Their stupidity is stunning.

One could argue Luna and the many members of the Idaho Legislature who are LDS are not even walking the talk of their faith. Mormonism from its very beginnings has stressed the importance and values to be gained through life-long learning and continuing education. It is a critical aspect of evolving towards being more Godly.

Thus, if one looks south to Utah, what do they see: a state that does a better job than Idaho in support for public education not to mention an impressive commitment to private education as demonstrated by funding for Brigham Young University in Provo as well as branch campuses like BYU-Idaho in Rexburg.

There is recognition that to keep up with a rapidly changing world it will take both innovation and more financial investment, not less. For Idaho the proof is in the pudding for it is clear that innovative companies looking to the future for places to move to are no longer putting Idaho on the map of places to visit.

It must be just too much to expect Tom Luna to grasp the concept that innovation and better more adequate funding can go hand in hand. But then what should we expect from an “educator” who received the required higher education degree in order to hold his office from a little known on-line university and the degree was in “weights and measures.”

In other words the man is certified to run the weigh station at Potlatch’s St. Maries mill. It is a continuing travesty that Idaho instead has a certified idiot running public education. What he and his ilk are doing to Idaho’s future by stinting on the state’s educational investment is condemning an entire generation to mediocrity.

Sad, truly sad.

CHRIS CARLSON is a former journalist who served as press secretary to Gov. Cecil Andrus. He lives at Medimont.

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