Are Blogs The Knife That Cuts Too Deep?

Everyone has read or been involved in lack of government transparency at some time in their life. Why didn’t someone tell me? When were they going to tell us? What reasoning went into this? Why? WHY?

In 2007, I was point in a skirmish with our local government over a lack of transparency, of deliberate opaqueness. This was the C&D issue; you would have to be deaf dumb and blind not to know about it. I gave up on the demand for transparency when the outcome was favorable.

Although many credit me with a so-called win, I do not know what went on to change every council members vote. I want to think it was me; that my sheer tenacious diligence won them over, but I know better. My efforts would have been useless without help behind that opaque curtain, help that changed the direction and outcome. The village acquiesced to what had become a combined resident/business community concern over the issue, but I was not sure how it happened.

During the whole time, I blogged furiously about everything I learned, everything I researched, everything I thought about. I ended up with a cacophony of a blog site, markthoman.googlepages.com, that was out of sequence, jammed with information, hard to follow, and packed with facts, presentations, commentary: a wild and woolly assault on not only the villages mistaken attempt to short circuit the EPA, but on orderly discourse, and rational organization. More than one friend said it was so hard to follow, it itself was guilty of not being transparent because of the effort it took to sort through it all.

What about blog transparency? I have been at the table in the blog backroom with Elaine Johnson, EJ as her site followers call her, creator and driving force behind DGreport.com. I cannot speak to her reasons for starting it, but it started during the 2006 election cycle. That contentious election, for mayor, for 58, and for 99, got people talking like never before. DGreport provided a public house on-line setting where candidates responded to questions that in turn were commented upon by any and everyone who wished. EJ also pumped out commentary and reports on politics and other topics, and any and all could have equal say.

At the same time, Bill White started up Wired Grove. He had multiple pages for different topics, and had a set of rules for posting that forbade personal attacks. There are still some posts up, in particular exchanges between Wes Jaros and a sock puppet, and Bill White, where the sock puppet ignores proper behavior, and an exchange between Bob Lemke and Phil Labat that shows the type of acrimony that ran as an undercurrent to the 99 campaign.

Bill attempted to impose fairly strict rules on his website, yet the only posts of any consequence were the aforementioned comment shouting matches. The site was poorly attended by candidates, most of whom failed to respond to his fairly straight up requests. His insistance an strict behavior, and those requests failing to hold, may have kept involvement down. The site has been ‘dark’ since May of last year.

On DGreport, EJ started out with similar restrictions, but was very adamant about her belief in free speech, and spoke directly to the need for manners and responsibility in “Runaway Train” where she picked her ideas and desires apart in front of her readers. She asked that people not get carried away with personal attacks, and was pretty much ignored by everybody, including Bill White from Wired Grove. The knives came out quick and often, and they cut away at both mayoral candidates failure to act on problems in their four and eight years on the dais. Proxies for both candidates traded blows on a regular basis.

A key difference for DGreport was the single main page topic track, and the (added later) single DGtalk track that made posting more concentrated, and easier to figure out. Some of those early topic starters had pretty sharp edges. EJ has kept DGreport.com up and running, adding news and commentary ever since, in addition to her column in the Sun, and her job as Mom. That is a lot of work for one person.

EJ is concerned that her blog, her baby, has become for too long too rough a playground. I sympathize with her concern. Some of the rough and tumble of the election has continued; not much, but what has continued, the most vitriolic, has bled into several discussions where it does not belong, and that is enough to cause concern. The knives have come out, and the cuts still get personal. Where EJ had sought exemplary transparency, she was, in some cases, getting oblique postings, sometimes near accusation of ulterior motive against some elected officials, in particular Mayor Ron Sandack and Commissioner Sean Durkin. At the same time many posters who appeared to use their real names seemed to drop off, leaving a core of real named, and a cast of anonymous, posters.

AP stopped taking any comments to their news stories years ago. The Tribune just recently ended comments on political topics. AP couldn’t handle the amount of anonymous negative feedback to their articles, especially about the middle east. The Tribune never seemed to moderate at all; on-line article anonymous comment responses often descended into name calling.

Part of the implied deal when a site shingle gets hung out is that good and bad are part of the mix, and it is up to the moderator to act as sheriff. At DGreport, it is EJ’s ‘e-village’ and she is the law. If you cannot live with that, move on.

I support my local sheriff, and I like the e-village. DGreport.com has some rough parts to it but it is growing up, and posters are growing up or moving on. As near as I can tell, most are growing up.

I’ve also been in the email back room with Mayor Sandack, talking about the propriety of anonymity and attack posts, about his desire for fact over fancy, of content and character over baseless rumor and ‘drive-by’ character assassination. These are legitimate concerns, and there are examples of both, the good and the bad, on DGreport.

I support my local mayor, and I like the village. Sandack has gone on public record in support of what he calls ‘ a fearless political environment’. As near I can tell, from personal first hand experience, he has walked the walk as we butted heads over procedure and intent on the C&D issue, and as we have talked about blogs and on-line commentary.

Sandack and Johnson are not alone nor incorrect in sizing up DGreport as a potential minefield for local government officials. Commissioner Martin Tully, as I have noted before, is one who has successfully negotiated this minefield on several occasions. I’m not surprised; he is a lawyer and a litigator. Part of his day job is successfully navigating legal minefields in the courtroom, with the other side’s litigators lobbing legal mortar shells at him as he does it. He chooses his words carefully, and makes considered comments.

Contrast that with, say, me. Ready, aim, fire, becomes ready, point in general direction, fire, check accuracy, aim, fire for effect: a mutated six sigma that usually has a misstep or two, but once I get zeroed in, I saturate that target.

The posts on DGreport vary from ready, aim, fire, all the way down to just FIRE! With no getting ready, no aiming, no concept of what the intent or outcome might be. That needs to change. As part of the growing process, posters whether they use their real name or not, need to up the goal of their comments and posts, myself included. That doesn’t mean we all become Dostoevsky, or Goethe, but that means we take a moment to consider the blowback of what we might say.

Contributions to discussion of topics and issues that effect us all can come from the dais, from the blogs, from the citizen groups, from the business community; I do not know them all. It takes time, it takes effort, it is worth it, and Elaine Johnson is trying to get a handle on it so it is fair; so that it does not result in posts and comments that hit too personal and that cut too deep. Does a poster make a point, or is it slashing and stabbing without thinking?

Acceptable: “I can’t believe Thoman thinks the shuttle should stay.”
Unacceptable: “Thoman is scum currying the favor of shuttle commuters.”

The difference, I hope, is obvious.

Acceptable: “Thoman’s actions are those of an arrogant spoiled child.”
Unacceptable: “Thoman is an arrogant spoiled child.”

This example is shaving it pretty fine. The acceptable comment draws an analogy to what a set of actions appear to be, the second merely calls names. There is a difference between ‘sticks and stones’ name calling, and sticking a knife in.

That does not mean there is no room for disagreement and dispute, or that any negative comment must be squashed. That is counterproductive to a main tenet of a website like DGreport: a fearless environment anyone can speak to anything, regarding Downers Grove or something else.

I intend to keep at it; I hope you do too. Along the way, if some more people notice, drop in to say their say, and even become regulars, that is a very, very good thing. In the meantime, put the knives away.

But as the saying goes, keep your powder dry.

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4 Responses to “Are Blogs The Knife That Cuts Too Deep?”

  1. DGDood Says:

    Okay. Okay. I give.

    During the ’06 elections I was incensed at the lying ads and rumors, and you’ve made me painfully aware I’ve done the same dirt.

    Pax.

    No more rolling in the muck with the pigs, but I’m gonna point out when the pigs are rollin’ bro. Thanks for talking to me without any harsh vibe. You’re a strange guy but you won me over.

  2. Mark Thoman Says:

    Thanks for hearing me out. Like I said, just stick more to facts and less to lashing out, and you will be fine.

  3. EJ Says:

    I’ve explained on many occasions why I started DGreport, but if Thoman doesn’t know it undoubtedly bears repeating:

    For YEARS I’ve been frustrated by the dearth of local news as reported by our local weeklies. I even half-heartedly tried to get hired by the Reporter in order to fix what I considered a glaring deficiency in a vibrant, informed community.

    As a columnist, I found I had many more ideas than opportunities to accommodate them, so that was another good reason to find a venue with virtually no barriers to entry (unlike a traditional newspaper).

    For literally YEARS, I kicked around alternatives including a subscription e-news service. When the blog format caught fire I had my vehicle and I spent MONTHS trying to come up with a template that worked for me.

    If I’d succeeded sooner, the DGreport would have debuted in Summer ’06. It took THAT long for to massage the design and to figure out how to work with the template.

    Last February, I was so worried about just launching the site that I never thought ahead to the implications of going live on the eve of an election cycle. I never looked that far ahead — the D58 referendum was as far as I was focusing at the time.

    Clearly, the blog was a runaway train and I’m the first to admit that I chose to err on the side of free speech, assuming that people of good will and intelligence could shake off the negativity and balance it with reason and insight.

    I was wrong and I am in the process of defining a new set of standards for the blog.

    However, I do not believe that anonymity is the problem, especially on a very local blog in a small community. The problem is using anonymity like some sort of weapon. That will no longer be tolerated as we go forward.

    I’ll be very interested to see whether public officials who have disdained the blog since the beginning (with the exception of a few running for office) will respond to the changes and recognize this technology for the benefits it offers rather than continue to criticize its shortcomings.

  4. Mark Thoman Says:

    “The problem is using anonymity like some sort of weapon. That will no longer be tolerated as we go forward.”

    There you go. You DO get to make the rules.

    Are you dizzy with absolute power yet? [snark]


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