By John McClelland
OK, so Valentine’s Day is past, but Black History Month continues. And it has enduring lessons for all of us about the persistence of bigotry, and the fact that civil rights apply to all – or should.
Masthead has a multi-part package: this piece, and others on editorial pages' tepid attention to the persistence of Confederate memorials in public places in the era of "12 Years a Slave," and a review of past editors' blinkers about civil rights.
That nasty, anonymous person
After several years in academia, I marvel at how today’s working editors, columnists and bloggers cope with the onslaught of bile that anonymous digital comment allows the trolls to spew. It’s been a topic in Masthead, at NCEW and AOJ conventions, and in the members-only online discussion list, several times in recent years.
Many of us who have had bylines, columns or hot-seat jobs in journalism have had “secret admirers,” in Mark E. McCormick’s words about one particularly crude and persistent middle-of-the-night caller.
McCormick’s 2003 column in the Wichita Eagle, forwarded by Richard Prince, reminded me of a turd-bucket full of 1970s hate mail to my office. That was paper; McCormick's was voicemail; now it is largely email or online comment. The hatefulness endures, and now it has more vituperative political, as well as racial, twists.
The prolific McCormick wrote, “I have a secret admirer. Every so often, she leaves me voice mail so overflowing with passion that it would be unsuitable for me to share.”
Ah, The Costume
He said he imagined her features, dreams -- and clothes: “From the content of her messages, I'd guess a flowing white sheet and a matching pointed dunce hat.”
He discussed details of her racist rants, then stated that yes, bigots like this still live among us. He said, “We rarely encourage them by writing about them, because they don't represent the vast majority of Americans.”
That recalled some NCEW-AOJ discussion list debates of whether to print bigots’ letters or allow their online comments, and whether to respond. One faction said vitriol erodes credibility and drives away legitimate potential reader-contributors; the other side said we have a responsibility to let the public see what kinds of creatures slither about under the rocks and toadstools of society. The topic of screening or editing never goes away.
Already seeing the makings of the digital cesspool 11 years ago, McCormick added: “They operate without names … firing fearful missives from anonymity's grassy knoll … the unfriendly fire that journalists encounter in our efforts to connect with readers.”
My hat is off to the working pros who get the **** while they do difficult, expanding, valuable jobs.
John McClelland reported, photographed and edited for newspapers in the Midwest and Mid-South for 20 years before teaching at Roosevelt University (Chicago). He is now emeritus faculty, almost fully retired. He has edited Masthead since December 2011.