I moved from Galveston to Atlanta last February. I love my island and quickly adopted the habit of reading the Galveston Daily News online a couple of times a week to appease my homesickness.
It didn’t take long for me to notice a pattern in the online comments about a few apparently salacious subjects: the democratically elected yet unpaid Mayor & City Council, who should live on the island and who should pick them (seriously?), East End-West End relations, Houston area collaboration, progress in general… okay, change of any kind. The public remarks were and are consistently negative, critical, angry, bitter, regressive, and completely not helpful. It made me sad to think the island that showed so much promise and was given seemingly endless opportunity to improve after Hurricane Ike was instead in the radical free-fall that the comments implied.
Imagine my surprise when I visited Galveston last month: The island looks terrific — cleaner, greener, with Seawall enhancements, new restaurants, bars, and shops, the Pleasure Pier is underway, and the Fishing Pier is open! When I talked to people, they were enthusiastic about moving forward with the progressive GHA mixed-income and scattered-site housing plans and thought Mayor Jaworski was doing a great job, especially in light of the constant distractions generated by the GDN gadflies who just want him gone for reasons between them and their God, truth and progress be damned — not unlike the President trying to do business with the Congress these days. I also learned from a credible source that the new GDN publisher had discovered some online commentators who were writing under multiple pseudonyms from the same IP address, which would imply one person writing as many, and banned them from future posting.
So when I got home, I wondered what it was that had given me the impression that Galveston was in such sad shape. I scoured the online comments going back several months, and even accounting for the multiple personality blogger who is no longer with us, I counted roughly a dozen individuals who consistently dominate the forums. These people are the uniformly negative, critical, angry, bitter, regressive, and completely not helpful ones who’d skewed my perspective from a distance. When someone disagrees with them, they vivisect them and effectively throw them out of the room. It’s no wonder people believe them when they claim to speak for the majority — they’ve made the GDN their personal coffee shop and nobody else ever gets heard! There’s no such thing as a civil debate or discourse. No polite disagreement. No agreement to disagree. And certainly no compromise. It’s their way or their way and, frankly, most folks just don’t have the time or inclination to mess with them.
Incidentally, none of them has agreed to serve in public office and be held to their own level of resentful scrutiny for no pay. These are not the sorts of squeaky wheels that get out there and do something and create positive change through their squeaking. These are cyber-squeakers — the type that hide behind their keyboards and aliases and get their jollies from being mean and obnoxious and anonymous. It’s cowardly, if you ask me.
But when well-meaning people stop speaking out because the other side has made it too unpleasant, the other side wins by default and then calls it a mandate. These are the same squeaky wheels who, just by squeaking — certainly not by application of fact-based reason, logic and common sense — overturned the tremendously popular smoking ban instituted after the storm by Mayor Thomas and her Council and supported by the American Heart Association, American Cancer Society, physicians and researchers from UTMB, the Galveston Chamber of Commerce, the tourist board/visitors bureau, hotel & motel representatives, restaurant owners, citizens from all walks of life, and the list goes on. For a few months, we were leaders on a no-brainer issue that is now just moments away, in the scheme of things, from being the law of the land, and we gave it up just to make the squeaking stop. How does THAT make sense?
So I wondered why the GDN, especially now that it’s under new management with a shiny new logo, has allowed these nasty cyber-bullies to commandeer the online paper? Even I, who know the island, was influenced by their rants. Can you imagine what people who are considering moving or visiting or investing there must think? And can you imagine the influence these few voices illegitimately amplified to sound like many have on island politics when fewer than ten votes can decide an election?
Years ago, I was published in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. Each time, someone from the paper’s editorial staff called me, interviewed me, checked my references — in short, fully vetted me before publishing my thoughts and words. Were my ideas advancing the conversation or was I seeking personal grandeur or ax-grinding? Was I a credible mouthpiece for my position? Was the paper better off, or at least not worse off, for having associated itself with me?
I understand that the Internet is a grand experiment and I am a rabid First Amendment defender. This is not a free speech issue. Newspapers have a responsibility to manage their own content across all their vehicles just like they did when we only had print, and that includes what they allow people to publish unedited and unscrubbed on the paper’s “walls,” walls that will remain in the online archives for posterity (and show up in your grandkid’s termpaper as a “source” someday). The paper is privately owned. The paper is allowed to publish what it wants. That is the free speech issue.
I would like to think that the GDN might change its “anything goes” policy for the sake of its own reputation, island PR, and the sanctity of the election process, if nothing else, but my guess is it enjoys the readership it gets from the prurient factor, which would explain last week’s GHA “poll.” Again, completely not helpful; advanced nothing; gave the twelve squeakers something to do — voting from all their devices on every IP address they could connect to. Results: garbage.
So until that unlikely day, I challenge the rest of you who, like me, burn inside while reading those twelve people’s rants to write your own letters to the GDN, and take back the paper from the squeaky wheels. Don’t let them ruin another day.
By the way, I fully expect the wrath of the squeaky wheels to rain down upon me for speaking my piece. I invite you to defend my words if you share my perspective. Meanwhile, I’m putting on my hard hat and going offline.