This one's for you, "udapimp."
And "brt929" and "jono," "foreignoregonian" and "Meridian." And every other anonymous commenter who shows up at this blog to tell me I don't know what I'm talking about. Ever.
I'd love to know your names — partly because I'm curious, but mostly because I'm interested in where you're coming from. If I know who you are, and I know your professional and personal stake in politics, I can better put your criticism into perspective.
But I don't want the state of Idaho to force you to cough up your name.
Rep. Stephen Hartgen, R-Twin Falls, is drafting a bill to require bloggers to post under their real name, and require online commenters to do likewise. In essence, Hartgen wants online commentary to more closely resemble newspaper opinion pages, where letter writers are generally required to identify themselves.
Hartgen knows plenty about opinion pages; he's the former publisher of The Times-News in Twin Falls. (Full disclosure: I worked as The Times-News' city editor from 1996 to 2001. Hartgen gave me a great opportunity to advance my career and I learned a lot, and I'll always have respect for him).
I don't agree with him about this bill.
The free and often free-wheeling speech exercised at blogs and media Web sites such as IdahoStatesman.com gets pretty coarse. Having been on the receiving end a time or two, I know that well. But this doesn't rise to "there-oughta-be-a-law" status.
Far from it. In fact, it just isn't the Legislature's business. Considering the many challenges facing the newspaper industry, you can certainly debate the business wisdom of giving unnamed trolls free rein to call the local paper a typo-ridden rag with an error-prone and agenda-driven staff. Not exactly a glowing testimonial. But opening the doors to harsh criticism is a business decision — and one in keeping with the First Amendment.
No particular episode prompted Hartgen's bill, and he isn't sure he's ever been the target of criticism in the blogosphere. "Unless you read blogs all the time, you don't know for sure." Of course, once word got out of Hartgen's bill, he got a blast from, symbolically enough, an anonymous blog, the unequivocal notion. "This basically smacks of censorship of the internet, something that we don't do to the 'tubes here in America. I frankly don't understand why Hartgen is looking towards Cuba, Iran or China for guidance on how to manage the the Internet in Idaho."
At the root of it, Hartgen has a legitimate concern. He believes the anonymity of the Web cheapens the debate by allowing people to hurl insults that he describes, in one of his favorite quips, as "untouched by human brain." Hartgen never was a publisher afraid of a fight, so I think he is genuinely concerned about the coarsening of the dialogue.
So am I, and some of my Statesman colleagues are deeply troubled by anonymous commenters. They believe that in the chase for immediate feedback and site hits, we've traded away more than we've received. Again, that's a business decision.
Ultimately, I believe the marketplace of free expression will correct any problems. Call me an optimist, but I believe readers will grow to attach more credibility to writers who say who they are and make their points in a civil manner.
Let's allow the blogosphere to mature before we start trying to police it.