To publish or not to publish


by C.H. Wells

I cannot and will not attempt to speak for Brent, Edith or The Millstone site, but I can and do wish to address criticisms made of them, on the topic of the now “infamous” anonymous letter – recently sent to members of Town staff – which recommends that those staff members remove themselves from their jobs, now, or prepare to be removed later by the new wave of councillors who will wash into our municipal offices – sweeping the old out before them – come next election day. We might all be more tremulous at the prospect, if this didn’t sound quite so much like a sound-bite promo for the next WWF feature match.

The writer of this letter is obviously angry, however, and, also obviously, aggressive, and though some posters have suggested that this letter was just too ‘idiotic’ to have been taken seriously, I think we are all perfectly well aware of the kind of damage that can be, and has been done on our planet, by angry, aggressive ‘idiots.’ In my opinion, this criticism would have been better founded had it been made against those who don’t take the sending of this letter seriously.

As for suggestions that it shouldn’t have been published at all – this was plainly and simply, as it would have been at any other newspaper on the globe, an editorial decision. [And is one, BTW, with which I fully agree.] Redacting the name of the recipient of that letter was another editorial decision that was ‘right-on-the-money,’ as far as I’m concerned. There was no need to publish the recipient’s name. This would have been, potentially, further distressing/embarrassing/endangering for the recipient and was unnecessary – we already know that these letters were sent to selected members of Town staff. We don’t need to know which particular staff member was sent this particular copy of the letter.

Accusations suggesting that publishing this letter legitimizes it, or that its publication elevates the writer to an unwarranted degree of importance, seem to me a little out of place here. Certainly there is an argument for not publishing the gory details of, say, the violent execution of an innocent party, by a terrorist group. First, it would be horrifying and cruel to the friends and family of the victim to do so; second, it gives the perpetrators “what they want” – that is, to reach as large an audience as can be with their threat of ongoing violence, and to frighten and traumatize as many people as possible.

In other cases, when copy-catting is a potential outcome, it is imperative that as few details as possible of an event are released to or by the media. Events like “school shootings” receive much less press than they once did, because it has been recognized that this can potentially encourage others to do the same, so that they, too, can “become famous.” Given the writer’s anonymity, this could hardly have been a goal in this case. As well, writing a letter with the annotation “Personal and Confidential” hardly screams:  “I want this letter to be publicized!”

On the contrary, Mr/Ms “Committee” [First name, “The.”], wanted to send a very private, secret, dirty little message, to just a few very special individuals, that said “we” are watching you. We are coming to get you. [Can’t you just feel “The” breathing down your neck, right now?]

Throughout this letter, “The” tries to make itself bigger [“I … er … I mean ‘we’ aren’t just one group, you know – we’re a whole buncha groups … !”], and the recipients smaller [“You poor pitiful, powerless little creatures must whisper among yourselves at the water cooler in the morning, about how incompetent your evil but scarily-powerful bosses are …”]. This is classic intimidation:  “We are all against you. You are all alone!”  No, on consideration, I think that the decision to publish was the right one, in this case. After all, the best way to make a cockroach scurry back into the shadows it came from, is to turn on the light.

Anyone who thinks The Millstone‘s editors did not properly explain the origins of this letter, just needs to re-read the editor’s lead-in. It’s perfectly clear how the letter came into their possession. And as for The Millstone‘s publishing of an anonymous letter being against their policy:  Good Heavens – you can’t be serious?! This policy is about not publishing a letter when the author of that letter refuses to identify him/herself when sending that letter to The Millstone.

This letter was sent, anonymously, to Town employees. A copy of the letter was sent, or otherwise delivered – by a person who identified him/herself – to The Millstone. The editor of The Millstone made the call both to publish this threatening letter, and to redact the name of the recipient. Both are legitimate decisions, perfectly justifiable … and perfectly professional.

The publication of this letter was a public service. That is, it serves the public to be informed that this event has occurred. Anyone who read in The Millstone, some months ago, merely that “a Town employee” was “confronted” by someone in the parking lot after a meeting one night, might be tempted to think “tempest … teapot,” “mountain … molehill,” till reading that that employee, and others, are now receiving “get outta Dodge” letters delivered to their place of work. Not funny. Not meaningless drivel. How often have you received hate mail in the performance of your job, especially when your job is purely administrative?

It’s The Millstone‘s ‘job’ to keep the public informed of events in their community. They provide us a valuable and a very welcome service. As an on-line community we are privileged and pampered with the right, and the ability, to make multiple posts on any given topic. Check out a hard-copy version of your local newspaper and ask yourself why there are not multiple versions of the same sentiment, from a variety of different people, in every issue; or back-and-forth letters from one reader to another for days or weeks on end? Very simply, they wouldn’t be allowed. For one thing, print space is finite; for another, the usual policy is, that once both sides have been heard from – via a few representative commenters – the issue has been “covered” and it’s time to move on to the next topic.

Because of the nature of this medium, and the patience, generosity and tolerance of The Millstone’s editors/publishers, we are allowed the unprecedented freedom to flail to our hearts’ content upon the carcass of that proverbial deceased equine [or, more animal-friendly PC – to beat a story to death]. Deleted posts are rare, here [excepting the self-abnegated ones], and postings on any topic only seem to cease when everyone has said as much as they wish to say on that topic. We are blessed.

As for the missive, itself, I confess that my first assumption was that the letter-writer was indeed a member of PRATAC. The president of this group has stated, publicly, that it was not sent by them. I accept this statement as fact. This letter was not drafted, approved  and sent by the organization known as PRATAC. The PRATAC membership did not agree to this letter being sent; they did not sanction it in any way. All of this I believe.

But the statements made by this individual mirror statements made publicly [and no doubt privately, as well] by executive members of this group. It is my strong suspicion, if not firm belief, that the letter-writer is, indeed, a member, who was influenced and emboldened by this group’s attitudes and policies, and who acted – albeit inappropriately, and without sanction – in a way that the writer fully expected would be supported – even praised – by that group. If so, this is deeply troubling and should prompt some serious introspection on the part of the PRATAC membership. This is surely not what most members ever intended to foment.

As for that old “conspiracy-theory” chestnut [implied by a couple of this topic’s commenters] that:  “They prob’ly sent it to themselves, to discredit us!” … I … well … the mind boggles …