At Large : Letters, political ads, shifty Commenters, and the court report
The agenda today is catch-up — a few words about Letters to the Editor, including political and thank you letters, political advertising, complaints about deleted online comments, and a new diversion program for young offenders at Dukes County District Court.
First, barred Comment posts
The first goal of the online Comment feature was to offer readers a mechanism they could use to comment on MVTimes editorial content and the issues underlying that content. It's been a great success, but the Comment readers and posters have reshaped the feature to suit them. Now, a significant proportion of posts are actually colloquies between two or three or several posters. The Times content may have been the occasion for these meetings of many minds, but the discussion ranges far and wide, even into matters not contemplated in the original news story, letter, essay, or column.
I'm not complaining. We may not have had these conversational side-trips in mind when we started Comment, but it was planned as a tool for readers and, adapted now by them to suit them, it is.
We have tried to improve the quality and civility of the Comment posts, and although doing so requires constant vigilance, although Comment views can and do depart radically from our own, and although readers and Comment posters may prefer a different level of moderation — tighter preferred by some, looser by others — on the whole the feature works pretty well.
Some wily Comment posters work very hard to break the rules without getting their contributions taken down. The latest wrinkle is a post that takes issue with an earlier disquisition on, for example, the economic effects of tax cuts. Commenter One says tax cuts drain government of resources it needs to invest in infrastructure that, in turn, will allow the economy to grow. Commenter Two begins with a careful analysis of the influence of increased taxation on the formation of private capital that might be used to start and build companies that will, in turn, hire employees. So far, so good, but Commenter Two cannot leave well enough alone, so he adds, "Do your homework, you idiot." He refers to Commenter One. That direct and disrespectful address gets the comment scrapped.
It's a fresh twist in the struggle between Comment posters and the moderator, and repeated deletions don't seem to have solved the problem. Perhaps this straightforward description of what happens when a Commenter uses this not-really-that-clever tactic will end it.
The ultimate moderation tool is banishment, a harsh step and one used gingerly. But, happily, I can report that one or two of the banishments that have occurred have led to direct exchanges between the banished and the moderator and ultimately to reinstatement. It's a rewarding, bipartisan negotiation that keeps both of us away from the Comment cliff.
Political advertisements are subject to Massachusetts rules and our own. There are three or four basic requirements. Each political advertisement must be prominently labeled as such. Each must include the name of a human being who is responsible for the content of the advertisement and the address of the signatory or the organization he or she represents.
Questions often arise over whether an ad is really political in nature and consequently whether the person responsible for the ad must attach his or her name to it for publication. It's easy enough to decide whether an issue that is the subject of a proposed advertisement is a matter of local, regional, or national debate. It's especially easy to decide when the prospective advertiser prefers not to have his name attached. That's a surefire tell.
Each political advertisement must be prepaid — after all, in every political contest and most political disputes there is a loser, who may see no reason to make further investments in a defeated campaign. And each political ad must be paid at the undiscounted rate for its publication — that's because there must be no deal making between the newspaper and the politician. That sort of private discounting might give a break to the newspaper's favorite and put the screws to the candidate the newspaper does not favor, or it might give readers reason to suspect as much.
Finally, The Times rejects political ads by one candidate alleging some sort of malfeasance by his or her opponent, if the advertiser intends the ad to appear on the last publication date before an election.
About Letters to the Editor
Visitors to mvtimes.com will have seen a description of rules for Letters to the Editor during the remaining weeks until Election Day. That Editor's Note, posted last week on the web, appears on the Letters pages today, in the print edition of the newspaper. As always, The Times welcomes letters from Islanders about the issues and candidates that will be decided on November 6. Accepting and publishing these Letters to the Editor is the purpose of this newspaper feature.
Letters from candidates, spokesmen for interest groups, political parties, campaign organizations, or organized political action groups will not be published. Of course, they may appear as paid political advertisements.
Letters that contain allegations of misconduct directed at a candidate, a campaign, or an interest or political action group may qualify for publication, but they will not be published after October 25, to allow rebuttals to appear in the November 1 edition.
Also, having in mind the purpose of the Letters to the Editor feature, in print and online, we publish some but not all thank you letters. Those that thank, in concise and generalized language, public institutions or officials — for example, the hospital, its doctors, the Steamship Authority, firefighters and police, EMS, generous or noble neighbors and Samaritans — are welcome. Some thank-you letters are long lists of event participants and donors. The place for these is a thank-you advertisement, for which we offer an extraordinarily accommodating rate.
A change to the District Court Report
We will change the weekly District Court Report to align our reporting with the new youthful diversion program. Times writer Janet Hefler described the program in an October 4 news report [Court diversion program offers young offenders a second chance]. The goal is to offer juvenile and 17- to 21-year-olds who've been arrested and face criminal charges a chance to commit to a combination of counseling, reparations, community service, and oversight. Volunteering for the program will defer arraignment and may, if its terms are met, lead to the state deferring and then declining to prosecute. That will spare the young people criminal records and, with luck, set them on more productive paths.
The court will identify the candidates for the diversion program, who will not be arraigned. Our report will not include the names of the diversion program volunteers.