At Large: What was the point, after all?

The other day in the office we debated whether the The Journal News in White Plains ought to have published a graphic that mapped the names and addresses of nearly 34,000 handgun permit holders in the newspaper’s circulation area. And, we argued whether there was an important point made by the publication. The Journal News headline, “The gun owner next door,” apparently describes the entire concept behind the paper’s effort.

The Journal News’s project has attracted a great deal of criticism, some of it grotesquely intemperate. Leaving aside the latter as undeserving of consideration, it is obvious that, unlike the newspaper’s editor, a large share of the reading public understood exactly what was wrong with what the newspaper had done. The article, people sensed, had invaded the privacy of a sizable population of law-abiding gun owners, in a meritless exposure. The newspaper did so in an environment of virulent debate over gun ownership, following the Sandy Hook Elementary School killings in Newtown, Connecticut, perhaps embarrassing and even jeopardizing the lawful gun owners.

Newspapers are nosy parkers, no question, and the list of gun owners the Journal News mapped is a public record, which you or I could review and copy at our leisure. There’s no question the newspaper got access to the list legally. The question is whether there was a considered point to the publication. The MV Times publishes weekly a discrete list of arraignments and dispositions in matters before the Dukes County District Court. Names of our neighbors and acquaintances sometimes appear in the list. The goals are several.

First, we are a small community with little serious crime. We’d like to help keep it that way. Drug charges, robberies, burglaries, abuse, sex crimes, uttering, driving under the influence are, sadly, common enough, and we hope the certainty that neighbors charged with these and other crimes, serious and minor, will find their names in the newspaper serves as a deterrence. It is also the case that small as our community is, it is not small enough to assume that you will know everyone with whom you come in contact, as employees, contractors, cocktail party guests, business operators, mountain bike riders, and so forth. And, in a civic dimension, the treatment by the police, the prosecutors, and the judges of those charged with crimes becomes apparent with regular review of the court report. Islanders may draw conclusions as to the effectiveness of the law enforcement and judicial systems, whose job, in broad terms, is to protect the residents and their property, and keep what is today a largely safe community mostly free of violent crime.

The MVTimes also publishes annually a wholesale list of the assessed values of real estate owned by Islanders and summer visitors. Because real estate values underpin the financial health of each of the six Island towns, the relative reasonableness of those values is a matter of concern to all property owners and especially to those who are both real estate owners and voters. The latter decide how and how much their town governments will spend tax revenue and consequently how much each property owner will be obliged to contribute in real estate taxes. The Tax List, as it is known, is important information, critical to voter decision making.

My point is that it is possible to describe a supportable purpose for these publications, one of which has an undeniably negative effect on the reputation of listees, which we understand and choose to publish anyway, adducing a worthy public purpose as grounds for the decision. The other is merely useful information presented in a useful way and available for consideration when evaluating the reasonableness of individual tax assessments and the effect those assessments will have on municipal tax and spend decisions.

Newspaper columnists have generally been slow and tentative in commenting on the Journal News data dump. A good example is a column by Bill Keller, former executive editor of The New York Times. Mr. Keller begins by raising the question of the wisdom and intention of the Journal News management, but he takes an acknowledged excursion into the apparent confusion in American attitudes toward their own privacy, as if the nation generally is at the least a willing though befuddled accessory to decisions like those made by the White Plains newspaper’s editorial leadership. Mr. Keller cites Americans’ use of social media, heedless of the commercial data mining that preys upon our freely given personal information, or our willingness to trust government to mine our personal data and our international telephone calls in search of glints of possible terrorist activities.

And, Mr. Keller is not as disappointed with the behavior of the Journal News as he appears to be with the newspaper’s critics. Instead of dismissing those of the critics who are grossly uncivilized, he writes that “the striking thing [about the criticism, ed.] was the volume and venom of the reader backlash: thousands of comments — and not only from gun owners — overwhelmingly outraged, some of them suggesting that Journal News journalists deserved to have their identities stolen, their homes burgled, their children taunted or, predictably, to be shot.”

Next to the critics of the Journal News, Mr. Keller reserves his sharpest disapproval for us. “When it comes to privacy,” he writes, “we are all hypocrites. We howl when a newspaper publishes public records about personal behavior. At the same time, we are acquiescing in a much more sweeping erosion of our privacy — government surveillance, corporate data-mining, political microtargeting, hacker invasions — with no comparable outpouring of protest. As a society we have no coherent view of what information is worth defending and how to defend it.”

At the end of his long excursion and of his column, Mr. Keller offers what cannot be described as other than a mild and oblique criticism of the Journal News exposure of lawful gun owners — he says that for him, it’s a “close call.”

“But when you are going to make a sizable population of law-abiding citizens feel violated, you have to ask yourself, what is the offsetting gain?” he asks. “In this case, I think, not much. The information The Journal News provided its readers is so far from complete as to be misleading. The public records identify only legal handguns. They tell you nothing about the neighbor who has an equally legal and equally lethal rifle or shotgun, let alone an illegal weapon. The publication has not spurred a healthy debate; it has merely escalated a shouting match, and given the N.R.A. a new rallying cry. The outcry may even provoke state legislatures to withdraw gun databases from public records, so they will not be available when they might really be useful. It’s a close call, but I’d have found a different way to make the point.”

What point is that, Mr. Keller? What point did the Journal News set out to make?