There’s a line in the animated Disney movie Aladdin when the Genie explains the rules regarding three wishes. Transforming his face into the spitting image of William F. Buckley, the Genie says, “There are a few, uh, provisos. Ah, a couple of quid pro quo.”
Now that Kane County Connects has let the Genie out of the bottle by encouraging letters to the editor on our new opinion page, it’s probably a good idea to add a couple provisos and quid pro quo of our own.
But before we go into the details, a few sentences on the “why.”
We launched the opinion page because I feel strongly that community engagement ought to be part of any community outreach initiative and because I think there’s genuine reader interest in what other people have to say, whether those people are folks we elected to office or the neighbor down the street.
We also created the page because, for a lot of years now, I’ve longed for a place in the electronic medium where people could engage in intelligent, civil, civic dialogue.
When I was editor of Geneva and Batavia Patch, I appreciated that people could interact online in a robust and (at that time) very visible comments field. But I also felt awful about the mean-spirited nature of a lot of the comments — the personal attacks, the negativity, the Internet trolls, the winking free pass that allowed commenters to shoot darts while hiding behind a cloak of anonymity.
Maybe it’s my print roots, more likely it’s a weird combination of naivete and hubris, but I still believe it’s possible to create a healthy, online forum — a place where people can exchange ideas, agree to disagree and debate important, relevant local issues without allowing the conversation to decompose into the rhetorical equivalent of a WWF steel cage match.
And I hope that place is right here on Kane County Connects.
As I said when we introduced the page, the object is to provide a safe place for citizens and public officials to speak their minds, and we’re going to take as many steps as we need to ensure that happens. For the time being, that means we’ll move forward prudently and make sure first to do no harm.
We’ve already asked that each letter writer provide his or her full name for publication, plus address and telephone number for verification. We said we won’t print any letters that contain personal attacks and asked writers to provide links from reliable sources to back up statements of fact.
We’re also going to take these four steps:
(1) For the first month (the balance of October), we’re going to limit each letter writer to one post. Hopefully, that will allow a number of voices to emerge, and provide some assurance that the opinion page won’t be co-opted by any one person.
(2) We’ve turned off the comments feature on KaneCountyConnects.com. That’s for now, at least, and it’s for a couple reasons. The first is to avoid a situation where a person or group of people can use the comments field to malign the letter writer or guest essayist. The second is the simple, practical reality that Kane County Connects is a one-man band, and it’s too hard for one person to moderate the comments field in real time.
(3) We’ll make adjustments as necessary. No set of rules is going to be perfect, and I’m sure some situations will pop up that I haven’t anticipated. I think any worthy endeavor has to be a little flexible, and we have to be willing to adapt and improve.
(4) We’ll evaluate our progress. If the rules are too strict and participants’ conduct is impeccable, maybe we can relax some of these hard standards. If people don’t play nicely in the sandbox, we’ll chalk it up to experience and pull the plug on our grand civics experiment.
So far, I’ve talked too much about what the opinion page should not be rather than what it can and should be, and if nothing else, it ought to be welcoming, stimulating and fun.
As I said earlier, the idea is to provide a safe place for citizens and public officials to speak their minds on issues, to state or clarify a position, to compliment or celebrate some of the great people, businesses, organizations or events in Kane County — without fear of Internet trolls, character assassination or political attacks.
Can it be done — and done well? I don’t know, but now that the Genie’s out of the bottle, that is my one, true wish.
Kane County Connects Editor