Why are we doing this?
Cyberspace is full of blogs. The htrnews.com site is one of them. Until now it has been the sole conduit for public comment on the internet for news stories and in particular politics that is specific to Manitowoc.
It would be great to leave it that way. The Herald Time Reporter is about the only news gathering agency in the community of any consequence and deofspite its flaws at least topics get raised. But the blog at the HTR has developed some troubling attributes in recent months. Or, at least I have only just become fully aware of them.
The expectation of a newspaper is that it delivers news and opinion in as an unfettered form as is reasonably possible. Certainly, blogs can be a problem due to the often anonymous nature of contributors. As such it can be a bit bruising at time. Riding herd on a collection of bloggers who think they are speaking under cover can be a daunting task and the i-cowboys there have had my sympathy at times.
But the pattern that has arisen recently is more than troubling. It has always been my assumption and I think the assumption of most who use the service that the opinions and comments (except for abuse, vulgarity and such) are the whole blog and nothing but the blog. I know now that they are not.
I first experienced trouble at the hands of Charlie Matthews who made it a regular practice to call me at home after I posted a blog that he obviously took exception to. While I found it irritating I obliged him on the fond hope that he was actually trying to glean background information for an article about the comment I had made. No such article was ever printed that I am aware of.
When I mentioned his most recent call in a blog the entry was deleted as a "violation of terms of service". When I posted it again the same deletion occurred. I protested publicly and eventually did receive a call from Steve Reed who acknowledged the event and apologized. (Although I felt it was somewhat left handed) I continue to view the events as harassment.
Time went by and some of my comments were deleted but most weren't. Some may have been deserved and others not.
In recent weeks the situation has gotten much worse. A series of on line arguments took place between myself and some bloggers who, while anonymous obviously see themselves as upright (and upper class) citizens for whom I have no truck. Unable to quiet me on key issues mostly involving County Exec and Assemblyman Bob Ziegelbauer they resorted to making bogus claims that I threatened them. One went so far as to post that he was concerned that I might "... show up at [his] house ringing the doorbell in the middle of the night." Another who no longer lives in Manitowoc said he was concerned for his mother. It can only be imagined what exchanges might have occurred between the HTR staff and these individuals (who are probably known to Mr. Reed and company).
Of course, no such threats were ever made and interpreting my comments as such would have been beyond ludicrous by any impartial party. In fact the alleged threats were supposed to have been made as part of a discussion about the credibility of anonymous blogs vs. those made by self identified people such as myself.
None the less, I found that my blogs had in fact been blocked and a notice indicating inappropriate content was tagged on my profile page pending review. No such content ever existed and no reasonably cognizant person could have interpreted those comments as anything but relevant to the context of the discussion. In fact I did use the word "retribution" but that post was in specific reference to County employees who did in fact face a policy of expressed retribution by Mr. Ziegelbauer for speaking in public about County business without his consent. Yet that post was specifically cited as the justification.
The third event came in the discussion about Mr. Andrew Schneider's announcement of candidacy for the County Exec job in addition to the incumbent and Carla Halverson who has been running for some time. The comments under that news item quickly descended into a mud slinging event when bloggers began posting (dis)information gleaned from the Wisconsin Circuit Court Access system known as CCAP. In checking the system myself I noted that most of the records called by that name were in fact an entirely different (and in fact multiple) men sharing the same name which I posted with a warning that things on CCAP must be evaluated with care.
As the bloggers ran away with what I felt with a series of half truths I did a little more checking and pointed out that you could put other local pols to the same test and that someone named Robert Ziegelbauer has had his license revoked and recently charged with an OWI.
I did not realize that anything was wrong for some time until another blogger noted that ALL of my posts had in fact, disappeared! I did not know it because under my login each and every one of them still appeared as normal. But when I attempted to see the same comments without logging in, they were in fact - all gone...
No notice was posted. No email was sent. No filler was left to mark the place where my comment had been. No explanation was given.
I emailed the HTR and a day later received the following response:
Your profile has been blocked from htrnews.com due to inappropriate comments regarding a public official. Upon investigation of your comments in CCAP, it was concluded that your remarks could not be accurate. After discussion with my editor, it was decided to block your profile for a two week "timeout" of sorts. Upon the passage of two weeks, you will again be able to participate in the forums on htrnews.com, but your comments will be monitored closely.
Thank you for your inquiry.
Online and Niche Products Editor
Herald Times Reporter
This of course is a gross distortion of my actual comment which clearly stated that this was NOT the County Exec and did in fact contain an explicit warning to that effect.
Furthermore, the same sort of comments comments that made about Mr. Schnieder were left intact. Is he not a public official as well?
In discussing HTR blog and editorial policy with Mr. Reed in the past I have been given the explanation that it is their website and they can administer it as they will. This is essentially the corporate version of the conservative's golden rule. "He who has the gold makes the rules."
People believe that the htr blog is a free and open exchange of ideas. Certainly, maintaining civil standards is important on any blog. There are similar standards posted here on blogspot. But the allegations of threats and false accusations against "a public official" are pure fabrications giving Mr. Reed's only the thinnest veneer of credibility. In a free speech discussion one at least has the ability to defend himself against such allegations. But in this case even the imposed sanction was hidden from plain view. Mr. Reed and Ms. Hanson were judge, jury and executioners without any public judgement on the veracity of their charges and no possibility of appeal. The altered discussion that resulted was considerably less than free speech at work as even posts by other bloggers referencing my comments were also deleted effectively covering up the deletions.
For all of these reasons I think that some attempt to have a public discussion about affairs in Manitowoc County at large have to be made in a forum outside the control of the Gannett corporate structure. Short of starting an alternative paper (a useless endeavor given the condition of news print in general). One way to counter them is to offer alternatives and the web is perhaps the best option to do that.
Perhaps this blog is just a candle under bushel basket hidden deep in the electron forest. But at least here we will try to say the things that need to be said.
Lets see where it goes.
Bernard J. Starzewski