Earlier this month, the Burbank Leader and Glendale News-Press ran an editorial praising the implementation of the Affordable Care Act — aka "Obamacare" — and what we saw as being the positive local impacts of the federal law.
Given that a large number of people in our communities are either uninsured or underinsured, the increased health of such individuals, we argued, would be good for us all. That is, good for us here, in our blocks and streets and neighborhoods, not just a theoretical "good" as determined by faceless suits in Washington, D.C.
Given that the rhetoric on both sides of this issue has risen to high camp, I was far from shocked that some people were not pleased with this position. Several even wrote letters — ones we published — to say they would cancel their subscriptions because of our stance. Another opaquely warned about a "fifth column," bent on destroying the American republic.
However, this highlights a troubling trend. More and more, people decide their intellectual, political or religious opponents are not just wrong, but evil. This is supremely unhelpful, as it results in a cycle of ever-more-rigid stances, fortified by an echo chamber of like minds. Why, after all, would you try to see eye-to-eye with the devil?
Deciding to cancel a paper because you disagree with an editorial position is not only silly, but disingenuous. Were I a betting man — and, in fact, I am — I would wager that these individuals will not follow through with their treat or will simply continue to read us online.
Why? Though Burbank and Glendale are each relatively large in size, and in some states would be an area's main city, they often feel like small towns. Everyone knows one another, it seems, or believes they do.
Additionally, given the mega-metropolis directly to the south, issues of vital importance here get scant play by the region's largest newspapers and broadcasters. So, with no disrespect to my journalism colleagues, if you want to know what's happening in Burbank or Glendale, you have to read the News-Press or Leader.
I don't say this to be arrogant, nor do I claim that our publications are perfect. But our staff is larger, more experienced and better sourced than that of any of our local competitors, and we have won local, state and even national awards for our coverage.
Our papers have been in these communities for more than a century. We earned our reputation through sweat and hard work, and are as much of an institution as the local governments and schools we cover.
There is an old newspaper adage that trying to understand a community by reading letters to the editor produces a warped view of reality. Most people write in for one of three main reasons: they're really happy about something; they're really angry about something, or they have a hobby of writing letters to the editor.
I will freely admit, though, that the letters-to-the-editor entries are worlds better than what you might see online. Sometimes it's so bad, it makes me wonder its value. Alicia Shepard, the former ombudsman for NPR, said it best when she wrote in 2011 that most online conversations were an exercise in "faux democracy," noting something she called the "90-9-1" principal.
That is, 90% of readers will read articles online and move on, while 9% will comment on an occasional basis.
"That leaves roughly 1% who dominate the online conversation, and among this smaller number is found the digital equivalent of the loudest drunk in the bar," she wrote.
"Their messages are often rude and accusatory; they indicate little interest in joining a conversation, yet they succeed in scaring off those who might want to truly engage."
I agree, but I don't really have a solution, at least not one that I can affect on my own.
We do our best to police the comments, removing racist or bigoted rants, off-topic or bizarre posts, or just plain cruel personal attacks. But there isn't enough time to do a complete job, and it's not an easy one. One's personal attack is another's pointed opinion.
But I hold out hope that more people will decide to have their opinions heard, both in print and online. In that way, we might be able to turn this exercise of faux democracy into one better reflective of our communities.
So, whatever your opinion, share it. Do it often, and your fellow readers — and this editor — might just get a better idea of what people in this community really care about.