I wasn't surprised when I read that local students were part of a "racist hockey barrage on Twitter" after Washington Capitals' Joel Ward scored the winning goal against the Boston Bruins on April 25, and I agreed with the May 5 Times editorial on Superintendent Safier's "gutsy and right call on Twitter haters," later revised due to legal challenges.
But anyone who has ever read some of the anonymous online comments on the Times website (aka the "underground swamp") knows those students are merely following in the footsteps of their elders — and I wonder when the Times will make a similar "gutsy and right call" on disgusting anonymous comments.
Many anonymous posts consist of harmless and often, humorous jibes among people who seem to enjoy arguing with each other. If someone complains about a particularly obnoxious comment, or if the moderator deems it should be taken down, it is. But often, it's already fulfilled the goal of the coward who strikes at someone, protected by what I call "swamp rules" that keep his or her identity secret.
Those comments would never have been published in print. Writers of letters to the editor must include names, addresses and a phone number. In addition, letters and columns are edited while online comments are "moderated" — apparently by those who read them and occasionally object to anonymous insults.
I've been writing columns for the Times since 1992, when Peter Watson was publisher, Meredith Fine editor and Dianne Palmer the community editor. If there were online comments in those days, I wasn't aware of them because I didn't own a computer.
I used a word processor and hand-delivered my typed "My View" submissions to the paper.
Five years later, Meredith offered me a position as a paid columnist, with deadlines every two weeks. That lasted until the Times was purchased by Eagle Tribune Publishing Company.
After Meredith left, one of my columns was edited so badly by her replacement that I didn't recognize it. I left the paper and returned when a new editor invited me back as a monthly columnist without pay in December 2003.
Since that time, there have been several editors I've enjoyed working with, and Ray Lamont is one of them. But now that I have a computer and have seen what I was blissfully unaware of before, I find it difficult to understand why there are precise standards for print material while what I would call character assassination and disgusting allegations are regularly posted anonymously among the online comments.
One example: A local tragedy on the front pages of newspapers and television newscasts about a child still missing after playing on the beach with her mother and sister in April. What began as a groundswell of cooperation and compassion among local and state police, Coast Guard and Harbor Patrol personnel, as well as ordinary citizens on the surface, has sometimes disintegrated into insinuations by anonymous "swamp experts" about the family.
What gives online critics the right to criticize and condemn their neighbors without any consideration of their feelings or problems? Unfortunately, it's a byproduct of the Internet itself where, it seems, anyone can say anything about anybody without fear of being identified or questioned.
But the Gloucester Daily Times doesn't need to give them a platform for cruelty. If you agree that online writers should not be allowed to spew hatred on the Times website, I urge you to send letters to the editor on this subject — signed letters that are truly "fit to print."
Once your letter is published, however, brace yourself for retaliation from those who hide under rocks in the swamp.
Eileen Ford lives in Rockport and is a regular Times columnist.