Public disputes are not pretty. Ever. It doesn't matter if it is a couple splitting up after a marriage, a business relationship flying apart, or disagreements between friends, when the disputes are taken public, they take on an ugliness that does not easily fade from memory.
Over my 50+ years, I've watched the nature of public disputes evolve. When I was young, these disagreements would occasionally involve shouting and arguing in public. Less frequently, it might involve signs traced into dust on vehicles or written in shoe polish on windows of cars and houses.
Our world of advanced technology has changed all that and made disputes more immediate and available to a greater number of people. On facebook, it is not uncommon to see people venting their anger at someone else, and taking very public every indiscretion and slight that has ever occurred. Everyone looks on, slightly awed at the passion and the level of venom, and wonders when it will end.
Or, it could be a flyer, passed around from person to person, copied repeatedly. The flyer that went around in Mason last week came through my office for a while. When people ask to make copies, I go out of my way to NOT notice what is on the material. I do this out of respect for their own privacy, making the assumption that most people would have prefered to have been able to do the copying at home; but, have found the next best option.
After I had finished the copies, I was given one of the flyers and finally read it.
It was not a letter to the editor, so I knew that I wouldn't be putting it in the paper under that section. It was a definite opinion piece rather than an article, so I knew it didn't belong in the regular body of the paper. After consideration, I finally decided that this was a private quarrel, and not one that needed to involve the public newspaper of a community.
And then I began to hear from people all over town who had received copies of the flyer. They wondered if I was going to publish the "story," even though they had not checked to find out two important things: 1) how true were the accusations made in the flyer; and, 2) what was the reason for their disclosure.
It took only a few phone calls to discover that, much like the drivel that flows into my email on a daily basis, the factual basis was shaky, at best. A chat with Sheriff Nixon, who had already begun his own research, confirmed what I had learned. Some youthful indiscretions, though questionable in morality, had not been of legal consequence. I know of very few people, whether in law enforcement, politics, the pulpit or in commerce, who have not had such indiscretions.
The reason was the part that bothered me. The charges in the flyer were not intended to make someone look better; but, rather, to make someone else look bad. In a court of law, a judge would instruct an attorney using such tactics to drop the issue for lack of relevance to the case at hand. But, this was the court of public opinion, not a court of law, and in this court, people often don't care about facts - they care about swaying the public.
One of the most difficult parts of this job is having to play referee when these types of situations occur. I will never win in such moments. One side or the other will always say that I took sides, or that I was unfair, even when I try to use the same rules and guidelines each time. But, I never have a problem making a decision not to publish something that has, as its sole purpose, to do harm. There is no public good in destroying someone's reputation just to "get even."
Sheriff Nixon has responded to the flyer with a formal "Letter to the Editor" this week. He submitted it in that format, and he went out of his way to not "point fingers" or "name names" so that no one else would have to be injured in this fight. If you want to say I took sides, I guess you would be right, as I decided to take the side of professionalism and decorum.
I wouldn't be surprised to see my name on the next flyer that goes around. I've had more than my share of youthful indiscretions and escapades over the years, and if you want to know about them, just ask me. I don't deny my past, and feel that the things I've done have helped to form me into the person I've become.
And, always remember the admonition of President Bill Clinton concerning the problem with picking a fight with the press: "Never pick a fight with someone that buys ink by the barrel."
It’s all just my opinion.