Monday, June 23, 2008

No Freedom to Curse? SH!T

This might not seem like a newsworthy story – but this is much more than a story about a local forum. It is also a story about media manipulation, hacking mass media, freedom of speech, privacy (and its abuses), and corporate control of our information – in one of the most remote towns in the United States.

Question: Why would the editor of the Ely Times shut down the popular comments section of their online articles?

The editor's excuse for shutting down the comments section was that disguised cuss words were being used. But that so much sounds like a BS cover story. Most likely, there were many reasons. They probably could be summed up as the headaches weren't worth the profits. But, what were the headaches? That is the critical question.

The Ely Times is a small town newspaper that is owned by a far off corporation. This newspaper is not a big cash cow. So, at first it seems a little strange that some corporation would be interested in owning a weekly newspaper for a town of only 5000 people. If a fourth of the people in Ely buy the paper, that doesn't add up to $1000 a week in sales. On the other hand, the Ely Times is the only source of local news here. Which means that if they own the paper, they control what the people of this town know.

Though their news reporting isn't that bad, even a casual observer can tell that the Ely Times editorials are less objective than even Fox News. They have viciously attacked Nevada's Democratic Senator Harry Reid, but barely even mentioned Nevada's Republican Senator John Ensign. They only publish right wing pundits on their opinion pages. And they obsess on discrediting global warming.

If you don't live in Ely, you might wonder why global warming should be such an issue. But it is – because two corporations are planning to build coal-fired power plants nearby. If all seven units get built, that will mean these corporations will be burning over 15 million tons of coal a year within 35 miles of Ely. That ought to be frightening enough to get any town riled up. But the residents of Ely are passive – and some are even welcoming these massive polluters. Its amazing. How could the people here be so fooled (or intimidated)?

There is one more issue of grave importance to this area. The Las Vegas water grab of Central Great Basin high desert groundwater. Las Vegas intends to take a river of water from a place that has no rivers. This will ultimately destroy the environment, the economy, and culture of Eastern Nevada. Everyone here is against it, but there is no organized local resistance in Ely. Why?

I don't blame the Ely Times for all of Ely's ills. But something is not quite right. Ignorance is not bliss. The locals are ill informed. And I can blame that on the Ely Times. I suspect that the Ely Times reporters and editors aren't all that independent from the paper's corporate owners. And I'm convinced that the corporate owners of this newspaper don't give a damn about Ely. This little town is almost screaming for a second, more independent newspaper.

But, up until now, that hasn't been necessary. There has been a forum for independent input. There has been a forum for locals to post comments about the Ely Times articles online. And in the past few months, I have made prodigious use of these comment posts. You might go so far as to say that I have hacked into their system. Whenever an editorial came out claiming that global warming was in doubt, I would have a definitive reply posted within a day. Whenever a political attack or propaganda sounding statement was made, I would step in and clear the air. This must have been extraordinarily frustrating for the powers that be.

You could tell I was making a difference. The paper reduced their attacks on Harry Reid. They toned down their attacks on environmentalists. And they stopped printing my letters to the editor.

I wasn't the only one hacking into the Ely Times comment sections, however. There was at least one rep from the coal industry. His job was simple; denigrate anyone who spoke out against the coal-fired power plants. This had a multi-faceted effect. It gave the appearance that there were violent people who would hurt anyone who spoke out against the coal-burners. It gave the appearance that the coal-burners were popular. It put doubts in the minds of casual observers that those against the coal-fired power plants knew what they were talking about. And it made the posting experience painful for anyone who spoke out against coal pollution. In other words, this hacker had succeeded in shutting down any resistance online.

But I figured him out. I realized that the more I posted, the more he would attack me, and the more he would look like a raving jerk. After a time, I was able to show, within a reasonable doubt, that he somehow was associated with the coal industry and that his “friends” were likely just other aliases of his.

His slanderous attacks were likely part of the reason the editor of the Ely Times lost faith in the comments sections. But I dealt with them, and in the end; anyone who paid attention knew I was the more likable, honest, and informed person.

I knew that I was accomplishing something when I was away for a week. When I came back and checked the comments sections, I saw that others had taken the responsibility to confront this jerk – and they had done a great job. The community was starting to speak out against what we all know is a dangerous situation. It was beautiful!

But it wasn't beautiful for my online nemesis. With no real arguments to defend his position, and only rude comments to belittle his opposition; he, and the coal industry that was paying him, were losing the battle of minds. The tide was starting to turn against the coal-fired power plants and towards truly clean energy generation.

I can only guess what coal industry people must have been thinking. But I wouldn't be surprised if they put pressure on the parent company of the Ely Times to do something (to keep us ignorant and disorganized).

During this time, I kept sending letters to the editor; hoping that they would print them. By the fourth letter, it became obvious that they had stopped publishing my letters. I sent it three times anyway, with no luck.

I felt it was time for somewhat drastic action. We were running out of time to do something about the water grab. And I needed a video clip to show that Ely really was against the water grab. So, I posted my letter to the Editor in the comments section of all of the opinion pages.

I plead with the citizens of Ely to declare independence from Southern Nevada Water Authority. The perfect time would be the upcoming Independence Day parade. Even if all the people of Ely did was wear an armband, it would look impressive on press releases.

To my surprise; the pro-coal character assassins went crazy with hate. Up until then, they didn't seem to care about the water grab. But when it started to look like I might convince the people of Ely to organize, they came after me like I'd said something about coal.

And within a couple of days, the Editor of the Ely Times announced that they would be shutting down the comments sections.

Question: Who benefits from the shutting down of the comments sections?

The coal industry will still be able to get their articles published.

SNWA won't have as active a resistance from Ely.

Local politicians won't have things said about them online (that people would be afraid to say in public).

Do some people really want to keep us ignorant and weak? Absolutely. You'd be a fool to think otherwise. Some people will make millions (at our expense) if we do nothing to stop them. Is the Ely Times in on it? Possibly, but it's likely more complicated than that.

I think the Editor of the Ely Times was chosen for his radical political opinions. He may not feel pressured by higher ups. I also suspect he has the best of intentions. But there is only so much he is willing to put up with – from influential people, from us, and from zealots for clean speech.

People can be rude when they are anonymous. They have said rude things about local politicians and the powers that be. (click the picture above for an example)

When you combine that with minority opinion being aired, people really speaking their minds, and efforts to organize against powerful corporations; all of the cards are stacked against a free and anonymous forum.

Speak up if you're not happy about this.

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