When posting a comment at The Wall Street Journal’s new forum for digital subscribers, Fr Gordon MacRae found something rare in online comments: total civility.
In my post, “When the Caged Bird Just Can’t Sing,” last year, I introduced TSW readers to my cranky old electronic Smith Corona typewriter. It just suffered one of its “senior moments” which seem to happen in extremes of weather. On hot, humid summer days, or when cold dry winter air causes static, I sometimes turn on my old typewriter and see the message, “Memory Lost” on its little one-inch screen.
Sometimes the loss is catastrophic, often an entire post that I labored to finish just the night before and now must start over. Other times, like today, the memory loss includes only words I’ve added to the machine’s built-in spellchecker such as names and places.
To give you a sense of the era in which this archaic model came into being, I just re-added for the umpteenth time the words: Internet, blog, blogger, online, and website. None of those words existed when this electronic fossil was manufactured. While I was doing that, to rub my nose in the point a little further, a new prisoner here, 19 years old, stopped at my cell door and asked, “What IS that thing?” “It’s a typewriter,” I answered. “Wow!” said the kid as he strained for a closer look. “I’ve heard of them, but I’ve never seen one before!”
If that wasn’t enough to drive home to me the fossilization of how I experience time in prison, I told our friend Pornchai Maximilian last week that I’m thinking of signing up for a prison intramural basketball team this fall. “Is your will up to date?” he asked. I told him that I’m thinking of signing up for one of “the dinosaur league” teams for the over-40 crowd. “Well” – and I have to write this just as Pornchai said it – “Let’s hope the dinosaurs are brontosauruses and not T-Rexses!”
Anyway, the point of that long introduction before getting to the point is that I am not very well equipped to be doing any of what I am attempting to do behind These Stone Walls. The whole purpose of TSW is to give a voice in the Catholic public square to someone otherwise silenced by the story of priesthood mired in Catholic scandal.
The fact is that from a prison cell, I’m tasked with engaging the on-line discourse – in real time and in the real world – in news stories about the Catholic Church and priesthood. And I have to do this with no online access whatsoever, with even vastly limited mail and telephone access, using a communications device, a mere typewriter, that was manufactured in 1984, ten years before I went to prison.
Comments posted by others on news stories about Catholics and their priests are often printed and mailed to me. Sometimes, by the time I am able to post a comment of my own in response, a week has passed since the article was published. Needless to say, I am the underdog in any Catholic online discussion of priesthood and the public perception of priests suspected of both holy and unholy things. I sometimes feel compelled to respond to those perceptions, and when I simply cannot, I feel silenced.
I’ve noticed from many of the comments sent to me from around the Catholic blogosphere (excuse me while I add that to the spellchecker!) that the Catholic Church and priesthood evoke some of the furthest extremes in points of view, and some of those extremes are not very well-informed, or even very civil. If you’ve ever lurked around comments posted about the Catholic Church and priests on news or opinion column at The New York Times or the Kansas City Star, or even the National Catholic Reporter, then you know exactly what I mean.
“HOLY HOSTILITY, BATMAN!”
I have written two past posts about civility and the occasional lack thereof in the world of Catholic blogs and the comments they publish. The first was “Sticks and Stones: My Incendiary Blog Post on Catholic Civil Discourse.” The second, which focused entirely on hostile comments, was “Holy Hostility, Batman: When the Gloves Come Off on Catholic Blogs.” In both posts, I chided Catholic bloggers and publications for choosing quantity over quality by failing to moderate comments for basic civility, something that I think is a sacred duty for those who manage a Catholic blog and publish their thoughts online.
Some sites want to give the impression that they are widely read, so they opt for volume alone, allowing any and all voices regardless of tone or toxicity. Some sites allow anonymous comments or comments posted using fake screen names. This enables a single commenter to appear as multiple persons with the same opinion, a now well known tactic of SNAP activists. In such an arena, some people take no responsibility for what they write, and anything goes. Hence TSW’s clear “Comments Policy.”
Two years ago, I was given a gift subscription to the print edition of The Wall Street Journal. It was no small gift as I discovered when I went to renew it last fall. The renewal took a chuck out of my budget, but it just had to be. In this setting, the WSJ provides a window to the world that I cannot otherwise see, and helps me greatly in writing – even when it’s done on the lowest tech device available short of hammer and chisel on a stone slab.
Renewing the WSJ was pricey, just over $300 which translates to abut six months’ pay for a prisoner. It was a bargain, however compared to The Boston Globe or The New York Times, both near or over $1,000 for a one-year, seven-day subscription. I was also swayed by the fact that the WSJ has been voted the most trusted news source in print, and has the largest number of print and digital subscribers.
I could have saved a lot of money had I been able to subscribe only to the WSJ’s online version. It’s a fraction of the cost of the daily print edition, but online access is not allowed in prison. I recently learned that an online subscription is included with the print edition I renewed this year. A friend was able to help me set up the required online subscriber profile page, and now I can comment on WSJ news and opinion features.
The WSJ has recently revised the way this happens, and by far for the better. Catholic blogs and other publications should take note of the WSJ’s new rules for posting comments at WSJ.com. Here’s an overview:
1. Anyone who is logged into their WSJ.com account can comment.
2. Real names are required, including full first and last name.
3. Be civil in addressing and referencing other WSJ commenters.
4. Objectionable content is forbidden, and can be reported.
5. WSJ may bar individuals who break our commenting rules.
Catholic publications and bloggers should follow the WSJ.com lead, for it separates the wheat from the chaff online, and vastly reduces the toxic waste that has been typical of the venom often aimed at the Catholic Church. If bloggers think readers are impressed by the volume of posted comments over quality, reason, and civility, think again. I have heard from many TSW readers who have unsubscribed to other blogs – even Catholic blogs – because wading through their comments can be discouraging.
THROUGH A CRACK IN THE WALL
For me to be able to comment on a news story, I must first see it. My copy of the WSJ arrives in the daily prison mail call at about 5:00 PM. Then if I read a story I want to comment on, I must wait for an available prisoner telephone, and sometimes that wait is many hours long. Then I must have someone who will accept my call (calls from this prison are charged to me and not the called party), find the article at WSJ.com, log into my WSJ.com profile, and then help me post my comment. There are two such people I may call for help with this, and both are notoriously busy. The same process is involved to answer messages, or comment on TSW’s Facebook and Linked-In pages.
So usually when I want to post a comment, I cannot do so until at least two or three days after the article in question was published. It goes without saying that I cannot comment often, but the WSJ.com reader page logs each comment. To date, I have commented eight times, the last being a July 8, 2014 WSJ article given the unfortunate and misleading title, “Pope Holds First Meeting With Priests’ Victims” by WSJ reporter, Liam Moloney. A funny thing happened on the way to the WSJ.com forum as I went to post my comment on that article.
When Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Dorothy Rabinowitz, wrote her third major article about my trial and imprisonment, in the WSJ, “The Trials of Father MacRae” (May 10, 2013), some 155 comments were posted within hours of publication. Most were positive. Some expressed shock at learning of the story. A smaller number took up the usual SNAP tactic of posting similar negative feedback using multiple screen names. Writer Ryan MacDonald analyzed those comments in an article entitled, “In Fr Gordon MacRae Case, Whack-A-Mole Justice Holds Court.”
Since then, WSJ.com launched its new comments policy requiring commenters to register with a profile page and post comments using real identities and full names. The result in tone, quality, and quantity of comments was immediate and shocking. When it took me two days to post on Liam Moloney’s article, “Pope Holds First Meeting With Priests’ Victims” I expected hundreds of comments including the usual anti-Catholic rants.
Among the new WSJ.com comments rules, however, is this: “We will also hide from view any comments made by a reader suspected of using a fake name.” When I finally posted my comment a full two days after the article was published, I was surprised to learn that it garnered only seventeen comments. Only seventeen of The Wall Street Journal’s 2.5 million print and digital subscribers posted comments on that story. Mine was the eighteenth, and there were only two or three posted after mine. The comments were consistently thoughtful, intelligent, civil, and void of any of the usual anti-Catholic rants so often associated with articles like this. Here is the comment I posted for those who cannot log in to read it at WSJ.com:
“It is typical of the media to give the last word to representatives of SNAP, an advocacy group with a demonstrated agenda. It is one thing for Barbara Blaine to make comments, sans any evidence whatsoever, that victimization by Catholic priests is an on-going phenomenon, but it is something else entirely for major news media to give credence to such witch-hunt language with no offer of proof. The true agenda of Blaine’s organization has been revealed many times and is readily available to those in the news media who want to cover this story with justice, and not just with hype. The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights has published extensively about media manipulation by SNAP, and here’s an example: http://126.96.36.199/snap-exposed-unmasking-the-survivors-network-of-those-abused-by-priests/ “
I was surprised that the WSJ’s Liam Moloney gave a soap box to Barbara Blaine, a founder of SNAP, an organization that has done far more for the agendas of contingency lawyers than the healing of victims of abuse. So I tried to balance that with a link to the Catholic League’s “SNAP Exposed.”
I was equally surprised to see that on that same day, USA Today published a similar article about the meetings between Pope Francis and abuse victims, but never even mentioned SNAP. It did, however, give the last word to Norbert Denef, described as “a German abuse reform advocate,” who called the Pope’s outreach to abuse victims “nothing more than a public relations effort.”
For justice and fairness in my own reporting of all this, I should also mention that on that same day, July 8, 2014, USA Today published a weekly column by DeWayne Wickham who called on President Obama to “Send Border Children to Guantanamo Bay.” Mr. Wickham argued that rather than let child refugees amassed at the U.S. southern border be treated as political pawns, “President Obama should send them to Guantanamo Bay.” DeWayne Wickham then contradicted himself when he seemed to advocate reducing those same children to the status of political pawns:
“Relocating them to Guantanamo would ratchet up the pressure on their home countries to repatriate them. No nation can long ignore the global attention that will follow their lost children to that naval base.” (DeWayne Wickham, USA Today)
Like many in the secular press, USA Today can be very selective about the welfare of children and what sorts of abuses rise to the level of an outrage. I wonder if others noted the duplicity, but I was unable to see the comments, or post one of my own.
IMPORTANT NOTE TO TSW READERS FROM FATHER GORDON:
Many of you have written in comments, email, and snail mail to inquire about Anthony Begin, our friend who has been in the prison medical unit with terminal cancer. We had not seen Anthony for a few weeks, but on Sunday, July 20, he was able to come to morning Mass in the prison chapel. During the Mass, he was Baptized and Confirmed and was received into full communion with the Church with the assistance of Father Bernard Campbell, OFM, CAP. Anthony attributed his conversion to the example of Divine Mercy he has seen so brightly in Pornchai Maximilian Moontri. This was a joyous occasion not only for Anthony, but for us.
Before returning to the medical unit for ongoing chemotherapy, though weakened and having lost a lot of weight, Anthony turned to me, put his hand on my shoulder, and said, “Please thank all those wonderful people who have sent me cards and prayers. This is what is getting me through. I have never encountered such grace.”
I want to thank our readers for this corporal work of mercy. If you wish to send Anthony a card to welcome him to a life of faith, here is the address:
Anthony Begin – #76810
P.O. Box 14
Concord, NH 03302-0014
The TSW “Contact” page explains the rules if you have questions about writing to a prisoner.