By Corinne Colbert
Athens NEWS Editor
Last week, someone sent this comment for The Athens Voice: “Joe Burrow let Athens down. It is shameful that he didn’t win the Super Bowl. Athens deserves better.”
That comment upset a lot of people, who took the original poster to task. “Shameful is your callous lack of awareness for all the contributions Joe has brought Athens County off the field,” wrote one responder. “Joe Burrow hasn’t let Athens down,” wrote another. “As a matter of fact, he’s a hero to us.”
Some of people’s anger was directed at The Athens News for publishing the comment. “After everything he has done for the food bank, it showed poor taste that you would even print that,” one person wrote to the Voice. “That comment is one of the dumbest I have ever read, but publishing it is even dumber,” read another email. “What were you thinking?” (See the Athens Voice on page 5 for full comments.)
I knew as soon as I read the submission that it would trigger a strong reaction. The writer’s intent is not clear: Was the comment made in earnest or intended to be sarcastic? I don’t know, and the writer didn’t respond to my query about it.
It doesn’t matter, really. Items in the Voice do not represent the opinions or beliefs of The Athens News. (We think Joe is the bee’s knees, y’all.)
For months, readers have accused me of censoring the Voice by pointing out errors of fact in some posts, or refusing to publish submissions that promote conspiracy theories or misinformation. In fact, very few posts have actually been rejected outright; my aim is not to suppress speech, but to prevent the News from being a platform for fake news. Better to append an editor’s note than to ignore a comment altogether, is my thinking. In this case, though, there were no facts to correct.
Nor was it a personal attack, which requires abusive language that derides someone’s origin, race, ethnicity, age, religious beliefs, sexual preferences, physical appearance, sex or gender identity, or physical, emotional or neurological disability. The comment is a statement of the writer’s perception of Joe Burrow’s performance and its reflection on Athens. It was published in print and online on pages clearly marked “opinion.”
Voice comments about other public figures are frequently far more harsh. For example, the Feb. 9 issue of the News included a Voice comment that referred to Athens Mayor Steve Patterson as a “duplicitous DINO” and a “mean-spirited reprobate.” No one said a word about it. Why is it OK for an anonymous keyboard warrior to stridently criticize an elected official, but not OK for someone to express disappointment in a professional football player’s performance?
People reacted strongly because Joe Burrow is a local hero not only for his sports prowess but also for his public humility and generosity. Public officials, like the mayor, just don’t inspire the same kind of excitement or pride, nor should they; the tribalism that makes athletic competition so enjoyable is poisonous to democracy.
But ethically, I can’t base decisions about what to publish on who’s beloved and who’s not. Independence from external influences is a fundamental tenet of journalism. Just as advertising cannot be allowed to dictate our news coverage, public sentiment can’t be allowed affect our opinion pages. So while I strongly disagree with the comment, I did not suppress it — and I stand by that decision.
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