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Wednesday, November 22, 2017

In a time before social media, libel attorneys often advised newspaper editors that the place where libel happens most often is not on the news or features pages. Instead, we were warned that the letters to the editor page was a breeding ground for falsehoods.

That is why most credible newspaper companies got into the habit of contacting their letter writers to make sure that there was legitimacy to the letter.

With the advent of blogs, the variety of social media and the ability of readers to respond with ugly comments and not even provide so much as a real name to go with their opinion, editors would spend so much time going through threads and then comments on articles that it became difficult to keep the letters accountable.

I found that many readers got drunk with angry courage when they didn’t have to identify themselves. And shame on them. In my over 30 years of journalistic experience, I discovered the bottom feeder of writers, who responded to an article I wrote commented with a thread hoping that my daughters would be “barren,” unable to have children.

The thread came in during the sleeping hours, and I didn’t see it until mid-morning the next day. By that time I had received a handful of phone calls from readers who had seen the despicable thread. By the way, my daughters were in high school and middle school at the time.

In their own youth groups such as B’nei Akiva and NCSY, other children asked them about what they also had seen on the internet. Yes, children read blogs and articles as well.

There was a second incident I’ll tell about as well. I had written an article that involved Orthodox teens who were off the derech in serious trouble with substance abuse and sexual promiscuity. When the article was published, I received a two-page letter sent to my home that again was vicious in its criticisms of these kids as “worthless,” and wishing that I would take my family and move somewhere else, saying I wasn’t welcome in the community any longer. The letter was unsigned.

In recent weeks with such as issues as Charlottesville, the failure of Sen. Cory Booker to back the Taylor Force Act and the continuing growing threat of Iran to Israel, where are the meanest comments coming from? The eruvin controversy.

We’ve sadly witnessed the overt earmarks of anti-Semitism in places like Mahwah. And where we’ve seen the manifestations of these bigoted opinions are on The Jewish Link Facebook page and our letters pages in addition to other social network sites and media companies.

Where the bravado of false courage finds its darkest alley is when it is accompanied by personal attacks against other letter writers and even Jewish Link editorial staffers. A letter should be “to the editor” not “about the editor” or his or her credibility or community standing. These letters cross the line into loshon hora territory.

It is sometimes forgotten that our staffers and many of our letter writers are living in your neighborhood, sending their children to the same schools, shopping in the same supermarkets or even davening in the same sacred spaces of worship.

Yes, it’s fine to write a letter about an issue, take it apart, agree with a publication’s stance, or disagree with it, including this one’s. But remember that you could just as easily pick up the phone and make an appointment to address an issue with an editor or publisher. And we’d be happy to. Bring your facts and your courage to the office or, at the very least, the telephone.

Nothing gets done constructively in a letter or comment that comes across as an attack.

You can get your point across in a way that is a Kiddush Hashem. Nowhere is it written that a newspaper should be a dumping ground or an attack zone.

Let’s have a community conversation, and let’s make sure it reflects the spirit of respect and a safe place where differing points of view are permitted, not punished.

The letters page still worries me and that concern is made exponential by Facebook and other social media.

And while it might not be libelous, per se, I still believe the warnings of the attorneys who advised me years ago still stand the test of time. The letters page and/or now social media page can be one of the most divisive places in media. Treat issues with fact and interpretation; but give people your respect.

In Jewish community journalism, know that children, spouses, family members and friends will be reading. Know also that an ugly, snide comment will delegitimize your point of view and tell the public all that we need to know… about you.

By Phil Jacobs

 Phil Jacobs, the former editor of the Baltimore Jewish Times and the Washington Jewish Week, is Associate Editor of The Jewish Link.