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Other view: Preserve civil debate in a new-media world

We're all entitled to our opinions, and some opinions are strongly held. Unfortunately, the fastest-growing forums for people to speak their mind are online free-for-alls that treat facts and lies as equals. Many have few or no rules, creating an...

We're all entitled to our opinions, and some opinions are strongly held. Unfortunately, the fastest-growing forums for people to speak their mind are online free-for-alls that treat facts and lies as equals. Many have few or no rules, creating an atmosphere of intimidation that turns off the shy, the mannerly and those demanding intelligent conversation.

The last refuge for standards is in some general-interest newspapers and magazines, as well as certain Web sites and broadcasts. Without them, there would be few safe places for the public to express its views and intelligently address the dilemmas of the day.

The National Conference of Editorial Writers (ncew.org) plays an essential role in keeping alive the science and art of healthy public debate. The NCEW's members are editorial writers, editors, columnists, broadcasters, cartoonists and online professionals from across the U.S. and Canada and the ideological spectrum. News Tribune Editorial Page Editor Chuck Frederick is a member.

Many newspaper readers fail to understand the difference between editorials, which reflect the organization's institutional viewpoint, and other parts of the commentary pages, which ideally contain a wide variety of opinions. Indeed, it is an extraordinary trait of American journalism that most newspapers routinely run opinions opposed to their editorials. The NCEW seeks to preserve that tradition.

The NCEW recently launched its Civility Project to help professional opinion writers and editors and the public navigate the rapids of new media. Should Web sites start requiring all commenters to reveal their identities? Many now just use screen names. Are some opinions so beyond the pale that they should be banned? What about four-letter words? Are some passable and others not? Should opinions, whether online or in print, be much more carefully culled for inaccuracies?

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"Let's be thinking about where we, individually, might draw the line between robust, hard-hitting, withering commentary and, on the other hand, cheap-shot, below-the-belt incivility," said the Civility Project's director, Frank Partsch, who was editorial page editor of the Omaha World-Herald for a quarter century. "Most of us know that that effectively scoring on a point of argument opens us to the accusation of mean-spiritedness. It comes with the territory, and a commitment to civility should not suggest that punches will be pulled in order to avoid such accusations."

Online cowboys long have railed against the "mediators" of so-called mainstream media -- we editors who pick and choose which opinions are worthy of dissemination. Mediators are hardly perfect in judgment, but they are becoming a last bulwark against a national scream fest, where the loudest, angriest and most outrageous opinions (sometimes heavily funded by economic interest groups) get the most attention; facts seem to matter less and less in the general din.

The NCEW deserves enormous credit for jumping into this fray. Its members and their standards stand between the civilized exchange of ideas and the abyss. Given the chaos of today's media environment, the NCEW has its work cut out.

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