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Living a life that matters

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MITCH TRAPHAGEN
In Sun City Center, an elderly man checks into what will be his last home -- a room in a hospice house. Our lives may differ but our fate is the same. This man’s life mattered. Your life matters.

By MITCH TRAPHAGEN

After waiting in a long line at a local convenience store, my turn arrived and I swiped my credit card into the card reader to pay for my purchases. Nothing happened. I looked up and the kid working as the cashier kindly told me that I had swiped my card into the wrong machine. It was then, sensing the growing impatience of those in line behind me, that I realized I had become the old person I would sometimes become impatient with. You know, the older man or woman who seems befuddled by the ATM asking in no uncertain terms how much they would like to withdraw.

By resolving to join the befuddled, older crowd, however, I am recognizing my limitations. There are at least two things that I am now, in my increasingly elderly state, unable to tolerate. I can’t have caffeine after 10 a.m. without still being wired hours later and I can no longer stomach the comments sections of news websites. Simply put, I don’t want to be suffocated by the words of the tiny minority of angry idiots.

Newspapers, of course, believe in freedom of speech. I am able to make a living because of it. I have the freedom, within sensible limits, to write what I want in these pages. There is no government agency, corporation or even the editor or publisher telling me what to write. I am the embodiment of freedom of speech and I naturally believe that freedom extends to all Americans, not just those working in the press.

To the latter point, I am conceptually in favor of comment sections on news websites. People should be able to weigh in on the news — in both positive and negative terms. Historically, that has happened through letters to the editor. If you write a letter to the editor of The Observer News, refrain from using profanities or being outrageously offensive (in other words, you just need to use the common sense your parents taught you) and include your name; your letter will be published in the pages of the newspaper. Your opinion matters and you have the opportunity to get space in print to air your thoughts and concerns. That forum, reaching tens of thousands of readers, is available to everyone equally.

Unfortunately, comment sections on news websites generally do not have those standards — they tend to be anonymous. You can be anyone you want behind the safety of your computer. You can say anything you want. The result is that comment sections are rarely forums for intelligent discourse, but rather they tend to devolve into anger and shouting matches. Thanks to the anonymity of the web, a handful of people tend to cause trouble for the sensible and considerate majority. That handful of troublemakers is generally successful in bringing all of us down into the mud, forcing the lowest of lowest possible denominators.

A recent case in point involves the St. Petersburg Times and an article on the tragic death of Neil Alan Smith. Mr. Smith, 48, was struck by a hit-and-run driver while riding his bicycle home from his job as a dishwasher in a St. Petersburg restaurant. He died at Bayfront Medical Center six days later, just a few days short of his 49th birthday. Shortly after the article was posted to the Times’ website, a reader posted in the comment section of the story that if Mr. Smith was working as a dishwasher at the Crab Shack at the age of 48, surely he is better off dead.

Wow. Just wow. A man working to support himself dies in a terrible and senseless accident and someone out there has the callousness to publicly state that he is better off dead since he was a mere dishwasher in a restaurant.

The web editors from the Times removed the comment, deeming it, in their words, “an offensive and insensitive insult to a dead man’s friends and family.” Most of us would agree that to trivialize a man’s life and tragic death is the very definition of offensive and insensitive. Unfortunately, such comments are not unusual. Look for any article on a tragedy — there is no shortage of them — and you will see arguments breaking out among the readers in the attached comment sections. The words “offensive” and “insensitive” do not begin to describe the inhuman behavior that invariably results when a handful of people are unable to responsibly manage freedom of speech. It is, consistently, the same handful of people spouting venom and sadistically reveling in their own obnoxious behavior.

In most cases, the death of Mr. Smith would not register on the media radar again until (and if) the hit-and-run driver was apprehended. Even then, barring the perpetrator being a young and attractive schoolteacher or a high-profile elected official, that story would be buried deep inside the newspaper, along with the other short articles about people and things that few know and fewer still care about. However, something in that comment — again, an everyday occurrence in comment sections — struck a chord at the Times. To their indubitable credit, staff writer Andrew Meacham wrote a moving and honest article about how Neil Alan Smith mattered. Meacham painted an honorable and truthful portrait of an honest man whose life was tragically cut short — an article that allowed those of us who never met Mr. Smith to know something of him and to shed a tear for him.

Comment sections are good for business. Including them in articles tends to increase traffic, which in turn increases advertising and ad revenue. The management of The Observer News has made the conscious decision to maintain journalistic standards by not allowing anonymous comments on our website. Instead, The Observer News has recently created a Facebook page where comments can be made on our stories. The paper does not earn additional revenue from that; but it does open a forum for our readers and, because you need to be logged into Facebook to use it, does not allow for anonymity. That brings the web up to the same standard as newspapers have for letters to the editor.

We do hope to hear from you — whether on Facebook or through your letters to the editor. While we love the positive comments, we are also grateful for opposing comments. For me personally, understanding your concerns gives me the opportunity to be a better writer and to better serve you through this newspaper. That is, after all, my job. You matter. Your concerns matter. Just as Neil Alan Smith matters.

I may be increasingly gray-haired and befuddled, but I will never ignore you. We are all in this together; in life and while waiting in line at the ATM. The angry, insensitive idiots notwithstanding, we all matter, no matter who or what we are.

The Observer News Facebook page is at http://www.facebook.com/observernewstampabay

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