Birmingham News columnist John Archibald writes a brave column this morning. My hat’s off. You have to admire a man who won’t be bullied.
Several weeks ago, John wrote a column about Jefferson County and bankruptcy. As columns go, it wasn’t great. Nothing was wrong with it, but it was the sort of throwaway piece any good columnist writes every now and then after a long week. The gist of the column was “Look at all these celebrities who declared bankruptcy and rebounded; couldn’t Jefferson County do the same thing, too?”
It was only in the comments section online where things got interesting. Normally, I ignore the comments. Under the rule by anonymity, what passes for discussion there is seldom more than a cesspool full of trolls slinging their filth at each other.
(I’ve heard all the arguments about anonymous comments on blogs and news sites, and I think it’s a bad idea. I’ve made up my mind, so please don’t waste time trying to argue the other side. Yes, Thomas Paine published Common Sense anonymously, but there isn’t any common sense to be found in many anonymous comments, especially on al.com.)
But that’s where someone calling himself/herself/itself “The Truth” threw a grenade under John’s chair. The anonymous poster asked why John had not included his own bankruptcy in the mix.
What happened next was a mistake. Having talked to John, I believe it was an innocent one. He denied it. And he didn’t just step in the trap — he stomped on it.
The trouble for John was that whoever this was out to get him had done some research. They’d found records of the bankruptcy and in short order they’d posted a link to them online. A website had been set up, BirminghamSkews.com, again anonymously. The purpose of it is clear — to discredit The Birmingham News in general and John in particular.
John looked at the documents. They were authentic and there was no denying it any further. He dances around the explanation in his column this morning, but the reason he got surprised are deeply personal and I’ll respect that, even if jackasses like “The Truth” want to exploit it.
Someone obviously went through a fair amount of trouble to dig up dirt on John Archibald. There are a few groups out there that are practiced at this sort of thing. John’s subsequent column here mentions one of them, perhaps the most notorious. It was John’s subtle way of saying he wouldn’t be bullied or cowed. But that’s not the sort of thing you can murmur, and this morning he threw his weight into it, like that kid on YouTube.
The problem remains, though, that there are firms that exist to do this sort of thing. They exploit the secret sins of imperfect people. They are the Donald Segretti’s and G. Gordon Liddy’s of the world who read the Art of War and believe the ends justify the means. Often times their juvenile pranks go further than planned and the pranksters end up in prison, but more often something worse happens. They cause a lot of good people who would otherwise volunteer to serve their communities, their state or country to shirk away, for fear of embarrassing themselves or hurting their families. They’re a big part of what’s wrong with politics and public service.
The only way to deal with bullies is to stand up to them, even if you’re just punching at shadows and cowards who hide behind online anonymity the way some folks here used to hide under hoods. That’s what John Archibald did this morning, and the tactics of his enemies seem to be backfiring in a major way. Readers now have sympathy for John and respect. Because there’s one weapon he’s got that his enemies don’t: Courage.