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updated: 2/6/2013 9:06 PM

Editorial: The evolution of the public's forum

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The Daily Herald Editorial Board

In the old days of newspapering, print was the forum.

The Opinion page.

Newspaper editors like us would offer up our view on a topic for public discourse. Newspaper columnists would take up positions on additional topics. And readers would write letters to the editor offering positions on still more topics, often responding to editorials or columnists or other letter writers in the process. All collected on one printed page.

This was how it has been in the days since the dawn of the free press, and how it still is to some degree. As you can see in the print editions of the Daily Herald, or on the opinion pages of countless other newspapers, this tradition still runs strong and still has relevance.

It is good, this public forum.

We believe fostering it is one of our most important obligations. A citizenry that is engaged in debating the issues of the day is one that is engaged with the democracy, and that is vital to the health of our society and the health of the people's governments.

Among other things, debates inform, elucidate, inspire, persuade, provoke. They not only help us form opinions but they help us question our own opinions. They help us refine opinions.

That latter point, by the way, is the drawback and the danger of the special interest media, and of the ideological news-as-entertainment media.

The ideological media such as Fox News and MSNBC don't so much promote provocative debate as provide arms for battle: Here are the arguments you can use today to attack Obama, says one; here are the arguments you can use today to defend Obama, says the other.

From that respect, they're not unlike the political parties or the special interests. The exercise isn't so much to arrive at an opinion as to make the case for one already in port.

That's troubling, and a trend that grows more pervasive by the day, but probably the subject of another editorial.

Today's subject is simply the forum, and how it has shifted -- how it's everywhere now and not just on the printed Opinion Page.

And that can be a very good thing. Or it can be an almost unfortunate thing.

It is a good thing if it can be a provocative and thoughtful thing. How much that can elevate us all and also bond us all.

But it's not so good if it is a sort of unruly mob thing, if it turns into who can outshout whom, into a debate of insults rather than reason.

Here on today, we've moved to a different system for commenting. It's a system that's based on a notion of greater accountability.

Though change often is controversial, and this one is apt to be so with some commenters, we've moved to it partly because we think it will encourage a more thoughtful and constructive discussion.

And if it can help to achieve that, it will be a boon for all of us.

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