Hurricane Elsa never amassed the threat of similar sized storms, such as Hurricane Hermine in 2016, and we can all be thankful for that. I lost an apartment and a car while living just off Hunter Springs in Hurricane Hermine, so I know firsthand the damage storms even less than a category 2 can have in Citrus.
Immediately after Hermine, I felt voiceless. I spent 10 days in a hotel making daily trips back to salvage what I could of my stuff as crews worked round the clock to save the building from needing to be fully demolished.
This claim is going to be a stretch, and at the risk of offending others who have had much more serious loss in storms than I experienced, the emotions were not unlike what I feel when faced with the marketplace of ideas in today’s media outlets.
Isolation, frustration and the feeling of exploring what you know was great but now appears to be a ruin of its once-established self was as present in the time spent walking down Kings Bay Drive the morning after Hermine as it is thumbing through the opinion section of the Chronicle or scrolling any national pundit feed.
I’m often critical of media that uses sensationalism or hyperbole, and aware this comparison borders on both, but it is genuinely how I feel at times.
In Tuesday’s podcast, I read two letters to the editor that also longed for a more engaging opinion section, particularly in the letters. The main complaint of their pieces, as well as several other letters I didn’t cite, is that the same people write about the same topics.
With impeccable unintended comedic timing, yesterday’s paper included a letter from Renee Christopher-McPheeters, a regular contributor and perennial candidate for office, that three-fourths of the letter was quoting a previous letter she had written.
The letters are going to go through ebbs and flows in quality. So too, admittedly, are these columns. But the trend of the local opinion section is troubling for two reasons.
The first is that the attributed content is unlikely to improve. Let’s put this on hold and return to it shortly because what I mean by attributed content is best explained through the second reason that we should be worried about the current trajectory of our local opinion section. The Sound Off section is growing.
The Sound Off is an unattributed section meaning submissions can be anonymous to the public. Once confined to a few column inches in a sidebar graphic, the Sound Off is now routinely a half page or larger spread across multiple pages.
About a year ago, the Chronicle started running the Sound Off online as well as in print and the section is placed above the letters on their website.
So far, it has remained petty grievances and follow up notes of thanks but it’s a breeding ground for unaccountable misinformation and community division particularly when election season resumes.
Let’s return to the first concern which is attributed content. This means the letters to the editor and guest columns. The stale nature of these portions pointed out by others is likely the result of three recent changes.
The first was the late-April announcement that letters about national issues would no longer be accepted.
The second change, which happened about 10 days later, was the promotion of Gwen Bittner to editor of the editorials. I don’t know Ms. Bittner but she is the model of what we want in Citrus. She grew up here, got a great education including a bachelor’s and master’s degree and returned to dedicate hard work to the same company which allowed her to climb the ladder. She should be praised, admired and emulated.
But neither of her degrees are in journalism and her professional experience is all with the Chronicle, including almost three years as community editor - a job that encourages producing a sanitized version of our current affairs.
Running an opinion section isn’t easy. There’s going to be conflict. Discomfort is a default state.
It is an incredibly important part of the public discourse, however, and one that when it is in ruins leaves us feeling voiceless, surveying the wreckage of what once was.
Crystal River rebuilt after Hermine. Citrus survived Elsa. We will get through this lull stronger than we were, but not on our current path.