The Internet has been described as the great equalizer of democracy, and used responsibly, that is undoubtedly true. But in lightning-fast fashion, the Internet also makes it easier for partisans to engage in hate speech, spin conspiracy theories and use intimidation in an attempt to squelch opposing opinions.
We got a taste of that last week.
Last Sunday, columnist Dan Morain published a column about an Illinois osteopath and entrepreneur, Joe Mercola, who has put $500,000 into a proposed California initiative to require labeling of genetically modified foods. Dan's main beef was that an out-of-state activist was once again using the California initiative system for a pet proposal that, while worthy on the surface, was laden with numerous traps that don't make for good policy.
Dan has his own personal views on this topic, which aren't necessarily those of the editorial board. Starting in 2004, the editorial board opined that foods that include genetically modified organisms (GMOs) should be labeled. As The Bee stated in an editorial that year, "In the long run it should help, not hurt, the food industry by building consumer confidence, which is why food companies should embrace independent study and labeling."
In his column, Morain stated he had no objections to labeling, but he had concerns with Mercola, who sells controversial health supplements on his website, has run afoul of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and has accused the FDA of "tragically causing death and disease in this country and around the world."
Morain's biggest issue, however, is the actual wording of the California Right to Know Genetically Modified Food Act, which could potentially bar companies from calling any product "natural" if it has been subject to "canning, smoking, pressing, cooking, freezing, dehydration, fermentation or milling." As Morain noted, such wording could prevent olive oil manufacturers or rice companies from labeling their products as natural, since olives are pressed and rice is milled.
How did Mercola and his allies respond? The Organic Consumers Association a Minnesota-based group whose political arm has given $95,000 to the initiative put Morain's photo on its website and labeled him as a "minion of Monsanto," a leading manufacturer of GMOs. The Web page then urged followers to inundate The Bee with responses, which they did.
Some of the messages were reasoned and impassioned rebuttals to Morain's column, which we welcome. Many others simply echoed the talking points of the OCA that Morain had been bought off by the biotech industry and should be fired or silenced. Others were even worse.
"I hope you get cancer you corporate sellout scumbag," wrote one Mercola supporter, named Dan.
"You will be punished in many ways, by eating, writing, and lack of knowledge of the Bilderberg Group who wants to kill all of us including you," wrote another person, named Carol. (FYI, the Bilderberg Group is a secretive, annual gathering of business elites that has been a robust source of conspiracy theories by the far left and far right over the years.)
The well-wishes for Morain continued with online comments, which The Bee took down Thursday "because of personal attacks, hate speech and other inappropriate comments." That prompted the Organic Consumers Association to retort that "apparently too many critical comments inspired the Sacramento Bee to remove the comments feature."
Not so. To encourage a more civil response, we directed readers to send letters to the editor. So far, we have published more than three dozen of these letters online (go to sacbee.com/letterstoeditor), and are running several today in print.
The response has been a real eye-opener, both for the editorial board and Morain. As a columnist the last two years, Morain has steadily documented the influence of outside money on California politics whether it be Texas oil companies attempting to overturn California's law to reduce greenhouse gases, or an Idaho millionaire who helped finance Proposition 8, California's law to ban gay marriage. That didn't matter to most of the lightning responders. All they knew was that the OCA had issued a directive to go after Morain. So, with a few keystrokes and the click of a mouse, they responded to it from all over the country.
And it is not over yet. On Friday, one of Mercola's assistants, Brian Barth, sent me an email. In it, he effectively threatened to bombard The Bee with a new round of emails, and insisted that we retract Morain's column and apologize to Mercola.
Sorry, Brian, that ain't gonna happen. We think it is important that our readers know who is funding initiatives, and the crucial details of those initiatives. Morain's column provided that service. But an opinion page also has an obligation to let the other side respond.
That is why we have published so many letters from Mercola supporters and have invited Mercola to personally rebut Morain's column, at equal length. And, it should be noted, Morain gave him multiple chances to respond before his column went to press.
As for an apology, Morain's swipe at Mercola was no tougher than anything he has leveled at right-wing funders of initiatives, who apparently have thicker skins. So no, we will not apologize for publishing a range of viewpoints. That is what an opinion section is supposed to do.