Once upon a time, writers and journalists wrote editorials or op-ed pieces for that special section of the paper, and then, if people wished to respond they would write a letter to the editor and hope it would get published.
If the paper was the New York Times or the Washington Post, the chances were, well, slim, while small town papers afforded a better chance that your opinion could be heard; but in all cases the letter writers had to sign their names and addresses and were often called before publication to verify that information (I know, as I published many letters in both newspapers and magazines).
Most people, however, did not respond to an editorial with their own letter to the editor; if they disagreed with the opinion proffered they shook their heads or showed it to their spouse with disgust. If one agreed with the editorial, one often clipped it and mailed it to others of like mind.
All very civilized most of the time, although angry, bizarre, and off-the-point letters did, of course, show up from time to time.
But that was the back in The Day — before computers and emails were ubiquitous. The new form of “letters to the editor” is blogging. Because it’s usually done as a reflex, it is not considered. And so it follows that the level of discourse has seriously deteriorated.
Although I have only been blogging personally for two years, I’ve been reading newspapers online and websites and blogs for many years. Some few of the sites I visit regularly manage, with moderators, to remain (sort of) civil and even stay on topic for more than a comment or two.
But most sites, even those with intelligent information in the blog itself — and there are, fortunately, many of those — quickly veer off topic and just as quickly degenerate into name calling and diatribe, whether political (where I spend most of my time lately) or social (as in who’s doing what to whom and what it is supposed to mean for us, Al Franken).