An Unpublished Letter to the Pilot

This is the reason for starting this forum, well, that and teaching the Pilot a lesson in economics.


Inside every journalist beats the heart of a despot with an undying need to fix things that aren’t broken. 

Newspapers are written at the 9th grade reading level. If Pilot readers desired a deeper examination of the issues, they could find it in the comments section where knowledgeable and passionate advocates contested in the marketplace of ideas. To be sure, the comments section had its share of trolls and fools, but that is the price of free speech. 

But with the announced changes coming, that deeper discussion will no longer be possible. The 80% reduction in comment length to 300 characters will place no burden on the trolls. but complex subjects cannot be addressed in tweet length comments. No one was forced to read, or write, longer comments. 

Worse, with supporting links limited to news articles, that same high school depth limit is imposed on external sources. 

The Internet connects us to the sum of human knowledge, but looking at it through the lens of only what gets published in the popular press is like peaking through the keyhole into the Louvre and thinking you have seen the sum of man’s art. 

While enforcing a greater level of civility and adherence to the topic at hand might have been an improvement to the comments, the sweeping changes in allowed content will destroy everything good and adult in the the online edition.

Reconsider, and let your readers decide what they want to read. 

50 thoughts on “An Unpublished Letter to the Pilot

    1. From what I gather, the Pilot is only allowing commenting on articles that originated in the Pilot. Articles and editorials that came “by wire” and originated in The Washington Post have commenting disabled.

      I’m mostly a silent observer in the comments section but I read the conversations almost every day. I know some Pilot commenters have a problem with people not using their full names. My supervisor reads PilotOnline (not sure if she reads the comments). We have differing views and I would prefer my personal opinions not effect my work environment. Hopefully

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      1. I mean you no disrespect and I mean no disrespect to the seriousness of your concern about your work and your civic posture. I’m sure it’s a serious concern (as it is and has been with others who have raised the point). But you will see my own opinion in my question: If your important concern legitimizes anonymity online at the newspaper, why shouldn’t the paper start printing anonymous letters to the editor in the daily distributed paper itself?

        I respectfully offer the question to you and to any other forum members who care to answer. Thanks.

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      2. RE: “I know some Pilot commenters have a problem with people not using their full names.”

        Anonymity is legitimate. Some of the most potent thought leaders of the American Revolution published as “Anonymous.”

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      3. The Pilot has a responsibility to its customers. No doubt that adopting a policy of publishing anonymous LTEs could result in a slippery slope. “Anonymous” letters from polititians. “Anonymous” letters from special interest groups, etc. As I stated, I’m mostly a lurker in the Pilot’s comments forum. This isn’t the Pilot’s forum though. I’m here for the discussion. I provided my e-mail from my alma mater in the first post. Dr. Tabor can verify it if he wants and either include me or exclude me, that’s his choice.
        Maybe you could explain me as to why my privacy is such a concern?

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      4. To the anonymous “Chesapean” and “Kevin L.”: It’s true that in the founding era, certain thought leaders wrote semi-anonymously. Maybe that custom was wrong. I don’t know. In my view, though, it has nothing to do with the question still left unanswered here by the anonymous “Chesapean” and also by “Kevin L.,” who misinterprets my concern as being about his privacy as opposed to being about the integrity of civic discourse. I’ll ask you both again, and ask others too: If you’re right about the acceptability of anonymity in online commenting, would you also be right to countenance what has been almost completely verboten nationwide for probably a century and more: anonymity in letters to the editor? After all, politicians and interest groups can participate in online forums just as they can submit letters to the editor, can’t they?

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      5. RE: “If you’re right about the acceptability of anonymity in online commenting, would you also be right to countenance what has been almost completely verboten nationwide for probably a century and more: anonymity in letters to the editor?”

        The editor can do whatever he wants. The Pilot, in fact, used to publish anonymous letters from time to time.

        I think the burden is on you to explain why anonymity is undesirable. Some online communities actually insist upon it. They police so-called “namefagging” ruthlessly as part of their free-speech culture. One benefit of this approach is that it forces ideas to live or die on their own merits.

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      6. Re: After all, politicians and interest groups can participate in online forums just as they can submit letters to the editor, can’t they?

        Can you clarify? Maybe I’m misinterpreting. Are you asking if a polititian can have a public and a private stance?

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      7. The editor can do whatever he wants. The Pilot,
        in fact, used to publish anonymous letters from
        time to time.

        You can’t demonstrate with facts that the Pilot ever allowed more than an extremely rare, extremely special case–and even then, I’ll bet you can’t demonstrate very many. And the ban on anonymous letters stretches across American journalism and back for a century and more. Only in online comments have newspapers lapsed from time-tested ethical standards in this matter.

        I think the burden is on you to explain
        why anonymity is undesirable.

        It’s not just undesirable; it’s deplorable. Civic discussion is a sacred democratic thing. Anonymity profanes it. That’s why American editors for a century and more have forbidden it in letters to the editor.

        Some online communities actually insist upon it. They
        police so-called “namefagging” ruthlessly as part of
        their free-speech culture.

        I acknowledge that some people think freedom entails no personal responsibility. (And I acknowledge that my acknowledgment sounds snotty. I don’t know how else to put it. I find it astonishing that American civic awareness has deteriorated so.)

        Are you asking if a politiCian can
        have a public and a private stance?

        No. I’m saying that most politicians should be honest enough stand up forthrightly beside their public statements.

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      8. Re: politiCian

        Thanks for fixing that. I missed the see key on my keyboard.

        In my original post, I asked if it was okay to converse here without using my legal name. Sorry if it offended you.

        The last time my legal name was in the Pilot was when my mother passed. I had 2-3 letters/postcards a day for months from people asking to buy her house. Oh…the voicemails were great too.

        I’m not a man with stature. I don’t have power or influence. I just value my own personal privacy.

        It does make me wonder though…if I used my legal name, would you have googled it?

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      9. RE: ” Civic discussion is a sacred democratic thing. Anonymity profanes it.”

        Sacred? Says who, other than religious bigots?

        If ideas are worth sharing, no personal responsibility is required.

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      10. letters/postcards…voicemails

        I see what you mean. I wouldn’t like that either (and I’ve experienced a little bit of comparable stuff in the past). I acknowledge that it’s a tradeoff.

        Sorry if it offended you.

        Seems to me that you don’t owe me an apology (though I also don’t realty think you’re apologizing). What offends me, and I believe what offends democracy, is anonymity–identity secrecy–in civic discourse.

        That’s why it’s disallowed in letters–a point, by the way, that both of you have still left unaddressed in any serious way. Why is it standard journalistic practice, nationwide, to disallow anonymity in letters? Would you want serious publications across the nation to start allowing it?

        if I used my legal name, would you have googled it?

        No. Come to think of it, I don’t think I ever googled any commenter. The point is that if a citizen presumes to stand up in public and tell the world about civic matters, in my view (and in letters editors’ view nationwide), the commenter ought forthrightly to OWN what he says.

        RE: ” Civic discussion is a sacred democratic
        thing. Anonymity profanes it.”
        Sacred? Says who, other than religious bigots?

        I’ll bet you actually know what I mean by adapting that religious word to the civic realm. Religious bigotry has nothing to do with this–and I’ll bet you know that too. I think you’re dodging my actual point, which is that democracy matters deeply and that it requires serious civic participation.

        If ideas are worth sharing, no personal
        responsibility is required.

        That assertion distills our difference to its fundamentals. You are asserting the exact opposite of what I’m trying to say. I think you’re completely clear and admirably brief in that sentence–and also profoundly wrong.

        This is probably getting tedious for others. I don’t promise not to continue, but I do plan to taper off if possible.

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      11. Regarding anonymity, I understand that it is necessary for some people if they are to participate and I have no rule against it. but consider those who use their real name to have a step up on credibility.

        But if someone is using anonymity to snipe and snark without consequence, they will disappear. This will be a civil forum.

        Liked by 1 person

      12. Quote Steve: “What offends me, and I believe what offends democracy, is anonymity–identity secrecy–in civic discourse.”

        You should submit that quote to the Pilot as an LTE

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      13. RE: “Why is it standard journalistic practice, nationwide, to disallow anonymity in letters?”

        It isn’t. Wikipedia has an article on letters to the editor which provides a more accurate description of practices: “Prior to the Cold War paranoia of the mid-20th century, anonymous LTEs were common; in fact, the right to write anonymously was central to the free-press/free-speech movement (as in the 1735 trial against John Peter Zenger, which started with an anonymous essay). By the 1970s, editors had developed strong negative attitudes toward anonymous letters, and by the end of the 20th century, about 94 percent of newspapers automatically rejected anonymous LTEs. Some newspapers in the 1980s and ’90s created special anonymous opinion forums that allowed people to either record short verbal opinions via telephone (which were then transcribed and published) or send letters that were either unsigned or where the author used a pseudonym.”

        RE: ” I think you’re dodging my actual point, which is that democracy matters deeply and that it requires serious civic participation.”

        I”m not dodging your point. I’m disputing your point of view that democracy is somehow “sacred,” as if speaking in public were some kind of religious ritual that must only be performed by naked people. The kind of rule-making such thinking encourages is itself chilling to free speech. Forcing people to jump through hoops is the opposite of democracy.

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      14. I’m grateful to learn of that Wikipedia article on letters to the editor.

        But in fact the article is unclear on the status of anonymity in letters to the editor before most of a half-century ago. And I have no doubt that even in the mid-20th century, anonymity had long been generally excluded from most publications’ letters.

        But even if I should doubt it, it’s clear–as the anonymous “Chesapean” herself or himself quotes–that “by the end of the 20th century, about 94 percent of newspapers automatically rejected anonymous LTEs.”

        And that’s only the automatic rejections, not the rejections after consideration for the rare special case.

        I remember publishing a letter in the Daily Press in 1976 about what I saw as the insufficient fine levied on Allied Chemical for raping the James River with kepone contamination. I also remember that back then, when I was nearly 28, it would have seemed way more than strange to see an anonymous letter to the editor in any paper. It just flat was not done.

        That journalistic practice was already old and established. Newspaper practice for a very long time has been to exclude identity secrecy in LTE. If it pleases the anonymous “Chesapean” to deny this, then so be it.

        As to my use of the word “sacred,” I’ll assume that he or she is just obtusely acting like she or he doesn’t understand that the word has, besides its meaning in religious contexts, a common non-religious meaning of “highly valued and important”–as I’ve now reported twice. My only other option is to assume stupidity, and she or he is obviously not remotely stupid.

        I’m unlikely to participate further in this subdiscussion, but I’m grateful for the chances I got to make my arguments.

        Liked by 1 person

      15. OK, this continued harping on anonymity is off topic and ad hominem.

        Anonymity is allowed, but will not be allowed to screen uncivil behavior. Neither will ad Hominem attacks based on someone’s choice to use a pseudonym.

        Lets try to stay on topic.

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    2. Three cheers for this project, Tidewater News and Opinion Forum!

      I don’t fault The Virginian-Pilot for its new commenting rules. The change, however, should put to rest any idealistic assumptions about The Pilot’s real purpose in life. The paper is in the business of controlling public opinion and thought. The new commenting rules are simply the re-assertion of an old model that relies on selective publication.

      I say more power to ’em. Content restrictions are not inherently a bad thing. It is true, for example, that complex ideas cannot be conveyed in 300 characters or less, but useful ideas still can be. The Pilot’s forum may improve in quality and interest because of this one limitation alone.

      The forum here has great potential, too, but with the same onus on contributors to — as a certain First Lady likes to say — Be Best.

      Congratulations on the launch, Dr. Tabor, and thank you for taking this on.

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      1. Pilot’s purpose thought control? I think it’s actually worse than that.

        Thought controllers–inherently destructive or even sometimes evil–are easier to oppose than are well-intended, condescending nannies who too seldom stop to think that maybe they don’t know where the center lies or what’s wisest in the civic cauldron.

        My view, FWIW, is that people who accuse the Pilot of some of these things are usually just angry about the Pilot’s liberal slant–which the Pilot pays to have the right to hold and to perp.

        Also: I agree that if a commenter has an important single thought, it’s probably best captured by ruthless distillation. What I don’t agree with is that that’s the only scenario for a comment in a civic forum.

        Example: Often–recognizing that I’m a notorious Trump basher who looks a lot like a “libruhl” (and in important ways IS one)–I link to and quote bona fide conservatives and bona fide Republicans,. Can’t do that in 300 characters.

        (Wait: Did the Pilot’s goofball new regime also exclude links? Don’t answer. I want to know what you think about my views, but I’m done with the Pilot’s goofball forum nannyism.)

        There are other examples of the goofiness of the 300-character limit. One of them is this: If someone offers a dozen totally bogus arguments, it takes a dozen refutations to answer them all. Can’t do that in 300 characters either.

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      2. RE: “Thought controllers…are easier to oppose than are well-intended, condescending nannies who too seldom stop to think that maybe they don’t know where the center lies or what’s wisest in the civic cauldren.”

        Except for the disruptions they cause, I tend to ignore people who think they “know where the center lies or what’s wisest in the civic cauldren.” They usually don’t.

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      3. Except for the disruptions they cause, I tend to ignore people who think
        they “know where the center lies or what’s wisest in the civic cauldrOn.”
        They usually don’t.

        Well, that’s what I was saying. But here’s the point: Journalists must try well-intendedly to do it anyway. There’s no other path open to them. Concerning their wisdom in that effort on that path, you and I apparently agree. It’s far from perfect–as good journalists also agree (including many, I’ll bet, at the imperfect but not evil Pilot). Concerning their motives, though, you haven’t continued the discussion beyond noting this related point of agreement. Maybe I just misunderstand the extent of your criticism of their motives.

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      4. RE: “Journalists must try well-intendedly to do it anyway. There’s no other path open to them.”

        A journalist has no reason to conform to your ideas of what they must do. Also, I certainly do not agree that journalists have any particular wisdom that others do not.

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      5. A journalist has no reason to conform
        to your ideas of what they must do.

        I agree. And I would also agree that you have no obligation to acknowledge what’s time-tested standard journalistic practice. You can try to maneuver it so that it sounds like I’m dictating, but that doesn’t change the facts about what standard journalistic practice has been concerning the struggle to be middle-of-the road fair and impartial. In fact I’m not dictating. I’m only reporting what journalists actually do, or anyway TRY to do.

        Ever actually worked in journalism?

        Also, I certainly do not agree that journalists
        have any particular wisdom that others do not.

        Me neither. But that doesn’t change the situation that you and I would be in if we started a newspaper and then, a thousand times per day, had to ask ourselves what would be fair and impartial. They have no better wisdom, but they do have way more obligation in this context to try to apply wisdom.

        Ever actually worked in journalism?

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      6. RE: “They have no better wisdom, but they do have way more obligation in this context to try to apply wisdom.”

        I don’t see it. Allowing oneself to be confined within an established Overton Window may be a choice, but it is by no means an obligation.

        RE: “Ever actually worked in journalism?”

        Briefly. Many years ago I published a few features in The Pilot; my first efforts to get published, in fact. I found a career more to my liking outside of journalism.

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      7. Overton Window

        I’m grateful to learn that term Overton Window, which I looked up in Wikipedia–and I categorically deny that it has anything remotely to do with the journalistic ethics concept I was talking about. That’s the obligation of journalists to try to be fair and even-handed and unbiased. If you deny that journalists have that obligation, you and I are oceans apart on what journalism is and ought to be.

        By the way, when you wrote those features, did you try hard to be fair and even-handed and unbiased? If not, you and I are not just oceans apart, but on different planets. But I’ll bet you DID try hard, same as almost all of the rest of us do.

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      8. RE: “If you deny that journalists have that obligation, you and I are oceans apart on what journalism is and ought to be.”

        Then we’re oceans apart.

        RE: “when you wrote those features, did you try hard to be fair and even-handed and unbiased?”

        I tried to write well. That was hard enough for me at the time.

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    3. Re: Seems to me that you don’t owe me an apology (though I also don’t realty think you’re apologizing).

      My turn to be the gramma nazi. “really”

      Why is it standard journalistic practice, nationwide, to disallow anonymity in letters? Would you want serious publications across the nation to start allowing it?

      You tell me. All I asked…was to remain anonymous on the tidewaterforum blog as an individual poster.

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      1. Asked by Steve: Why is it standard journalistic practice, nationwide, to disallow anonymity in letters? Would you want serious publications across the nation to start allowing it?

        I’m not familiar with how to quote on the website.

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      2. Would you want serious publications across the nation to start allowing identity secrecy in letters, regardless of your situation in this forum?

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      3. Steve Corneliussen
        January 6, 2019 at 6:56 pm
        Would you want serious publications across the nation to start allowing identity secrecy in letters, regardless of your situation in this forum?

        (Someone please teach me how to block quote on this platform)

        No.I wouldn’t. I’ve only posted an arguement to remain anonymous on a personal level. Does it matter if my name is Kevin L or user# 685984? I feel like we’re talking about two different levels of social interaction. If a person wanted to misrepresent themselves, I don’t doubt that it would be easy.

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    4. I think you should have let Steve, Kevin, Chessie continue their back and forth. They had energy around the issue and were still being civil and somewhat logical. I found it interesting (if a bit tiresome), but more importantly it demonstrated the flexibility that this site can provide. Yes, it was only moderately “on topic” as you stated, but by shutting it done you played the role of the Pilot editors that prompted you to create this in the first place.

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      1. I understand your concern, but I did not censor anyone, nor did I remove any posts. I simply pointed out that it was off-topic and getting uncivil.

        The topic, after all, was the Pilot’s new posting rules. They made no change in the rules regarding anonymity, so how is a protracted back and forth on anonymity(there are more posts on anonymity than on the Pilot’s rules) even a little bit on topic?

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      2. My thought was: 4 days in and the “editor” is limiting discussion on a blog created in response to limited discussion. Yeah it was pretty much off-topic. Although if the topic included complaints about the Pilot’s posting polices (past and present) one could ague that “anonymous” postings are a problem that should be communicated to them as well. Just sayin…

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      3. I agree that anonymity per se is off topic. On the other hand it is relevant to the topic of free speech, which The Pilot now censors more heavily than it used to.

        This is not a free-speech forum, either, nor do I expect it to be. I’m OK with Dr. Tabor deleting my posts or banning me as he sees fit.

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  1. In my view the Virginian-Pilot’s new commenting regime calls to mind the nanny state. I find it both deplorable and shocking. It seems to me that Dr. Tabor, with whom I agree about almost nothing, is doing a civic service by trying to establish a sensible, constructive alternative.

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  2. I know its rare for me but, I completely disagree with your comment regarding journalists. Authentic journalists are driven to root out facts and expose important realities and the malfeasance of the powerful. I’m referring to investigative journalists who, if they are good, get blacklisted from our embedded corporate press — people like Seymour Hersh, James Risen, Glenn Greenwald and many others. That said, I have an initial wariness about this project. I’ve been posting on the Pilot for decades not so much to have arguments with Don or anyone else but to address issues, counter misinformation and hopefully, inspire thought in the many who read. I don’t see that outreach possibility in a small, exclusive group.

    Still, here I am. Maybe, while “links” are still possible in the corpse of the Pilot commentary, we can link to this or say its name. Though it may not be accepted in Veer Magazine, my “column” there is essentially an obit for the Pilot and for independent local media . Though I’m not done with it, I’ll post it here. Finally, though we disagree on most things, I thank Don for his efforts and commitment to public discourse.

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  3. “I don’t see that outreach possibility in a small, exclusive group.”

    I agree, but I have no intention of this forum remaining small or exclusive. I intend for this forum to effectively replace the comments section of the Pilot, and in doing do, so deprive the Pilot of the advertising income it receives from the number of readers of that section that they see the light and restore their forums to full utility.

    Maintaining this is a lot of work for me and I would much prefer the Pilot see the light and let me discontinue this forum.

    Businesses succeed by providing their customers what they want. But they made no effort to learn from the users of their forum what they wanted before making sweeping changes.

    So, I am counting on you and others who are getting into this early to help make that happen by bringing readers here for discussion, and leave the Pilot forum to the snarks and trolls.

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    1. RE: “I intend for this forum to effectively replace the comments section of the Pilot, and in doing do, so deprive the Pilot of the advertising income it receives from the number of readers of that section that they see the light and restore their forums to full utility.”

      I like it!

      The Pilot’s commenting feature is primarily a surveillance tool. The commenting engine (Viafora) operates pretty much like Facebook in gathering user data to support advertising and content control. To the extent users abandon The Pilot to comment here the editors will certainly notice.

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  4. Erica Smith acknowledged that the new commenting guidelines are a compromise–that someone in the newsroom wanted to do away with commenting altogether. I’m not 100 percent sure, but I don’t think the Daily Press allows comments on its stories, so it’s probably safe to assume that one or both of the new editors at The Pilot (who both hail from the Daily Press) are the ones who oppose them.

    For what it’s worth, I’ve seen little change this week, other than the fact that we can’t comment on syndicated content. Not being able to react to pieces like McAuliffe’s op-ed is a real shame.

    P.S. I worked briefly at the Daily Press 20 years ago.

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  5. The Daily Press quietly dropped online commenting a couple of years ago, maybe more. I didn’t really blame them. The doofus index was way higher than in the Pilot.

    As to the Daily Press’s Marisa Porto now completely controlling both papers: She’s a fine journalist, and she’ll do a good job of combining the two operations.

    It does seem to me, though, that she, and they, ought to be more forthright about the de facto merger. Recently, my main reason for dropping my Pilot subscription was that important news by either paper now appears in both.

    OK, I went two days in Dr. Tabor’s forum without ever mentioning Fort Monroe, but here it is:

    Marisa Porto is a huge enemy of unification of the two sections of the split, fake Fort Monroe National Monument. No kidding; when token unification came up as a political likelihood last summer, the Daily Press editorial board went nuts against it. But until the Pilot began ignoring Fort Monroe about four years ago, Pilot editorials energetically advocated unification.

    Something tells me both papers will now side with the developers, under the bogus pretext that America is so fourth-rate that we must sacrifice a Monticello-scale national treasure thanks to public financial necessity. (For an update on Fort Monroe, please see the recent Washington Post op-ed linked–including to a nonpaywalled copy–from the top of the Save Fort Monroe Network website, FortMonroeNationalPark.org.)

    Like

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