Letter: Media circus
To the Editor:
With the Fairfield election behind us, I feel compelled to respond to the attacks I have been subjected to over the past two months, and address the social media circus that has visited our town since August.
But let me say this up front: town residents have a right to be concerned about the potential risk they and their families faced following the discovery of soil contaminants in some parks, ballfields and playscapes. Unfortunately, however, this all unfolded in the middle of a contentious political campaign season, and civil discourse and fact-finding quickly deteriorated into finger-pointing, often baseless speculation and downright mean-spirited social media posting.
Over the course of the past two months, some members of our community have taken to Facebook to call me an idiot, a scumbag and a POS (someone had to explain to me what that meant). My home address was published, my personal and professional reputation maligned and slandered. I have been threatened with lawsuits and there has been all sorts of amateur analyses about the content and intent of my emails.
Unfortunately, those who traffic on social media often do so with little regard for the facts, context or civility. In this case, I am a victim.
Professionally, for more than 20 years I have helped companies manage communications surrounding some of the most complex and controversial environmental and health issues of the time: oil spills, Superfund sites, cancer clusters, chemical scares, etc. I know how to translate technical issues in ways that people can understand, and help clients to engage with scared, anxious and angry communities. There is nothing sinister about that.
I met Mike Tetreau over the summer when he was canvassing in my neighborhood. Several weeks later he reached out to ask if we could discuss how to address the Town’s communications challenges given the unfolding issues surrounding the arrests and concerns over the possible misuse of landfill. As these matters developed, it was apparent the Town needed more structured communications support, and I agreed to help.
One of my recommendations was to have others within the relevant departments take on communications roles because Mike Tetreau is not an expert on such topics as environmental contamination, epidemiology and risk exposure. I thought it best we involve the experts in the Town government, and the State, who are. Also, I knew this would be too large a communications responsibility for one person to handle.
And why did I suggest the Town needed to “Call out those who irresponsibly raised public fears”? Not to quiet critics. Nowhere in that recommendation does it suggest that. We were focused on responding to inaccurate and irresponsible statements that could unnecessarily raise fear and anxiety.
For example, in early August State Representative Brenda Kupchick posted this social media message: “I’m very concerned to learn that hazardous material from our landfill was used at Gould Manor Park where children play.” At the time of this posting, there was no confirmation of hazardous material being used at the park. In this instance, it would appear that Representative Kupchick must have recognized that she had crossed a line with that posting, as she subsequently amended it by adding “potentially” in front of “hazardous.”
As the opening of the school year approached, another social media posting urged a delay in all school openings until all schools were tested. Again, a statement based on fear, not evidence, but one that could have created panic among parents.
In another instance the “Fairfield Fights Toxic Waste” Facebook page featured a frightening “Biohazard” image on its homepage, which remained on that page for many weeks; long after it was clear that there was never any risk of biohazard from the landfill.
At the October 2 Board of Selectmen meeting, Selectman Chris Tymniak made the statement, “Hazardous waste is spread all across the Town.” But at the time he made this statement, soil testing results had already showed the risk to be confined to a very small number of sites, and the State Department of Public Health had already shared its opinion about the safety of the Town’s parks and fields. Mr. Tymniak knew this, yet still made this demonstrably false and inflammatory statement.
It is absolutely appropriate for the Town and its leadership to call out elected officials or private citizens when they irresponsibly spread false or misleading information. That is central to the role of protecting the public interest.
None of this comes close to the definition of political work.
(And for those who criticized my description of the State’s Attorney’s public meeting as a “low level circus,” it was. Anyone at the meeting would probably have seen the frustration of people in the audience because the State’s Attorney could not address any questions about the criminal investigation, nor any questions about the environmental testing or contamination risk, as that was outside their jurisdiction.)
What did I
I did not work for the Tetreau campaign. I did not write any campaign literature or campaign speeches (as I was accused of doing). I did not attend any campaign events, meetings or activities, nor did I communicate with any news media.
I am proud of the work I did for the Town. And it was a privilege to work with the many talented and dedicated Town employees who are motivated by the single desire to do what is best for the residents of Fairfield.
I realize I was the focus of criticism because I was viewed as a proxy for Mike Tetreau. Criticizing me was a means of attacking him.
But does that mean it is OK to use social media with no guideposts to check behavior? Where rumors and speculation can be presented as fact? Where documents can be cherry-picked to selectively promote a conspiracy theory that has no basis in reality? To assassinate the character of anyone who offers a contrary opinion, or to destroy by innuendo? (At one point there was even a Facebook post alleging that an unnamed town contractor was a convicted sex offender!) At times, it seemed that more vitriol was being directed at me that at those charged with criminal felonies!
Even after last week’s election the juvenile behavior continued on Facebook: “Hey Chris Gidez, great work!”… “Could I now file a lawsuit against Chris?”… “I hope he gets a job working at Barnum and Bailey”… “Maybe he can be the ‘human cannonball’. BOMBS AWAY!”
Is this the path to find answers to the public health questions that residents have? Is this the sort of behavior we think is acceptable and that we want our children to emulate? Would it be acceptable in the workplace?
Serious problems call for respectful and serious discourse, asking the right questions, searching for the right answers and finding solutions. And while there are people who have been doing this, too much energy has been spent by others on speculation, fear-mongering, settling scores, belittling critics (or people caught in the crossfire) and attacking peoples’ motives and values, not their ideas and opinions. And, frankly, just plain hate.
As President Obama put it last month, “That's not activism. That's not bringing about change. If all you're doing is casting stones, you're probably not going to get that far."
I am sure some of these same people will attack me again, simply proving the point. But for all others I hope this offers an opportunity to reflect on how we can do a better job in making Fairfield the community we all want it to be.