Opting Out: New Jersey Governor Rejects E-Mail

This week Governor Jon Corzine of New Jersey swore off email.

He's not going to use it.

He's not going to use a Blackberry. A secret gmail account. An IPhone.

It's hard to blame him.

State Republicans had filed a lawsuit to force him to release his email correspondence with a powerful union president who also happened to be his former companion.

The governor said it was easier, and safer, to go offline.

He's not alone.

While Bill Clinton made a big deal of emailing from the Oval Office, George W. Bush announced early on that as president he wasn't going to communicate by email because he was concerned about privacy.

And then there's Governor Eliot Spitzer, Mr. Corzine's neighbor here in New York, who pointedly said: "Never talk when you can nod. And never write when you can talk. My only addendum is never put it in an email." And he said this back when he was a crusading attorney general — the kind of guy who ate other guys' emails for lunch.

Mr. Spitzer had a point. In the last couple of years, the information superhighway has been littered with the twisted wreckage of emails gone awry, many of them from political figures. There was Michael Brown, the FEMA director, who emailed about dog-sitters during the worst days of Hurricane Katrina. Mark Foley, the Florida congressman who forgot that racy instant messages to interns could be printed out. Those lawyers in the Justice Department who conducted really sensitive conversations about firing certain U.S. Attorneys...on their Blackberries.

So I sympathize with Governor Corzine. But I also think he's wrong.

Look, email is hard. It's relatively new. There's no rule book. We make lots of mistakes on it. It can get us fired, humiliated, subpoenaed. We do it hundreds of times a day. And often under intense pressure. But it's also fantastic. World-changing. Do we just give up on it?

How about: writing better.

How about: a little more thought about what we are saying on email before hitting that send key?

How about remembering not to forget that emails are searchable and archivable?

How about remembering not to say or do on email things that we wouldn't dream of saying or doing in person.

How about trying all this...instead of giving up?

Instead of quitting, why doesn't Governor Corzine turn this into a moment to teach us how to email better. Should New Jersey schools teach email the way they once taught typing and composition? I'm not being flip.

Email is the dominant form of business communication today. The American economy runs on it.

The governor could usher in an era of email education. A curriculum could explain the virtues of the subject line. Emphasize the importance of inserting tone. It could also remind us that there are times when we should get off email and pick up the phone, or walk down the hall to have a chat.

As the governor knows, there are situations where email is just not appropriate.

But abandoning email altogether doesn't sit well with me. Not for an elected official. It's vaguely undemocratic because email is so democratic — with a small d. It breaks down barriers. You can reach just about anyone. It's transparent. There's a digital record to hold you to your words.

Plus, a lot of people don't have the luxury of forsaking email. Should our politicians?

Governor Corzine said, "We'll go back to the 20's and have direct conversations with people." Well, he's partly right. We do need to work harder to get off email, to communicate in person. But he's wrong about the 20's. The start of the Depression? Fascism?

And he's really wrong about email.

David Shipley is the Deputy Editorial Page Editor and Op-Ed Editor of the New York Times and co-author of "Send: The Essential Guide to Email for Office and Home."

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: