While I was away, I was glad to see I am not the only one who thinks newspaper online comments are a mess. Leonard Pitts Jr. of the Miami Herald and Connie Schultz of the Cleveland Plain-Dealer last week called for a ban on anonymous comments—though the atmosphere on comments threads is so toxic I am not sure requiring names will truly improve it.
In theory, reader comments further the conversation, bring up different enlightened points of view, and so on. In reality, they are predictable and off-topic at best and racist and vile at worst. The Washington Post ombudsman, Andrew Alexander, wrote recently, “For every noxious comment, many more are astute and stimulating.” I would say the math goes the other way around. Eighty percent of the comments on any story involving struggling minority students attack parents. Some commenters put this nicely; others suggest that taking children away from their families would be a great first step. There is no topic so apolitical that determined commenters cannot turn it into a reason to rant against the president. (After a story about college completion rates: “When is BHusseinO going to release his academic records?”)
Websites announce that comments are monitored and offensive comments are removed. Ha. It seems you can say any atrociously insulting thing you want, as long as you do not swear. Is the comment “call the bambalance!!!!!” after a shooting in a black neighborhood in D.C. not racist because it did not include the n-word?
Newspapers don’t hire cavemen to write for them; why should they give them space in other ways? Why should a paper’s bandwidth be donated to defenses of date rape? Why should the standard be any less than what is used to accept letters for publication on the editorial page (be an identifiable human who makes an interesting, sane point)?
Chris Davenport at the Post recently blogged about a side effect of nasty comments: people becoming less willing to be written about in the paper. Who wants to open themselves up to such easy attacks? Even a little wedding feature will leave commenters ranting about how the couple should have taken their spoiled butts to the soup kitchen instead of throwing themselves a party.
Some people say that newspapers have an obligation to give a forum for readers to comment. But why does the bar need to be set so low? It’s the Internet; there is plenty of room for people to eviscerate the subjects of newspaper stories without the paper itself facilitating their venom. The only newspaper I have seen where the comments are consistently civil and interesting is the New York Times, which moderates heavily. For those of you who defend incivility: fine! Be nasty in your own house! If you choose to come to mine and tear up my furniture and insult my mother, as well as entire races of human beings, I will throw you out.