Ten thousand miles away from the United States, looking out my window on the deep blue waters of the Mediterranean Sea, I have succeeded in achieving a state of calm impossible when my daily commute in Los Angeles takes me past the roiling waters of the Pacific and the World Wide Web. Despite my best intentions, however, I did yield to the temptation to pick up a copy of the International Herald Tribune this weekend, where I had the well-deserved punishment of reading an editorial by Douglas Bailey reprinted from the Boston Globe. http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/editorial_opinion/oped/articles/2009/07/15/got_a_comment_keep_it_to_yourself/
Disingenuously inviting me into the trap with a unsubtle "Dare ya", Mr. Bailey rails against the unrestricted freedom of the hoi polloi to comment and retort to the sage words printed in esteemed, dusty newspapers by Jurassic Journalists such as himself. Nope, I've got a forum here, Mr. B, and it levels the playing field so I'll take the challenge and talk back.
Bailey criticizes the level of discourse in comments. Yes, I concede that the enterprising spammer who post a link to an X-rated website probably should exercise some self-restraint. However, if an article is published in the forest, and the bears can't read it, does it exist? Or is Mr. Bailey really writing for an elite intelligentsia that is limited to the editorial staff of his outlet? If you don't want the populace to read your "wisdom" and engage in discussion, then write your editorials in your diary, and share them over a bottle of two-buck Chuck with the editor of the New York Times.
Yes, Mr. B appropriately chides commenters who snipe, misinform, and show insensitivity. Flaming went out with Cage Aux Folles. But, let's acknowledge the opportunity for civilized disagreement, learning information and personal growth, and networking that the internet watercooler provides for many to expand their horizons, and empower their voice.
The result, he insists, is an unvetted sharing of "facts" that mingles the newspaper's truth with the commenter's fantasy. Ah, where to begin...? Well, first, Internet Literacy 101 teaches us all to note that the article is likely vetted, and the blurbs in the comments section are likely not, and should be eaten with a grain of salt. Duh. Secondarily, is the vetted news source itself trustworthy, or do the vetters have names like Ayers, Murdoch, or Rove? Even the NY Times had a reporter named Judith Miller...
And his apocryphal story of the writer who posts the edited portions of his story anonymously (did it work, Doug?) doesn't ring true. As one who has been published in the august WaPo, LAT, and Trib, I wouldn't deep six a good relationship with an editor by writing a negative comment and sabotaging a piece of mine they had trimmed. Yes, they read the comments, and they recognize your style.
Libel, you say? Yes, it exists, and not just on the web. If it's libel, trust that the libelee will take appropriate action in a court of law. Would avoiding anonymous comments help reduce potential risk? Maybe. That's why many sites require registration, and almost all can locate and identify an IP address. On the other hand, I seem to recall a few cases (Judith Miller...) where anonymous sources were used in "vetted" pieces in the hallowed press. Rumors are not only started by entrepreneurial bloggers but by manipulators with more dangerous agendas.
Finally, he casts a vote for newspapers charging for their internet product. I am torn myself on this issue. I love the free internet, and might have to pay thousands of dollars a year to pay for the content I access for free right now. On the other hand, newspapers will not survive much longer in print form as paid print subscription and ads disappear. The best option is not to recreate an internet model of the corporate news behemoths, but to find a cost-effective way to subsidize multiple journalistic outlets and their reporters without binding them with golden handcuffs and grinding them under corporate executives thumbs.
By the way, I always welcome and invite your comments. You, too, Doug.