LIBRUL Disturber Restrix My FRE SPECH!!!!

The Observer's welcome decision to drop the fantasy of a healthy, open, respectful public debate on its site
The Charlotte Observer
Thames

Back in the 1990s, a trend called “public journalism” (or “civic journalism”) started seeping into newspaper, radio and TV newsrooms, billed as a way to “engage” more deeply with our communities and reader/listener/viewerships; a method by which we all might persuade people that no, we weren’t really as incidental to their lives as we seemed and in fact were. It was one of those Pew Center things.

What was it? Nobody ever quite figured that out. In theory, a news organization would be a catalyst for public discussion of one issue or another rather than merely an impartial purveyor of information. If there was a problem in the local public school district — there always was — the Lumptown Collater-Gazette would convene a gathering of “community stakeholders” (including the police chief, a pantsuited Realtor lady, an associate vice president at the Chamber), serve sub platters, get them to “discuss” the “issues” with the help of a moderator, then cover the event as news, thereby “sparking an open discussion that may serve as a catalyst for community-driven change,” or something else that might act as a pheromone for foundation grants. These efforts inevitably would produce giant piles of nothing. The assorted systems remained intact. People began watching reality TV.

And then eventually Craigslist came along and washed away news orgs’ sand castles, and that was that.

One of the premises of public journalism was that journalistic institutions should provide a virtual (and sometimes literal) meeting place for its consumers, an “agora” in the manner of the ancient Greeks. That’s where people would gather to exchange information, opinion, chatter, and the newspaper would serve as the welcome host of this broad-based, healthy public discussion — democracy on the ground floor. That was the spirit that informed news sites’ decisions in the early days of the web to have comment sections accompanying stories. Here was a real community gathering place, online, free and open to everyone, even people who chose to remain anonymous.

You know what happened.

“PRAKS HELMS OLD F&^%*$%$ POS SOCALIST FACIST! SHOULD BE IN JAILE!”

“YOur pathetic. Your a waist of oxygen.”

“The lib-rag Charlote Disturber strikes again! Pravda on the Catawba! Light rail is a scheme to steal our FREEDOM!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

The agora turned out to be an open sewer, in other words, and news sites everywhere found themselves less catalysts for productive community conversations than conduits for foul discharge from people who apparently didn’t know where the caps lock key was. (My favorite description of all time comes from The Washington Post’s Gene Weingarten: “It’s as though when you order a sirloin steak, it comes with a side of maggots.”)

The Observer, thankfully, has joined a series of newspaper sites that have chosen to at least strain the maggots before serving them. Rick Thames explained it the other day in a blog post:

In fact, the mud-wrestling that often unfolds in anonymous comments that follow our stories on CharlotteObserver.com is a big turn-off for many people. And despite our best efforts to maintain a civil atmosphere, a small but determined number of users continue to post comments laced with hate, vicious attacks and vulgarities. We delete as many as 300 comments a day that violate our guidelines.

So we are recalling the masks. Beginning at noon Wednesday, our stories will only feature the comments of people who are willing to be recognized.

Specifically, commenters will log in using a Facebook account. Most people on Facebook use their real names. Even those who don’t are generally recognizable to their Facebook “friends” and, therefore, more accountable for what they say … 

With these changes, we expect fewer comments on our stories. This has been the experience of other newspaper websites that already switched to Facebook registration, including The Los Angeles Times, Miami Herald and USAToday.

But their experience also suggests this will result in more relevant and substantial comments. We hope it will also encourage the return of many reasonable commenters who previously left, rather than be bullied or intimidated. We want to provide our users a safe place for community conversations and respectful debate.

It’s an imperfect system, of course, and I’m sure painful for the former giants of American journalism to genuflect before the graven image of the God Zuckerberg. But this will have to do, I’m afraid. It’s a good thing for big media companies to grasp their new and lesser niche in the ecosystem — and an opportunity for maybe three or four more people to understand that a private company declining to provide you with a platform to refer to the President of the United States as a “f*kkin n*gger turrist” under the handle “NC Dood for Liberty” does not, in a legal or any other sense, constitute a restriction of free speech.

Categories: Poking the Hornet’s Nest