Most postings to online news stories are an embarrassment to free speech. The same people seem to post over and over, often answering one another back and forth, in diatribe reminiscent of the old radio call-in shows, also dominated by “regulars.” What is written is usually not thought out, poorly phrased, full of spelling and grammatical errors and not edited by anyone. Worst of all, they are unsigned, which makes their frequent fear- and prejudice-based “reasoning” all the more troubling since their authors strike in anonymity. Rumor-mongers, these posters play on “e-bites,” the Internet equivalent of sound bites. But the full meal, the thoughtful argument, is rarely there.
Is this how we are to “inform” in the new age of declining print and quick electronic comment? If so, the nation, the world, the neighborhood is in trouble. It’s like uttering a joke in one language, translating through the idioms of 10 other tongues and then back into English. The intended meaning is lost, even skewed toward idiocy.
How did we get here? As revenue has declined in dwindling print journalism, newspapers and other media have encouraged online viewpoints, thus giving almost anyone a shot at speaking in the public square. In doing so, there has been editorial ballyhoo about protecting democracy through added, unrestricted comment, but that's a convenient argument used to rationalize marketing for website hits. The more people who visit the sites, the more advertisers you get.
How is public discourse encouraged when too few posters think through what they want to say, often getting off the subject completely and instead pushing whatever agenda they may have? Some examples: A recent Associated Press story about Kim Jong Un, the new North Korean leader, contained many postings, including one that suggested America send “that fat little pork chop” to South Africa where sharks could eat him alive. Attached to a suburban newspaper piece about a highly paid police chief who may retire was the comment that many houses “where lost do to forecloser.” No, many homes WERE (perhaps) lost DUE to FORECLOSURE. In a Louisiana story about that state’s review of the Gulf oil spill, there was this: we should “believe the findings of this committe? yeah tell it to the friggin pope!” (Spelling, grammar, vulgarity not changed “to protect free speech.”) How do these postings add anything coherent to debate?
As a retired 42-year newspaperman who fought for the right to access facts and print them and for the right to express both the newspaper’s views and the people’s, I cannot call for a narrowing of the online response pipeline. Instead, since I am still free in this nation, I will continue to ignore most of this comment, just as I switched off many of the old “hotline” radio callers. But as a former editorial page editor who, together with my newspaper, insisted that letter writers identify themselves, I urge all media companies to require the same for online posters. And any poster immediately should show courage of conviction and stand up using his/her real name. This should make people think first, and think deeply, before posting. It would weed out the ridiculous.
In the letter-writing days, some of the correspondents would ask me to use a pseudonym, for fear that “some nut will call me” or “I will be harassed by calls.” I would reply: “When you use our – your – free speech forum, you hang yourself out there. The right to offer opinion comes at risk. Be willing to take it.” Almost all did.
That’s not the case with online posting. There are too many participants who do not have the courage of their convictions.