My father filled legal pads with letters to the editor disagreeing with stories in the largest newspaper serving our southwest corner of Indiana. He could have wadded them up and thrown them in the Ohio River for all the effect they had.
He didn’t live to see the Internet, online news sites, and the age of direct comment on news stories. Too bad. He would have relished the chance to share his views directly with news departments and other readers, who in return can share theirs, often in sharp but physically harmless terms. Sticks and stones, after all.
It has been tremendously empowering. Reporters correctly take pride in opposing a status quo they imagine to be harsh, conservative, and mean-spirited; comment sections give the status quo—in the form of a readership that often tends considerably to the right of newsrooms—an opportunity to talk back.
Just Listen, Don’t Talk
This week The Federalist Senior Editor David Harsanyi wrote about a Washington Post article supposedly fact-checking President Trump’s health insurance reform comments. Harsanyi disassembled the story, by Post writer Glenn Kessler. But readers of The Post who for whatever reason don’t review The Federalist could get differing views on Kessler’s work in The Post’s comment section. Such reader opinion sections were once the rule in online journalism.
But the door is closing. Reuters has eliminated theirs. NBCnews.com dropped theirs the very week of Donald Trump’s inauguration. CNN mostly phased theirs out in 2014, saying that comments “are selectively activated on stories that editors feel have the potential for high-quality debate.” Apparently very few do.
When heavily spun items like The Post piece appear at CNN.com, as they do constantly, readers have zero access to any views but those of the writer and the copy editors churning out headlines with a heavy finger on the scale.
Last year NPR.org decided they had heard more than enough public input. A PR guy named Justin told me by email that maintaining decorum in the comment columns was more than they could handle. He said I was welcome to email them my feedback. But that just restores the letters-to-the-editor era, returning to the publisher the power to decide whether differing opinions are acceptable. Would the media allow such conflict-of-interest-laden discretion to other entities in the public sphere?
Besides, it misses the point; comment sections should present opposing views at the point of contact—in the context of the story itself. Suffocating them to silence at the desk of PR folks like Justin is condescending at best, actively obstructive at worst.
How Dare You Have the Incivility to Disagree
Other outlets have sought a middle way. Locally, The Indianapolis Star followed its owners at USA Today/Gannett into a Facebook-based comment system. You can still comment, but not anonymously. When complaining about overreaching government bureaucrats or violent criminals just a carjack away from your front door, this can have what the press in other contexts calls a “chilling effect,” to say the least.
A friend of a Facebook friend who writes and edits for the Star is responsible for “policing” (her word) the opinions readers post in response to stories. She brags of her vigor in this, insisting it prevents uncivil discourse. Comments can certainly be raw, and obscenity, calls for violence, or libelous accusations should of course be screened. But beyond that, see “sticks and stones,” above. Besides, media fretting over “civility” too often amounts to a newsroom dog-whistle for right-wing views. Too many on the Left see any expression of opinions contrary to their own as inherently “uncivil.”
We’re decades into liberalism’s domination of the public culture. Comments by conservatives and libertarians tend to start at exasperated and spiral down through cheeky, sarcastic, impudent, coarse, and surly, bottoming out somewhere between Don Rickles and Captain Ahab tangled in the harpoon line. It’s understandable, but does leave them vulnerable to removal on civility grounds. Unfortunately, this is what free speech sounds like.
Sometimes. As it happens, research indicates that comment sections aren’t necessarily gladiator pits of cruelty. Last summer a study in the peer-reviewed International Journal of Press/Politics found that only about 12 percent of almost 4,000 comments in The Guardian about the 2009 U.N. Climate Change Summit were “abusive.” There was disagreement—it was a climate change conference, after all—but nearly 70 percent used reason, not invective, to make their points.
The move away from comment sections isn’t universal. Several major news sources continue to allow reader opinions. Below this item people are welcome to question its premises, spin, or conclusions in The Federalist’s comment section. If I don’t like it, well, tough. People disagree.
But as other news sites hit the mute button on their readers, they would do well to remember that they are in the business, or should be, of encouraging public participation in the conversation about the life of the nation. As readership plunges, wouldn’t this be in their interest? Besides, a conversation should have at least two sides. Anything less is just a lecture.