Wednesday, June 18, 2008

To Be or Not to Be a Blog

Mayor Eddie Perez of Hartford, availing himself of his constitutional right to protest injustice, has fired off a letter to the Hartford Courant lambasting the paper for allowing unfiltered “racist” remarks from commentators on its internet site.

Anyone who has visited such sites knows that such sections of internet newspapers are full of bomb throwing, uncivil brutes who can’t spell. These too are exercising their God given constitutional rights to pull the hair pieces from the heads of politicians and whip them up in the air like the hats of naval colleges graduates.

Hey, you don’t like it? Move to Cuba.

Begin with the quite ordinary and unchallengeable assertion that newspapers are not blog sites and all of Perez’s objections seem reasonable. He is urging editors to monitor the comment sections and clean out the bar of brawlers and ruffians.

Editorials in newspapers, always unsigned, are anonymous, and newspapers generally select which letters are to be printed. Letters are scrupulously checked to confirm authorship, and unsigned letters are not printed. Under this regimen, comments in the letters to the editor section of newspapers are generally civil in tone and content.

On blog sites, much of this is reversed. While the leading commentaries on blogs are not signed and sometime attributed to pseudonyms, the lead writers are generally identifiable. The opposite is true of newspaper editorials attributed to editorial boards and publishers. Some of the blog bylines are masked, but the masks are transparent. The comment section of blogs, however, is written by writers who may choose to be anonymous.

And anonymity brings with it a certain amount of devilry. When writers wear opaque masks they become less civil. We are on our best behavior when Mom is looking over our shoulders. When her children are not identifiable, they tend become more childlike and unruly.

To the extent that newspapers want to be blogs, they will reap the whirlwind of incivility.

Perez objects to the incivilities on parade in the comment section of newspaper internet sites and thinks that the rules that govern comment in newspapers ought to apply to such sites. Some of the commentary here, Perez argues, borders on racism and should be policed by the same people who phone up newspaper letter writers to confirm their authorship.If as Albert Camus says "every word written is a commitment," why should we not see to it that authors “own” their commitments by signing their work?

It ought to be noted that Perez is not insisting on a standard more severe than that which applies to newspapers. Any chatter about shackling writers who are exercising their First Amendment rights would therefore be out of place.

Perez wants newspapers to be newspapers even when they are “printed” online. The proprietors of newspapers think that than online papers should be more like blogs.

To the extent they are governed by rules applicable to newspapers, they will be unable to attract the interest of young people who have voted with their fingers for blogs and against newspapers.

To the owners and publishers of newspapers, it’s a money thing. Civility obviously does not pay.

We all know how this one is going to play out. Money trumps civility.

At least one blogger and columnist who is “troubled by the degree to which the Topix comment threads on Courant articles are so reliably a sewer of racism, unfocused hostility, cheap invective and hate speech” has thrown his lot in with the gang of trolls, commentators who rove from blog to blog fragging other polite commentators. He says the good apples should drive the bad apples from the commentary basket. Commentators should police themselves.

Good luck with that.

The real problem is that the dying newspaper industry is in the throws of an identity crisis brought on, some people think, by penury. The identity crisis places internet newspaper sites between a rock and a hard place. Should they be newspapers or blogs? That problem will not be settled by permitting hate spewing grown up children to splatter their spittle on the corpse.

Notice: This blog has been updated.
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