One needn’t look far to find a new-age battlefield where anything goes, low blows are the norm and bitterness, nastiness and just plain old meanness rule the playing field. No, I’m not speaking about youth sports (this time) or no-holds-barred cage wrestling (that has too many rules) — I’m speaking about online commentary fields commonly found on news websites.
Anyone who has read a news story online has seen them. They follow the story; an open field where readers — most often hiding behind pseudonyms like SillyPutty, newsjunkie32 and lord_of_the_rants — feel free to add their two cents’ worth. And God knows, there’s no shortage of opinions these days. It’s such a cultural phenomenon that I’m surprised Hollywood hasn’t already produced a summer romantic comedy titled “When Harry Tagged Sally’s Blog,” a romp of errors and misunderstanding when a seemingly offhand remark gets taken way out of context, to the delight of Sally’s coworkers and the horrors of Harry’s friends.
Only in real life, there is seldom anything very funny about the comments posted — humor being intended or not.
Mean spiritedness is not in short supply. It seems people with an axe to grind find news commentary sites rich and fertile ground to spew forth vindictive and spurious comments. Given the anonymous nature of the sites, seldom are random statements backed up by facts or even reasonable supposition. It’s as if the Wild West has been reborn, but instead of a six-shooter, today’s gunslingers wield smoking keyboards behind their oh-so-clever avatars.
These people are so commonplace in the virtual world, they have been given labels to quickly identify them: the most common being sock puppets or trolls. The latter conjures up a not-too-hard-to-imagine image of a person sitting in a darkened room, hunched over a keyboard, with only the glow of a screen to light their way to posting snippets of vitriol.
It wasn’t always this way. Having spent the better part of the past two decades in newsrooms, I’ve watched them metamorphose from X-Acto blades and waxed galleys to electronic publication of stories on the Internet before — and even exclusive of — print. Ever since the days of newspapers themselves, people have been given the opportunity to comment and vent upon a writer’s words.
The difference is news used to take time. the news cycle used to be 24 hours — sometimes a week in outlying communities and rural areas — the time it took the local paper to report on a story. Television would give you the headlines, along with a snappy soundbite and a busty weathergirl — but the meat of the news was always reserved for the printed word. And the same could be said for the commentary that would follow in the subsequent editorial pages.
But as news budgets shrank and online media began to take ever larger bites out of the more traditional print and broadcast news markets, the powers that be in those old worlds saw a need to meet the new age at least halfway. So papers — grudgingly at first — began to allow readers to comment on stories. Understand — writers and editors are good at two things: writing and editing. So be kind before finding fault in their not seeing the maelstrom brewing on the virtual horizon as readers warmed up their typing skills and polished their fangs.
Many newsrooms were caught unprepared for the anything goes world of online commentary. Some quickly pulled the plug on allowing commentary on controversial stories while others closed up online commentary completely. But most outlets — in an attempt to appear hip to the times and not demonstrating a knee-jerk reaction to the backlash — continue to allow comments while working in the background to find some way to bring a Wyatt Earp to their online Tombstone.
Few papers have the capital to hire a full-time online editor to view, edit and respond to the many posts a paper receives. Many have turned to their online “community” to help police the streets — asking for informants to flag the Bonnie Parkers and Clyde Barrows of cyberspace. This has been at best a Band-aid fix. Bitter comments still get posted — and are only pulled based on the working hours and due diligence of a harried editor who has much better things to do and more pressing needs than to babysit a thread.
For the gunslinger, he/she has lost nothing. Their comments still have been seen by any number of others (their intent) and even if they eventually get banned from a site, they simply change their online presence to an as yet unbesmirched screen name and begin again or they simply move on as there are an untold number of sites they can comment on from Aachen to Zwolle.
many of these wily worthsmiths don’t even care about the gist of the story — they know how to post a lively comment sure to draw in others into a protracted debate over issues that have no pertinence to the original posting. They appear to delight in just getting others all ruffled and twitchy.
So what’s an ethical editor to do? (Yes, they do exist, you just have to really look.) Allowing comments on stories is like running herd over a freak show; while pulling the comment threads is counter to the ideal of community support and responsible journalism.
And as newspapers grasp at the next latest things to somehow remain relevant in an irrelevant world, the buzzword has become “hits,” and the hits that count are the ones being compiled on the websites. And, of course, nothing drives the hits like a little controversial commentary …
Aldus Huxley warned us it would be a Brave New World. But his dire prediction centered around an Utopian government of predetermined castes, while H.G. Wells predicted a government run amok and watching our every move in “1984,” both dire in their own way, but not on the mark of where find ourselves today. Perhaps the most prescient prognosticator of our own worst nightmare coming true is a philosophical little possum from Okefenokee Swamp, Walt Kelly’s Pogo, where he surmised, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”