There's been a bit of a backlash recently against the angry commenter on newspaper websites. Some are calling for newspapers to stop allowing comments sections all together. But what about democracy on the web? Bob, with the help of "This American Life"'s Ira Glass, ruminates on the dark side of the comments section.
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield. And now for a few of your letters and comments. Following our interview with Muslim graduate student Naseem Mithoowani we got a big response, including the following:
Mark, from Albany, New York, wrote, “How loyal is Mr. Garfield to Likud, AIPAC, the American Enterprise Institute, Heritage and the neo conservative movement? Who purchased Mr. Garfield’s new luxury car? Questions that Mr. Garfield and WNYC need to answer.”
Okay. Here’s an answer. Are you insane? About our recent interview with Zev Chafets on Rush Limbaugh, Julie Baxter from Austin, Texas writes, “NPR has been in the tank for Bush and his never ending war from the get go.”
Snoop Diggity DANG Dawg from Virginia responds to Julie Baxter with the following: “NPR in the tank for Bush? I listen to NPR daily and it consists almost entirely of ‘why America sucks’ and ‘we should all be ashamed of ourselves” stories.’
Interestingly, both reductionist commenters are right. Every minute of every NPR show, including OTM, is dedicated to supporting the political establishment, especially the Bush Administration, and, as Mr. Diggity DANG Dawg has brilliantly deduced, spitting in the face of America. And why? Because [LAUGHS] as one shrewd observer commented just this week, “The Jews tell us to.”
All of which is to say while it is frequently enlightening to read the incoming here at OTM, it is also sometimes frustrating, maddening and extremely discouraging. In our case, the frustration mainly stems from listeners who haven't seemed to actually listen before fulminating and hitting Send.
Other news organizations are awash in mean, hateful and occasionally libelous rhetoric that makes us wonder how the free exchange of those particular ideas contributes to the alleged democratized online ideal. Nor are we alone in these ruminations.
Recently there’s been a bit of a backlash against the angry commenter, especially the anonymous angry commenter. Newspapers around the country have had to disband comment sections because of racist content, ad hominem attacks and vulgarity. The Mayor of Hartford, Connecticut, Eddie Perez, actually staged a protest outside of the offices of The Hartford Courant in response to what he called “hate speech” on the paper’s site.
Even a reporter for Gawker, the snarky online gossip site that itself trades in mean jabs at anybody with a semblance of name recognition, urged newspapers to stop posting the fray, which, of course, if you believe in digital democracy and in the transfer of power from the few to the many, is absolute heresy.
But, as the architects of the Iraq war can tell you, democracy is a swell idea but not that easily achieved on the ground. Here’s our friend Ira Glass of Public Radio’s This American Life. Ira himself was impaled on the horns of a dilemma when comment traffic on his website got uglier and uglier. IRA GLASS: And this culminated in this story that the woman named Debra Gwartney did, which was this incredibly bare piece of journalism where she tried to document why her teenage daughters ran away from home, ran away from her, okay?
And, you know, they're doing drugs, they're on the road, I mean, it’s just like it’s a very, very serious story and it’s an honest story. It’s an actual, honest story where somebody tries to say, here’s how it happened. And so, we had this story. We thought it was really just an amazing piece of work and a very brave piece of work on their part to make themselves so exposed.
And, at the time, we had this bulletin board on our website where people would comment on the shows, and people were just so vicious about her as a mom, and about the girls, and they called the girls names, they called them sluts.
And we had to go on the website, like, I went on the website and I said, like, please, like, these are teenage girls who are reading what you’re saying about them right here. They come onto this site and they see what you’re saying, so please, like, act like they're in the room and you’re saying something to them in this room. Know that you are talking directly to them and use the tone of voice you would if you knew that they were hearing you.
And truthfully, I and the whole staff, we just thought, like, that’s the last straw and we took down the bulletin board 'cause we felt like it was an act of bad faith with our interviewees. We don't need to create a forum for the audience to express their mean-hearted opinions about people who open themselves up to us and to them. There’s just no reason for that. We don't have to endorse that by giving it a space. BOB GARFIELD: At that point in the conversation, I asked Ira a leading question, something along the lines of, how uncivilized the discourse is online, and I more or less invited him to sneer at some portion of his audience. He didn't take the bait.
IRA GLASS: I mean honestly, I hear you say that, and I just think that that is, that’s the way the royalty feels when they're not the only ones who get a voice. Do you know what I mean? Like, up until now, you’re old enough, and I'm old enough, that you were very comfortable with the one way communication.
And I feel like I hear you say this and I feel like you are anti democratic. You are a royalist. You are upset with democracy itself. I don't find it very comforting that there’s like a world of people who don't agree with my feelings about my own show, but that’s okay with me. Like, I don't have to feel good about that.
I feel like, you know, you make something, you put it out in the world and you want people to have feelings about it, and the feelings can include, they hate you and that seems okay. And the fact that they get to say it and it gets to stick to my name, I feel like even that seems okay. BOB GARFIELD: That’s This American Life host Ira Glass on his ambivalence about reader comments.