Commentary

The Venom Of The Crowd

When Adam Feldman, a theater critic and arts writer for Time Out New York, wrote a moving and considered tribute to Natasha Richardson under an "RIP" headline and posted it after the actresses' fall at a Quebec ski resort there was only one problem -- Richardson had not yet died. A short time later, the title was changed to "Sympathies," the post was amended with a note of apology clarifying Richardson's status as "brain dead," citing a source close to the family.

Predictably, readers did not shrug this off, and the story's comments section filled with sentiments of self-righteous rage that were shockingly vulgar given the overall context. It didn't help that they had gotten wind of an email from someone at TONY calling it a "semantic issue," even as Richardson was being flown to a New York hospital.

Ironically, the indignant bloggers, so worked up by the reporter's blunder, rushed to publish, again and again cited reports (from TMZ and People.com) that turned out to be less accurate than TONY's story. The comments section became a place where people shared and traded the latest information on the story as it developed -- and much of what was shared was wrong. Of course, these people are not journalists, just people who appointed themselves as the defenders of integrity. What standard can such a lynch mob be held to?

The hundreds of vile and reactionary comments show the limits of unmediated discourse that's the way of Web 2.0. It lowers debate, any debate, to the lowest common denominator. The mob mentality on the TONY story fell to the point where posters wished harm on TONY's editors.

The Chicago Tribune has had to deal with "Dewey Defeats Truman" for decades, but there's no record of anyone ever bringing the editor's family into it. The overreaction could be, in part, because tracks are so easy to cover on the Web; bloggers might want to make sure the writer doesn't get away with something.

But the vitriol spewed says more about the state of people commenting than it does of journalism. It's difficult to grasp that the people leaving comments were so personally affected by an error in the report of an actress who they did not know personally, and whose work was never strongly supported by audiences.

Comments have little or no sense of scale -- attacks can get as violently aggressive and personal on stories about comic-book characters or hamburgers as they got on the Richardson article. The so-called wisdom of the crowd is morphing into the venom of the crowd. The urge to correct and excoriate the reporter might actually be stronger than the actual indignation people feel.

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4 comments about "The Venom Of The Crowd".
  1. Richard Landry from TP & TG Realty , March 19, 2009 at 9:26 a.m.

    How dare these peons speak harshly of one of America's elite. He's a reporter and if he gets his facts wrong he'll write a correction in a couple of days somewhere in the paper or blog. These fourth estate must begin to understand that they have lost as much street cred as the US Congress. Most people don't read newspapers any more because the editorial opinion page is page one to the classifieds. As Harry Turman said "If you can't stand the heat get out of the kitchen."

  2. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited , March 19, 2009 at 10:27 a.m.

    Sure the obit was premature, but unfortunately not by much. Those who desire to criticize so fiercely on a sad situation that does not affect their own lives for sure do not have enough to do with those own lives.

  3. Tim Mccormick from McCormick Fields , March 19, 2009 at 2:28 p.m.

    Despite the unfortunate lege, Adam Feldman's
    tribute was quite respectful and eloquent. In the
    context of daily life the best reaction to tragedy
    is hushed silence or the like. Example: the first
    post 9/11 New Yorker cover. Typically journalists
    are not afforded the luxury of silence.
    But there are two stories here. The reactionary
    comments are very troublesome. If they did not
    have blog comment sections to vent their anger
    where and how would they route their venom?
    How can we know that it may have been the
    heart of the angry mob that Shakespeare
    addressed his most pithy comments. To be.
    Should anyone ask, I did reflect with silence
    before posting this comment.

  4. John Grono from GAP Research , March 19, 2009 at 4:17 p.m.

    This is what happens when the pressure is on to "be the first to break the news" (and I mean in general, not specifically this tragic case) - quality and accuracy are too often sacrificed at the altar of speed. It's all part of the 'rush to the bottom'. You analogy of the reactions being those of a lynch mob are scarily true.