As you’ve probably read, NPR will turn off the comments switch on its Web site as of Aug. 23. That’s the kind of news that many will welcome. The readers' section has become the place for racist, sexist, violent comments and attacks on journalists. And at times, the comments have introduced or perpetuated falsehoods.
At their worst, comments are nasty. I’ll give you my worst-case example. In 2011, when it was reported that CBS News correspondent Lara Logan had been sexually assaulted by a gang of protesters in Egypt’s Tahrir Square, some commenters on the New York Post coverage, to put this as nicely as I can, voiced regret they weren’t there to join in.
I was outraged and tried of getting a hold of someone at the paper in the conventional ways. When that didn’t work, I found a reporter I knew (a bit), and implored her to get the newspaper's bosses to take that stuff down. A few hours later, they did. Not to be too heroic about it, but I think without my effort, nothing would have been done.
Eliminating comment creates a future in which much of the conversation about news stories just won’t happen. Except for the feature, commenting about a Website’s videos or stories occurs somewhere else, away from the scene, and not very immediately.
If there is a mistake or criticism, you can’t very easily call a Web site. And none that I know have the equivalent of a “letters to the editor” section. The Contact Us place on sites must deliver emails to where?...the North Pole?
The same is true with TV.
The average person can’t reach a TV newsroom. At one time, “60 Minutes” ran three or four heavily edited “letters” per week from readers, but that was a long ago. In an era in which we may be communicating more than ever without each other, journalism still operates in a semi-walled garden.
Does that have something to do with why the public hates the press? Well, I’d say, it doesn’t help.
Organizations that monitor their site comments--The New York Times for one--winnow out the idiots, but readers may wonder if they also winnow out dissenters. It seems to me the NYT doesn’t allow a lot of reader comment about a news story’s structure or facts. Anyway, only about 10% of the Times’ stories are open to comment at all.
At one big city site I know of, comments on crime stories have been shut off to stop race-baiters from posting.
But monitoring is an expensive undertaking. When comments are turned off, it's a dramatic example of bad driving out the good.
Elizabeth Jensen, NPR’s ombudsman, understands why public radio is removing comments and hopes NPR does as it says and finds new ways for comment. She, too, notes that “listeners and readers have no other option for contacting reporters directly.”
But she also writes: “Seeing the current sorry state of NPR.org commenting, I support the move to end comments. I am also disappointed. . . . (T)his latest move seems like a step backward, as understandable as it is. So I hope NPR will make good on the promises that newer engagement options will be tried out.”
Back in the anti-war days, the short-lived Scanlan’s Monthly magazine hit upon a novel letters policy. It said it would run cogent letters for free, but would charge a fee--retroactively--for letters that the editors found offensive or poorly reasoned.
It was a tongue-in-cheek policy, but recalling it makes me wonder if, in fact, some version of that might work online. To post comments, you must create a credit-card account for, let’s say, 50 comments. But you're shut off immediately if other readers object to a vile remark and a Web site administrator agrees. Having to pay 10 or 20 bucks a crack to call people names might not be worth it.