Let’s hope this is a harbinger of things to come.
The fact is that few things are more responsible for the negative tone and tenor of our political system in America today than the comments sections in news outlet websites, which often permit anonymous comments.
And don’t for a second think that this bullying – because that’s what it is – doesn’t trickle down to society at large, including our young people. Because it does. Sometimes with tragic consequences.
It is hypocritical when news outlets decry the rise of bullying in our society, criticize government for not doing anything about it, and complain about the tone of politics, yet are complicit by allowing and even encouraging bullying on their own websites.
NPR Ombudsman Elizabeth Jensen provided the following perspective on exactly what the comments sections are:
“A user named Mary, from Raleigh, N.C., wrote to implore: ‘Remove the comments section from your articles. The rude, hateful, racist, judgmental comments far outweigh those who may want to engage in some intelligent sideline conversation about the actual subject of the article. I am appalled at the amount of ‘free hate’ that is found on a website that represents honest and unbiased reporting such as NPR. What are you really gaining from all of these rabid comments other than proof that a sad slice of humanity that preys on the weak while spreading their hate?’”
Does anyone who has spent any period of time reading the comments section of any news outlet disagree with that wise assessment from Mary?
Scott Montgomery, NPR’s managing editor of digital news put it this way: “We've reached the point where we've realized that there are other, better ways to achieve the same kind of community discussion around the issues we raise in our journalism.”
NPR Ombudsman Jensen quoted the following statistics, which confirm everything I have ever believed about the comments sections:
“In July, NPR.org recorded nearly 33 million unique users, and 491,000 comments. But those comments came from just 19,400 commenters, Montgomery said. That's 0.06 percent of users who are commenting, a number that has stayed steady through 2016.”
This demonstrates that comments sections are the domain of an extremely small slice of users. Despite what proponents might argue, it is not a virtual town square where reasoned debate takes place. Instead, it’s a veritable dungeon where a small number of users provide the required “clicks” that aid the bottom line of many media outlets.
Now, before First Amendment warriors take umbrage with this piece, just a reminder that the First Amendment states:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
The key word is “Congress.” And, in 1925, the US Supreme Court in Gitlow v. New York ruled that the First Amendment also applied to actions of state governments. Thus, individuals enjoy no First Amendment right to write whatever they want on the website of a private news organization. The First Amendment only applies to actions of governments. To put it in other words, no one in America has the First Amendment right to enter the private property of another and spew hate. The owner of that property can legally ask that person to leave. There is no difference when it comes to the websites of private news organizations.
We’ve come to the point in time when Americans are overloaded with the opportunity to comment on issues of the day. They can use Facebook to spew their hate and venom, usually under their own names. There’s also Twitter and a whole host of other social networks where these conversations can and do take place.
It is simply irresponsible for news outlets to continue to provide a platform for the lowest common denominator in our society to bully their fellow citizens. Does anyone believe that when addressing the most important political issues of the day, a person’s mind will be changed because of the words of an anonymous, often sarcastic, commenter?
There simply is no real debate taking place in the comments section. Perhaps if comment sections had been created in a different way, requiring confirmation of a person’s identity, things would be different today. But I believe it is too late for that, since so many people are now unashamed to spew hate and venom even under their own names.
I do not blame the comments sections for all incidents of bullying and inappropriate behavior in our society. But I am saying that the acceptance of bullying behavior that comments sections have fostered does play a role in how we interact in society.
I am hopeful that NPR’s actions will inspire other news outlets to follow their lead. Let’s stop catering to the worst in our society. Let the haters fight with each other on their private Facebook pages where decent people don’t have to come across it.
Finally, I want to make clear that I don’t mind when people debate me on my positions. It comes with the job, and I have no hesitation in talking to anyone who earnestly wants to discuss an issue. I welcome the opportunity to try to demonstrate why my position is correct. I have engaged with countless constituents through email, on the phone, in person, and on social media on various topics when they respectfully and intelligently wanted to debate or criticize. I do, however, have a problem with internet trolls. I don’t engage for long with those who can only say different variations of “Oddo is a bum.” They are not worth the time or the effort, and my time at Borough Hall is too limited to engage in a fruitless back and forth with those who only want to attack and criticize without any desire to find common ground.