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Cheap shots and scurrilous comments on the Internet, as seen from the heartland

COMMENTARY | April 26, 2010

Some old Des Moines newspaper hands wade into the argument over anonymous postings on websites. One is reminded of a country song, "I'm Ashamed To Be Here (But Not Ashamed Enough To Leave)."

By Herb Strentz

DES MOINES—Here are three truisms that came to bear as a few of us batted around one of the most pernicious accomplishments of the Internet – the anonymous, vicious venting on websites in the name of free speech.

  1. As attributed to Finley Peter Dunne, Mother Jones and likely many others, the job of the journalist is to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.
  2. You meet a lot of interesting people in journalism, most of whom are in your newsroom.
  3. Access, openness and transparency and other values of the children of light are preferable to secrecy, closure, anonymity and other manifestations of the forces of darkness.
Now that we’ve all agreed on that, let’s move to a summary of email exchanges among a few central Iowa characters, including former editors, reporters and others. All have some equity in newsrooms and perspectives on journalism today and, yes, memories, war stories and even regrets about what happened when a newsroom was more like a coffee house than a counting house.
The catalyst for the email exchanges was an anonymous posting on a Des Moines Register website — the sort of posting that the New York Times has written about and that has given us fits over the past few years as newspapers and television stations foster cheap shots and scurrilous comments by readers and viewers of the news events of the day.
Clark Kauffman, an investigative reporter for the Des Moines Register, had previously set the tone for me by commenting on how postings on electronic billboards had turned “the afflicted” into human piñatas for anonymous contributors to lambaste, ridicule and scorn — making fun of the vulnerable who by dint of circumstance had wandered into the media spotlight.
This time around, the subject was a student at Iowa State University, who had been missing for a few months and whose body was finally discovered in a vacant building in a seldom-visited area of the campus.
The news story about the discovery of the corpse elicited more than 130 on-line anonymous comments from readers. One was that the 21-year-old kid had welched on a cocaine deal and been done in by “the Mexican Mafia.” How the contributor of that insight came to such a thought and why on earth the Register, in effect, trumpeted it were enough to cause me to email my list of usual suspects when it comes to concerns about local news coverage.
Kauffman was one of the first to respond, offering comments likening journalism’s efforts to address on-line anonymity “to the mythical old country song, "I'm Ashamed To Be Here (But Not Ashamed Enough To Leave)."
“We've let anonymous ‘Story Chatters’ publicly blame two Des Moines mothers for the accidental deaths of their child,” he wrote. “Some have used the site to call for the execution of public officials. One person posted the mental-health treatment records of a minor. Others encouraged specific, mentally ill people to commit suicide and then provided detailed instructions on how they might do that with carbon monoxide… 
“Predictably, the targets of many of the attacks are young women, children, immigrants, minorities, gays... I still can't get over the fact that editors around the nation continue to wring their hands over this issue as if there's no real solution to this mess. To be fair, though, I also can't get over the fact that people who cheerfully publish unfiltered, unchecked anonymous comments continue to call themselves "editors" and have no problem turning their newspapers' Web sites into the electronic version of a bathroom wall.
“But back to your original question: What purpose is served by publishing anonymous reader comments? I don't think the newspaper industry thinks along those lines… We use Twitter and we use the Story Chat tools because the technology enables us to do so. Little or no consideration is given to whether we ought to do these things. We're too enamored with the technology itself to think about whether we're using it responsibly.”
Bill Maurer, managing editor of the Des Moines Tribune when the Cowles family closed it in 1982, chimed in:  
“I read too many of the comments.  Yes, I laugh at some of them, privately in my office, but some of the comments are just outrageous… I have real empathy for those really good reporters/writers who do such a good job day after day. I think the Web comments cheapen many of the fine reporting projects they produce.  But then, I don't sit on the mezzanine (in the editor’s office). And maybe if I did, and looked at the stuff from the financial picture, I'd whore it out, too! --Cheers, Maurer “
Enter David Witke, former managing editor of the Register, who was president of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council in 1987 and who now teaches at Simpson College near Des Moines. He started with Maurere’s comments:
“Bill -- I worked with you enough years to know you'd never "whore it out" on any issue.
As for the main topic, Witke wrote:
“As I re-read this exhange to see what I might use in my journalism classes, another thought struck me:
I've never given much credence to ‘slippery-slope’ invocations, but I do remember, years ago in the Register newsroom, arguing strongly against allowing anonymous comments in the proposed ’Your 2-Cents Worth’ column. I couldn't understand why we'd demand signatures and full addresses (plus a non-published phone number for verification) on the editorial page letters, yet let folks carp anonymously in what was then the Neighbors section.
“As I recall, I was managing editor at the time and I was joined in my argument by Frank Bowers, the Neighbors editor, and Bill Maurer, who was probably the Trib's city editor at the time… But we were overruled by the then-editor or executive editor… who saw it as one more way for people to express themselves and one more way to gain ‘interaction’ with our readers — and he didn't think the Neighbors section should be held to the same standards as the editorial page. Of course, 2-Cents Worth went on to become a very popular feature…but every time I read it I recoil a bit. Start of a slippery slope? Right at the height of the Register's Golden Age? I should have made more of a fuss.
--Dave Witke”
Among those routinely involved in our occasional email discussions is Michael Gartner, former editor of the Register, one-time president of NBC News, and winner of a Pulitzer Prize for his opinion writing when he was editor and co-owner of the Ames Tribune.
Nowadays, Gartner keeps busy as the principal owner of the AAA Iowa Cubs franchise and a member of the Iowa Board of Regents. So he’s among the more public of Iowa public figures. He recalled when one of his friends, one of Iowa’s leading businessmen and chief donors to the state GOP and to higher education in Iowa was the subject of anonymous comments on the website, even in the last days of his life:  
“I am regularly ridiculed, sometimes pilloried and occasionally libeled (if I believed in libel) by anonymous people when my name is in the paper, which doesn't bother me. But I did complain to the editor when people posted particularly nasty comments — including references to his weight — when the dying Marvin Pomerantz was in the news a few years ago. I called them to the attention of the editor, along with the posted guidelines, which clearly banned such stuff; eventually, the comments were deleted, but why isn't there, at the very least, a system that stops stuff that clearly violates the alleged guidelines?
“And why do all of us keep reading the comments?”
Why indeed?
Well, for one thing, the comments are in plain view if one checks an on-line story. And now, local television stations include anonymous postings as part of their coverage of political events and other news.
The news media decision to provide and even encourage anonymity stands in stark contrast, if not hypocrisy, to the journalistic commitment to freedom of information issues, which holds that people should be accountable for their statements, and the source of a comment is one measure of its credibility.
While on the subject of credibility, investigative reporter Kauffman took a poke at something else he finds in newspapers: “I sometimes have to remind myself that despite all of my own outrage over reader comments and blog/stories written by government officials, we (and most other dailies) publish horoscopes every day — and no one thinks anything of it, myself included. Because we're used to it, I suppose. But who came out with that idea? How did that conversation begin? ‘Hey, let's publish anonymous predictions for the future based on the zodiac!’ How did that person not get laughed out of the newsroom?”
He wrapped up the “more-heat-than-light” aspect of on-line anonymity:
“Edward R. Murrow warned us about television's potential to become a collection of ‘lights and wires in a box’ rather than a tool to educate, inform and enlighten. The same could be said of Internet technology today.”
I know not everyone argues against anonymity; some say what’s needed is supervision of comments, not names and addresses of the writers. That’s a discussion worth having. But what we’re seeing too much of these days is anonymity accompanied by viciousness, and that’s not acceptable. Happily, for my part, I’m educated, informed and enlightened by the comments shared by friends in our email newsroom — some of the most interesting people I know.

Posted by Jack
05/01/2010, 01:23 PM

Managing a quality oriented web log requires over sight. The more absured comments need to be filtered out. Yes, that's a judgement call, but worth the effort to keep the content at a reasonable level of value to the readers. Trolls abound on the web. They have no audience else where and, as a result, they become like a virus once one has found a platform for malicious commentary. Filtering out the worst examples has the effect of taming the others. If a publisher is going to host a web version and allow comments from the public the responsibility for the integrity of the site rests with that publisher.

Posted by Tracy McLachlan
06/01/2012, 04:58 PM

Frank Bowers was my landlord and my babysitter! Wish you would have gotten agreement for your opinion, Frank treasured the Neighbor section and had good journalistic instincts. Frank, I miss you!

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