Monthly Archives: September 2009

Anonymous Commenters, Pt. 2

Monday, I discussed a thoughtful column in the Miami Herald about anonymous commenters on blogs.  Another one is here today.

The columnist set up a personal Facebook account to exchange views on issues.  She required civility and the commenters’ real names and got them.  But one guy couldn’t help himself.  After starting out civil, he became more agitated and unhinged, and finally she “unfriended” him.

But she noticed similar language in comments on stories posted on her newspaper’s website (Cleveland Plain Dealer).  There he was always vitriolic and anonymous.  She confronted him online and he admitted he was the anonymous commenter.

What I find fascinating about this incident is that he behaved so differently when his picture and his name were attached to his opinions.

I have since added hundreds more "friends" to Facebook, and similar circumstances have unfolded only a handful of times. We get fired up, but we seldom lose sight of our mutual humanity.

Then why do newspapers allow comment anonymity, when they would never print an anonymous letter to the editor?

Some in the newspaper industry insist we have to allow anonymous comments to generate traffic on our Web sites, which in turn determines what we can charge for online ads. They worry that we’ll lose online readership if we require identities with comments. Discussion, they fear, will evaporate.

Reminds one of corporations that are only out for a buck.  You know, they kind of companies some editorial pages pontificate about, which of course are totally independent from the publisher’s side of the enterprise.

Anonymous comments also alienate many thoughtful readers, who are the majority of people who read newspapers. [NC Editor’s Note:  The minority, those not very thoughtful, read gossip columns while watching “Fox News”.] When readers complain to me about ugly comments, I urge them to weigh in, but most balk. It’s like trying to persuade your friends to visit a great tavern in a bad neighborhood: They want nothing to do with that side of town.

Others think anonymous abusive comments actually hurt the newspaper.

"You can’t monetize jerks," [a newspaper editor] said.

This editor apparently didn’t want to give his name because he was not authorized to talk about readers.

Most Americans believe civility matters.

They also believe it comes with a name.

One-Sided Remarks

Ceci Connolly’s article today in The Washington Post is generally a good one, providing the perspective of folks who actually know the medical business as opposed to those we’ve elected to regulate it.  It’s worth the read because it thoughtfully describes some of the issues we’re facing and it has a great closing quote.  But the article includes one remark from a politician, and as you might expect, it’s a Republican perspective.

"We don’t want to turn health care over to a bunch of bureaucrats in Washington, who then will determine what kind of health care we have," committee member Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) said recently. "And you know that rationing is going to happen."

Is this news?  No, it’s the well worn rhetoric we’ve heard many times before.  It’s also widely ridiculed because, of course, it’s now insurance companies who ration care, denying 20% of claims, according to an ad currently running on television. 

But if Connolly is going to allow the Republicans another chance to spout meaningless tripe, then why not give the other side to mouth its well worn tripe?

Does the quote add anything to the discussion?  No.  If she wanted to set up the premise of the article — that we are already rationing healthcare — why not write:

While Republicans worry about government rationing care and Democrats saying that insurance companies are rationing care, the truth lies closer to this: care is rationed for a variety of reasons, and it’s costing Americans billions of dollars a year, according to medical experts.

The closing quote?

"In the United States today, we give you all the care you can afford, whether or not you need it, as opposed to all the care you need, whether or not you can afford it."

–Arthur Kellerman, an associate dean at Emory School of Medicine in Atlanta

So What’s a Poll Tell You?

Writing earlier today on News Commonsense, I mentioned the fact that if you believe polls, 9/11 and sending our young men and women to die are somehow reasons to feel much better about how things are going in the States.

Like I said, if you believe polls….

When…asked in another survey whether the government should “stay out of Medicare” — an impossibility — 39 percent said yes.

…The results, however, are debatable — respondents might have said they wanted the government to “stay out of Medicare” because they don’t want anyone to change the program — not because they don’t know who runs it, for example.

So while they can’t figure out how to ask a question that really tells us something, they decided to correct an oversight

And as for the Antichrist question [when 8% of New Jerseyans said Obama was], Jensen notes that they should have asked the same question about former President George W. Bush for comparison. They plan to remedy the error this week.

Don’t know about you, but I can’t wait!

And then we have a pollster telling us why polls are important.

“Some would argue that we really shouldn’t even be looking at public opinion, because it’s not informed,” acknowledges [Mark]Blumenthal. “But like it or not, we live in a democracy, and people get to vote every two years.”

Which means public opinion — however it is derived — matters. So legislators hoping for clear-cut answers are probably out of luck — and should accept their fate, say several pollsters.

“Politicians need to understand that voters are very comfortable having mutually contradictory views,” says Democratic pollster Celinda Lake.

But (and it is a big but)


Unlike an election, there is no deadline for voters to make a decision about health care reform — and some never will.

So maybe, if the public doesn’t get it by now, dragging it out any more won’t educate them.  In fact, there’s a sizable suspicion that they’d only become more confused.

So, ladies and gentleman of Washington, get ‘er dun.  And when the world doesn’t end and some folks even find things a little better, 2010 will take of itself.

It’s the only poll that counts.

William Safire Started It All?

William Safire, the New York Times columnist and former Nixon speech writer who died this weekend, is credited with starting the conservative’s campaign against the mainstream media by putting words in former Vice President Spiro Agnew’s mouth:  nattering nabobs of negativism.  Will Bunch of the Philadelphia Daily News, who thinks Reaganism is a fiction of conservative imagination, doesn’t think so much of that.

The words that William Safire penned and that Spiro Agnew mouthed actually had enormous impact that has lasted until this day. They helped foster among conservatives and the folks that Nixon called "the silent majority" a growing mistrust of the mainstream media, a mistrust that grew over two generations into a form of hatred. It also started a dangerous spiral of events — journalists started bending backwards to kowtow to their conservative critics, beginning in the time of Reagan, an ill-advised shift that did not win back a single reader or viewer on the right. Instead, it caused a lot of folks on the left and even the center to wonder why the national media had stopped doing its job, stopped questioning authority.

The President’s Ratings Plummet?

“The president’s ratings plummet” is a phrase lifted from a quote by Charlie Cook in describing the usual path of post-election favorability ratings of a president in front of a huge loss in the off year election that follows.  It’s part of a post by Brendan Nyhan.

This month’s, Obama’s rating have ranged from 50% (at the beginning of the month to 58% (with the latest poll at 56%).  Even if that’s more than a 10% decline form its peak, is it really fair to suggest that Obama’s ratings are “plummeting”?  Falling, sure, but in the last month they haven’t even been doing that. At worst, they’re stabilizing.

But that doesn’t make for good press, does it?  I wonder if his ratings hit 60% we’ll hear of his “skyrocketing” poll numbers?

P.S.  If you ever wondered what “right track/wrong track” really measures, here’s something I stumbled across while looking at the numbers above:

  • Right track number was 43% in June 2001.
  • Right track number jumped to 72% in September 2001 and stayed there for three after the 9/11 attacks.
  • Right track number was 36% in January 2003.
  • Right track number jumped to 62% in April 2003, a month after we invaded Iraq.

Just wondering, what was so right track about 9/11 and the Iraq War?

Anonymous Blog Commenters

I have a problem with anonymous comments on a blog.  I think in the public square as our forefathers envisioned it, you could say whatever you want, but being in the square we would know who you are.  That said, many of the early pamphleteers were anonymous.  So the tradition is well established.  The right to hand out anonymous fliers was protected as recently as 1995 by the U.S. Supreme Court. 

Vivian Paige  has a recent post about her new comment policy and there ensued a discussion that I was part of on the issue.

Now comes the issue of whether anonymous blog commenters can hide behind their anonymity to libel anyone with scurrilous charges.  Apparently, the Wausau Daily Herald revealed names of anonymous commenters who posted charges of malfeasance by a top administrator of a small Wisconsin town.  After the paper did so as the administrator demanded, its parent, Gannett, apologized for what it said was a mistake.  The newspaper conglomerate said it had a duty to conceal the names, claiming that such comments were due the same protection as anonymous sources in a newspaper story.

Courts have recently agreed that state shield laws apply to the anonymous commenters.

Edward Wasserman, a journalism ethics professor at Washington and Lee university, thinks that’s wrong headed.  Comparing anonymous sources to anonymous bloggers doesn’t hold water.

Plainly, there are good reasons to seek anonymity: You might fear reprisal or embarrassment, or might simply want your ideas considered independently of who you are. And the court said those preferences should not affect your right to comment, especially on matters of public policy.

But suppose that leaflet isn’t taking a stand on a school tax. It’s a false and damaging denunciation of some school board member. And she wants to sue.

The authors are anonymous, but she knows where the leaflet was printed, so she persuades a judge to order the printer to disclose her tormentors. The printer is supposed to comply.

Unless it’s a news organization. Then, apparently, the printer is supposed to resist. And the board member who was slimed is out of luck.

That seems unfair, unless there’s some good, overriding public benefit at stake. That’s where the anonymous-source rationale is being invoked: Some news sources provide valuable information that they might never furnish unless they knew they’d be safe from reprisal. The writers of the anonymous posts are no different.

Except that anonymous posters are nothing like confidential sources.

First, a confidential source is not anonymous; the reporter knows who it is and is obligated to evaluate the source’s credibility. The identity of the anonymous poster, on the other hand, is truly unknown. He or she could be an ex-spouse, a delusional sociopath or both. Nobody knows.

Second, no one even tries to verify the information from the anonymous poster. Information from a confidential source should be, and normally is, evaluated and scrutinized before it’s published.

Reporter shield laws are an expression of trust. Lawmakers have said, in effect, that they have enough regard for the value of news, and for the capacity of the journalist to assess information from vulnerable sources, that they’ve carved out a huge area of discretion. To ensure the flow of publicly significant information, they allow the journalist to help people with valuable information to stay in the shadows when the journalist determines, in good faith, that they must.

That’s a huge grant of trust. And claiming for anonymous posters the protections that confidential sources deserve debases the currency, makes a whistleblower no different from a crank. As an ethical matter it’s indefensible. As a political reality, it’s a surefire way to guarantee the demise of source protections.

Can bloggers earn that “grant of trust”?  As many bloggers themselves are anonymous, I wouldn’t hold your breath.  I am certain there will be more challenges to the idea that anonymity should granted as a safeguard for malicious libel.

Best Corporate Symbol?

Vanity Fair and CBS News is teaming up for regular polls to survey “the American consciousness.”  First poll out asks which company is “the best corporate symbol of America today.”  The winner, garnering 48% of the vote, is Wal-Mart. Before you wet your pants about this, consider that those polled had only five choices, the others being Microsoft (doubtful to have won if you were on your computer at the time), NFL (unlikely choice of females), Google (reserved for the technocrats), and Goldman Sachs (placed in the survey just to see if you were paying attention).

Now watch as Wal-Mart’s PR officers try to breathlessly make the claim that it is the pre-eminent symbol of American capitalism!

If you’re not impressed, as I’m not with such a silly poll, you have ample evidence to bolster your impression.  Jeffrey Fager, the executive producer of “60 Minutes” said, “We’re combining our collective brainpower.”

Must Be the Other Guy

Anson Dorrance, the famed University of North Carolina women’s soccer coach, once said that there was a key difference between coaching men and women athletes.  When you go into the locker room, he said, and chew out the men’s team for mistakes, every guy there looks around to those who he thinks were the culprits.  It never occurs to him that he could be the problem.  A woman internalizes the criticism and thinks the coach is specifically talking about her.

So it is with reporters, I thought, as I read Jonathan Martin’s story about Obama being a media critic.  Martin assumes he’s talking only about cable news.  That’s particularly ironic, given that Martin’s employer, Politico, focuses exclusively on the to and fro of political grenades.

The irony aside, I welcome another article about Obama doing just what many of us hoped he would:  attack the media.

“It feels like WWF wrestling,” Obama explained to NBC’s Brian Williams in an interview. “You know, everybody’s got their role to play.”

The off-the-cuff characterization was in keeping with his newly emerging role, squeezed in between East Room ceremonies and pushing for health care reform: the commander in chief is becoming the nation’s media critic in chief.

While Martin spends much of the article pointing out examples of Obama’s frustration with cable news, one thing Martin is blind to:  Many news outlets, including Politico, let cable gabfests drive their news agenda.

Post Reporter Promotes Conservative Terminology

Washington Post reporter Anita Kumar, by her own admission, promoted the language conservatives use to describe late-term abortions in her article about Creigh Deeds’ and Bob McDonnell’s legislative records.

McDonnell supported bills that banned a procedure some of its opponents refer to as partial-birth abortion, required minors to obtain parental consent before getting an abortion and mandated a 24-hour waiting period for women seeking one.

So after admitting that the terminology is the language conservatives want her to use, Kumar writes in the very next paragraph.

Deeds supported bills that required parents to be notified if their child was seeking an abortion but not bills that required parental consent or a waiting period. He voted for a ban on partial-birth abortion but later changed his mind because he said he worried that the bills were unconstitutional.

A neutral description would be a “late-term abortion” or “an abortion in the final three months of a pregnancy” and “the later abortions” on second reference.

You see this with other right-wing propaganda that reporters adopt, death taxes being the one that first comes to mind.

The question for Kumar is, why, after admitting it’s the term right-wingers want, she decided to use it instead of a more neutral term?

Tax Question in ‘09 Races

I wrote the other day that I thought the “Are you an Obama Democrat?” by David Gregory was a dumb one, and I still do.  But Bob Holsworth over at Virginia Tomorrow makes a good point: Now that Creigh Deeds has said he would consider tax increases to pay for transportation improvements, every Democrat running for the Assembly will have to answer the question, “Are you a Creigh Deeds Democrat?” as a surrogate for the real question, are you willing to consider tax increases? 

It will be instructive to see how they answer it.  If you expect a column of courageous men and women saying yes to that question, you may be disappointed.  After all these are Democrats we’re talking about.  I’d love to hear what House Minority Leader Ward Armstrong is telling his troops.

To modify the answer I suggested for Deeds, here’s what the Assembly candidates should say:

“No governor can raise taxes without the consent of the governed.  And as a [delegate/senator] I certainly can’t raise taxes on my own.  But I think Gov. Mark Warner had the right model for discussing problems we face.  He saw a need, went across the Commonwealth to discuss that need with Virginians.  They saw the need.  They understood his reasons.  And they backed him.  But even then, he couldn’t raise taxes until the General Assembly agreed with him.  Whatever Creigh Deeds proposes, we will debate it, and if the majority of both houses agrees we need new money, we will pass a bill.  When I’m elected, I will study our options, see how the economy is doing next year, discuss it with my constituents to see if, together, we can come up with a plan that move us forward on an issue that concerns citizens greatly.”  I can’t say I will raise taxes until I see what’s proposed.  But what I can say is that no solution that moves our community forward should be dismissed without proper debate.