Salt Lake Paper Limits Comments

The Deseret News has instituted a new comments policy.  The newspaper encourages but doesn’t require that commenters post using a screen name that is a form of their real name.  Not sure why they don’t just require the real name as they are requiring a real name and zip code in the registration process. 

What strikes me as wrong, however, is its new policy to limit the number of times one person can comment to two.  These sections, if they were among people we could identify, might be much more constructive and civil.  Discussion should be encouraged, and I wish more reporters would weigh in with clarifications when people draw incorrect assumptions about the issue covered.  Not that over taxed reporters have the time, mind you.

It makes little difference to me, as I rarely comment on a story and almost never read any of the comments. (There are exceptions, such as some blogs like Press Think’s comments section, which tends to be illuminating.

I have yet to hear a cogent argument why online comments can be anonymous, but letters to the editor cannot.

Anyone have an answer for that?

Post Allows Anonymous McChrystal Aides to Impugn Rolling Stone

This appears to me to be a flagrant misuse of anonymous sources.  Credit The Post for not trying to make a lame excuse as to why it allowed anonymous McChrystal aides to impugn the integrity of Michael Hastings, who wrote the notorious article that led to the general losing his command and probably his career.  But the fact that the Post allowed anonymous sources to attack Hastings and his editors is unconscionable:

[O]fficials close to McChrystal began trying to salvage his reputation by asserting that the author, Michael Hastings, quoted the general and his staff in conversations that he was allowed to witness but not report.

A senior military official insisted that "many of the sessions were off-the-record and intended to give [Hastings] a sense" of how the team operated. The command’s own review of events, said the official, who was unwilling to speak on the record, found "no evidence to suggest" that any of the "salacious political quotes" in the article were made in situations in which ground rules permitted Hastings to use the material in his story.

A member of McChrystal’s team who was present for a celebration of McChrystal’s 33rd wedding anniversary at a Paris bar said it was "clearly off the record." Aides "made it very clear to Michael: ‘This is private time. These are guys who don’t get to see their wives a lot. This is us together. If you stay, you have to understand this is off the record,’ " according to this source. In the story, the team members are portrayed as drinking heavily.

Officials also questioned Rolling Stone’s fact-checking process, as described by [Rolling Stone executive editor Eric] Bates in an interview this week with Politico. "We ran everything by them in a fact-checking process as we always do," Bates said. "They had a sense of what was coming, and it was all on the record, and they spent a lot of time with our reporter, so I think they knew that they had said it."

These anonymous sources even provided copies of emails between a Rolling Stone fact-checker and McChrystal media aide. 

In my view, there is no reason for this article at all except to allow anonymous allies of the general to strike back—without bearing any responsibility for their attacks.  It’s as if the newspaper said, “We’ll do your dirty work for you.”

That The Post  allowed this reinforces the point Politico made in an earlier post subsequently scrubbed of the inside baseball admission.  The point was an admission that what made Hastings’ story so dramatic was that usually reporters hold back things they hear that might destroy their relationship with the institutions they cover.  In other words, we can’t trust what the Post  or other newspapers tell us because reporters and editors don’t want to upset their cozy relationship with the people they cover.

Buffalo News Requires Real Names in Comments

More papers should do this.

After quite a bit of internal discussion, The News — in the next few weeks — will make a significant change. We will require commenters to give their real names and the names of their towns, which will appear with their comments, just as they do in printed “letters to the editor,” which have appeared daily for many years on the newspaper’s op-ed page.

It will mean that Web site readers must fill out an online form and include a phone number that we will use to help verify that they are who they say they are. It won’t be foolproof, and it will be somewhat labor-intensive for us, but we think it will raise the level of the discussion.

Comments Anon

The New York Times has an article on anonymous comments that doesn’t add a lot to the arguments you’ve read here before.  But this line from the story caught my eye.

No one

nobody knows you a dog

doubts that there is a legitimate value in letting people express opinions that may get them in trouble at work, or may even offend their neighbors, without having to give their names, said William Grueskin, dean of academic affairs at Columbia’s journalism school.

Call me “No One” Mr. Grueskin. I think people who have an opinion need to decide whether that opinion is strong enough for them to risk something to espouse it.  If they feel that it may hurt them at work or with their neighbors, then, as Archie bunker would say, “Stifle it.” 


Cleveland Judge, Anonymous Commenter No More

This story is full of intriguing questions and monumental stupidity, all in the name of anonymous commenters on newspaper sites.

It seems a certain “lawmiss” was frequently commenting on Cleveland Plain Dealer stories, mostly about legal matters.  It turns out lawmiss is linked to an email account used by Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Shirley Strickland Saffold—and her 23-year old daughter

The Plain-Dealer decided it was a story that a judge was anonymously commenting on legal matters, including some cases before her.  So it published her name in apparent violation of its privacy policy.  The judge has sued the newspaper for $50 million, saying that all the “lawmiss” comments were posted by her daughter, who accepted responsibility.  But, the judge’s lawyer,

…in an interview with ABC News, acknowledged for the first time Wednesday the possibility that Saffold posted comments under the moniker "lawmiss," which was set up on through an e-mail account used by the judge. Saffold last month denied leaving any lawmiss comments, and her daughter took responsibility for all of them.

First question, why would an educated woman in a sensitive official position be so stupid as to share an email account with her daughter?  Second question, why would a daughter be so moronic as to comment on cases over which her mother presides?  This pair deserves one another.  Third question, did the judge really post some of the comments herslef? 

County records show that three of the comments were left at the same time as someone using Saffold’s court computer was visiting….. The judge acknowledged in an interview last month that such comments would have been improper if she had made them.”

But why did the Plain Dealer out lawmiss?  The judge’s suit claims it was in retaliation for a lawmiss comment that disparaged a reporter’s relative.  (So be forewarned should you in a comment evoke the ubiquitous “mother f****r charge.)  Seriously, I don’t know what the remark was.

[Plain Dealer Editor Susan] Goldberg said last month that the issues raised by lawmiss’ comments outweighed any privacy interests of the poster. [Editor’s note:  Who died and made them God?] Goldberg noted that comments made were not about trifling matters. The posts related directly to two death-penalty cases involving Saffold as judge — the 2008 murder trial of former Cleveland firefighter Terrance Hough Jr. and the case of Anthony Sowell, accused of killing 11 women.

"What if it ever came to light that someone using the e-mail of a sitting judge made comments on a public Web site about cases she was hearing, and we did not disclose it?" Goldberg said last month. "These are capital crimes and life-and-death issues for these defendants. I think not to disclose this would be a violation of our mission and damaging to our credibility as a news organization."

The day the story was published, Sowell’s lawyer requested that Saffold recuse herself from hearing the Sowell case, arguing that the lawmiss comments showed bias. Saffold has not made a decision.

In the lawsuit filed Wednesday, [the judge’s attorney Brian] Spitz argues that the newspaper’s online editors looked up the lawmiss user registration information as a vendetta, because of the remark left about a reporter’s relative.

OK.  We know many journalists have notoriously thin skins, but why would you decide to out someone just after she disparaged a relative?  Not too much of a stretch for people to think it’s retaliatory.

And exactly what was the newspaper’s privacy policy?’s privacy policy was written by Advance Internet, a separate entity affiliated with The Plain Dealer. The privacy policy states, "We may also provide access to our database in order to cooperate with official investigations or legal proceedings, including, for example, in response to subpoenas, search warrants, court orders, or other legal process."

None of those apply except perhaps “other legal process.”   Wide latitude there.  But I think even the Plain Dealer would admit that the reason was journalistic, whether valid or not.

A lot of commenters on the site are outraged that their identities are vulnerable to the newspaper’s whims.  But its policy also states,

"In addition, we reserve the right to use the information we collect about your computer, which may at times be able to identify you, for any lawful business purpose. . ."

In other words, if use f**k a lot, the paper may give your personal information to a porn site!  Seriously, if you mentioned in a comment that you like working in the garden, the newspaper could give your email address to a gardening company.  After all, it’s “lawful business purpose.”

So add to the stupidity hall of fame anyone who thinks their comments will always remain anonymous.

And finally, to add a little irony,

Even as the lawsuit criticizes the newspaper for revealing the e-mail address linked to lawmiss, it says it expects the defendants to identify all anonymous commenters who criticized Saffold on The suit lists those commenters as John Does and says they also are defendants.

So anonymous commenters, press your shirt, make sure your zipper is up and march on down to the county court.  You are about to live your worse nightmare.

Are You a ‘Trusted Commenter’?

This is an interesting idea.  If it gets me reading article and blog comments, I’ll be impressed.

The [Washington] Post will implement a system that should help. It’s still being developed, but Straus said the broad outlines envision commenters being assigned to different "tiers" based on their past behavior and other factors. Those with a track record of staying within the guidelines, and those providing their real names, will likely be considered "trusted commenters." Repeat violators or discourteous agitators will be grouped elsewhere or blocked outright. Comments of first-timers will be screened by a human being.

When visitors click to read story comments, only those from the "trusted" group will appear. If they want to see inflammatory or off-topic comments from "trolls," they’ll need to click to access a different "tier."

Cruelty Sells

From Neil Steinberg of the Chicago Sun-Times, the answers as to why newspapers don’t delete scurrilous, vulgar and vicious comments and demand identity of commenters.

Most media Web sites offer readers the opportunity to respond. Why do they give a platform to anonymous cruelty? The true reason has nothing to do with free expression — rather, Web sites are evaluated according to how many people click on them and how long they stay, and if a certain percentage log in to glory over the death of a woman and a baby hit by a train, their participation still helps to pay the bills.

Comment Anonymity: A Compromise?

The Pulitzer Prize winning columnist of the Miami Herald Leonard Pitts is the latest to decry comment anonymity.  If letters to the editor must be signed and confirmed to be who they say they are, why not do the same for commenters on news media’s web sites.

As any student of Sociology 101 can tell you, when people don’t have to account for what they say or do, they will often say and do things that would shock their better selves.

That’s the story of the mousy, mosque-going school teacher swept up in the window-breaking mob during the big blackout. It’s the story of the milquetoast accountant who insults the quarterback’s mother from the safety of the crowd. And it is the story of newspaper message boards, which have inadvertently licensed and tacitly approved the worst of human nature under the guise of free speech.

Enough. Make them leave their names. Stop giving people a way to throw rocks and hide their hands. Any dropoff in the quantity of message board postings will surely be made up in the quality thereof.

The salient point is fewer but better comments.  I rarely read comments to stories or blogs because one must wade through so much bigotry, stupidity and downright incoherence that it’s a monumental time suck.  So if there much fewer comments many of us might read them and even join in.

Moreover, it’s just another nail in the coffin of common civility.  Yes, crude television and movies contribute.  Misogynist music videos don’t help.  Common profanity inures us all.  But reading comment after comment of insults is depressing.

Many blogs require email addresses, giving I suppose some channel of recourse if truly dangerous comments are made. 

Chicago Trib columnist Eric Zorn sympathizes with anonymous commenters:

I understand why some people don’t want to attach their real names to comments: Search engines being what they are, your stated opinions can follow you now for decades like a cloud of gnats.  If your name is unusual enough, a  prospective employer, blind date, new neighbor or anyone else can stick your name into a search engine and discover reams’ worth of tossed-off opinions, rants and retorts, some of which you may, by then, deeply regret.

The idea behind having people affix their real names to letters to the editor is a good one — by creating accountability it generates a certain civility. 

Yet at the time when this became a custom,  such expressions were evanescent.  Monday’s tirade became Tuesday’s fish-wrap, and only a very determined researcher could or would spend the hours necessary to assemble the sort of dossier that, today, the idle Googler can generate in mere seconds.

So because we now have a better way of making people responsible for their acts of stupidity, we should give them a get out of jail free card?

He has a compromise:  pseudonymity.

The compromise solution seems to me to be allowing people to comment and discuss issues using a consistent identity of some sort — an identity (Screen name, nickname, first name, set of initials, whatever) linked to a user profile and reserved exclusively for that one person.  To a great extent, we see that working here on Change of Subject message threads, where various regulars protect their "brands" and comment responsibly even though they remain, for the most part, anonymous. 

I’d like to see these identities carry images — photos, if possible — as they are on Facebook comment threads, where identity inspires civility. And I’d like to see them connected to background information so that even if we don’t know the real name of  "BigBob" we can learn that, say, he’s a Northwest suburban accountant and father of three who hates the White Sox and considers himself a libertarian.

I’m not sure that solves the problem, though Zorn is not the first guy to propose it. Still, I must say, for proposing it, he’s a stupid jerk who should burn in hell with all those other anti-American communist pinkos who don’t deserve to live in the land of the free and the home of the cowards brave and who are lying pieces of liberal trash.



ADDENDUM: Here’s a different take on the issue.  Seems an anonymous commenter questioned how of a town council chose its police chief.  Apparently there were no ad hominem attacks or profanity.  But the town council wants the commenter revealed.  As much as I don’t like anonymous comments, this is one thin-skinned council.

Post Anonymity Poll

I’ve stated before that I think online commenters to blog posts or news articles should identify themselves.  (I don’t really have that problem here.)

There’s a poll on this issue at The Washington Post. It’s breaking slightly for those who favor anonymity.  If you don’t, weigh in.  If you do, please disregard this post.

There’s a Post blog post about this.

Here’s my take:  If a newspaper requires identification for a letter to the editor, how can it justify anonymity to online commenters on an article?

Post Ombudsman Admits Paper’s Overuse of Anonymous Sources

Apparently several other people contacted the Washington Post ombudsman to complain about the front page story on Rahm Emanuel.  He responded in Sunday’s column.

While a lot of folks complained about a “conspiracy” at The Post, Alexander agreed with the contention, as I posted last week, that the story relied too heavily on anonymous sources.

A greater problem, I think, was its heavy reliance on anonymous quotes. At least a dozen people were quoted by name, showing depth of reporting. But there were more than a half dozen others quoted anonymously, comprising more than a quarter of the story’s length. Most supported Emanuel. The story could have stood on its own without them.

Readers properly complain about The Post’s overuse of anonymous sources. They’re often unavoidable, and Horowitz said he granted anonymity only after failing to persuade sources to speak on the record. But assertions offered with impunity erode credibility, especially when politically savvy readers suspect that Emanuel supporters are trying to spin The Post.

He then goes on to say that the paper is using anonymous quotes at a greater rate than it did last year, though his numbers don’t jibe with mine.  When I do a search for the term “spoke on conditional of anonymity” I found 118 instances through a LexisNexis.  That includes Post stories on sports and all other categories of stories.  Alexander claims only 70 such stories.  I can’t explain the difference.

But I thank him for writing about it.