Sunday, November 18, 2007

Standing up to the virtual lynch mob

The Washington Post had an article last week headlined “With Cruelty and Malice for All” lamenting the astounding viciousness that characterizes many of the things people say when they can post comments online anonymously.

“I don’t know what it is about this particular moment in human history which lends itself to the sanction of miscellaneous and casual cruelty,” John Perry Barlow, vice chairman of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told The Washington Post.

In fact, there are plenty of candidates to blame for this. For starters, right-wing hate radio, various cable talk show hosts and the corporations who find that the venom those talk show hosts spew enhances their own bottom line. But one contributor to the undermining of civil discourse has gone largely unnoticed. Certainly it went unmentioned in the Post story: America’s newspapers. I don’t mean fringe elements of the press, either. I mean big respectable mainstream dailies – like The Washington Post. All it took was a sense that there was money to be made with one technological “advance”: Adding a section where people can comment on items published in the paper’s print edition.

It’s not the addition of comment sections per se that causes the problem, of course. Newspapers have had letters to the editor pages for decades, and they have added a great deal to public discourse. But that’s because of two key features: First, an editor reads and screens letters before they are published. Second, with rare exceptions, the writer has to sign her or his name to the work, and the name is published.

Internet comment sections typically have neither safeguard. The result is an outpouring of vile sentiment that can’t help but poison the well of public debate. I don’t think people have gotten any nastier; I just think America’s newspaper publishers have given the extreme haters a forum.

The fact that the people who post on these sites are not necessarily a representative cross-section of America doesn’t change the fact that offering a place for haters to gather and spread the venom harms us all. (And before anybody whines about censorship, I’m suggesting no more than that anyone who posts to a newspaper comment section be required to sign his or her name and city, something that can be verified when people “register” to post comments. An alternative is to have moderators for the sites. The New York Times does this. As far as I know, every other newspaper in America is too stingy to pay anyone for that task.

Since anyone can see this for him or herself, I’m not going to contribute to the hate by offering examples. But particularly striking is the racism. America’s newspapers have created something new: the virtual lynch mob where the vilest among us can use their anonymity the way a Klansman uses a sheet.

What brings all this to mind is an unusual contribution to the op ed page of a newspaper in Florida, the Vero Beach Press Journal last month.

Regina Watts, an impoverished Black single mother wrote about her struggles with the Florida Department of children and Families. She was honest about her own mistakes, and wrote about all she’d done to overcome them – only to be thwarted by the hoops DCF makes her jump through. The lynch mob formed quickly. Readers gleefully summarized the writer’s mistakes and ignored everything else. At first.

Then came something surprising. Other readers came to this mother’s defense. First came “stevensna” who wrote:

“She admits that she has made not one mistake but several. But her children should not be held accountable for her lack of family support, and agency support. Once you reach bottom it is hard to pull yourself out and up if there is no one reaching down to her and help pull her out she doesn't know how to find the steps and directions to go.

“DCF tells you they will help you and promises the world of support and services but they give you no tools to work with there is little success from just words. It takes action, plans and steps to follow. She needs someone in her community, church, or a women shelter since she has been abused to give her direction to regain her children and help her build her self-esteem.

“There are a lot of Regina Watts in this world, but what have you done to help change the outcomes for all the Regina Watts.”

Then came “MissMara:”

“I understand what she is going through, because it really is hard being a single parent. She is not asking for help. I do feel like we should help her before we criticize her!”

Then “itmaiden:”

“…even if her background was pristine and she had more funds, the scenario with DCF would be the same. Families do not deserve to be torn apart just because a parent is low income, or without transportation. The cost of living in Florida is high, the wages are low, and DCF makes "jumping through the hoops" to get your kids back as difficult and as impossible as they can. This woman has been through a lot of stress. Why lay more on her ? She is trying to educate herself and provide better opportunities for herself and her children. … Send her a card, some encouragement. God's second commandment is that we Love each other.”

And then this, from “sunbird”

“Regina, bless you pay no attention to those who criticize without lending a hand. I, too, had my first child at the age of 15. I graduated from college with a degree in Engl Ed. and a smug attitude. I hated welfare moms so much, I became a Republican (Happiest time in my life being ignorant of world affairs). 16 years later, after moving to Florida, I became a single mom all over again. Yes, I repeated my mistake! No longer ignorant of the world, and experiencing my own struggles, I learned not to judge others. With one son in college and a very difficult toddler, I struggled without any taxpayer help. Then came the DCF caseworker to ‘help’ me. The child care she arranged kicked my son out, and the other help was denied because my 20,000-something income was too much. So the caseworker visited again and told me to clean my house -- the house I mortgaged with MY income -- or my son would go in foster care. I put a hitch on my car and moved back to Illinois instead where I work, perhaps ironically, as a public high school teacher.

“To all: Before you lecture anybody about poor choices, consider the options that were presented to them. And telling the mother of a disabled child to get a job is shameful. How many employers will allow her to take off for doctor's appointments? (Mine will, thanks to a strong Il. union). And shouldn’t our taxes pay to support those children with the parent they love and not some paid foster family? Regina, you are in our prayers.”

So for offering a momentary respite from the nonstop hate unleashed by America’s stingy newspaper publishers, thank you “stevensna,” and “MissMara” and “itmaiden” and “subird” – whoever you are.