One innovation of the new media is its wide-open encouragement of instant commentary, feedback and reaction to the events of the day. Facebook and Twitter are built on this idea, of course. The millions of blogs on the Internet (like this one) demonstrate that lots of people have strong opinions they want to share.
Not to be outdone, the traditional media also has embraced the notion of instantaneous reaction. Unlike the old “Letters to the Editor” page in the print paper, however, online comments on most websites can be anonymous. Regrettably, anonymous comments have let loose a torrent of mean-spirited, hostile, sometimes racist vitriol.
I know from experience how brutal these anonymous assaults can be. For six years, articles about the place where I worked, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, almost always provoked outlandish, nasty comments attacking the very idea that a museum about slavery deserved to exist. Oftentimes, the local paper’s website, Cincinnati.com, had to close the comment section whenever articles about the Freedom Center appeared. I recall one post that appeared briefly. It savaged the Freedom Center, written as a cruel parody of Negro dialect. It was demeaning, racist, and incredibly hurtful.
Instant commentary, anonymous or otherwise, is now coming under fire. In one highly publicized recent incident, CBS reporter Lara Logan was widely and bizarrely pilloried in online blogs after news broke that she had been sexually assaulted by a Cairo street mob. The hostility towards Logan on National Public Radio’s website blog was so crude that dozens of posts were deleted. Logan’s plight also drew the ire of several writers who seemed to imply that the reporter more or less got what she deserved from the mob. But at least the writers attached their names to their comments, which were roundly criticized and led to the resignation of one of writers, Nir Rosen, a fellow at New York University’s Center for Law and Security.
In another prominent incident, union-led demonstrations at the Wisconsin State Capitol caused one anonymous tweeter to suggest that “live ammunition” should be used to clear the protestors from the building. Sleuthing by Mother Jones Magazine writers established the identity of the tweeter as Jeff Cox, a deputy attorney general for the State of Indiana, which is having its own union demonstrations. When Cox was contacted by Mother Jones, he boldly asserted his right to say what he thought about the protestors. But his comments were too much for the Indiana AG’s office, which fired Cox. Here’s the AG’s statement:
“Civility and courtesy toward all members of the public are very important to the Indiana Attorney General’s Office. We respect individuals’ First Amendment right to express their personal views on private online forums, but as public servants we are held by the public to a higher standard, and we should strive for civility.”
Note that the paragraph begins and ends with the word “civility.” It was a word much on everyone’s lips following the attempted murder of Arizona Representative Gabrielle Giffords in January. After a short, respectful respite for those who died or were injured, incivility is as ripe and rampant as before.
What to do, if anything, given our absolute, no-holds-barred insistence that the First Amendment gives Americans the right to say, speak or write whatever they want? My answer: in the immortal words of former President Bush, “bring it on.”
Except, I would suggest one modest — but significant — change. Require people to identify themselves with their names — their real names — when they post, blog or tweet. A healthy — civil — debate about the contemporary issues and events is invigorating and a far better alternative to silence. History is ripe with sobering examples of what can happen when citizens are intimidated into saying nothing. Robust, earnest debate is surely a bedrock of democracy, but an element of personal responsibility and civility wouldn’t hurt; in fact, it would improve the quality of the conversation.
In the age of the new media, let’s just make sure we know who’s doing the talking.