Tuesday was the final day that comments could be posted on news stories at NPR.org. The decision was announced one week prior by ombudsman and public editor Elizabeth Jensen, who quoted NPR's managing editor for digital news, Scott Montgomery:
"We've reached the point where we've realized that there are other, better ways to achieve the same kind of community discussion around the issues we raise in our journalism."
Not surprisingly, the decision didn't sit well with many of those who posted 3,375 comments to the announcement. Among them was someone who self-identified as "Abbi Baily":
"This is the only place I've found where it is (was) possible to have an intelligent, fun conversation about politics, science, history or philosophy, where a professor of said subject is at your virtual elbow to recommend further reading or correct bad grammar."
That was just one of 32,200 comments Abbi Baily had posted at NPR.org. And it drew a response from The Original DB, whose image is that of a chimp. The reply represented the 4,530th time The Original DB posted a comment. And it drew a reaction from Running Dog, who had 9,987 comments to his credit.
The three evidenced something else reported by NPR's Jensen. She wrote that in July, NPR.org recorded nearly 33 million unique users, and 491,000 comments, but that those comments came from just 19,400 commenters, which translates to just 0.06 percent of all users. Moreover, NPR determined that for the months of June and July, just 4,300 users posted about 145 comments apiece - or 67 percent of all comments for those two months!
At least many of the NPR comments were civil compared with what I've seen elsewhere. Take, for example, those who posted comments to Chris Cillizza's The Fix blog at the Washington Post, which is where I first read the news about NPR. Cillizza opined: "This is terrific news. And, all other major media organizations should follow NPR's lead." His view drew a caustic response.
"It's hard to blame Cillizza for hating comments sections. As a lazy facile writer, all of his pieces attract negative and personal comments."
"Chris Cillizza is a tool for suppressing free speech everywhere."
And "Nickotime" said: "If I wrote Cillizza's garbage I'd want comments gone, too."
These comments proved something Cillizza told me when we discussed NPR's move.
"It's the loudest, often most obnoxious person in the room with the most time to dedicate so they will always outlast you unless you are willing to stay online and fight with them 22 hours a day," he said.
Cillizza bristled at the argument that he is advocating the stifling of free speech, and said that role is actually played by those who take over news sites and don't allow room for a casual observer, who would be afraid to jump in during the level of routine vitriol.
It's been years since I read any of the comments appended to my own column. When I did so long ago, I found them to be largely angry, uncivil, and unresponsive to the merits of whatever I was arguing, and not worthy of a response, especially when commenters hide behind pseudonyms. I've always suspected what NPR confirmed - that comment boards are dominated by a tiny sample of the readers at large who don't represent anyone but themselves.
Please don't misunderstand. I welcome debate, which I prove for 15 hours every week while hosting a nationwide radio program. My studio's nine toll-free telephone lines are usually full with callers of every political stripe from all across the country who are interested in discussing issues of the day.
Here's a secret: If you want to butt the line, just tell my screener you disagree with my position. She will alert me, increasing the odds that I will speak to you sooner than later. She knows I look for disagreement, but with a caveat: It has to be civil discourse. Not sanitized, just reasonable. I don't name-call, and I expect my audience to behave likewise. Thankfully, my SiriusXM callers comply. I have no recollection of when I last needed to hang up on a caller who was abusive. I know it hasn't happened during this contentious campaign, which says a lot.
While the internet has made our lives exponentially easier, the use of technology is not without its drawbacks. One liability is the beer muscles some grow when given the opportunity to express themselves anonymously. Just like the drunk who has an inflated measure of his power at closing time, many bloggers adopt a tone and say things online that they would never offer if their faces were seen and identities known.
I know, because when not typing out a column on a computer, or sitting in front of a radio microphone or television camera, my day-to-day life is filled with plenty of encounters with newspaper readers, radio listeners, and television viewers who seek to engage me on news headlines or opinions I have expressed. To a person, those with whom I have spoken while pumping gas, grocery shopping, or at a back-to-school night are courteous and engaging. Do they always agree with me? Of course not. Nor do those with whom I share a Thanksgiving table.
Our political dialogue is far too coarse. Nasty, anonymous comments are a significant part of a much bigger problem, but one aspect we can easily control. Let's unplug them.