Sunday, March 28, 2010

Returning to the frightening land of newspaper website comments

I think most people always feel a touch of sympathy for sewer workers. It's a vital job that many people would never do, no matter how much it paid. Wading through all that...stuff.

I feel the same sympathy for people who monitor newspaper website comments. It's, at least according to executives, a vital job that many newspaper employees would never do, no matter how much it paid. Wading through all that...stuff. Racist rants, personal attacks, religious biases, homophobic slurs. Bad spelling.

A different type of controversy has erupted in Cleveland, at the website for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. The newspaper revealed the real identity behind the person known on the site as "lawmiss." Lawmiss had posted a comment about the relative of a Plain Dealer reporter. Editors discovered that lawmiss - or is it Lawmiss, I never know with anonymous online tags - had the same email address as a prominent judge named Shirley Strickland Saffold. She has a reputation as being something of an eccentric, always a reassuring description for a judge. A decade ago she told a female defendant in a credit card fraud case to find a better man. She told her, "Men are easy. You can go sit at the bus stop, put on a short skirt, cross your legs and pick up 25. Ten of them will give you their money. It's the truth. If you don't pick up the first 10, then all you got to do is open your legs a little bit and cross them at the bottom and then they'll stop."

It sounds like she spoke from experience. But what does she tell male defendants in credit card fraud cases? Drop their pants and get a good woman?

Then, a few weeks ago she issued an arrest warrant for a Plain Dealer reporter who wrote about a psychiatric evaluation of a man suspected of being a serial killer. She wanted him to reveal his source. So now the newspaper discovers someone using her email address has been posting for awhile, including commenting on cases where Saffold served as the judge. The judge's daughter says she used the email address to post some comments and that it wasn't her mother,
The paper reports this, and a firestorm ensues.

Lots of the questions center around ethics: the newspaper's and the judge's. Privacy advocates express concern that the paper dug into the online files to find the email address and then the person behind it - or at least the family behind it. Many newspapers don't allow reporting staff any access to those records. And for the judge, the ethical questions are obvious, as it just seems...wrong, for a judge to comment about cases she's involved with. She - or the daughter - ripped defendants, juries and lawyers, all under the moniker of lawmiss. In a post ridiculing the defense attorney of a man convicted in a vehicular homicide case, lawmiss wrote, "If only he could shut his Amos and Andy style mouth. What makes him think that is [sic] he insults and acts like buffon [sic] that it will cause the judge to think and see it his way."

It is nice to see the judge living up to the spelling accomplishments of all the anonymous newspaper commenters who came before her.

I feel a bit queasy about the Plain Dealer searching for the information and writing about it. But the judge's actions seem much worse. That serial killer case where she wanted the reporter arrested? She's of course the judge on that and the man's defense attorney is the same lawyer who represented the vehicular homicide defendant, the one who was acting, according to Saffold or one of her spawn, like a "buffon." Is she going to treat that attorney fairly now, in a capital punishment case?

Of course all of this would have been avoided if the Plain Dealer and newspapers everywhere simply eliminated comments on their sites, which I've been advocating for since the first time I saw a high school basketball tournament loss blamed on "stuppid immgrants!" They're supposed to bring people to the website, which then theoretically leads to cash. Big money! If it really did this, maybe tens of thousands of journalists wouldn't have been laid off the last two years. Maybe the industry wouldn't be flailing, struggling to survive. Instead, all of those web visits do nothing for the bottom line, while also giving a forum to hateful or delusional people who ranked in the first percentile on the reading portion of the Iowa Basics.

I'm not pleading for a Utopian society where there are no hateful online comments. All I'm saying is that there are a million places to find that; why do newspapers provide another outlet? Maybe Saffold doesn't make those comments if she has to do it on a random message board. People will still read a newspaper's stories and they can still comment on them and make fun of anyone they want to and ridicule reporters and editors and the liberal media. There will be no shortage of forums and blogs. But why must papers host those comments?

It's a losing battle, of course. Though some papers have removed comments - and many others moderate them - I doubt the entire industry will alter its thinking about online comments. Just think, some of those anonymous people who hate blacks might buy a car from a dealership whose ad they saw on the web site!

Predictably, the comments below the stories about the judge and the newspaper's action are not exactly Algonquin Round Table material. They go back and forth between belittling the newspaper and the judge. Some of the comments are strange, a few make some good points that get lost in the sea of sludge, others are indecipherable, a handful hateful. Predictable stuff. And just another day of comments on newspaper websites.

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