Monday, June 14, 2010

Monday Media Rant: Decency Isn't Common, Apparently

Tonight will be a sad night. Our small neighborhood will gather at the home of one of our neighbors, whose 22-year-old daughter died in a car wreck early Friday morning. I’ve talked about our neighborhood before and how close it is. Eight families in homes that share a huge, common cul-de-sac. We all know each other and have watched each other’s kids grow up.

We all knew the young lady who lost her life early Friday morning. A bright, spirited, happy young woman with lots of friends, just beginning to make her mark in the world. She was just a couple years younger than my daughter; they were at Sennett Middle School and LaFollette High together. She made a poor decision – the kind of poor decision every one of us has made many times in our lives – and lost her life in a car wreck.

It’s difficult for a parent to imagine the feelings her parents must have. We all hope, wish, and pray that such a tragedy never befalls our children; we mourn with the young woman’s stunned family. We share their grief, with a renewed realization that life is not fair.

My grief is tinged with anger.

The local TV stations and the newspaper carried the brief story and all posted it to their websites Friday afternoon. As of this weekend, one station’s website had one comment on the story; another had 8; and a third had well over a hundred. The State Journal’s story on does not allow “comments” to be posted. That’s the way it should be – a news item about a personal tragedy that needs no comment.

The TV station website that had over a hundred comments was disgusting. First, their story was written extremely poorly, saying “A 22 year old Madison woman was killed after an early-morning car crash on Madison’s West Side” (sic). What? Did the cops pull her out of the car and shoot her? Killed AFTER the crash? How about IN the crash.

After the carelessly-written story came the comments. It’s hard to imagine what kind of lower form of human life would write such mean, nasty, thoughtless comments about this tragic loss of life. But there they are….scores of them…anonymously pontificating, spewing hatred, making judgments, sniveling gutless rock-throwers.

It does no good to talk to the station about this irresponsible crap. My wife did, after having spent a half-hour with our grieving neighbors. She e-mailed a station official after reading some of the hateful comments allowed to be posted after the story and registered her disgust.

I know what the station’s attitude will be.

They’ll say “it’s a public forum and everyone has a right to express their opinion.” They’ll drag out some non-relevant First Amendment argument if they have to, and say so long as no threats of violence are made, people have a “right” to say what they want.


I say they have no business allowing anonymous posters to spew hatred, no business allowing “comments” on a story about a human tragedy, and at minimum, have an obligation to moderate the content of the forum.

Or they should be considered as spineless as the anonymous hate-spewers.


  1. Albert Einstein said it well: “Strange is our situation here upon earth. Each of us comes for a short visit, not knowing why, yet sometimes seeming to a divine purpose. From the standpoint of daily life, however, there is one thing we do know: That we are here for the sake of others...for the countless unknown souls with whose fate we are connected by a bond of sympathy. Many times a day, I realize how much my outer and inner life is built upon the labors of people, both living and dead, and how earnestly I must exert myself in order to give in return as much as I have received.”

    We are all part of the greater whole, and each death diminishes us.

    This life can produce few circumstances to rival the horror experienced by a parent who must bury a child. At such times a community should come together in support of the family, but some instead see it as an opportunity to practice cruelty and get away with it.

    There is something about the assurance of deep anonymity that, for many of our fellows, emboldens them to lay bare a streak of meanness as dismaying as it is inexplicable. I have seen shockingly coarse or gratuitous comments, posted under pseudonyms, by ruffians and layabouts, and also by bankers and businessmen and politicians and clerics - each of whom would be aghast to learn their true identity could be so easily discovered, and ashamed were they to be held publicly accountable for their mean remarks.

    The Internet/weblog/comment system is stacked in favor of those who prefer to attack from the shadows. The web sites want page clicks (though they cannot tell you what those clicks are worth), and controversy generates them. The lawyers admonish the sites not to engage in moderating comments, lest they lose their "common carrier" status and become liable for the damage any errors in moderation might produce. Instead, the lawyers insist that anonymity be preserved, the better to prevent personal accountability from chilling the "free exchange of ideas." So consequences for misbehavior are effectively nonexistent.

    I have, as a site administrator, posted the first comment on stories about personal tragedy, asking those who followed to respect the family. I have deleted comments that ignored the request, and shut off comments entirely on those occasions when the commenters refused to show restraint.

    Since many news stories involve some level of personal tragedy, shutting off comments would be impractical - if there are to be comments at all. I would prefer that web sites make the anonymity less certain: Allow pseudonyms, but require the user of the name to provide verifiable credentials. My favorite solution is to charge a one-time fee for creation of a comment account. With that idea I am in a distinct minority in this industry.

    Meanness lowers the dignity only of the person who wields it.

  2. I am sorry for your loss, and for the pain inflicted by the infernal dumbitude of some of our fellow citizens. In general, I find that the bigger and broader the forum, the more worthless the comment sections are. (If you want to be convinced that there's no hope for the human race, read the comments to any Yahoo News story chosen at random.) Many comment sections are not free speech so much as they're open evidence of our society's inability to be trusted with free speech.