More speech is not necessarily a positive development. News sites' online forums have unleashed speech in quantity, for sure. But they've given a stage to swarms of moronic insults and outright lies, most cloaked in anonymity or false identities. Such comments waste our time -- but of larger concern, they degrade the civic culture and undermine thoughtful attempts to craft public policy.
Speaking at a recent National Conference of Editorial Writers meeting here, Bob Steele, director of an ethics institute at DePauw University, called the situation a "disaster." I'm currently president of the NCEW, whose members hold a wide range of opinions.
Journalists who run respectable sites, whether attached to a venerable print product or not, are changing their rules for the good of the democracy and for themselves. The free-for-alls may generate a lot of online traffic, but they're costly to their credibility.
Traditional print products can choose letters to the editor for quality of argument, right of response, diversity of views, entertainment value and so on. Limited space means they can use only a handful. Few news organizations have the personnel to go through the thousands of comments submitted online. (Filters can weed out those with four-letter words, but that's not enough.) Thus, they find themselves hosting mosh pits of stupidity, nastiness and intimidation.
"We've scared off the people we want in these conversations," Dennis Ryerson, editor of the Indianapolis Star, told the group.
Many sites no longer allow comments on very sensitive stories involving young people or family tragedies. Steele recalled an especially vicious and unfounded comment following a story about a student hospitalized after shooting himself at a high school. "I bet he was doing a drug deal that went bad," the reader wrote, adding, "If he meant to do it, he would have made it fatal."
News outlets are trying various strategies to raise standards. Some are moving comments to Facebook, where there is less anonymity and a community exists to police abusive remarks. Many already require participants to register.
The Wall Street Journal's site has divided comments into two classes -- one written by Journal subscribers, the other by everyone else. Readers have the option of seeing all comments, only those written by subscribers or all comments with those by non-subscribers in light type. The assumption must be that those who care enough to pay for subscriptions have more interesting things to say.
Perhaps the best control is the one long used on letters-to-the-editor pages, where writers must include their names and where they're from. That should go a long way in tempering outrageous remarks (though editors, overwhelmed by the Niagara of digital dreck, are constantly amazed at the things some folks will put their names to).
No system will be perfect, and cries of "censorship" will no doubt ring out. But the websites are the publishers' property, and they can invite whom they want. Those wanting to spread fact-free vitriol have the vast wastes of cyberspace on which to post their remarks.
For news media, the challenge will be to avoid oversanitizing what readers might say while maintaining a basic code of civility. They don't want to curb a passionate and lively back-and-forth.
And the harm being minimized isn't only that done to a news organization's reputation. It's to the very fabric of our public life.