March 2, 2018

Thoughtful Discourse

Thoughtful Discourse

Last Sunday, Newsday became the latest publisher to shut down its online comments section. Newsday is the Long Island, NY, region’s daily newspaper, and like most dailies, Sunday is their highest-circulation day. So we can assume that (a) they usually get the most comments on Sundays, and (b) by choosing to announce their decision on a Sunday, they wanted the most people to know about it. They were drawing a line in the Long Island sand.

Newsday is far from the only news organization to make this move. Many news publishers have gone this route, either to buy some time or to revamp their comment sections while they figure out a way to weed out the abusers, the haters, and the crazies, not to mention the “bots,” in order to reserve the platform for thoughtful, civilized discussion by actual, engaged readers. In an interview about its decision, Newsday mentioned similar (if temporary) moves by heavy-hitters such as The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, the New York Post, and Wired, among others. Meanwhile, Facebook and Twitter are both in an uphill battle to demonetize users who violate their rules.

Even if the objective is noble, you still have to appreciate the irony of censorship by a free press. It’s true that the role of the news media is to inform conversation, not necessarily to facilitate it. However, promoting informed dialog is the ultimate end goal.

It’s also hard not to think about all of this in the context of “fake news.” It’s becoming increasingly challenging to decipher real information from disinformation, and real people from robotic interlopers. The media is susceptible to being manipulated, by humans and others, and it is responding from a place of vulnerability.

Newsday cited “personal attacks, racist slurs and a tone inconsistent with our goal of productive discourse” in its announcement. I sympathize with them, especially since I am the lucky recipient of many responses to this column on a weekly basis (sometimes a small avalanche). And trust me; not all of them are positive. I’ve irritated more than a handful of readers over the years who decided to opt out of our distribution list. That’s OK with me. I genuinely appreciate that they’ve taken the time to read my thought of the week and write back.

My goal in starting this column five-and-a-half years ago was not to create a forum for debate but to share my ideas and give you a connection to the leadership of our Firm – something that is not possible on an individual level with all of our clients and associates, as a practical matter. The feedback I get from those of you who choose to write is always welcome and worthwhile, and even the negative emails are polite and well-intentioned.

The big difference, of course, is that my commenters are responding privately, not spreading hate or disrupting public dialog. They are not picking fights, or going off on a tangent, or disrespecting other people. People who do that on news sites have no purpose other than to cause harm.

So, where does this leave us? We don’t know yet. At least I don’t. Newsday plans to roll out a new and improved comments section online later this year (presumably with some kind of filter). It will be very interesting to see what they and other media outlets come up with to handle public engagement on their platforms as our world gets seemingly ruder and ever more digital.

In the meantime, keep reading and writing. Your comments are always welcome here!

Have a great weekend, everybody.