PUBLISHER'S NOTEBOOK: Standards still necessary in our new global village
Tuesday, May 13, 2014 8:55 AM
Back in the 1970s when reading about Marshal McLuhan's prediction of a "global village" as our form of communications is transformed from Gutenberg's printing press to electronic media, I had visions of a fascinating and exciting future. He coined the phrase "the medium is the message," that the framework changes with each new technology, not just the picture within the frame.
His theories were complex, and I really didn't understand them all, particularly the part about the television generation becoming post-literate and re-tribalized to pre-industrial patterns of tribal cohesion. It was also somewhat mysterious what he meant when he said the new media contracts the world to village size, thus creating insatiable village tastes for gossip, rumor and personal malice.
With last week's controversy surrounding Donald Sterling, owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, I think I have a better understanding what McLuhan meant.
Sterling is facing a lifetime ban from the NBA and a $2.5 million fine for racist comments of his that surfaced on an audio recording. The interesting thing about this incident is that the global outcry comes from a secret recording of a private conversation that was then "leaked" to an online site.
Sterling has a history of problems involving race. The billionaire paid a $2.76 million settlement to resolve a federal lawsuit that accused him of systematically excluding blacks and Hispanics from his rental properties. He also faced a wrongful termination lawsuit by general manager Elgin Baylor, who accused him of various slurs and discrimination.
Yet, the league looked away from those very real transgressions until the audio recording of him saying racist comments to his girlfriend was revealed. The recording went, viral, as they say, and created a universal uproar.
I see some of the darker sides of the new global village in my profession as well. As newspapers adapt to the World Wide Web, many post their news online, allowing people to comment.
Most newspapers have always insisted, and still do insist, that letters to the editor be accompanied by actual names of the real persons writing them. The thinking is that not only are bold statements more influential if they are attached to a real person, people need to have the conviction to stand behind their opinions.
However, when newspapers transitioned to the Internet, many of them allowed unfiltered, anonymous comments on their online sites. They found that many of the comments are packed with rants that are mean, racist and just plain nasty.
The thinking was that encouraging more commenting would strengthen the connections to and within the community. Instead, it appears to be encouraging more hate and division.
At least that is what a recent study found. Not that it takes much study to draw that conclusion.
Arthur Santana, an assistant professor at the University of Houston, studied the tones of thousands of online comments, anonymous and identified, on online newspaper reader comment areas.
He concluded that 53 percent of anonymous comments included language that was vulgar, racist, profane or hateful. By comparison, about 29 percent of comments that require commenters to use their names were deemed uncivil.
That last figure still seems high, but even using real names, there is a certain aloofness about an online profile as many Facebook users have regretted some of the things they have posted. There is something about the immediacy and unreal nature of electronic communications that makes some people type before they think.
Another study the previous year found that writing and reading online rants was unhealthy, making the people who participate generally angrier.
Leonard Pitts Jr., a Miami Herald columnist, wrote recently that anonymity has made comment streams "havens for a level of crudity, bigotry, meanness and plain nastiness that shocks the tattered remains of our propriety."
Newspapers are adapting, although some may call it going backwards. Santana's study found fewer newspaper websites are allowing commenters to use anonymous user names. Some sites have been requiring users to sign in with Facebook accounts bearing their names, letting another company vet the participants.
The trend is swinging so that prohibiting anonymous comments is the norm at most newspapers.
Our online practice has always been to embrace the side of civility. We can't track down every commenter to verify, but if there are personal attacks by a commenter that has an obviously made up user name, we won't allow it to be posted.
I have made exceptions for my columns at times, since I know who is being attacked, but found, at least in one particular case, the comments just degraded and I stopped posting them.
When people claim they are in a certain profession, or live in a certain place, or have other personal characteristics, it is hard to take them seriously because if they are willing to reveal that much about themselves, why won't they reveal their name? And, if they can't reveal their names, how do we know there isn't an agenda on their minds other than merely expressing an opinion on something in the news?
It all comes down to the purpose of online comments. Letters to the editor allow a healthy, public debate on important issues by real people. Online comments can do the same, but if commenters don't want to be held accountable for their words or reveal who they truly are, what purpose does posting their words serve besides a feeding frenzy for angry people?
Some will say the global village is making newspapers irrelevant anyway. And, McLuhan said the transformation technology is causing in our global culture is inevitable, not a choice.
Still, I believe we have to have standards - that the tattered remains of our propriety are worth an attempt at preserving.
And, if you disagree, you are welcome to write a letter to the editor or comment online. Just make sure you identify yourself, just as I do every week when I offer opinions on subjects that, at times, some people may find disagreeable.