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Friday, May 8, 2009

And so is your mama.

Bob Newland, a proponent of medical marijuana, sent e-mails to bloggers containing an opinion piece on the subject and an alert that its publication was imminent. A couple of blogs posted it, and that's when the blogophiliacs began to get their malevolent little rocks off. In public. As least as public as blogorrhea gets. In the piece, Newland makes some comments about PeePee and the South Dakota Wart Collage, a cyberspace collection and gathering of ugliness that engages in one-sided piddling duels. Except when it comes to Sibilant Online, who responds at times. Birds of a feather fighting for territory, you know. Sibilant hisses Rush Limbaugh; PP mouths Bill O'Reilly.

One of the blogs that posted
Newland's piece then took it down because PP piddled in the comment section and Newland, in turn, responded with the initials of a well known insult, according to the blog editor. The editor said mama don't allow no piddling in here, and took the entire post down with a chiding.

In the piece, Newland makes the point that blogs are not the best places to have a substantial discussion and refers to the warts in the collage as evidence, but then he challenges some commenters who actually sign their names to a debate on medical marijuana.

Meanwhile, back at Madville Times, Cory Heidelberger is deciding whether to require commenters to include their names before he will post comments. He cites an example of the cowardly malignancies that infest comment sections. The comment includes the accusation that not posting an anonymous comment is an act of censorship.

This is a familiar plaint from those anonymous paragons of cowardice who haunt blogs and discussion boards. They cannot grasp the idea that the First Amendment restricts the government from making any laws that would infringe upon the right to free speech. The premise is that citizens who have identities shall have the right to free expression. It suggests nothing about the right to be anonymous. In fact, the journalistic basis for attribution is that quotations are not actual unless their author is identified. In certain circumstances, news media does not reveal the source of quoted or cited materials, but reporters and editors verify that the person being quoted has a real identity.

I will say parenthetically that as an investigative reporter who on occasion was given information under the provision that the source would not be revealed, the task of verifying and insuring the accuracy of the information was intensified. Before publishing the information, it had to be cleared with the senior editors, which usually meant that you would tell them just who provided the information and why the person's identity should be withheld. Then, the reporter had to double the efforts to verify the validity and accuracy of the information. The Constitutional provision that no accusation can be processed against a person by the government except by "oath or affirmation" guides--at least it once did--the standard for publishing accusatory information in the press. The majority of information obtained under the provision that the source not be revealed was never published. If it was not verified with supporting documents or other witnesses, it was withheld until such time as it could be proved. And frequently, confidential information proved to be false or inaccurate or without verifiable foundation.

But another aspect of the First Amendment that the twit-wits cannot seem to understand is the right of free expression gives people the corollary right to reject what is uttered. Editors of news media, websites, and any other forum have the right to edit the materials they publish according to the standards set by their publications. The right to free expression includes the right not to publish materials that does not meet standards of intelligence and literacy and to reject statements for any reason. No media has to publish anything if its editors choose not to.

There is a further dimension that has caused newspapers to monitor more closely what is posted on their discussion boards. For one thing, commentary that devolves into the petty, mean, scurrilous, and just plain stupid reflects on the institution that sponsors it. In fact, such commentary reflects on the community from which it originates. A few years back, I was asked if I could supply some workspace for members of a consulting organization that were looking for a community in which to center a think tank on the "buffalo commons," the northern great plains. I was not a part of their decision-making, but I was privy to what they were examining and how they analyzed it. They decided that Aberdeen had some features that would make a good home for such an enterprise, but they found some negative factors that outweighed the positive. One of the things they pointed to was community attitudes and they brought out numerous examples from the discussion board sponsored by the local newspaper. They cited the hatred, meanness, scurrility, and absence of intelligence in most of the discussion threads. Promoters of the city pointed out that the comments the consultants cited were from a very small minority of people in the community who seemed to do little else but spread their ill will and stupidity on discussion boards. The consultants replied that they realized that, but the discussion board was face of dialogue taking place within the community and, like it or not, it characterized the community. They said a think tank would find it deleterious to be associated with such a community.

The kind of comments that appears on blogs likewise characterizes the intellectual nature and constituency of the blogs. Editors have the right--and the responsibility--to enforce standards of dialogue. They also bear responsibility, potentially monetary, for libelous and false materials.

So, Cory has an absolute right to set the purpose and tone of Madville Times, as does every other blog editor have to edit any materials appearing on their sites. The rule of communication is "by their comments, ye shall know them." And blogs that try to contribute something other than the mean, malign, and moronic are increasingly finding it necessary to monitor and restrict comments.

Blogs express the nature of the personalities and character of those who produce them. By their very nature, blogs tend to attract the obsessively narcissistic. They are easily identified by the self-preening and self-stroking of the ego. They inspire a lot of derisive snickering of which their authors seem unaware.

And while blogs are by their nature geared to certain perspectives, what separates the valuable from the worthless is the difference between those that do attempt to inform and discuss and those devoted largely to disparagement, denial, and malignity.

Local blogs I shall refer to as Sibilant Online, Wart Collage, Dakota Noises, and The Douchebag Monologues are devoted to defamatory portrayals of the people identified with positions they don't like. When you cut through the tendentious posturings of South Dakota Polecat-antics you nearly always end up with a personal attack (a befouling from the nasty little scent glands) on someone's mentality, personality, and character, not a critique of the issues purportedly being discussed. That blog originated as an instrument of character assassination, and it has been dedicated to that purpose in all its convolutions of pretense. And all we can say in response to it is what Bob Newland said that got his essay taken down.

Some blogs elicit many responses, but do reserve the right to edit and to maintain a benign, purposeful perspective. Mount Blogmore is among the most successful at this.

The task before journalists and educators is coaching the public in how to read the new media, as it likes to call itself. But it is an old task that has confronted human communication and education from the beginning of human sentience. Standards of what is worthy have to be defined, and if the better angels of human nature are to prevail, people have to understand what is constructive dialogue and what is petty and malicious. When people concentrate on assailing the character and personality of others, they are not intending good will and purposeful dialogue.

The question confronting bloggers and people who read them is if they want the mean, malicious, and ignorant to prevail. That is what often dominates the face that our communication enterprise presents to us.

1 comment:

Publius said...

Well put, David. Well put!

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States