[26 April 2009]
PopMatters General Features Editor
I don’t have access to the amount of hits this blog gets, so I rarely have any sense of whether it is being read other than the number of comments a post gets. The commenters seem to be a group of about dozen people whose input is always appreciated, even if I only occasionally respond directly. Of course, I would love it if there were more comments, not only because I might learn more, but because I would feel more popular. But I do read them and don’t regard it as some kind of a chore.
I say that because I don’t really agree with how Virginia Heffernan assess comments in this NYT Magazine piece—which in reality is more of an advertisement for conservative columnist Anne Applebaum.
Online newspaper commenters as a whole seem to have (at least) the stamina, drive and spare time to become a cogent part of online journalism. But as it is, online commentary is a bête noire for journalists and readers alike. Most journalists hate to read it, because it’s stinging and distracting, and readers rarely plow through long comments sections unless they intend to post something themselves. But perhaps the comments have become so reader-unfriendly, in part, because of the conventions of the Web-comment form.
Which conventions are those? I’m not sure; Heffernan doesn’t really elaborate. She laments that comments are often rote exercises in reader self-promotion in which the writer’s actual argument is neglected, is not “read against itself” in the manner of a contrarian literary analysis. Why this would be preferable or even different from the point-by-point refutations that Heffernan regards as formulaic is also not clear.
Though she tries to orchestrate a balanced view, Heffernan seems to be bothered ultimately by professional writers not receiving due respect from commentators, who sometimes find journalists to be operating in bad faith or turning in disingenuously presented copy. Toward the end, she passes off this sentiment to other writers in a jokey turn of phrase—“making commenters more accountable for their posts doesn’t exactly transform them into the reverential chorus that every writer probably thinks he deserves”—but then again she is a writer herself. And she begins the piece with by contrasting commenters’ boorishness with Applebaum’s resume and a recounting of a few of the plaudits she’s received from other journalists, i.e., the people who matter; the professional opinionmakers.
It’s not that journalists expect reverence so much as they want to protect their monopoly on opinion formation in the public sphere. And judging by this, they seem to believe they are above having their motives questioned. But as a group of people who produce information for money and then make a big pretense of their objectivity, journalists are precisely those whose motives must be scrutinized, and at times, when necessary, ridiculed. For the sort of respectful commentary Heffernan prefers, publications need to make sure they have an editorial assistant—as they always have—to sort through the letters, etc., to find the stuff they think others would be interested in reading. Commenters are under no obligation to make that judgment themselves in providing content to the publication for free.