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Is the marketplace of ideas self-regulating?

Edward Wasserman

By Edward Wasserman

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

As traditional news outfits migrate online to become dot-coms, one of their biggest headaches is how to adapt to the sprawling new frontier of public comment.

In the pre-Internet world of TV and newspapers, public comment wasn't a problem. Broadcast news didn't have any -- aside from the weekly guest spot, usually some hapless civic association president reading from a prompter and staring terrified into the camera. Papers had their letters pages, but allowed only enough space for a few dozen a week, and they were generally written with care and were easy to prune for taste and diction.

Things were nicely under control.

But on the Internet, public comment isn't kitchen table talk, it's saloon brawl. Postings are sharp and rough-and-tumble. Harsh and derisive exchanges are common. So are personal attacks. Chat rooms and message boards routinely allow people to post comments anonymously. Only when postings are so egregious, so outrageous, racist or vile that other participants cough up hairballs do managers strike the comments and banish the authors.

That's the cyber pond that traditional news organizations are diving into. They understand that their own futures hinge on re-establishing online the central role in civic life that they've played offline. So they are eager to host forums where people in the communities they serve go first to offer comment.

What about taste, civility?

So they embrace the rambunctious discourse of the Internet with the zeal of the convert -- and the sweaty fervor of the desperate: Got something to say? Tell us!

Editors who would never dream of running an unsigned letter-to-the-editor now argue for promiscuous anonymity.

And taste and civility, respectfulness? Old-line values of a discredited media elite.

I exaggerate, but not that much. The new guiding principle is hands-off. At an American Society of Newspaper Editors workshop I attended recently in California, some very good and high-powered online journalists -- not the consensus, admittedly -- suggested that even screening postings would drive commentators to other websites, where they could speak their minds without restraint. And that would be ruinous to newspapers' online strategies.

The Organization of News Ombudsmen, a group I admire and to which I belong, has an e-mail thread right now soliciting input on how news organizations should handle public comment: Is it to OK to block anti-immigrant rants, to weed out defamation, to protect privacy and attempt to enforce some standards of reasonable expression? What about unsigned comment?

Some organizations argue that they are providing a public space, which they don't have the right, let alone the duty, to regulate. It will look after itself.

But is the marketplace of ideas self-regulating? Is defamation canceled out by testimonials, falsehoods by truth? Or does Internet talk promise another sad case of what the late ecologist Garrett Hardin called the "tragedy of the commons": Each individual herdsman benefits from putting one more head of cattle onto public pasture, and suffers little from cumulative overgrazing. In time, though, community disaster ensues.

In this case, the extreme license given individuals to vent, dissemble, excoriate and indulge their hates verbally, winds up destroying the expressive freedom that other people, less bold and less opinionated, need. Venturing an opinion, even a sound one, just isn't worth the risk. The overall result is a less expansive, less robust sphere of expression -- and sound, worthwhile thoughts aren't shared.

Public conversation -- exchanging ideas about what a community is and ought to be -- is something that has to be learned. Unfortunately, mainstream media have made a fortune teaching people the wrong ways to talk to each other, offering up Jerry Springer, Crossfire, Bill O'Reilly. People understandably conclude rage is the political vernacular, that this is how public ideas are talked about.

It isn't. With the move online, journalism has the opportunity to morph into a practice based not just on information gathering and narrative skill, but of stewardship, of presiding over a community-wide conversation about what's going on and what matters.

Those message boards and chat rooms aren't just market extension opportunities for media owners. They're warm and busy spaces where a new world of expression and communication is incubating.

To say there should be rules, that communicants should be admonished to strive for honesty and civility and respect, is not to justify elitism. It's not even to prescribe the rules. But it's to acknowledge that rules are needed, and to kick off the process of writing them.


Edward Wasserman is Knight professor of journalism ethics at Washington and Lee University.

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