President Obama pledged to raise the level of dialogue in Washington and ease the bitter partisanship that has crippled the work of Congress. He has been unable to do so, and it’s not entirely his fault, since the president cannot control the behavior of Congress any more than teachers can control what students do after school. Speaker John Boehner now has a chance to lessen the vitriol on the Hill, and he’s made at least one gesture of decency so far: Delaying the meaningless vote to repeal the healthcare overhaul law, and to instead pass a resolution honoring the victims of the Tucson gun assault, including colleague Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. That’s a step, but won’t fix what’s wrong.
The entity that often gets something of a pass in the exercise of who to blame for the hyper-heated political environment is the media. Cable TV rewards cranks and controversy by putting yellers and venom-spitters on TV. But newspapers, too, enable this element, allowing anyone with access to a computer to post anonymous comments on stories—no matter if the information in the comments is inaccurate or simply hateful.
This is not free speech. It is allowing cowards, cranks, and crazies to say whatever outlandish or offensive thing they want, under the (hopefully) dignified name of newspapers, whose very credibility relies on checking facts and correcting errors. Newspaper editors may tell you they are simply opening the dialogue, allowing all voices to be heard. This is, to put it bluntly, utter crap. Newspaper executives want to increase traffic to their websites, and allowing anyone to post comments is one way to do it. Yes, the First Amendment gives people the right to say what they want. But it doesn’t impose on news organizations the obligation to give credibility and an easy platform to anyone who wants it. Professional reporters do not put any crazy statement or comment in a story. Editorial page editors edit letters to the editor and check the identity of the writer, noting any connection he or she might have to the issue in question. Why should the online comments section be any different? [Take the poll: Is Political Rhetoric To Blame for Arizona Shooting?]
The impressive pioneer in this area is Margaret Sullivan, editor of the Buffalo News. Sullivan took the sensible and courageous step last August to end anonymous commenting, requiring writers to identify themselves. A staffer has been assigned to verify the identities of the commentators, no small feat in an era when not everyone has landline phones that help verify people’s identities. There was, predictably, an outcry, and traffic to the site initially dropped. But Sullivan stuck with it, and the result has been positive: Not only has the nastiness eased dramatically, but traffic has started to rebuild, as the News continues to verify the identities of commentators. Sullivan reports in a January 9 column that some 2,500 commentators have been verified, with another 500 added every month.
Political agitators and purveyors of gun-themed political threats aren’t directly responsible for what happened in Tucson; that blame lies with the shooter. But that sort of language surely doesn’t help, and the more the rhetoric becomes mainstream, the lower the bar falls. The media should show some responsibility as well, and follow the Buffalo News’s lead.