(Un)Civil Discourse

Illustration by Hilary Schenker

By Elizabeth Harball

Like the Romans who flocked to the Colosseum in ancient times, I enjoy a good bloodbath. When I went online to read Andrew Sullivan’s recent Newsweek article about the Obama administration’s stance on contraception, I hurried to take my seat in the arena, scrolling down the page to the bottom of the piece. Ah, the comment thread. This is where the real fun begins.

The religious leapt out of the gate with a holier-than-thou attack: “If the left want to go to hell, and start running the world accordingly, that is their choice,” wrote a commenter identifying himself as Achiles.

Then came an assault from an angry anti-Catholic: “The American Catholic bishops? Oh yes, we should always consult a misogynist, homophobic pedophile ring on moral questions,” snarled josephl.

“This entire controversy is a purposeful stick in the eye for Catholics. It’s what Obama does, agitate, inflame, personalize and polarize. . . . This Adminstration is a divisive cancer on the Nation,” moaned Surfer II.

Tons of Funk replied:  “I have this feeling you like the smell of your own farts.”

Surfer II parried: “No but your stench is seeping through my iPad.” (These comments have since been removed by a moderator.)

Contrast these anonymous statements with the prim, printed prose in a letter to the editor responding to the same article in Newsweek’s print edition:

“Thanks for clarifying the beliefs of Americans who call themselves Catholic vs. those of the increasingly distant fundamentalist papacy. It serves as a blunt reminder of how culture wars still rage in America,” wrote Meaghan Ryan.

Are Meaghan Ryan and Tons of Funk from the same planet?

Journalism has always relied on its readers’ written feedback, at first for material and later to gauge the quality of its product. A “letters to the editor” section has become standard in most news publications. At the end of the 20th century, however, the Internet grossly altered the news media’s relationship with its readers. The online comment thread, the Letters to the Editor’s scrappy younger cousin, appeared on news websites. Without the guiding hand of an editor, readers could say how they felt about an article immediately, anonymously, right below the original article. The role of news as a catalyst for public discourse was taken to an entirely new level.

Based on the level of dialogue in the average online commentary, however, a news consumer might wonder if the collective id has overpowered its ego. Name-calling and crass digressions like the comments that appeared below Andrew Sullivan’s article are far from uncommon. But a closer look at letters to the editor and comment threads reveals that reader feedback has always come from many different sorts, and readers’ ideas can be more valuable than many journalists would care to admit.

Correspondences were essential to the development of journalism as we know it today. Around 500 years before the first English newspapers appeared, Europeans bought and sold handwritten letters relating information on trade and politics. The modern newspaper evolved from “news-letters.”  One of America’s earliest periodicals, the Boston Weekly News-Letter, published sailors’ letters about battles at sea, such as this 1745 dispatch:

“I was forward, cutting the Anchor, and no-body on the Deck but myself with 3 great He-dogs of Spaniards. And hearing a great Noise in the banning, I ran aft, and found one of the Spaniards there killing Mr. Bow… I came to the Lieutenant’s Assistance with a fine Broad-Ax, and made several Strokes at the Spaniard to no Purpose; but by good Luck, the Dog looking about, at last I was up with him, for I cut off his Chin, and all lower Jaw . . .”

Only in the mid-19th century, when newspapers became professionalized, did the separation between journalists and their readers become distinct. Owners and editors of the “penny press” wanted their papers to have broad appeal to both readers and advertisers, so they separated opinion sections from more “neutral” content. “The press emerged as an organic outgrowth of private letters made public,” wrote Karin Wahl-Jorgenson in her 2007 book Journalists and the Public. Though public discourse lost its primacy, letters retained a place in most publications.

Now this trend is changing. Print space is a commodity and many magazines have either reduced the space allotted to letters, buried them between advertisements or eliminated this section entirely. The New Republic stopped printing letters in 2007. Deputy editor Chloe Schama explained that although the magazine isn’t opposed to the practice, “our space is very, very tight.” Comment threads have replaced the role of letters to the editor at The New Republic. “We feel that there is an unlimited forum online,” she said, and referred to the letters section as “a relic of previous times.”

Many newspapers and magazines that choose to retain a letters section consider it to be of symbolic importance, exemplifying the kind of uninhibited public discourse the press claims to protect. Emily Stokes, the young letters editor at Harper’s magazine, conceded that the magazine’s letters section is “totally anachronistic.” “It’s quite an old-fashioned aesthetic,” she said. When I asked what would happen if the section were to disappear, Stokes thought a moment before replying, “I think it would be a real loss.” At Harper’s, letters provide a sense of what readers enjoy and also serve a watchdog function, pointing out errors that may appear in the magazine.

For readers, however, the letters section is more than just helpful. Studies show that it is second only to the front page of newspapers in popularity. Douglas Cumming, journalism professor at Washington and Lee University, believes that reader letters offer something more genuine than today’s purportedly objective news stories. “I think people go to letters for the same reason they like hanging around the bar, besides to drink. They get to hear people saying what they really feel and think. It feels unvarnished, it feels unmediated and it’s nice to have those voices in a newspaper that otherwise feels vetted.”

Several years ago, Cumming undertook a project to index some 8,000 letters to the editor, dating back to 1804, that were published in small, weekly Lexington, Va. newspapers. Because these papers published nearly every letter they received, with very little editing, Cumming was able to gain a broad understanding of letters to the editor and how they have changed over the years.

In letters written during the 1800s, Cumming was both surprised and impressed to discover many references to classical literature and poetry, even though they were written in a small, rural community. “When people put a pen to paper, they felt they were in a different world; they called it the ‘world of letters’, ” Cumming said. This literary style of writing disappeared over the years, and the letters morphed into a motley collection of pertinent arguments, curiosities and banal sentiments. In the process of mining for historically significant letters, Cumming discarded complaints about trimming forsythia bushes and nonsensical rants about government involvement in steamboat races.

“When you read those 8,000 letters, if you randomly go in, you find a lot of junk,” he noted. “It’s either trivial or it’s the sort of fanatical opinions and expressions that you would find in Internet commentary.” Having worked for newspapers and magazines for twenty-six years before entering academia, Cumming developed a regrettably low opinion of his readers. “You got the feeling that most people out there were pretty ignorant and semiliterate—and a little nutty,” he said.

For this reason, print editors prefer to have control over which letters are published and which end up in the trash bin. Letters to the editor are an invitation-only salon, where the polite, the famous, the witty and the well-worded are ushered in. If an argument is worthy, the author of the article might even reply on the same page, or in the following issue. Vitriolic nutjobs with bad grammar and incoherent arguments are locked out. Even then, most letters pages contain a note to the effect of “Letters are subject to editing for space and clarity.”

The New York Review of Books has perhaps the most elite, proudest and feistiest history of letters to the editor. Within its pages, Vladimir Nabokov famously replied to Edmund Wilson’s review of his Pushkin translation, dismissing it as a “mixture of pompous aplomb and peevish ignorance,” and former U.S. poet laureate Rita Dove penned a 1,700-word reply to Helen Vendler’s unforgiving critique of an anthology Dove edited, writing, “I cannot let her get away with building her house of cards on falsehoods and innuendo.”(Vendler replied: “I have written the review and I stand by it.”) Joyce Carol Oates, Noam Chomsky, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre and countless other luminaries have contributed to The New York Review of Books’ letters pages.

But The New York Review of Books isn’t the only publication to reserve its pages for a certain kind of reader. In her study of letters to the editor, Wahl-Jorgensen reported that “when asked to imagine the average letter writer, most editors described an elderly, well-educated white male.” A 2009 report in the academic journal Political Science and Politics confirmed this suspicion, finding that of the 816 identifiable letter-writers studied, most were white males over the age of fifty.

Harper’s receives about fifty letters every month, which are heavily curated, truncated and fact-checked before any are published. Sometimes Stokes decides that none of the letters pass muster, so the editors reach out to “notables and non-notables in academic authority” to provide ink-worthy feedback. The resulting effort is what we read in the letters section of most national publications: clear, coherent analysis with pertinent anecdotes and engaging arguments. While they are usually not quite up to the level of the articles that follow, editors ensure that the letters are never anything to blush about, at least stylistically.

Ray Cave, the editorial director of Time magazine during the 1980s, explained in an email that of the thousands of letters the magazine received each month, the editors printed those that represented the “sum” of reader response. Unlike Harper’s, Cave says that they cut but did not edit these letters. However, he proudly noted that reader response did not shape the content of the magazine. “If the reaction was a din, you needed to consider the point, but need not change. If it was mixed and predictable, you were comforted,” he wrote.

Cave left Time long before the Internet existed, let alone comment threads: “Readers had no other method for feedback except package bombs or plastic-wrapped turds; the first we never got, the second I got once.”

Of course, editors never print the written equivalent of plastic-wrapped turds. After reading letters to the editor for many years, the casual news consumer may see the rise of comment threads as the downfall of civil society. The truth is, the angry, the illiterate and the lunatic fringe have been corresponding with magazines and newspapers for some time. They just don’t get published.

Website administrators use a longer leash when moderating comments than would a letters editor, as news websites are not legally liable for what appears in comment threads. Section 230(c)(1) of the Communications Decency Act has protected website administrators from being held accountable for the content other users post; in March 2012, a U.S. District Court granted three Montana newspapers immunity from libelous comments that had been posted to their websites. Additionally, editors don’t need to use up precious space on printed pages for online comments—once an article is posted, the comment section below is a realm of infinite space and possibility for reader feedback.

For these reasons, most threads degenerate into disputes among readers based on the commentary itself and often have very little to do with the article in question. In light of this phenomenon, attorney and author Michael Godwin invented “Godwin’s Law of Nazi Analogies” in the early 1990s, which states: “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.” An April 11 article in The Atlantic by Randy Cohen about the Trayvon Martin case was followed by a heated discussion about today’s black leadership, a discussion only obliquely related to the article at hand. Not halfway through the comment thread, Godwin’s Law was fulfilled: “As long as you’re likening Sharpton to warlords with an interest in racial politics, why leave out Hitler?” wrote commenter KindaSorta.

Many magazines are leery of having open comment threads on their websites. Readers are unable to comment beneath many of the articles posted on The New Yorker’s website. The New Republic restricted reader commentary to its paid subscribers. Though the Harper’s website will receive a makeover some time before this summer, letters editor Stokes is doubtful that comment threads will make an appearance. “There’s something a little bit flip about comment threads,” she said. “I do think people who write letters tend to have thought a tiny bit more.” Even if the revamped Harper’s website does provide a place for reader feedback, Stokes is certain the commentary will be moderated, “to protect people from themselves.”

Curiously, it also turns out that letters editors serve to protect journalists from their readers. Even as reporters began to calibrate the popularity of their articles based on the number of page hits, the Web-speak words “flame,” “troll” and “spam” came to signify reasons for them to crawl under their covers. Troy Patterson, television writer for Slate, was “flamed” following his negative review of Game of Thrones.

“This is the worst-written review I’ve read in a long time. Did Troy even watch the show? I can barely tell; in fact, I can barely follow his sentences, they’re written so awfully,” wrote Marcus Henry Weber.

Boron1 went a step further, saying, “Were you intoxicated in some way when you wrote this?”

After taking such a beating, Patterson relented and wrote a second review almost a week later; the comments weren’t much better. Jacob Weisberg, Slate’s editor-in-chief, said he has advised his writers to ignore the comment threads following their stories.

Despite the unedited, blasphemous mess many comment threads become, some journalists have found value in the Internet community. Journalism professor Douglas Cumming admitted that he has noticed a kind of self-correcting phenomenon, where the thoughtful tend to correct the thoughtless. “When the Internet came along, a lot of journalists of my generation thought that it would open up the floodgates to this mayhem and ignorance of the public mind,” he said. “I have to say that a lot of my peers admit that there is some surprising dynamic that is actually very positive. If something stupid or wrong comes out on, say, Wikipedia, smarter people will correct it. And if the smart people make a slight error, even smarter people will correct it. This is the biggest surprise.”

Deputy Editor Chloe Schama has developed a high opinion of her readers based on The New Republic’s online commentary. “Regular commenters read the magazine as carefully as I do,” she said. Schama noted that these regulars often have online discussions with one another, forming a kind of New Republic subculture. “I think that the commenters pride themselves as an intellectual community,” she said.

These diamonds in the rough have inspired some journalists to embrace reader interactivity. Slate’s William Saletan, who writes on controversial topics like abortion, often contributes to the comment threads that follow his articles. “This is your community, the people who are reading you, and there’s a certain measure of courtesy in paying attention to what the people in your community think and engaging with them,” he said. “I think the old model of journalists being above everybody, or writers being above their readers, is just defunct.”

Saletan notes that not every comment that follows his article is brilliant, saying he ignores reader feedback that either isn’t thoughtful or is just plain mean. Nevertheless, because he makes himself a presence in the space below his articles, he is often able to elevate the level of conversation and discover new thoughts and arguments.

“I think the lesson of the Internet era is that people are smarter interacting in groups than they are separately,” he said. “Just the interaction of your opinion with mine, your criticism with mine, makes us both smarter. It makes us better able to think through our positions, even if we keep them.”

Perhaps because of Saletan’s philosophy, the comment threads below his Slate articles appear more focused. While the angry fanatics are still present, the kerfuffle is frequently interrupted by a thoughtful dialogue. Recently, Saletan logged on to Reddit, a web forum with a reputation for outrageous comment threads, to hold a discussion with his readers on a piece he had written on Mitt Romney’s abortion stance. He wasn’t expecting much, but Saletan said that he ended up spending far more time on the site than he had anticipated. One long, thoughtful comment or question followed another—along with some mindless criticism—and the thread’s civility and intelligence were astounding.

“I really liked your Romney’s history on Abortion [sic] piece,” wrote Rustytire, “but I wondering [sic] if you’re really describing the mechanics of being a politician. For example, I can see similar machinations in Obama’s drug (marijuana) policy. What may appear to many as reversals are actually complicated facits [sic] that can’t possibly be expressed for some reason (nature of modern media/politics).”

“Yeah, I think you’re right, and that’s the point: It’s all of the above,” Saletan replied. “A complicated shift like this one is all in the texture, and it’s a combo of the person’s dispositions and changing circumstances. The details can be icky and humanizing at the same time.”

“Absolutely,” Rustytire answered. “I’m grateful for the article for that reason. If these people are more flexible and thoughtful then [sic] we give them credit for, might they also be more convincible.”

Comment threads offer an opportunity for journalists to interact with their readers in a way that letters to the editor do not. Rather than having the ability to ignore the bulk of reader feedback, allowing their editors to restrain the angry, fanatical masses within the neat confines of the letters page, writers must now confront their audiences on the same page as their article.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

“If you’re in this job to learn, write, think and just experience the pleasure of debating people and hearing other points of view, broaden your horizons a little bit,” Saletan advises other journalists.

The Internet comment thread horizon may seem messy to some. But after more than a century of carefully curated letters to the editor, it may be time for the wisdom of the average reader to emerge on the battlefield.

Even Ray Cave, who never dealt with comment threads during his tenure at Time, felt it was important to note: “When you stop listening to the people, you better get out of the business. The people are smarter than you are.”

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