The New York Times
The public editor
Civil Discourse, Meet
By CLARK HOYT,
nytimes.com from the Web, November 4, 2007
WARNING: This column contains rude
and objectionable language not normally found in the pages of this newspaper but
seen surprisingly often on its Web site.
As The New York Times transforms itself into a multimedia news and information
platform — the printed newspaper plus a robust nytimes.com offering breaking
news, blogs, interactive graphics, video and more — it is struggling with a
vexing problem. How does the august Times, which has long stood for
dignified authority, come to terms with the fractious, democratic culture of the
Internet, where readers expect to participate but sometimes do so in coarse,
bullying and misinformed ways?
The answer so far is cautiously, carefully and with uneven success issue is
timely because last week, with very little notice, The Times took baby steps
toward letting readers comment on its Web site about news articles and
editorials, something scores of other newspapers have long permitted. On
Tuesday, readers were invited to comment on a single article in Science Times
and on the paper’s top editorial, using a link that accompanied each. Few
did because there was no promotion of the change, but as the week went on and
more articles were opened to comment, participation picked up.
The paper is creating a comment desk,
starting with the hiring of four part-time staffers, to screen all reader
submissions before posting them, an investment unheard of in today’s depressed
newspaper business environment. The Times has always allowed reader
comments on the many blogs it publishes, with those responses screened by the
newsroom staff. That experience suggests what the paper is letting itself
“I didn’t know how big it would become, and I didn’t know how tough it would be
to manage,” said Jim Roberts, editor of the Web site. A particularly hot
topic on a blog can generate more than 500 comments — 500, that is, that meet
guidelines requiring that a comment be coherent, on point, not obscene or
abusive, and not a personal attack. Though editors have mixed feelings
about it, The Times has so far bowed to Web custom by allowing readers to use
screen names, as long as they don’t claim to be Thomas Paine, Condi Rice or a
famous porn star.
From Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the publisher, on down, executives and editors of
The Times use similar language to describe their goal: they want the
newspaper’s Web site to nurture a healthy, “civil discourse” on the topics of
“We have two great assets,” said Jonathan Landman, the deputy managing editor
who is in charge of the newsroom’s online efforts. “One is the quality of
the material we produce; the other is the quality of our readers, some of the
most curious, intelligent and sophisticated people on earth.” Putting the
knowledge of readers together with the journalism of The Times, he said, could
result in “news and information of greater power, reach and quality than even a
great newsroom can produce on its own.”
That’s the lofty goal, but the real Internet world often falls far short.
Take, for example “Ray in Mexican Colony of LA,” who recently managed to get a
comment posted on one blog, The Lede, suggesting that The Times “have all the
displaced ILLEGALS from the FIRES Move into the TIMES NYC HQ Building ... and
let them urinate in the halls like they do infront [sic] of most every Home
Depot in all the rest of the USA.” (After I pointed this comment out to
editors, it was removed.)
After The Caucus, The Times’s politics blog, reported recently that the five
organized crime families of New York had voted 3-to-2 not to put out a hit
contract on Rudolph Giuliani when he was a crusading United States attorney, a
reader with the screen name chopsticks posted this one-word comment:
“Recount!” Another, Geoff, said: “Giuliani is just as corrupt as the MOB
so who really cares. They should have gotten rid of him!”
And when City Room, the local blog, reported last Tuesday that a spokeswoman for
Vice President Dick Cheney said her boss had not seen a Confederate battle flag
at an exclusive upstate New York club where he went hunting, some readers
responded with comments that included the word “crap,” which would almost
certainly never appear in a letter to the editor in the printed newspaper.
“Some things are bound to slip through,” said Kate Phillips, editor of The
Caucus. But she sees a bigger picture. “Reader engagement enriches
our world,” she said. “I am totally enthralled, astounded by the minds of
Yet Phillips said she struggles sometimes with the “intolerance” and “vitriol”
she sees in some comments — so much so that on rare occasions “I almost wish we
could go back to the days when we never heard their voices.”
Given the current political atmosphere, The Caucus is a magnet for splenetic
comments, many of which don’t make it onto the Web site. A posting by a
Times correspondent about Barack Obama is sure to bring out racist submissions.
Mention of Mitt Romney inspires “just horrific misstatements about Mormonism and
his own life,” Phillips said. Wild claims that Hillary Clinton is a murderer
don’t make it either.
Several weeks ago, Phillips intervened in a running debate among readers over
news that Christian conservatives were talking about supporting a third-party
candidate for president. “Please refrain from the vicious name-calling,” she
wrote, “not only against one another but also against one another’s political
and religious views and identities. The attacks are neither constructive nor
instructive and will not be published.”
Some readers chafe under such admonitions. “You cannot censure speech, however
derogatory, mean-spirited, or offending it is,” wrote one, identified as jondom,
in February, after another Phillips plea to “stop the name-calling.” “We need an
open dialogue in this country, now more than ever,” jondom said. Another reader,
Mithras, wrote: “Mandating tepid civility in blog comments has an ideological
component. ‘Politeness’ bars sharply worded disagreement by dissenters against
those who claim to be authority, but doesn’t usually bar dismissive or
patronizing arguments by authority against the dissenters.”
Many major newspapers, like The Washington Post and USA Today, do not have an
editor screen comments before posting them. Those two papers allow other readers
to object to a comment as abusive, and then an editor will check it.
But Landman said The Times never considered unmoderated comments.
Martin Nisenholtz, senior vice president for digital operations of The New York
Times Company, said: “A pure free-for-all doesn’t, in my opinion, equal good. It
can equal bad.”
I believe that’s especially true if you’re The New York Times and you are trying
to maintain a rare tradition of civility. A site with many Rays in Mexican
Colony of LA might carry the name of The New York Times, but it would no longer
be The New York Times.
The public editor serves as the readers' representative.
His opinions and conclusions are his own. His column appears at least
twice monthly in this section.