Tuesday, August 23, 2011

No Comment

Christopher Blank recently wrote a guest column for The Commercial Appeal on the topic of those who comment inappropriately on that newspaper's website. It's not possible for me to better Blank's writing, but I would like to add a few cents to the discussion here on my blog.

This isn't personal, I'm not here to defend my own stories and speak only to those who comment on those stories. I don't engage with commenters online because it's futile. That exchange serves no purpose in bringing someone around who is intent on disagreeing and being disagreeable. And I'm not talking about those commenters who have legitimate issues with issues, those who may, in their heart of hearts, be against a new law or perceive a flaw in the legal system or really, really want (or don't want) bike lanes on a particular street in their neighborhood. I'm talking about the people who log on with the sole mission of belittling and antagonizing the writer.

I know a lot of the writers at The Commercial Appeal and all around town, and consider many of them friends. They're good writers and hard workers, and reporters don't get into this business for the glamor or to be in the spotlight. It certainly isn't for the money. They're talented storytellers and, for the most part, enjoy what they do and it's simply rude to attack them personally in a public manner.

And that's the crux of it, isn't it? It's just rude. In an attempt to encourage discourse and familiarity, almost the exact opposite is happening because of those who are not beholden to any personal or professional ethics or, it would seem, decent Southern manners. It's rude to speak in the way they do to someone who is just trying to do their job, and it's rude to allow the means to do so to persist.

I also believe it's just bad business to allow anonymous commenting. I think the practice adds no value to the experience of reading a newspaper. It certainly adds nothing to any discussion within the community, and it shows a lack of respect for the reporters, editors, copy desk, layout and everyone else it takes to get a newspaper on paper and online. It would be like owning a restaurant and allowing anyone who may or may not be a paying customer to stand in the middle of the dining room and insult your chef. That, too, would be bad business.

The comments section should be, if not done away with altogether, treated as letters to the editor are. In that situation, phone calls are made to verify who the letter writer is and then printed with full name and city. If nothing else, this takes away that cloak of anonymity for the cowards to hide behind.

There are plenty of other outlets for those who wish to react anonymously to what they've read in an attempt to make their friend(s) giggle. I suggest Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Google+, Blogger, WordPress or a third-party forum of some sort.

Now, to get personal for a moment. These comments are showing up on my column, "Because I Said So," more and more frequently. What I do is not journalism, I'll be the first to admit that. I'm not out there taking down corrupt politicians, recording great strides in business and culture for our city, or righting wrongs in the community. It's a silly little 500-word column where I attempt to make people laugh by poking fun at my kids, childhood in general and myself as a father. I don't purport to give advice, nor do I seek it. Yet the anonymous commenters show up time and again to suggest I hit my kids, to suggest I'm boring the readers with my story and, in some cases, to suggest they could do a better job - either with writing or with parenting.

To be clear, I give a shit what these people think about me or my family or my writing, but my mother reads that column online from Florida, and my grandmother from Georgia and, as they get older, my kids are reading it more and more. They enjoy seeing their names, they laugh along with me as they read what I thought of something they did or said, and then they don't really know what to say when someone with a string of initials and numbers instead of a name suggests I beat them or that I'm not a good father because of something I did or said.

There are those complimentary commenters, of course. There are those who seek me out through e-mail, on Facebook or Twitter, or approach me at the grocery store; I'm accessible. They share with me when something I wrote is the same scenario in their house or that it took them back to when their own children were small. As nice as this is, and as much as I appreciate these readers, I would be willing to give that up at the end of a column. They'll find me in other ways, these are intelligent, patient people.

Like I said, I can take the negative. I'd be amenable to discussing the matters at hand with these readers, but I won't do so with someone who doesn't believe enough in what he writes to put his name behind it. My full name is on everything I write, as are the names of the reporters and editorial staff at The Commercial Appeal, The Memphis Daily News, The Memphis Flyer and every other news outlet in town and out.

But they're not just names, they're people, and they deserve better.

-- Richard J. Alley