The ombudsman/public editor of NPR, Elizabeth Jensen, writes that as of next Tuesday, August 23, the NPR website will do away with its comments section. She then flannels on about what the "public" in National Public Radio really means but soon comes to the real point:
In July, NPR.org recorded nearly 33 million unique users, and 491,000 comments. But those comments came from just 19,400 commenters, Montgomery said. That's 0.06 percent of users who are commenting, a number that has stayed steady through 2016.
Which is to say that the culture of unrestrained bigotry, hate speech, harassment, and sub-mental diarrhea graffiti that has characterized comment threads since the day they were born has succeeded in eating itself. Trolls have driven humans away, and more and more publishers are beginning to side with the writers whose work is routinely defamed and diminished by a tiny fraction of the people who read it. (Of course, the Stranger has waaaaay more than 33 million readers, so it's possible our numbers are slightly different, but the principle remains.)
I know not everyone agrees about comment threads. The Stranger made comments optional to writers last year. News folks rely on them for tips, and Dan Savage is a huge proponent of them as well. For my part, I think they are a bad idea and a worse precedent, not merely for reasons of elitism, but for them, too.
First of all, it's not like there aren't PLENTY of ways to make your voice heard. As NPR's Scott Montgomery points out in a companion piece, the role of comment threads has been more than amply taken up by social media, where—not to worry, fellas—it's still incredibly easy to tell women they're too ugly to be raped without any fear of reprisal or accountability. You can also email your observations/disagreements/disputes/threats directly to the writer, or to the publication. You can also call.
But the NPR.org decision—which is only the latest in an ongoing series—shifts the onus for getting in touch back to the commenter, which constitutes a huge moral distinction. The idea that free speech is a first principle of civilization has been challenged a lot in the past couple of decades, but some of us still believe it. Just because it's a first world value doesn't mean it's not an essential one. But comment threads, like so many other hateful hotbeds, have been mischaracterized as a free speech issue. They're not. They're a hosting issue.
You can obviously say whatever you want about anything I write. We are lucky like that in the West. But the idea that it's the Stranger's job to make a space for you to say it, to publish it and archive it, is to say, effectively, that your snide aside (or even your thoughtful consideration) is as valuable as the actual original piece of writing. It's the same as saying the graffiti is as important as the building. And it just isn't. Even if the thing I write is stupid and your comment is unbelievably hilarious and trenchant. Both scenarios are hypothetically possible. But I only use myself as an example. Whatever else you think of their house tone or affect, NPR employs many incredibly talented, dedicated, experienced, and in many cases fascinating writers and broadcasters. What a fucking drag to get to the end of one of their well-researched, intellectually complex, and craftily argued stories only to find "get a reel job, cunt. hillary killary" at the end.
You could argue that the epithet doesn't diminish the source. That argument is exponentially harder to make when the epithet is affixed to it, like a sign hanging around the neck of a criminal in the stocks.
Democratization is good for politics, but it's the enemy of art, especially writing. Institutional publication may be a less august differentiator of talent/authority/validity than it used to be, but the internet keeps proving that it still means something.
There is little enough dignity in the life of a journalist anymore, which is just the way things are and it's fine. But as we all know, anonymity brings out the worst in people, and there's really no way around it with comments, so comments can fuck off.
I'd love to say more now, but I have to go cover a reality TV show press conference.