I don’t know how long ago I first uttered the phrase, but it has been one of my professional mantras since the first time I stumbled across a computer-based “bulletin board” populated by “know-it-alls” spewing venom and bile, consequence-free, mind you, under all kinds of phony names and monikers:
“Internet anonymity is the ‘klan hood’ of the 21st century.”
Public declarations made without personal accountability attached or required, go South quicker than gnats in a snow storm.
In what I can only describe as a long overdue move, the Augusta Chronicle (and eventually all press websites owned by Morris Communications) is finally doing away with the “anonymous comments” that follow every news story on their website. Comments are still welcome and encouraged, Morris management just wants you to “own what you say.”
A system reminiscent of their centuries-old policy requiring all letters to the editor to be signed and verified. Imagine that.
In an effort to clean up what has become quite a nasty ritual for many of their readers, which often involves tossing out all types of libelous invectives, they are flushing their old system, and asking that folks who still wish to comment either sign on under their social media accounts (like Facebook). At the very least, they are asking that posters use the name listed on their paid online subscriptions. It is part of a total revamp of the website of The Augusta Chronicle.
Hip, hip, frigging hooray!
I have no idea how this hideous practice was ever allowed to take hold on the websites of award-winning and widely respected newspapers in the first place, but I have never met a single Morris journalist or editorialist who was anything other than aghast and ashamed that such unvetted and often disrespectful content was ever allowed to be posted next to pieces they took great care to professionally craft for public consumption. Former employees such as Barry Paschal, Suzanne Downing, Phil Kent, Steve Crawford, Greg Rickabaugh and Kirk Weeks were adamantly opposed to the practice, and you better believe virtually all of the current AC employees I know (at least the ones who have discussed it with me) such as Mike Ryan, Rob Pavey, Joe Hotchkiss, Sylvia Cooper and Rick McKee, have also been opposed to the feature.
I first wrote on these pages about “internet anonymity” in this regard six years ago. Presented here in encore, just to give you a taste of how nasty this feature is, and always has been.
The Internet Klan Strikes Again (originally printed March 30, 2010)
A few weeks ago I crafted what I thought was a respectful and rather introspective “farewell” column days after the unexpected death of the great retired State Court of Appeals Judge Jack Ruffin.
While praising him for his many accomplishments, I did raise a question about the unintended (and unpleasant) consequences of his admirable courtroom battle as an attorney in the fight for true desegregation in local schools.
The column did not run the week I wrote it because (former) Spirit editor Stacey Eidson thought that it was too soon after his death to raise such an issue. The column did run the following week, and I did not receive a single complaint about it. If Spirit management got any complaints, they did not share them with me.
At the time she pulled the column I didn’t much argue the point with Stacey, because as editor it is her call as to what goes in the paper and what doesn’t. I did raise a minor objection, but ultimately I didn’t mind the call because I admit I am sometimes a bit shortsighted when it comes to “offending the sensibilities of the mourners” in such cases. I decided to yield without prejudice to my soft-hearted colleague.
Too bad Stacey Eidson wasn’t running the Augusta Chronicle’s online public comment department this past weekend. They could have used someone with her sensibilities.
When word came down Friday evening that former State Senator Nancy Schaefer and her husband Bruce were both dead in what was described as “a likely murder-suicide,” the story rightly generated a good deal of public interest. Senator Schaefer had not only been a dedicated political activist for many conservative causes, but she was also a two-time candidate for statewide office. She was indeed a very well known figure all over the southeast, appearing on both my radio and TV shows (and countless others) on numerous occasions, and she was a regular guest columnist for the Atlanta-Journal Constitution. She was an unapologetic conservative Christian, vehemently pro-life and one of the most engaging politicians to ever stump in these parts.
As we have seen far too often in recent years, as the details of the crime became known, almost immediately there came all types of speculative, outrageous and reckless statements… not from any news reporters, editorialists or even noteworthy political enemies… but from the nameless, faceless twerps who regularly defecate via keyboard with impunity all over any number of public figures, accident victims, murder victims and the like whenever it suits them.
It is a feature that seems to be very popular these days at many major newspapers, a “scream back” button that allows people to post comments adjacent to web-posted articles. As I have said on several occasions in these pages, whoever came up with this idea should be taken out back and smacked around for a few hours. Daily.
Within minutes after the first article on the death was published in the AJC’s Political Insider column, the garbage started flying. Several anonymous posters, from parts unknown, began celebrating and joking about the death of Senator Schaefer, with most of the comments attributing the shootings to her.
In a move that I applaud, and note is all too rare, the AJC’s editors quickly suspended the comment section for the article and soon removed all of the offending bile posted by the hooded critics.
Predictably, the same type of commentary followed when the Augusta Chronicle ran wire stories on the deaths. While many of those comments have also been removed, a few still remain, including these gems:
Kapa18 Saturday, Mar. 27 8:50 AM
I too first want to offer my sympathy to the family. I also want those who are fanatics understand the complexity of death. On one hand she would appose the death of the unborn, yet the complexity of her own emotions allowed her to make the decision to take the life of her’s and her dying husbands life in the privacy of their home.
fd1962 Saturday, Mar. 27 10:15 AM
Unfortunate circumstances certainly, but what stronger defense for choice can be made than hers? And what penalty can be created to prevent it? Anti-choice agitation only institutionalizes a lust for control.
FedupwithAUG Monday, Mar. 29 11:04 PM
When you hate as much as this woman did you can only assume she got what she deserved.
For the record, the authorities now say Mrs. Schaefer was killed by her husband as she slept, he then turned the gun on himself.
As someone who makes a living commenting on breaking news as it happens, I am well aware of the importance and the relevance of uncensored thought and analysis. Just like gunfire, it should be aimed carefully and accurately by those who can be rightly held accountable.
The editors of this paper, the AJC and the Augusta Chronicle would no more run an unsigned letter to the editor than they would a signed terroristic threat, so why allow this garbage to be posted in the first place?
If idiots want to stand on street corners and shout whatever comes to mind unchallenged, so be it. Our top media outlets should not allow their platforms to be misused in such a way.