NORWALK, Conn. – NancyOnNorwalk needs to clamp down on its commenters.
That was the premise of a Letter to the Editor from frequent flier Peter I. Berman, former college professor, former adviser in the Gov. John Rowland administration, former Norwalk mayoral candidate and current gadfly.
Mr. Berman is offended by the frequency and tone of the comments others leave – mostly behind the emboldening cloak of anonymity – about their public servants, and each other. He suggests that, in addition to weeding out the bashers, we put a cap on the number of comments we allow from any one person on a given story, or in a given week.
This all came in a 1,317-word letter to the editor, about three times the length permitted by most other professional news outlets, but typical, and perhaps a bit short, for him – he shattered the 2,000-word mark in a recent comment. (To be fair, Mike Mushak and Spanner also tend to run long.)
What Mr. Berman wrote is something that has come up with several NoN readers offline (and, sometimes, online), and has been a subject of national debate in journalism circles: It can be downright nasty out there.
We have had the debate internally and among readers, news sources and our fledgling Board of Directors. Should we allow screen names, or insist on real names in the comment section?
There are three people named Chapman involved in this discussion. Two share the opinion that yes, we need to permit phony names, which is why we continue to do so. The third – me – would much rather see people have the courage of their convictions and stand behind their words. It is an opinion shared by Mayor Harry Rilling, former Mayor Richard Moccia, Planning Commission member Bill Dunne and Republican Town Committee Chairman Peter Torrano, among many others. My guess is they would not be so quick to hurl mud balls, and worse.
Mr. Berman points the finger at NoN as enablers of the toxic discourse that permeates Norwalk, but we hasten to point out that we have a relatively strict code of conduct for commenters. Check out some of the other sites, and try some of the local blogs. Some of the stuff is pretty rough, and some wouldn’t have a chance of getting printed here.
Thing is, though, if you are going to allow comments, you cannot overdo the policing. To do so is to run the risk of being accused, if you can imagine, of being biased. We apply the same standards to everyone. (Note to First Amendment defenders: Freedom of Speech applies to the government not limiting what you can say and is intended to allow public dissent. It does not apply to private businesses or non-profits deciding what they will allow to be said under their banner.)
But there’s more. We ask that commenters speak to the issue at hand. We request they comment on the issue rather than each other, that they aim their barbs at the officials’ actions and words, not at the person. We give some leeway, but pull back when things get dicey. It is subjective, yes, but there is no way for it not to be.
We have a great deal of respect for Peter Berman’s devotion to Norwalk, or what used to be Norwalk in the “halcyon days” to which he often refers. We share his nostalgia for a simpler time when people were more respectful, at least in public, and when discussions revolved around issues and actions. We respect his intellect and his attempts to affect change, even if we disagree with some of what he has to say.
And we greatly respect that Peter Berman signs his real name to his opinions. We have the utmost respect to all who do. It is much easier to take those people seriously.
The digital world has removed much personal contact and accountability from the social equation. Screen names rule. School kids are bullied and driven to suicide by the same type of people who habitually flame public servants on news sites. Bosses send terse emails to their employees, emails that take on more weight stripped bare of inflection and nuance. Malaysian officials even texted some families of the people lost in the recent aircraft disaster/mystery, infuriating many because of the insensitivity.
The bottom line is that this is, for better or worse, a new day, a new age. The Internet changed everything. Newspapers are passé, relics of a bygone era, paper-and-ink dinosaurs that are headed for the digital tar pits. The old way of doing things is gone, and those of us who are doing what we do are pioneers, exploring the new world of journalism, attempting to keep what’s right and needed from the old model while adapting to the changing world.
That is to say, basically, we are making up the rules as we go, while clinging to the tenets of journalistic integrity and the ideal of watchdog journalism. Mistakes are made and will continue to be made as we – not just NoN, but all of the new, independent, hyperlocal sites – try to figure out how best to fulfill our mission of keeping the taxpayer informed about their government.