Letter writer: Civility solution is already available

Write to Mountain Xpress
Graphic by Lori Deaton

I greatly admire you for your civility challenge you’ve issued to the readership [“A Polite Way to Put It: Xpress Issues Civility Challenge,” Feb. 22], although the cynic in me not only suspects that you’ll have your hands more than full policing the comments sections, you’ll also have an uptick in troll activity by the smartasses who want to see what they can slip by you. (Coded lingo by white supremacists, for example.) I must confess, however, that I’ve never felt a letters or comments section should be regarded as the journalistic equivalent of a Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park; if people want to voice their opinions at will, they can start their own newspaper or blog.

At any rate, the partial solution has been available to you all along: moderated and verified comments.

For as long as there have been newspapers and Letters to the Editors sections, it’s been a policy of reputable journalism outlets to require that every letter contain the writer’s name, address, and a contact number. Upon receipt of a letter, one of the publication’s editors would telephone the letter writer and verify who they were and what they wrote. (This was one of my tasks when I worked at a paper some years ago.)

Obviously, this was not a foolproof system, since anyone could in theory sign a fake name to a letter, or have an unpublished phone number. But it was still relatively reliable, and it certainly cut down on the percentage of folks scheming to get anonymous and inflammatory commentary into the paper. The letters were effectively “moderated,” as well, as letters sections typically bore the disclaimer “Letters to the Editor may be edited for clarity and space” (and, by implication, “taste”).

I see no reason, other than lack of manpower or laziness on the part of a journalistic outlet, why similar policies couldn’t be enacted for online comments sections, which are simply a digital iteration of a Letters to the Editor section.

— Fred Mills
Arden

Editor’s response: The internet is inherently a different medium than broadcast or print, because it is a network in which potentially every user can be a publisher. The dynamics are so different that Congress recognized as much in the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which sets out different standards for what is published online versus in print. Consequently, Xpress’ policy regarding publication in print of letters to the editor must adhere to a different legal standard than online comments. While we could adopt a policy that allows only moderated and verified comments, we have not done so because it runs counter to the freer flow of information found on the internet. Our civility challenge, however, does reflect our desire to apply some filters and controls on that flow.

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The comments section is here to provide a platform for civil dialogue on the issues we face together as a local community. Xpress is committed to offering this platform for all voices, but when the tone of the discussion gets nasty or strays off topic, we believe many people choose not to participate. Xpress editors are determined to moderate comments to ensure a constructive interchange is maintained. All comments judged not to be in keeping with the spirit of civil discourse will be removed and repeat violators will be banned. See here for our terms of service. Thank you for being part of this effort to promote respectful discussion.

12 thoughts on “Letter writer: Civility solution is already available

  1. John Penley

    Kudos to y’all for allowing free speech. I,personally, always post anywhere using my real name. I think that it is cowardly to post crap and troll under a fake name and most trolls only do that. You could think about removing posts that do not use a name to identify themselves. That alone would produce more civility.

  2. Grant Millin

    Anonymous comments have little support or justification. In fact only anonymous commenters are probably capable of whipping up the ethics and logic. But then I skip comments from Anonymous Avatars. MX needs to moderate at least to the degree of ensuring no anonymous commenters participate.

    I have no requirement to read the dang Telecommunications Act of 1996 any time soon, but surely Anonymous Avatars are not justified there either.

    • Lulz

      LOL, no one will participate., We all know leftist want conformity. Not diversity so what are you really afraid of?

  3. chuck Giezentanner

    My life went back to happiness when I STOPPED reading the comment sections on all online media. Of course I did hop right on here to say that, but I am reaching out to those of you who read online comments… STOP. It will make your day at the coffee house much brighter.

    Two things: I also unjoined all the West Asheville Facebook Groups. HAPPINESS! Those groups are full of people who want to take the piss out of everything. Also, I wish Facebook had an option, like Youtube, to disable comments. I’d like to post something just as a thought and not invite people to respond.

    PEACE LOVE AND NO ONLINE COMMENTS!

  4. I pushed against anonymity when I was Managing Editor here 15 years ago. I have never understood why there has been no requirement of actual identity in the comments section. I recall some weird argument about free speech rights if comments were moderated, don’t remember the details. But identity? Long overdue.

    • Lulz

      Why do you need to know the name of people who comment against you? Either you want an echo chamber or retribution or a combination of both. Problem is once that happens, MX opens themselves up to lawsuits at a minimum.

    • Lulz

      I love it Bothwell. Seeks accountability for others but not of himself. Again Bothwell, why am I, a residential homeowner, being taxed to pay for the rich to come here while I gain nothing in value from it? Why are you taking my money and building up the RAD and greenways where your well connected friends ALREADY own the land and are waiting for the city to redevelop it?

    • The Real World

      Interesting article…..pretty solid. From the Comments section of it, I offer this astute bit: ” Accountable identities are good in theory, terrible in reality. Anonymous posting is the ONLY way people genuinely have free speech anymore, because these days, everything they say, if it isn’t said online in the first place, will end up posted online regardless. Free speech protects us from the government, but it doesn’t guarantee our jobs, volunteer activities, or educational pursuits, any of which can be compromised if yours happens to be the post people choose to focus on today. “Well just don’t say those things then,” is the wrong answer, because it’s “well just don’t engage in free speech or we will give you the mob treatment if we happen to disagree with you,” especially if what you said was misunderstood, taken out of context, or completely fabricated. That’s BS. Accountable identities also force more work on your users, another wonderful way to minimize your user base. — Hatlhaa K

      Nailed it; on all counts. In fact, I absolutely marvel on websites that only use Facebook Comments Plugin — where people make some really idiotic comments in their own name WITH their employers name displayed on the same line! That is pure nuts! (My deduction, from years of reading, is that there are some supremely self-righteous and low IQ employees at American universities. Not good.)

      Fascinating how many regulars here want to restrict speech, suppress information and hold people accountable, dammit! (stated in a grumbly voice while pounding table). Gee, if I didn’t know better I’d think they were a bunch of right-wingers. Funny, that.

      • Lulz

        Dee Williams has an ad in Facebook that says it best. Either the present council doesn’t know about the low wages of the the tourist industry or doesn’t care. And either one is bad. Problem for people like Bothwell is that more and more people are realizing his kind are fakes and phonies. And I’m guessing him and Millan up above are trying to quell a growing dissent.

        The local swamp will be drained folks. it’s inevitable merely because the gentrification is being pushed by the same council that pretends to care about wages.

  5. To “The Real World” – you make a pretty good point about the threat of retribution in this social media milieu. I hadn’t thought about it that way. On the flip side, MountainX only very rarely publishes a print letter from an anonymous writer—based on a writer’s perceived exposure to threat of retribution. Kind of a double standard there. But your argument is worth considering.
    To Lulz: Would love to learn how I have avoided accountability. That makes no sense. I am always straight out about my views, and assume I will be held to account for them. As for your suggestion that I have friends in the RAD who are benefiting from the upgrade there? No. Not. Don’t . Meanwhile , I am the strongest supporter on Council for local folks to benefit from the endless advertising of the TDA by offering Short Term Rentals. That’s at least one way hard-pressed folks can gain something from the tourist economy.
    Meanwhile per the low wages, Lulz apparently doesn’t follow Asheville Council at all. Zip. We have made Asheville a certified Living Wage Employer, have made any development incentive deals contingent on paying a Living Wage and a median wage that matches the local median wage, and have continuously urged the hospitality industry to do better. We have no power to impose wages under NC law.

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