Welcome to the fact-free, anger-choked world of newspaper comment threads, where America’s deep partisan divide is on wild display. But is this a “conversation”?
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Reading the online comment threads of Las Vegas newspapers is not for the faint of heart. Liberal or conservative, you will have your worldview brutally mocked and attacked; you will be thrust into a universe where the facts you knew to be true are bent and upended; where every event, no matter how prosaic, becomes an opportunity for hyper-partisan scoring.
And that’s just the entertainment section. For the rough stuff, go to the political stories.
Comments are not crowd-sourcing. There’s no testing of hypotheses here. There is no requirement that comments in any way reflect the veracity of the report on which the commenters (a new noun, to differentiate the writers from “commentators” of the traditional media) are commenting.
It is a fact-free zone. People cite “facts” of their own invention and bias, but rarely link to credible sources. In effect, comments are the white caps of waves moving deeply through American society and media. We see represented, perhaps over-represented, the conspiracy theories that are only hinted at in the mainstream media, but are the stock in trade of extremists seeking converts on the Internet.
If anything, comments say more about the audience of the media forum than about the strength or weakness of the news report to which they are attached.
On the president’s visit this week to Las Vegas: “Wonder Why they told the public, he’d be staying in Henderson?………gave lots of Notice, in case a modern day Oswald, is interested…” — John Brogan, Sept. 29, in the Review-Journal.
For those who can get past the deliberate provocations, bad grammar and spelling, and who don’t mind looking at the world through a distorted keyhole, there is a certain entertainment factor in the most outlandish comments. These are minor-league Hunter Thompsons, using the web to break free of journalistic restrictions and unleash their received truths, large and small, on the world at 3 a.m.
Earnest liberals try to refute the conservative world-builders with their own comments, but rarely match their ideological rivals. They just can’t bring the crazy in 40-word turd-nuggets that are the epitome of the art form.
Sebring Frehner, a progressive activist and Nevada State College student, is one of the few who dares to try. He regularly posts to both the Sun and the R-J. The Sun has a widget that counts the number of posts from commenters. Frehner has 164 posts in three years of posting to the Sun website.
“I’m a regular poster, but I don’t speak to hear myself,” he says. “I’m trying to bring data and facts to the conversation. I usually post in response to other folks. I’m not trying to be mean, not trying to attack other people.”
Frehner insists that not every conservative commenter is batshit crazy. “There’s a couple of halfway sane ones out there. It’s a fact-free zone, it’s purely opinion, but there are a couple of us out there, not all liberal, that are trying to bring facts and deliberative data to the public.”
But being deliberative does not win the day in the comments sections.
“The comment section is akin to what we used to call ‘claymores’ — the person is the winner who posts the most and screams the loudest.”
Frehner warns that not all the comments one will see online are from the grassroots. “A lot of them — I try to search for them, and I come up with nothing. No profiles. The only place they exist is the newspaper’s website.”
On the Salvation Army’s decision to cut mental-health services in Las Vegas: “The Salvation Army is supposed to be a Christian group so what are they doing with left wing atheist “soft sciences” like psychology and psychiatry anyway? These fake sciences are what is wrong with this country. homosexual liberals and communists use the “con” game of polls and surveys to slant political debate to their advantage and the real theapy for people with mental illness gets ignored. Fasting and prayer is all people need,find God and get well. Got the atheist itch then try the Raelians www.rael.org they preach Astronaut Gods so it is inline with Evolution and Big Bang. I subscribe to that theory myself and I know Jesus Christ and God the Father and I am saved by a space alien god. Hallehuhya.” — Van Hellslinger, Sept. 25 in the R-J.
He says he’s seen advertisements seeking commenters to push political perspectives. A Democratic-leaning activist in Las Vegas, who declined to be identified because it could lead to her contractors being blocked, confirmed that commenters are paid to push both left and right arguments.
On the recent attacks on U.S. embassies and consulates in the Middle East, which included the murder of four Americans in Libya: “This was planned and executed with the approval of the White House and the State Department. No? Then tell me why the Marine guard was cut back to literally nothing and their bullets were taken away, hmmm?” — Robert Beers, Sept. 20, in the R-J.
Some of the most prolific commenters in Las Vegas are also some of the most conservative. Carmine DiFazio, a frequent guest to the Sun website, has almost 5,000 posts as well as a slew of letters to the editor. DiFazio didn’t respond to requests for information forwarded through the Sun website.
He and ideologically aligned commenters went to town recently after a letter-writer suggested that people who receive government benefits — that is, food stamps and aid to families with dependent children, not billion-dollar defense contractors and oil companies — have no constitutional right to vote.
“Say goodbye to your voting rights, stay-at-home moms!” No, better to say goodbye to stay at home unmarried women who have child after child by man after man so they can collect more in government assistance. Then the children of these women do the same. And so do the grand children. Oh…excuse me, but I hope this is not one of those subjects that we can’t talk and even think about. — Carmine DiFazio, Sept. 21 in the Sun.
Commenters often suggest violence with those on the opposite side. And both liberals and conservatives often reduce their opposition to clichés: “communists,” “Nazis.”
On a story on the Culinary Union’s support for Democratic candidates: “This is a true to form communist union group. With the recession on it is time for corporate casinos to join together and dump the unions. Look at the service industry as a stumbling block that prevents Vegas from offering quality to the tourists. Overpriced food with bad service by overpaid union workers. Dump the union and buffet prices could go back to normal.” — Van Hellslinger, Sept. 25, in the R-J.
Editors at both papers say their goal is to encourage conversation. But they are sometimes astounded by the intensity.
“It depends on the story,” says Melissa Sullivan, training editor at the Review-Journal. “Certain stories will get them more fired up than others.”
Some stories, particularly those about Latinos and immigration, renewable energy or President Obama, can provoke hundreds of comments from both conservative and liberal perspectives. Sullivan says that policing those comments is a constant struggle. A story on the president, she says, might generate close to a hundred comments — and she might have to yank 10 to 12 as inappropriate (typically for vulgarity or personal attacks).
Politicians both left and right are frequent targets of the nastiest posts, and those attacks are apparent exceptions to the general rule of no personal smears.
“Communist party-endorsed and previous Indonesian citizen Barry ‘Soetoro’ Obama and Senate wanna-be Shelley “Amnesty” Berkley will *never* secure the border, and here’s why: Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona tells in this recorded town hall video about his closed-door meeting with Obama and the reason why Obama *refuses* to secure the border, and keeps the illegal alien drug criminals pouring in, as a scheme to secure a deal for *illegal alien amnesty*, aka “Immigration Reform”. — wizardofOz. Sept. 27. in the R-J.
On Congressman Joe Heck: “If not for an upcoming election Heck would not give this cause one moments thought. What a
pandering,slobbering,poor excuse of a human this Heck is as he votes against womens health issues everytime with the right wing haters on the right.” — Homer Wood, Sept. 25 in the R-J.
“You have to give them some level of freedom of speech,” Sullivan says, “but I don’t want them attacking each other.”
“This is not an exact science,” says Sun Executive Editor Tom Gorman. “We have ground rules that give us guidelines [but] there’s wiggle room. There’s ambiguity. What is a personal attack?”
Editors and reporters can pull comments from the Sun site. Those individuals, Gorman notes, have different sensibilities and levels of tolerance. “A comment could be posted at 3 a.m. and the morning editors might not react to it, but someone later in the day could decide this was not for us.
“The object goal and philosophy of the Las Vegas Sun is that the comments are akin to a conversation around the dinner table. A robust conversation, with give and take, but there has to be respect for each other. We don’t resort to profanity, vulgarity to make a point, and we certainly don’t resort to attacking someone to make a point.” But he still finds that commenters can be “sometimes very uncivil, rude, unkind, thoughtless, mean spirited, all those adjectives.”
Both papers require commenters to identify themselves. The Review-Journal’s commenters have to use a Facebook page ID to post. The Sun requires commenters to register and provide contact information. Gorman says the Sun won awards for requiring identification with the comments, which avoids anonymous personal attacks and spam.
He muses that the technology of the Internet has provided a new forum for people who once were difficult to hear or read. “Where did they go before they found this soapbox? Was it the barber chair? The bar? What were they doing five or 10 years ago?”
Even after years of reading and policing the comments, Sullivan says she’s still surprised by the level of anger she finds. “They never cease to amaze me.”