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Indecent Expression



When the Humboldt Herald blog posted news that County Supervisor Roger Rodoni had died in a car accident, it got 51 responses, mostly people expressing condolences. One person posted an old Irish blessing.

It took a tragic death to unite our local blog commentators. Few of the comments you read on our various local blogs on any given day are as thoughtful. Some are downright nasty, and the nastiness seems to stretch across the political spectrum. Those on the left show no more restraint than those on the right.

People in the press have a hate-love relationship with bloggers. If you earn your keep as a writer, you tend to be leery of anyone who produces content for no pay. Many of our local reporters read the local blogs obsessively and many will admit that they troll the blogs for story ideas. Meanwhile, the local bloggers appear to read the local press with equal zeal; you know that because their chats revolve around items culled from the Eureka Reporter, the Times-Standard, the Journal and other papers.

It should be a symbiotic relationship, although sometimes it feels more parasitic. The amount of time people spend reading blogs takes from the time and effort they used to spend reading newspapers. There are many nails in the newspaper industry's coffin. Blogs are just one.

But you have to wonder what everyone would chat so passionately about if both Rob Arkley and Dean Singleton pulled the plug on the two dailies. You tend to not know what's not reported. It's hard to have a passionate conversation about a topic few know anything about.

My relationship with chats and blogs goes back to 1998, when I reported online for a subscription-based site. The second my editor posted my stories to the Web, some neurotic Net chatterer would repost it so people could read it for free. (See tinyurl.com/63khgz). Usually the talk was half about the news I reported on and half about the idiocy of my analysis. Back then I loved the chats. I came from a decade of writing into a void, where for all I knew my stories served only to catch puppy pee. To know that people cared enough to cut and paste my story and comment on it thrilled me. My romance with Internet comments ended a year later when I did a live chat on Yahoo! and I saw chatterers on a side screen hitting each other up for dates even as I tried to answer questions about stock market scams. Back then few saw the danger blogs presented.

They are dangerous. Unfiltered blog comments take arguments off the dining table and put them onto the world's desktop. Imagine the last time you had a passionate, inane argument with your family or friends. Now insert into that picture a transcriber, taking down every word everyone says. Only the transcriber publishes the transcription for all to see. That's what is happening with some blog comments.

It's a great thing for those rare times you have great thinkers at your table; you'd want to capture a back and forth between Cornel West and Mario Cuomo, for example or Carl Sagan and William Gibson. At its best, a blog can be a forum for great dialog; today's version of the correspondence between great thinkers that existed in the old days, only now we don't have to wait for the writers to die to read the letters.

At its worst, a blog exchange is an online version of an argument between your brother the blockhead and your cousin the imbecile; each insists the other is wrong on a topic neither knows much about. Worse. On blogs, commentators rarely post their names. Instead they often hide behind unidentifiable e-mail addresses. You don't know who they are. I grew up learning that if you don't have something nice to say about someone, don't say it. That sage advice disappeared with the advent of online chat technology. But can't we at least teach our e-children this? Don't post anything you are unwilling to tag with your name.

The idea of objectivity in the press was born with the invention of the telegraph. When we first wired the world, 19th century media moguls realized it was a waste of money for each to send reporters on the same story, when one reporter could transmit a story to every paper instantly. But to do that, they had to strip the story of any political slant.

The Internet represents the second great wiring of the world. With it, objectivity disappeared. That's because everyone now owns the equivalent of a printing press and there is no cost to distribution. Instead of one reporter for a zillion newspapers, there are a zillion commentators for every story. Every Joe is a publisher, reporter and columnist, putting back the slant in the story. But professional journalists attach their byline to every word they write, and so they take care in selecting the words they use. Amateur bloggers don't make money off their trade and so have no incentive to attach their names to their comments. Without names attached, people have less fear of ramifications. Read Humboldt Herald or Fred's Humboldt Blog on any given day and you'll find comments that appear hastily typed and posted, people saying hurtful things about other people, without the decency of signing their posts.

Kevin Hoover knows that not only will he likely face in Murphy's market people he writes about in the Eye, but his family will as well. Same goes for Nathan Rushton and John Driscoll and Hank Sims and my students on the Lumberjack. Small-town journalism is one of the toughest professions in the world. Every mistake you make in print hits you at the gas pump. Not in the price you pay per gallon, but in the face of the people at the adjacent pumps who connect your face to your byline. Anonymous bloggers don't have that problem. I'm all about First Amendment expression of things people don't want to hear or see. But when you say it, paint it, sing it, play it or write it you should be prepared to back it.

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