Tuesday, October 7, 2008


Part of my job recently has been to monitor the reader forums at our newspapers -- the message boards where readers can go to discuss current news stories. This is a really unpleasant task.

These boards are something like talk radio in written form. If you’ve ever listened to talk radio, you know how exhausting it can be. It’s really depleting to listen to chronically angry people.

On the message boards I see the same ill-informed allegations about candidates (“Barack Obama is a closet muslim” is a fairly pedestrian example, though they get much more creative than that) and weird conspiracy theories. Posters rail against the “liberal media” that won’t tell the real story as they’re describing it. They regurgitate information they get from partisan news sources that blame the opposing party, realistically or not -- I mean, let’s face it, on most issues there’s plenty of blame to go around.

I’m monitoring all this not to change the conversation, but to see how well the message boards are serving readers and how civil (or uncivil) the discourse is there. I must admit I have serious doubts about whether all this arguing and disinformation really does anyone any good.

What this has shown me is that people are going to believe what they want to believe. If the mainstream media (“MSM,” in board lingo) report only the facts, some readers will say we’re covering up or have a political agenda. “Facts” have become so fluid, so prone to interpretation and spin, that the word has virtually lost meaning. And that's the most troubling thing of all.

(Photo: Chairs in Dumbo, Brooklyn, Sept. 2008)


  1. Fact has always been fluid, you know? One man's poison is another man's medicine, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, etc. etc.

    Obama is a closet muslim? That's just racist cause you can't use the "N" word in public anymore. What IS a closet muslim, btw??

    I am SO SORRY this is part of your job. Like you, I find talk radio exhausting (never thought about it that way - I just say I hate it.)

    Put up your shields and don't take it in. Folks need to vent their spleens - I guess!

  2. I've seen some of these ill-informed exchanges out there. They seem to be trying to kill each other with words since they can't go at it physically. I'm so used to being around intelligent, logical people that it is hard for me to even understand this mentality. It must be equally difficult as a candidate to try to campaign when he sees who some of the listeners are. I would not want your job of playing referee or even having to read all that slime every day. I would want to escape and just go sit in one of those empty chairs if I were you.

  3. I hope you're doing something for yourself after work to keep all that negative energy away from you!

  4. Anyone who struggled for freedom in any sense, even peacefully, can be labeled dangerous in print.

  5. Our local paper disables the comments for some stories. They have had to resort to this because the discourse was often way over the top.

  6. I once had to monitor talk shows for my employer and had the same reaction as yours, Steve. Found them toxic in the extreme and designed to trigger further irrational counter-charges. Who needs this kind of stuff? In a way, it's as if a lot of useful anger, anger that could fuel change in people's lives was diverted into this kind of ineffectual ranting.

    I feel for you. Hope you don't have to do this kind of monitoring for too long :-)

  7. it really is troubling, isn't it Steve? how can one justify a preference for a news source which seems (relatively) unbiassed? is there such a thing?

  8. There is so much information nowadays, it's a wonder my brain doesn't burst! What/who to believe?!


  9. I am so sorry that task falls to you!

    The really unfortunate thing, though, is that most people do not see their anger as a catalyst for change...

    At least you can work and live in the world making it a nicer place for those of us who know you. That is a gift that anger obscures.

  10. it's the fault of the so called liberal media -- for when they are trying to report things rationally and fairly--then someone screams that it's not rational, it's dangerous or unpatriotic.

  11. Those finding fault and ranting are those that blame the media (when it doesn't reflect the way they think) , and you're in a very bad spot. a very bad spot. I was watching that clip of Palin calling Obama names, and people cheering her on. I would hate to have to report on that or work a messageboard.

  12. Reacting with received wisdom and held convictions is reassuring, like a comfy chair. Thinking is is effortful.

    As for posting on message boards...I look at one, and it seems like people are being pretty rude, then I take a look at another one, makes it looks like the folks on the first one are a bunch of philosopher kings. Following blog threads here, and I'm noticing a theme...that thinking (before you vote, before you post, before you react) would be a fine thing.