I wouldn’t dare be the first to cast a stone at the Badger Herald. Luckily, Dean of Students Lauri Berquam’s letter to the editor today gave me a much-welcomed opportunity to pile on my former employer for allowing its comments section to be over-run by hate-mongers, buffoons and frat brothers.
The Herald has always prided itself as a promoter of free speech. At least partly because it started out as a neo-fascist conservative paper on a liberal campus, the Herald has an appreciation for all opinions, no matter how ridiculous or outside of the mainstream. At least that’s the narrative the current team likes to promote. Remember, the Herald, like the Cardinal, is a college paper and is therefore never run by the same people for more than a year or two. It’s very hard to maintain “traditions,” for more than a few years. But I digress.
When I was content editor of the editorial page we pretty much let anything fly. There may have been a few really nasty comments that I didn’t approve, but the general idea was that all comments had value, no matter how absurd or off-topic they were. That is currently the policy I have for this blog. I have never deleted a comment except in a couple rare instances in which people asked me to delete their own comments.
But I think the Herald should re-think its policy. Just as the paper shouldn’t accept bad writers, it shouldn’t accept bad commenters. Bad commenters actually prevent real dialogue. The comment section so frequently degenerates into personal attacks and nonsense that it makes writing a meaningful criticism of an article seem pathetically beside the point. The AEPi article comment section was not only full of absurd ad hominem attacks from both sides, it was flooded with comments from the same two or three IP addresses! This happens all the time on articles about a campus group –– group members manipulate the comment policy to make it appear as if they have boat-loads of support.
The opinion page and the comment section should be oriented towards people who are actually interested in reading the points the writers make and responding to them. Anonymous comments, just like anonymous sources, can be a great asset to newspapers. Our generation has recognized this and it will take a while for the mainstream media to catch up. However, this does not preclude editors from using common-sense discretion, just as they do with letters to the editor and other published work.
If I were in charge, I would put a couple comment czars in charge of moderating the comments. Maybe some copy editors or other people who have less of an interest in suppressing criticism of an article. The policy would be extremely liberal –– any comment that displays a sincere interest in communicating a relevant point would be approved. No worries about grammar, style etc. Commenters would be allowed to criticize writers and the paper, and they would be allowed to challenge the motives and intellectual honesty of the writer. But any far-fetched allegations would have to be verified.
There’s my two cents.