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Change won't happen overnight

Posted: November 7, 2011 - 1:01am

As articles from our reporters pop up on my computer screen during my turn in the editing process (yes, we do have one, imperfect as it may be at times), I get about halfway through certain ones and a shudder runs up my spine and down to my fingertips, forcing them to pause over the keyboard for a moment.

It’s not because the article itself is awful (those cause an entirely different emotional reaction), but because the story will bring out the worst in folks in the commenting section.

A story mentioning President Barack Obama, even in the most tangential way? Here come the folks convinced, wrongly but strongly, that America has become indistinguishable from the Soviet Union or the wildest dreams of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Thinly-veiled racism is also sure to follow. A piece on workforce productivity will ensure several comments about every misstep America’s labor unions have ever made, or at least are imagined to have made.

In some respect, these are understandable. Political sausagemaking and the worldwide economy are complex issues not easily understood, even by the select few who work and play full-time in those areas. Add to that the understandable frustration many folks have with the current U.S. political and economic climates, and broadsides based in simple ideas and directed at far-away figures who are supposed to have solutions make some sense.

Less sensible and more obnoxious are the hateful, spiteful comments directed at folks here in Juneau.

Now, to be clear, comments disagreeing with our local public officials — elected and appointed — and the polices they put in place and enforce, are perfectly fine. In fact, that more than any other kind of expression is what our founding fathers had in mind when they enshrined the freedoms of speech and of the press in the Constitution. Even critical comments based on incorrect information serve a purpose, as they provide teachable moments and can steer conversations along a constructive path.

Unfortunately, however, the comments all too often fail to stay on point with criticisms of policy or character, and instead drift into baseless personal attacks that are not only incorrect and hurtful, but also serve no purpose except to ignite flame wars and insult folks for groundless reasons.

Case in point: City Engineer Rorie Watt recently engaged Juneau with a series of meetings about the upcoming city water study that also provided some basic information about the AJ Mine, the potential reopening of which prompted the study. Certainly, reopening the mine is a hot topic, and one open to passionate points of view. But calling Watt a “clown,” as one commenter did following the Empire’s story about one of his presentations served no purpose. Well, strike that. It did serve the purpose of guaranteeing the commenter’s anti-mine views and possible plan of action to oppose the mine went largely unread. Instead, the clown comment backfired, causing otherwise salient points to be dismissed by another commenter as “typical liberal extremist environmentalist kaka (sic).” Opposition to the mine’s reopening isn’t an extreme position, but the out-of-line attempt at character assassination labeled the commenter an extremist, making any rational points made hard to evaluate.

Perhaps some of the worst comments are those directed at local prep teams and athletes. After Thunder Mountain — who, at times this season couldn’t dress 20 players because of injury problems and a high graduation rate from its 2010 team — took a couple of shots to the chin early on, one commenter demanded coach Bill Byouer’s resignation. Another accused him of incompetence. Never mind he’s a high school coach, not the head man of the Green Bay Packers. Also never mind the Falcons enjoyed an unbeaten regular season in 2010 and a playoff berth.

These are just recent examples. Other potshots, even some directed at specific kids at one of the area’s schools, can be found if one chooses to rake through the muck of the Empire’s archives long enough. Unfortunately, it seems some folks read Buzz Bissinger’s “Friday Night Lights” as an instruction manual, not as the cautionary tale warning against exalting prep gridiron glory over all else it was.

Anonymity almost certainly plays a role in the vitriol. Folks say things behind the mask of the computer keyboard they wouldn’t say in public. No, that’s not all together bad. Some great injustices and horrible corruption have been brought to light because people could speak with their anonymity secure. But the mask can turn folks into Midnight Riders — the alter ego of professional wrestler Dusty Rhodes, who crusaded for good — or Masked Assassins, a nefarious tag team who hid behind hoods while performing dastardly deeds.

And yes, sometimes reading the comment sections seems a bit like watching pro wrestling. People stir things up simply to create a spectacle without any substance. And, the members of the editorial staff, myself included, feel a bit like wrestling referees at times, missing chances to stop the truly awful stuff until it is too late.

Sure, some folks can get their kicks by turning commenting into a show where words, like body slams, are meaningless, because they are simply meant to entertain some and inflame others, not truly be tested in the marketplace of ideas. But the commenting section can be so much more. It can inform the public and the Empire’s reporting. It can be a spot for real debate on local topics — because the talking heads at Fox or CNN aren’t likely to take up, say, the Willoughby redistricting plan.

Change won’t happen overnight, or maybe even at all. But, if it doesn’t, it’s yet another opportunity for dialogue and understanding lost. Too many of those have fallen by the wayside as of late, a trend that must reverse if we’re going to keep our republic — and Juneau — robust.

• Ward is Deputy Managing Editor of the Juneau Empire. The views expressed in this column are his own, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Empire’s editorial board.

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