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The Sacramento Press allows comments to be made by the site's visitors with screen names, not their real names (though some, like me, use their real names).
This hides the identity of comment posters, and, as a result, gives them virtual carte blanche to post virtually anything they want. There are some limits, as their should be. And, by and large, most commenters -- with screen names or their actual names -- are respectful.
For example, I have had significant disagreements with commenters when I respond to articles and comments on the strong mayor initiative. There's some good back-and-forth, and we agree to disagree without name-calling or insults or questions about our motivation. It's free speech -- the kind of debate that is good for this website and good for our city.
However, there are some, who typically hide behind screen names, that think name-calling and obscenities are effective ways to make their point. Unfortunately, Sacramento Press, in most instances, allows these comments.
It's not that I have a thin skin -- in my role as a spokesperson for elected officials I've been vilified by the best of them, and actually hung in effigy -- but I believe this website needs to have a policy that promotes civil discourse instead of publishing rants, expletives, and comments not based in truth.
That's the way it usually is in print. When you write a letter to the editor, your real name is used and your identity is confirmed. (That's the way it continues to be in our local newspaper of record, The Sacramento Bee, as well as our alternative newspaper, The Sacramento News& Review.)
Yet when it comes to commenting online, the rules change. No name required. No verification required. And you can write whatever you damn well please for the most part.
Of course, readers can "flag" comments for abuse. But what's abuse in print online, and what's abuse on paper, appear to be two completely things.
And that's a shame.
I don't think it's appropriate for a comment like "don't let the ass hit you on the way out the door" to be published or to be called an endless string of insulting names. But apparently the Sacramento Press (and the Bee) does. "It's free speech," they argue -- especially when it comes to public figures.
There certainly is some truth to that argument. But is this "free speech" appropriate? Should it be "censored"? Should a news-based website "let it all hang out" in the spirit of discussion, hoping that most readers will recognize that juvenile name-calling and inappropriate language is just that, making the comments less effective?
It's my sense that insults, name-calling, and hate speech don't contribute to civil dialogue, much like the ranting of right-wing radio hosts. Sure, it's great entertainment (for some) and boosts the page clicks for advertisers. But is it a good thing for our community? I think not.
I believe the Sacramento Press should find a balance between pure "free speech" and what's appropriate for publication. So far it hasn't.
Managing editor David Watts Barton wrote about this subject not too long ago (sorry, can't find the link!). And it's a tough job to find that appropriate balance. But it has to be done.
I love this site, but if contributors and those who comment have permission to insult and heckle, it's not the kind of forum I want to contribute to. I am hopeful the editors of this site develop a policy that demands respect of all of us who read, write, and contribute. And I can't wait to read the comments -- unless, of course, there's insults and name calling involved :).