There’s more than one path to free speech

In America, we take freedom of speech very seriously. It’s what the country was founded on, and whenever anyone tries to tread on our civil liberties, we come out swinging. Many of those strike-backs are justified, but some are not.

The Daily Courier, the daily paper that covered where I grew up in Chino Valley, Ariz., made a big announcement Sunday that it was going to do away with having reader comments at the end of their articles posted online. In a front-page story, here was part of the rationale for the paper’s decision:

“The move comes in the wake of mounting evidence that when readers are allowed to leave comments on news stories the comments may sway public perception of the stories’ content.

“In April 2016, for example, the publication Science Daily reported that a study of 1,700 internet users found that when they read comments on a health news story that favored giving birth at home they were more likely to favor it; when a group read the same story with predominantly negative comments they were more likely to oppose it.

“The Atlantic magazine in 2014 did a survey, albeit informal, asking readers who read a story with comments and without them what they thought of it.

“‘Respondents who saw comments evaluated the article as being of lower quality—an 8 percent difference. In other words, authors are judged not just by what they write but by how people respond,’ said the magazine.

“A study conducted by the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication in 2012 found the same thing: people who read negative comments regarding a story ‘perceived the news report to be more hostile and partial in its coverage.’”

the-daily-courier-_-prescott-az_page_2An intriguing rationale, but many Courier readers weren’t buying it. Some commented that the newspaper was trying to stifle public debate and force its own bias on its readers without rebuttal.

Take Ralph Baker’s response to the news, which was published in today’s Courier:

“That’s just great. ALL AMERICAN news including paper, TV, scam mags fight for freedom of THEIR speech – ya you know as the 1st amendment rights. But NOW when WE the people want to voice our opinion it doesn’t matter any further, so you get to change OUR rights to fit your needs. It is ours and the news to speak our minds and for you to write and voice what you want, but now that has changed! NOW we have to accept it without any further input anymore because why? Maybe, just maybe, someone MIGHT get offended by what someone wrote (oh gosh) the news has never had that happen to them. You folks want to take our 1st amendment away from us, but then again like most newspapers and/or TV it’s all about you because maybe someone made a comment about one of your stories that you don’t agree with, and someone got their panties in a twist. However on the other hand we have to agree with everything you write about even if some information is incomplete or omitted. But then again many of your stories are for the most part incomplete, never finished, full of holes, or you never do any further investigations – but we HAVE to accept it, because why, you just took one of OUR rights away. So say goodbye to OUR 1st amendment rights again by some backwater newspaper that thinks they are better than us and know how to protect us from ourselves.”

Interesting that he is claiming that the newspaper is taking away his freedom of speech, and his comment was one of the ones that got published—and judging from his dependence on words in all capital letters and a severe lack of punctuation, it wasn’t because he was a brilliant writer. Besides the desire to break out my editor’s red pen, there are other holes in his argument, many of which remind me of a former boss’s favorite saying: “You’re entitled to your opinion, but not your own version of the facts.”

One newspaper cannot obliterate the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. Even all the media in the land combined does not have that kind of power. What the Courier is doing is eliminating one venue for reader feedback.

What Mr. Baker seems unaware of is the fact that, while Americans do have freedom of speech, there are also laws that provide recourse for suing a person or entity for libel, which is maliciously publishing something that is completely false. There are cases where news organizations are at risk of a lawsuit, not for what their reporters wrote, but for what some anonymous yahoo with a computer and access to the Internet wrote in the comments.

Then again, there are other venues for people to sound off about what the Courier publishes. In the story on Sunday, the Courier noted, “Each story will have links to submit feedback in the form of a Rants & Raves submission, letter to the editor, news tip or question about the story that will go directly to the editors. Each story will also still have links to social media platforms where users can post comments and engage in discussions.”

Before the golden age of the Internet, letters to the editor were a key part of almost every newspaper in the country. When I was a reporter for my hometown newspaper, the Chino Valley Review (also owned by the same company as The Daily Courier), the opinion page was regularly full of readers’ points of view. The big plus of this style of commentary is that the person actually has to put his or her name behind the opinion, instead of being an anonymous troll hiding in the shadows and waiting to strike.

Mr. Baker’s opinion was not the only one railing against the Courier’s decision: Here’s another from Alan Whitney:

“Well. I see the Courier has finally achieved its goal of a reader-comment free newspaper. You seem to be not alone. A quick check on the web disclosed that many publications are doing away with their comments sections. They say it’s because of the lack of civility among the commenters. But we know better, don’t we?

“The real reason is that the reporters of news are tired of having their slanted views challenged. No, I don’t think that the staff of the Courier are active liars. But when it comes to other organizations, such as the Associated Press, I know very well that they are. Trump won. Conservatives must be hushed; time to get on the band wagon…”

A reader-comment free newspaper? There was nothing in the Courier’s story about doing away with its opinion page. There’s also nothing stopping you from e-mailing the newspaper or picking up the phone to express your dissatisfaction with something that was written. There’s no way for the Courier to stop someone from stating an opinion in America’s restaurants, coffee shops, dinner tables, workplace, etc. If you want to rail against this perceived injustice, go for it. You just don’t get to do it on the Courier’s website.

It might sound like I’m solidly behind the readers who commented that the Courier’s decision to halt website comments was good. Many of them were right on, but there was one from Bill Sonsin that rubbed me the wrong way:

“Agree that too many posted comments were long on venom and short on constructive substance. Hope you will go one more step and eliminate Trump related letters – both pro and con – until the end of April (roughly 100 days past his inauguration). The new president deserves a honeymoon and many of us need a break from all the relatively extreme politics that is still going on.”

No. Just no. Actively forbidding opinions on one particular topic is a step in the wrong direction. While newspapers have a responsibility for vetting letters for factual accuracy, they don’t have the task of actively stifling points of view because of topic.

If the newspaper did that, then this comment from Don Reeves would never had made it into today’s paper:

“So you’re saying that you’re a biased reporting agency only allowing the views and opinions of your reporters and staff? So much for our 5th amendment. (sic)”

Before you start railing about your rights, Mr. Reeves, you might want to make sure you know them. The First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech and the press, among other things. The Fifth Amendment guarantees your right to remain silent and protects you from self-incrimination, something you obviously decided to waive when you submitted your comment.

Keep up the conversation, everyone.

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