Last week, the New Haven Independent, an online-only publication in the city, closed the comment sections on all its articles. In an explanation posted to the site on February 7, Independent founder Paul Bass called for a “time out,” citing deteriorating civility and increasingly personal, offensive, harsh comments on the site’s articles. He claimed that negative comments left his editorial team exhausted and disillusioned, and questioned:
“Is this the long-awaited new dawn of democracy and accountability we thought we were helping to help spark in New Haven by launching the Independent in 2005? Or are we contributing to the reflexively cynical, hate-filled discourse that has polluted American civic life? Are we reviving the civic square? Or managing a sewer with toxic streams that demoralize anyone who dares to take part in government or citizen activism?”
The Independent had maintained a policy of reviewing all comments before posting them, reserving the right to edit out offensive language or refuse to post comments that would not contribute to a constructive conversation. This policy stood in contrast to that of the the New Haven Register, whose comment section allowed readers to post comments immediately, without review by the Register’s editorial board. Northeastern University professor Dan Kennedy, who is currently writing a book about the Independent, claims that the Register’s unedited comment section frequently contained racist, inflammatory posts by readers, drawing complaints from African-American readers.
The apparent failure of both of these comment sections begs the question: are comment sections a “civic hazard,” to borrow Bass’ words?
A number of media theorists and critics wonder whether internet-based media are contributing to an ideological division in the way we consume news and information. Cass Sunstein, in particular, has argued that the profusion of left- and right-leaning blogs have created an environment that exposes readers to only that information which confirms their preexisting political beliefs — creating, in effect, a discursive echo chamber. While others disagree, many still question whether the rise of the internet marks the end of a public sphere in which citizens are forced to encounter and negotiate with a variety of opinions.
It would seem that sites like the Independent and the Register are remnants of that public sphere. Both news organizations provide general interest local reporting, creating a platform on which readers holding diverse political beliefs could interact. But to judge from offensive comments on both sites and the Independent’s decision to close its comment section, that public sphere is no longer an effective place for discussion. Can it be saved?
The Independent has considered a number of options to reform its comment section, including requiring readers to register with their real names, asking commenters to police themselves, and hosting events throughout New Haven to encourage face-to-face discussions. One option that seems counterproductive, however, is to permanently disable comments on the site, as Bass is considering. Yes, the discourse on the site had taken a turn away from civility. But by effectively editing the posts that did appear, the Independent provided a model of constructive conversation that readers could emulate if they wanted to participate in the discussion. It may have been a heavy burden for the Independent’s staffers, but nobody said democracy was easy.