Commentary: Anonymity and our baser instincts

The Miami HeraldApril 2, 2010 

PITTS LEONARD 1

Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts Jr.

CHUCK KENNEDY — KRT

It must have seemed like a great idea at the time.

There was this new medium, the Internet, and newspapers were posting stories on it, and someone decided to create a forum where readers could discuss and debate what they just read. It must have seemed an inspiration kissed by the spirit of Jefferson: a free public space where each of us could have his or her say.

Unfortunately, the reality of the thing has proven to be something else entirely. For proof, see the message boards of pretty much any paper. Or just wade in the nearest cesspool. The experiences are equivalent.

Far from validating some high-minded ideal of public debate, message boards -- particularly those inadequately policed by their newspapers and/or dealing with highly emotional matters -- have become havens for a level of crudity, bigotry, meanness and plain nastiness that shocks the tattered remnants of our propriety.

For every person who offers some trenchant observation on the point at hand, there are a dozen who are so far off point they couldn't find their way back with a compass and road map. For every person who brings up some telling fact, there are a dozen whose "facts" are fantasies freshly made up to suit the exigencies of arguments they otherwise cannot win.

Why have message boards failed to live up to the noble expectations?

The answer in a word is, anonymity. The fact that on a message board -- unlike in an old-fashioned letter to the editor -- no one is required to identify themselves, no one is required to say who they are and own what they've said, has inspired many to vent their most reptilian thoughts.

So, some of us are intrigued by what recently happened in Cleveland. It seems someone using the alias "lawmiss" had posted provocative comments and scathing personal attacks on the website of The Cleveland Plain Dealer.

Some of those comments and attacks evinced an unlikely familiarity with cases being heard by a local judge, Shirley Strickland Saffold. When lawmiss made a comment about the mental state of a reporter's relative, the paper decided to trace the nickname. It found that the postings came from Judge Saffold's personal e-mail account.

Saffold claims her 23-year-old daughter authored the comments. Sydney Saffold, who lives in another city, supports her mom's story. Believe them if you choose.

Meanwhile, the paper has been criticized by some observers for unmasking lawmiss, and there is some merit to that. It's wrong to offer anonymity, then yank it away. But it would've been more wrong to have evidence that a judge viewed an attorney appearing in her court on a capital case as "Amos and Andy" -- to use one example -- and do nothing about it.

The larger point is that the paper should not have offered its message posters anonymity in the first place. No paper should. A confidential source necessary to break the big story is one thing. But the only imperative here is to deliver more eyes to the website.

As any student of Sociology 101 can tell you, when people don't have to account for what they say or do, they will often say and do things that would shock their better selves.

That's the story of the mousy, mosque-going school teacher swept up in the window-breaking mob during the big blackout. It's the story of the milquetoast accountant who insults the quarterback's mother from the safety of the crowd. And it is the story of newspaper message boards, which have inadvertently licensed and tacitly approved the worst of human nature under the guise of free speech.

Enough. Make them leave their names. Stop giving people a way to throw rocks and hide their hands. Any dropoff in the quantity of message board postings will surely be made up in the quality thereof.

That's my opinion. If you don't like it, well, at least you know who to blame.

ABOUT THE WRITER

Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132. Readers may write to him via e-mail at lpitts@miamiherald.com. He chats with readers every Wednesday from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. EDT at Ask Leonard.

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