Anonymity is the Pitts

by Dan Ward

I rarely find myself in agreement with Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts, though I do enjoy his columns, which regularly appear in the Orlando Sentinel.

Today, however, I nearly stood and applauded as he discussed the “cesspool” of newspaper message boards.  Pitts blames the promise of anonymity for the “crudity, bigotry, meanness and plain nastiness that shocks the tattered remnant of our propriety.”

Reminds me of a post I once wrote about online anonymity, and of how my partner, Roger Pynn, defined online message boards as the “sewer of the Internet.”

The message boards that follow stories and editorials in most newspaper Web sites provide some positive benefits … driving Web page counts that increase profitability for the newspapers, giving readers an opportunity to discuss the stories that appear and share their opinions, etc.

But by offering anonymity, rather than requiring posters to provide name and address as they would with a Letter to the Editor, allows for personal attacks and the spread of rumors and false allegations.  We tell our clients to pay little mind to these message boards because they tend not to hold much influence, but it can be difficult to turn a blind eye to personal attacks and insults.

Some initial message board responses to Pitts’ column provide evidence to support his opinion that anonymity should no longer be allowed:

“bushhater” in the Salt Lake Tribune: “But first, lets gather up all the Mormons and ship them to Iran. We all know they are responsible for everything evil. And they are soooo stupid, and vile. Everyone of them.”

“Universalgenius” in the Greensboro News & Record: “What a lousy commie loser. There he goes again. This braindead crackhead hetrophobe radical liberal pervert is at it again this time trying to control the internet and destroy the world of high tech with his facist ghetto low IQ mentality.”

“HigherPowered” in the Miami Herald: “Get some perspective, you whiny elitist. The 1st amendment is both a wonderful and terrible concept, and we all wish we could suspend it when it suits us, but it is a key part of our collective patrimony.”

While I am a defender of free speech, HigherPowered is mistaken in his belief that Pitts’ idea would “suspend it when it suits us.”  The First Amendment holds that Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.  It does not require newspapers … private organizations … to provide a forum for anonymous hate speech.

Ending anonymity is the right thing to do if newspapers ever hope to elevate public discourse out of the cesspool.

P.S.  Not all hope is lost … some newspapers are already ending the practice of allowing anonymous posts, and a new online media company led by former Orlando Sentinel business columnist John Koenig is gaining notice as “a forum for civil debate on substantive issues.”

FloridaThinks.com provides original articles, commentaries and reader forums … anonymous posts are not allowed, and civility is required.  A civilized forum for discussion of serious issues?  That’s an idea I can get behind.


2 Responses to Anonymity is the Pitts

  1. […] to the Northwest Florida Daily News in Florida’s Panhandle for addressing the concerns of many (myself included) about hateful message board comments that are cloaked in […]

  2. […] their opinions on message boards are able to do so anonymously, so all sense of decency is often lost.  Many news organizations are seeing the light, and either eliminating the anonymity or removing […]

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