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Monday, September 29, 2008

Hanging Chad

Posted By on Mon, Sep 29, 2008 at 9:55 AM

I suspect there's going to be plenty of buzz about Chad Hermann's op-ed on the blogosphere in yesterday's Post-Gazette. My guess is that most of the conversation will focus on Hermann himself: Is he an asshole? A closet Republican?

I'm sure that will generate all kinds of heated discussion. So I'm going to ignore that side of the topic entirely, skipping over the merits of the messenger and addressing the message.

But before I do, let me get this out of the way. I've met Chad, and like him. I often don't share his judgments: For example, I thought his criticisms of Obama were unduly harsh, even when I shared some of his wariness. But I respect Chad for wrestling with these issues, and for signing his name to the things he believed. (In fact, full disclosure: The Post-Gazette piece includes an excerpt of an e-mail I sent Chad to that effect. I'm not identified as the author of that e-mail but … c'est moi.)

Hermann's argument, briefly summarized, is that he gave up on his blog in large part because the Internet has coarsened the discourse. And it falls to the Burgher to offer the natural response: Blogging is just a medium, and it's no more or less obnoxious than any other medium. If you don't like the rough-and-tumble debate you find online, blame society.

I think this is both true and not.

On the one hand, yeah: If you find Chad Hermann obnoxious and self-important online, you'll probably find the print version of Chad Hermann obnoxious and self-important too. And many of the most poisonous things you read online aren't any worse than what you hear on talk radio. The only difference is that the things online are posted and preserved for everyone to see.

But isn't that point? A talk-radio utterance tends to disappear into the ether the instant after it is spoken. A blog post or comment, by contrast, can last forever.

What's more, a radio station, or a newspaper, bears a certain liability for what gets said on their platform -- even by third-party commenters. City Paper can be sued for libel based on what someone says in a published letter to the editor. Bloggers are under no such constraints. Thanks to the Communications Decency Act, you can't be sued for what someone else posts on your Web site. So while I know many responsible bloggers who police their comments section, they do so on their own hook -- not because the law requires it. Inevitably, that results in comments that can be every bit as vicious, duplicitous, and ill-founded as those Hermann decries. You'll sometimes see these on even the best sites.

And for a newspaper like mine, the electronic frontier poses some strange contradictions. While I could be sued for a letter published in the print edition, I could NOT be held liable if someone posted the EXACT SAME VERSION of the letter online. And here's the weird part: While online stuff lasts forever, the print edition only lasts a few days. In other words, the law gives MORE protection in a context where you have LESS long-term exposure. Hell, if a story printed on paper really embarrasses you, you an always just move outside the paper's circulation area. There's no escape from Google.

To borrow from McLuhan, the medium IS the message. It changes the way we interpret the message, and the way we are affected by it. To pretend otherwise is, I think, a cop-out. I can't count the number of times I've heard the excuse "it's just the internet" to justify some bad behavior online. But it's juvenile to pretend that what happens online really stays there ... especially in this age of Google, where our future employment prospects can be held hostage to anyone with a grudge and a Blogger account. (And isn't this what got many people into blogging in the first place -- the chance to make a difference in the real world?)

Personally, I think it's inevitable that the law will change. In the 1990s, as the electronic frontier was opening up, the cry was to protect the internet from government intervention. Now, as the Internet becomes ever more enmeshed in everyday life, there will be calls on the government to protect people from the internet.

Newspapers are the canary in the coal mine in some respects -- you can already find papers wrestling with the implications of what people post online. Even the editor of little old City Paper has felt obliged to police the comments section of some of our own stories, and even report on allegations made by commenters. For us, the internet makes a lot of work, but not a lot of money. That's why on some level, I can't really blame the Post-Gazette for not having comments on most of its stories, despite all the investments it's made elsewhere online.

But unless and until the law changes, it's going to be up to the bloggers to police themselves. In that respect, I have one piece of advice, which of course everyone is free to ignore: End anonymous posting and commenting.

Like I said, most of the bloggers I know are pretty responsible. But part of what makes them responsible, I think, is that people know them. Chris Briem does Null Space, one of the best-regarded blogs in town. Bram Reichbaum attaches his name to the Pittsburgh Comet, Ed Heath to Cognitive Dissonance and it's no secret that the 2 Political Junkies are David DeAngelo and Maria Lupinacci. I'm guessing it's no coincidence that these are some of the most thoughtful blogs in town.

There are exceptions to this rule on both sides, of course -- the biggest being the Burgher himself (though I think I have a pretty good idea of who he is anyway). But think about it. As a rule, I enjoy 414 Grant Street, but would that site have engaged in this attack on Doug Shields if we knew who was authoring it? And is our political culture really any better off because anonymity allowed 414 to do so? 

And what's good for bloggers should be good for those who comment upon them. Sites like 2pj already require people to sign up for a blogger or other account in order to post. Of course, there's no requirement for anyone to use their actual names, and there probably shouldn't be. But even requiring people to use an online alias, I think, is a step toward accountability and transparency (which is a quality many local bloggers demand from those in government, after all.) Like the P-G quoted me saying to Chad, having an identity of any sort creates certain obligations -- toward coherence, if nothing else. One establishes a kind of online "paper trail," through which agendas can become clear, and by which today's utterance can be contrasted with yesterday's.

The objection, of course, will be that anonymity is part of what makes the blogosphere such a free-wheeling forum. Which may be true. Then again, part of what made the Coliseum such a popular attraction was the lions. We've devised more civilized forms of gladiatorial entertainment since the days of the Roman Empire, and we ought to find a more civilized approach to political discourse as well.

Chad apparently hoped his blog would bring about that result. Now, I guess, he's hoping that shutting down will accomplish it instead.

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