March 30, 2010

I look forward to the day when news organizations start to ban anonymous comments on their Web sites.

Maybe that’s the foolish optimist in me, but I want to believe that we will finally admit—to ourselves and to the public at large—that allowing people to hide behind anonymity has not been good for our industry, our culture or our country.

This past week, Susan Goldberg—editor of The Plain Dealer, where I work—decided to reveal the e-mail address behind dozens of anonymous comments posted on our Web site,, under the alias “lawmiss.” This same person, who has weighed in on criminal cases in the past, posted a comment assailing the mental state of a reporter’s relative, which violated our policy against personal attacks. An online editor used Web software to look up the e-mail address of “lawmiss” and discovered it was the same as the personal AOL account of Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Shirley Strickland Saffold. The judge has been the focus of considerable scrutiny in our newspaper. Earlier this month, she threatened to throw another Plain Dealer reporter in jail for refusing to divulge a source.

Saffold denied posting any comments. Her 23-year-old daughter said she posted a few comments using her mother’s e-mail. Saffold’s daughter attended the same high school as my daughter; I was her softball coach in the late 1990s. My heart sank at this news. We don’t know whether she’s the real culprit behind the comments, which included references to two death penalty cases in Saffold’s courtroom. We do know her mother was willing to let her take the blame.

“Never,” the judge told The Plain Dealer. “I have not. My daughter may have, but I have not.”

Though these circumstances throw us into choppy waters of our own making, I support Goldberg’s decision to disclose the judge’s potential tie to the comments. “What if it ever came to light that someone using the e-mail of a sitting judge made comments on a public Web site about cases she was hearing and we did not disclose it?” Goldberg told Plain Dealer reporter Henry Gomez. “These are capital crimes and life-and-death issues for these defendants. I think not to disclose this would be a violation of our mission and damaging to our credibility as a news organization.”

“A not-so-amazing thing happens when people feel safe: They start to speak their minds.”

Most news organizations allow anonymous comments on their Web sites. Many, if not most, journalists oppose the practice. Some of us deplore the hypocrisy of requiring that letters to the editor have verifiable identities, addresses and phone numbers while allowing anyone with a keyboard and an e-mail address to post the kind of stuff they never would say if they had to provide their names. It makes for many an ugly day, discouraging thoughtful discussions and repelling readers who don’t have the stomach for the daily dose of vitriol. The Plain Dealer’s John Kroll leads the heroic effort to keep the site civil, but it’s an ongoing challenge.

Some argue that allowing anonymity is a way of outing the bigots among us. But reading multiple posts, often by the same person using a variety of identities, amplifies voices and exaggerates numbers. The haters are small in number, but they are tenacious, and the resulting echo chamber fuels a growing climate of fear and rage born of false impressions.

I’ve made no secret of my disdain for this kind of forum. There are columns I no longer write because I won’t subject vulnerable people who never have been interviewed before to the online attacks of anonymous trolls. I learned that the hard way after the daughter of an out-of-work factory worker who killed himself called me sobbing because of anonymous comments attacking her father’s faith, courage and integrity.

“You never told me people would say those things about my father,” she cried. “My mother says she’ll never talk to me again.”

In the past year, I’ve experimented with an alternative online discussion board on Facebook. I post links to my columns and other stories, offer opinions or ask questions, and spirited discussions unfold. Everyone has an identity, which is easy to confirm using online sources. Most post photos of themselves and pictures of their friends and families. I know only about 20 percent of my Facebook “friends,” who represent a wide range of political views, economic backgrounds and professions, but over time we have built a virtual community.

A not-so-amazing thing happens when people feel safe: They start to speak their minds. Dozens, mostly women, tell me they never have expressed their opinions so publicly before.

I’m not saying we’ve figured out the model for newspapers. Facebook is a small, easily managed group compared with the public at large. But I do think we’re onto something.

And I know that this “something” starts with a name.


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