Public Editor Clark Hoyt's Sunday column, "Civil Discourse, Meet the Internet," delivered some piping hot news, circa year 2000: Web comments can often be rude and crude.
"WARNING: This column contains rude and objectionable language not normally found in the pages of this newspaper but seen surprisingly often on its Web site.
"As The New York Times transforms itself into a multimedia news and information platform - the printed newspaper plus a robust nytimes.com offering breaking news, blogs, interactive graphics, video and more - it is struggling with a vexing problem. How does the august Times, which has long stood for dignified authority, come to terms with the fractious, democratic culture of the Internet, where readers expect to participate but sometimes do so in coarse, bullying and misinformed ways?
What Hoyt doesn't mention: Roughly 90-95% of Times comments are from liberals.
The Times is clearly buying into the new paradigm of reader interactivity.
"The paper is creating a comment desk, starting with the hiring of four part-time staffers, to screen all reader submissions before posting them, an investment unheard of in today's depressed newspaper business environment. The Times has always allowed reader comments on the many blogs it publishes, with those responses screened by the newsroom staff. That experience suggests what the paper is letting itself in for.
"'I didn't know how big it would become, and I didn't know how tough it would be to manage,' said Jim Roberts, editor of the Web site. A particularly hot topic on a blog can generate more than 500 comments - 500, that is, that meet guidelines requiring that a comment be coherent, on point, not obscene or abusive, and not a personal attack. Though editors have mixed feelings about it, The Times has so far bowed to Web custom by allowing readers to use screen names, as long as they don't claim to be Thomas Paine, Condi Rice or a famous porn star."
Then Hoyt went on a tirade against a comment that clearly cut him to the bone, a crude one suggesting that the Times take in some illegal immigrants into its new headquarters that he had removed from the Times website:
"That's the lofty goal, but the real Internet world often falls far short.
"Take, for example 'Ray in Mexican Colony of LA,' who recently managed to get a comment posted on one blog, The Lede, suggesting that The Times 'have all the displaced ILLEGALS from the FIRES Move into the TIMES NYC HQ Building ... and let them urinate in the halls like they do infront [sic] of most every Home Depot in all the rest of the USA.' (After I pointed this comment out to editors, it was removed.)
Meanwhile, this charming death wish on Vice President Dick Cheney and the attendees of the Conservative Political Action Conference has (as of November 5) been on display since March 2 (see comment #30).
"Cheney addressing CPAC? Darkness reaching for darkness. If some enterprising terrorist wanted to do this country a favor, for a change, they'd take out the lot of them. - Posted by Peter Principle"
Hoyt did show some Giuliani death wishes:
"After The Caucus, The Times's politics blog, reported recently that the five organized crime families of New York had voted 3-to-2 not to put out a hit contract on Rudolph Giuliani when he was a crusading United States attorney, a reader with the screen name chopsticks posted this one-word comment: 'Recount!' Another, Geoff, said: 'Giuliani is just as corrupt as the MOB so who really cares. They should have gotten rid of him!'
But then Hoyt again singled out the relatively mild "Ray in Mexican Colony" for special opprobrium.
"I believe that's especially true if you're The New York Times and you are trying to maintain a rare tradition of civility. A site with many Rays in Mexican Colony of LA might carry the name of The New York Times, but it would no longer be The New York Times."