Leonard Pitts Jr

Looking for ways to tame poisonous words on Web

You might not normally link Sean Taylor and Benjamin Franklin, but the two are linked in ignominy with part of The Miami Herald's website. Of the three, only the murdered football player comes off well.

Franklin, in 1722, was one of the first and last American journalists to publish anonymously. Using the odd name of "Silence Dogwood, " he claimed to be the widow of a minister and slipped his copy secretly under the newspaper door. Little did the accommodating publisher know that the juicy gossip was being written by his 16-year-old brother.

Libel laws killed the practice. Publishers were soon held legally responsible for what they published, and so they demanded to know who their correspondents were and what proof or attribution they had. Today, even letters to the editor are vetted and edited for civility and libel.

Yet, you would think that the Internet is pre-Franklin. Anonymous contributors now publish comments on MiamiHerald.com. And as the ones surrounding Taylor's recent death demonstrate, many are venomous, profane and verge on being libelous.

Taylor was called a "thug" and an "animal." Contributors, with absolutely no evidence, openly speculated under The Miami Herald's banner whether a drug deal or sexual cheating was involved. In what amounts to a public tarring, some suggested that Taylor's virtual wife, the mother of his 18-month-old child and long-time partner, did it.

One reader added this delicate comment to the funeral story and photo of the older sister of the grieving partner: "Can I have Carolina Garcia's number . . . she's hot."

Many readers are appalled. "Is it journalistically wrong for The Herald to moderate comments using some minimum standard?" Henry Louis Gomez asked in a letter to me. "It's a shame that the comments section on important news stories has become a repository for insults and something to be avoided rather than read."

Gomez oversees a website that is critical of The Miami Herald: heraldwatch.blogspot.com.

I was in the newsroom recently, and the curious thing is that most editors and reporters I spoke to are also uneasy or appalled with the comments. They, like editors of media sites around the country, are struggling with the question of what to do.

In the Taylor case, Miami Herald editors deleted comments that were worse -- much worse -- than the ones above, and at times they shut down the ability to add comments to some stories. The Miami Herald uses software to screen for offensive words but does not, however, as a general rule, review comments prior to posting.

Rather, editors react to readers who complain by clicking on a box next to each comment.

Not enough readers click. A Dec. 9 column by Leonard Pitt Jr. headlined, "We Must All Learn to Live Together" drew on his inspirational lesson from the Holocaust. Sprinkled among the outpouring of heartwarming responses were racist rants such as this from a reader signed Whitey: "Negroes have never assimilated here, and never will. If we weren't stuck with you guys, our taxes would go way down, our schools would be great, etc."

There are equal-opportunity slurs. "Maybe all the Julios living in Miami could learn to speak the language (and get some auto/health insurance), " was one unsigned contribution. Another reader at least picked the pseudonym of "dnice" before calling sports columnist Dan Le Batard a "low life Cuban."

Rick Hirsch, managing editor for multimedia and new projects, says that The Miami Herald and its parent company, McClatchy, are working on requiring simple registration before readers can comment in the site. Features editor Shelley Acoca has just been reassigned to a new position as "reader exchange editor, " and one of her first assignments, says Hirsch, will be to study how better to monitor and encourage reader comments.

I have some suggestions. First, throw off the yoke of what media consultant Vin Crosbie calls the "techno-utopian fallacy." This says that by implementing new software tools, technology and the Internet will create a brave new world of civic involvement and a renaissance for media companies. Media companies today, with reader and viewership numbers dropping along with their stock prices, are further cowed by arrogant claims of the ascendant Internet culture and its Ayn Rand-like absolutism against any controls.

Self-interest may contribute. Controls on comments may cut traffic.

But if news is moving from being a lecture to a conversation with readers, then readers must be as transparent and play by the same ethical rules as the media. Certainly, unfettered, ugly, racist, personal and similar sorts of rants do not contribute to civic discourse, but rather undermine it. The law may catch up with the Internet anyway, and should.

What all this means is that The Miami Herald should do what The New York Times has recently done: Bite the budget bullet to hire editors to review comments before they are posted, especially for stories most likely to attract offenders. Steve Myers, of Poynteronline -- a website for The Poynter Institute, a school for journalists -- says that articles related to race, immigration and child abuse are particular magnets.

Registration, which the techno community opposes, is a must. On the Taylor story, both ESPN.com and WashingtonPost.com reported far fewer offensive comments than The Miami Herald. One difference is that those sites require registration, including confirmation of the reader's e-mail address.

The number of visitors to MiamiHerald.com in November was up 66 percent from the year before, according to Executive Editor Anders Gyllenhaal, and registration might slow or even temporarily reverse such strong growth. I suspect from their language that the ranters in the site are not the young, upwardly mobile or educated readers that The Miami Herald and its advertisers want.

Indeed, what many monitored blogs have shown, especially sports ones, is that a sense of community grows among readers participating in civil exchange, whatever the differences, and that the participants themselves come down harshly on offenders.

As Hirsch told me, there is no perfect solution in such an open environment as the Web. "Also, we want a free-flowing debate, " he said.

I agree. But as The Miami Herald feels its way forward, it can't shirk its responsibility to impose rules that benefit the overwhelming number of us as readers and as citizens.