The New York Times has opened a few of its stories-tentatively, selectively-to comments from the public. Between the public and these stories the Gray Lady has installed four part-time staffers whose job it is to uphold the quality of public discourse.
Quoted in Editor & Publisher, Martin Nisenholtz, senior vice president for digital operations of The New York Times Company, said: "A pure free-for-all doesn't, in my opinion, equal good. It can equal bad."
In the same E&P story, Kate Phillips, editor of the Times' Caucus blog: "I almost wish we could go back to the days when we never heard their [readers'] voices."
NYT public editor Clark Hoyt told Editor & Publisher that the paper finds itself "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?"
To which I say, to adopt the sort of uncivil language Sulzberger & Co. would never permit on their site: Bite me, you LOSERS!!!!!
To recede back into reasoned discourse: the Times' employees' diction and thinking betray an institutional viewpoint that suits it very poorly, in the first instance, for the Internet: Get this: The new medium has obligated the Times to comes to term with a democratic culture! Far worse, it's a...fractious one! Oh, how vexatious! After all, the Times is "august," and it stands for "dignified authority"!
Frankly, the Times also betrays an institutional self-infatuation that suits the paper very poorly for...well, just about anyone with self-respect.
Nisenholtz, Phillips, and Hoyt ooze supercilious condescension. Readers - unlike the staff members of the New York Times, except maybe Judith Miller, Jayson Blair, and... [you get the idea] - can be misinformed!
Readers can be coarse!
And the culture can be-absolutely unlike the Times, which has never used its power to beat up on a weaker opponent that can't protect itself-full of bullies!
I have previously praised the Times for its sophisticated use of web technology: Its Debate Analyzer tool is a breakthrough product. Its My Times feature demonstrates advanced understanding of the need to provide user control of content in the digital age.
But its policy regarding reader comments reveals a very important way its current management is poorly prepared for the rising era of communication.
At a time when the newspaper is shedding veteran reporters, and in need of developing highly skilled multimedia journalists, devoting 2 slots to sweeping back the sea with a broom is a bad decision. It's sort of sweet, or silly, or just plain batty. It's the stockholders' money, and if they'd rather spend it shielding reader comments from view rather than funding journalism, that's their business.
But the paper's motivation for vetting the comments, as summarized by Hoyt - to uphold the appearance of dignity or augustitude or whatever - betrays a withering contempt for readers.
It shows a lack of confidence in the very people the Times' advertising group is always bragging about: the national intelligencia, the "thought leaders," the discriminating cosmopolitans and patrons of the high arts.
It is a rather transparent form of censorship - the Fourth Estate squelching the voices of the undignified masses in the name of political and economic self-interest-and vanity.
It is a window into an institutional culture that is made ill, deep down, by the unpleasantness of contemporary public life.
It is, in the end, not an expression of dignity. It's an expression of cowardice.