A panel discussion on “the economics of media” at the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities tonight was dominated by a spirited back and forth about “racist” comments on the Times-Picayune’s nola.com website:
Horne, who for the sake of full disclosure is now a board member at The Lens, where I work, raised the issue about half way through the 90-minute discussion, after a discussion of the internet’s impact on the news business. Comments that follow articles, he said, aren’t exactly a boon to the spirit of journalism.
“The commentary that trails news articles, in many ways is deeply repugnant, much of it racist in pretty overt ways,” Horne said. “I’m left to wonder if it hasn’t besmirched the whole enterprise.”
Kovacs addressed the issue later on.
“Whatever ugliness there is online is no different from the majority of the stuff published anonymously over the years,” Kovacs said — having given a history of American newspapering that included anonymous pamphlets in the early 20th century. “America is a pretty self-correcting place, and ugliness and bad ideas collapse under their own weight.”
“I don’t think the industry was prepared for the negativity of some of these comments,” Kovacs continued. “And various efforts have been made to try to tone it down, to monitor, to cut down on this stuff. Some websites are asking people for their names, although I don’t know what good that does because I don’t know how you could stop me from saying I’m Jed Horne.”
“Actually the real absence is, where are the readers who are a counter-force? Why are we not more regularly seeing that ugly element shouted down?” Horne asked. “Perhaps we’re smug in the assumption that we’ll prevail, but there’s a remarkable lack of the full gamut of opinion.”
Plenty of readers are holding the Times-Picayune accountable for the nature of its comments by stopping reading it, activist attorney Tracie Washington said, from the audience.
“I think newspapers are conscious of the fact that ugly commenting is bad for business,” Kovacs said.
Audience member Jacques Morial, activist attorney and son of the city’s first black mayor, asked Kovacs a question to follow up on that.
“Has there ever been a discussion about the ethics of profiteering off racial strife and bigotry, especially given that the Times-Picayune does promote the most commented story, so that people click through, and it rings their cash register?” Morial asked.
Kovacs said it’s unlikely that the paper will get rid of comments.
“If newspapers didn’t do it, somebody else would do it,” he said. “And if there’s one thing that newspapers have learned over the years it’s that surrendering lines of business to other people is a way to become extinct.”
Afterward, Morial confronted Kovacs at the back of the room. “You didn’t answer my question,” he said.
“There have been plenty of discussions about these comments,” Kovacs said, adding that ethical discussions take place all the time. But there hasn’t been a specific discussion along the lines Morial had asked about, Kovacs said.