I hate to knock my only hometown newspaper. Again.
Especially when, like the rest of the print media industry, it's probably about to go bankrupt.
But as a writer, as a sometime-editor, as an active social media user, as a blogger, as someone who has lived in the St. Louis metro area all of my life, hell, as a human being, I just can't hold this back any longer.
The STLtoday.com comment section is hurting St. Louis.
I mean it. I mean it like Jon Stewart meant it when he went on Crossfire and told Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala that they were hurting America.
Any marginally sane, reasonably educated, and moderately moral St. Louisan who has visited STLtoday.com (the online version of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch) and chanced to read the comments below an article more than a time or two will know what I mean.
The STLtoday commenting community is dominated by anti-social pessimists, belligerent misanthropists, racist ignoramuses, provincial neighborhood isolationists, one-note issue pushers who twist every discussion to fit their personal political agendas, and plain old attention-seeking trolls.
If a person dies accidentally in St. Louis, and the Post-Dispatch reports on it, you can count the minutes until someone will jump into the STLtoday comment thread on the story and make a comment about what an idiot the poor dead person was, and how much that person's death has improved the local gene pool.
If the newspaper website reports that home has been broken into, at least one comment will be sure to blame the homeowner for not owning a gun. (This axiom applies whether or not the homeowner was home at the time of the break-in, because apparently, in the minds of extreme gun ownership promoting STLtoday comment thread trolls, just owning a gun with a concealed carry permit magically protects one in perpetuity from every type of crime.)
If a crime occurs — anywhere in the St. Louis metro, any time, committed by any person of any race, under any circumstances — you can bet your bottom dollar that a chorus of obnoxious, barely-lettered white men who spend their apparently copious free time pretending to be righteous armchair race warriors will show up blaming the "creeping black menace." Never mind that African American people have lived and worked and owned businesses and raised families in St. Louis since, oh, how about since St. Louis was founded?
If a crime occurs where I live, in North County, expect a parade of comments (note that some of the worst and most racist ones I saw yesterday have actually been deleted) from people who have never lived in North County, or who fled North County's growing diversity a decade ago, talking about how the family-friendly, neighborly neighborhood where I live, where I leave my doors open to the sunshine during the day, where I'm not afraid to walk down my street alone in at night, is the rotten apple about to rot the whole barrel — the source of all St. Louis crime.
Riiiiiiiiiight. That's why I deliberately bought a house here. That's why I continue to live here. Because it's such a terrifying, decayed, crime-ridden hellhole.
(Incidentally, as a matter of anecdotal evidence concerning the terrible, terrible decline of my neighborhood, I have been a victim of street crime or theft in St. Louis City, University City, Maryland Heights, Brentwood and Creve Coeur. I have never been a victim of street crime or theft in Florissant or Hazelwood.)
Seriously, these comments are hurting St. Louis. I shudder to think what people not from the St. Louis region must conclude about people from the St. Louis region when they read comment threads like this on our newspaper's website. But the harm I see goes beyond besmirching our reputation with non-natives (I should say, further besmirching — we're already competing with Detroit for America's Most Dangerous City every year — do we really need trash our image some more?).
I can't help but think that comments like this are only worsening division and mistrust in a community that has long struggled with racial and social tensions, and has long acted, in many ways, more as a patchwork collection of competing small towns than as an urban+suburban metropolis of people facing common challenges and working toward common economic and social goals.
I don't know how things got this way in the Post-Dispatch comments threads. One might expect that a newspaper comment section would have a little more class than a YouTube thread.
Is it that the St. Louis Post-Dispatch was a latecomer to the local social / interactive media scene — late enough that most of the educated, thoughtful St. Louis area consumers of news had already found other places to discuss the stories that mattered most to them, and so by default the Post is left with the internet dregs?
Is it that the STLtoday comment moderation team is not staffed well enough to catch offensive comments quickly, and therefore those who might engage in a more tolerant, intelligent discussion are driven away by the sheer bulk of ignorant and inappropriate dreck?
Should STLtoday use comment moderation and banning with a heavier hand?
I don't know.
As a writer myself, I respect free speech. For years, in fact, I didn't even bother to prescreen comments on my own blog. It was only after a persistent troll kept leaving sexist and racist remarks that served no productive purpose in my comment threads that I threw up my hands and turned on comment approval.
I am sure that the STLtoday staff struggle similarly to balance their respect for freedom of expression with their need to promote civil and constructive community discourse.
I am not sure how the Post-Dispatch can solve this problem. I imagine those who work there would prefer that people such as myself who are dismayed at the lack of constructive intellectual discussion on STLtoday, rather than skipping the comments entirely in preemptive disgust, or, say complaining about the state of the comments on their own blogs, would show up more often in the comment threads, leave thoughtful comments, and try to bring a little dignity to the conversation.
But frankly, whenever I do leave a thoughtful comment on STLtoday, I feel like I'm tossing a shiny pebble into a polluted swamp.
Perhaps if I really want to see things improved there, I should organize my own cleanup crew.