This is how a Dec. 8 editorial of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial board began:
“For the next two months, we are turning off the comment function on all editorials, columns and letters in the opinion section.
Isn’t it something how we know immediately what the writer meant? Our inherent understanding suggests something sad, even soul-numbing, if we aren’t vigilant with ourselves.
This year, the deaths of three black American males at the hands of white policemen are forcing us to consider what we really believe about race in this country. Just the mention of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Eric Garner in New York or 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland is teaching us things about ourselves — and often more than we wanted to know about some of the people in our lives.
And then there’s the Web. These deaths and the enduring aftermath are bringing out the worst in all kinds of people we hope never to meet, but we increasingly fear they’re everywhere. That’s the problem with many social media sites, where hatemongers roam free. After a few hundred comments, it’s all too easy to believe such vitriol rides a prevailing wind.
Tony Messenger suspects otherwise. He’s the editorial page editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the author of the piece I quoted at the beginning of this column. He has written about 40 editorials on Ferguson and waded into one cesspool after another of overt racism in the comments threads.
“So much vitriol,” he said in a phone interview, “and a willingness of people to say things online that you’d hope they wouldn’t say to someone’s face in polite company.”
They were getting in the way of meaningful dialogue.
“You know, we as journalists avoided over the years saying we need to talk about race, because it sounded cliche,” he said, “but it’s clear that’s it’s true, that we do need to have this discussion. Saying that — and announcing that comments would be suspended — resonated much more than I realized.”
Including in his own newsroom.
“I didn’t know until I proposed it to management that they’ve been having the same conversation in the publisher’s suite,” Messenger said. “I’m pleased that we’re trying this, and I hope it encourages more people to reach out to us with letters to the editor.” He will also host a weekly online discussion.
As a journalist, I’ve made no secret of my disdain for many news organizations’ comments policy. Anonymity and lack of any moderating create a forum for the worst among us and drive away so many of the decent people who make up the majority of our citizens.
It’s catching up with us, too.
“Someday, a decade or two from now, there will be an academic report about this,” Messenger said, “and it will show how we mishandled the public trust in this public conversation.”
He’s right; I’m certain of that. But we can earn back that trust, and in St. Louis, Tony Messenger is leading the way.
I try to avoid those toxic online threads, including the ones on my own columns and essays, but sometimes that’s not possible. On Monday, for example, I posted on my public Facebook page a link to a New York Times story about Tamir Rice’s mother, who had held her first news conference. Samaria Rice said that Cleveland police had handcuffed her distraught son and daughter and forced them into the cruiser after they discovered their brother, who was alone on the ground and dying.
The story on my wall got enough traction to earn what I am learning is the dreaded “trending” designation on Facebook. Suddenly, people who had never visited my page before began flooding my Facebook page with bile.
I spent hours deleting and blocking. That is not a complaint. It is a privilege to host a forum where the participation of so many good people draws the attention of those who most fear them. That is, after all, what drives racists. They fear whom they refuse to understand — and must also hate those who are trying.
I say all that now, but on that evening by midnight, after deleting all those awful comments, I was feeling depleted, until I started reading private messages from regular commenters. So many good-hearted people feeling despondent, but not defeated.
To despair is to surrender. This is what the racists want, of course, and it is why they will never win.
Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and an essayist for Parade magazine.