Monday, January 29, 2007

Readers' Reign of Terror

Gary Kamiya has written a J'Accuse! article for Salon. He ponders the demoralizing rise in mean-spirited reaction from online readers and mourns the increasing dominance of trolls. While well-meaning and thoughtful, the article is also unappealingly defensive and rather myopic in its purely "blame the audience" approach.

In the spirit of Kamiya's tone, I've posted a dignified response on Salon, and I repeat it here in slightly modified form (and with a couple of embarrassing typos fixed--Salon's submission form is even worse than Blogger's):

It's easy to confirm Kamiya's premise--that a chunk of the Internet's readership has increasingly responded to journalists with vitriol and stupidity. But ... Kamiya never wonders what some of the causes might be for this phenomenon. Did the Internet itself somehow generate and nurse a million little HAL 9000s who never before existed?

Here's a clue: when I first read the sentence beginning "[the Internet] has also thrown open the gate to creeps, narcissists and wannabe Byrons," I honestly thought Kamiya was describing not readers, but rather the least of his colleagues, the extraordinary number of untalented journalists, hacks, and commentators working for online news sources, partisan newsletters, talk radio, and (probably worst of all) the proliferating number of specialty magazines. Throw in Kamiya's later reference to "fools, knaves, blowhards and nuts," stir in the word "drunks," and you have the century-old stereotype of--well, of journalists.

And therein lies the truth: the maddening and maddened crowd is taking their cues not only from Gary Kamiya, Paul Krugman, Gail Collins, and Dana Milbank, but also from insult mongers like Ann Coulter, Camille Paglia, Dinesh D'Souza, Dale Peck, and Bill O'Reilly. (Do I really need to point out that the latter group is more famous and certainly richer than the former?)

Why do Kamiya and his colleagues seem surprised that there exists an element of the Internet community that is no more civilized than Rush Limbaugh or Michael Savage? Have they listened to what those "blowhards" have to say about the liberals on Salon lately? Is the reprehensible way some Salon readers treated the Yaskulka family really any different, in substance or style, than the way an appalling number of pundits on major network and cable news programs treat, say, Cindy Sheehan or the "Jersey Widows"?

As someone who used to work for a print magazine and an academic journal, I can vouch that there have always been cranks. But the sheer quantity (and, sometimes, the quality) of hostile reaction should make anyone wonder if maybe today's audience is nothing more than a crystal-clear mirror of Kamiya's profession.