I Fed The Trolls: Trying (and Failing) to Elevate the Dialogue

Don’t feed the trolls!

That’s what everybody tells me. There’s no point, and next thing you know, they’ll be in front of your house with an AK-47. And I know they are right. But I leave comments on stories anyway, sometimes, even when I know that I’m not going to change any minds.  Why do I bother?

Newspapers have, by and large, let story comments turn into ghettos where hate and personal attacks thrive.  But smart folks like the ones at Xark and Patrick Thornton, writing here for Poynter, have any number of creative ideas on how to elevate the dialogue. Respond. Create ratings systems. Elevate good comments to prominent positions and perhaps even dedicate a blog post or story to expanding on them. Cultivate a community around your site. Although it’s nigh impossible to guarantee people are using their real names, encourage them to do so.

Comments are a rich source of story ideas, can help reporters verify stories or add critical context and background, and they are especially crucial in a time when studies show that readers come to Web sites expecting greater interactivity.

Even more importantly, one of the core principles of journalism, as noted by Kovach and Rosenstiel,  is that it must provide a forum for discussion on issues of critical public importance.

Let me share a brief quote from them:  “The news media are the common carriers of public discussion, and this responsibility forms a basis for our special privileges. This discussion serves society best when it is informed by facts rather than prejudice and supposition. It also should strive to fairly represent the varied viewpoints and interests in society, and to place them in context rather than highlight only the conflicting fringes of debate.”

So despite my knowledge that trying to change individuals is more than futile, I sometimes jump into the fray with this principle in mind, hoping that over the long haul, being willing to participate will elevate dialogue. And I figure that if journalists don’t have the courage to stand up to knee-jerk charges of political bias, then at least professors probably should step up to the plate and be willing to, for example, say something is false when it is demonstrably false.

A couple of days ago,  one of my professors when I was at Mizzou, Charles Davis, published a column in the Columbia Daily Tribune in which he argued that journalists have not done a good enough job covering the outpouring of hate raging across the nation. In his view as a First Amendment near-absolutist, the more we expose hate for what it really is, covering it openly and rigorously,  as journalists once did in the days of the civil rights movement, the more likely it is to shrivel up and go away.

As you might expect, the comments described Davis as a Nazi and similar, as well as predictably trying to assert that calling for civility and for exposing hate for what it is – is  somehow politically liberal?

So I left a comment. And as always, I left my real name. I always do. And I challenged the other commenters to do the same.

I will admit I probably could have been more diplomatic myself, but the comments I made were,  I thought, fairly benign. One thing I do know for sure is that they weren’t political in nature. You can read them yourself at the end of the article – my name is signed at the end and my handle appearing above the comments is my Twitter name, brizzyc.

Personal attacks rolled predictably in. I was called “smug” and “self-righteous,” among other nice things.

And a woman named Ellie Funke of the Columbia/Jefferson City, MO area took it upon herself to email my boss and one of my colleagues with a link to the article and the following comment: “Not sure if you have seen the articles and ramblings your assistant professor contributes.  She and her colleages (sic) are not someone my (sic) will study with”

Sigh. So what is the lesson here? I don’t know, you tell me. Clearly, as one of my colleagues noted, mud wrestling with a pig leaves you both filthy and the pig will enjoy it. But I hate to refuse to participate in public dialogue out of fear.



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23 responses to “I Fed The Trolls: Trying (and Failing) to Elevate the Dialogue

  1. SSAG

    Wow, so you learned nothing. After all the calm, thoughtful response I crafted to your kneejerk replies, you run off and make all kinds of false claims about what happened. If this distortion is how you report, than I honestly think you should consider another line of work.

    Let me leave you with some action items that should help with some soul searching.

    – Please tell me why you say that someone will be at your house with an AK-47? What grounds do you have to infer that nonsense?
    – Isn’t name-calling (calling us trolls) doing exactly what you are saying people shouldn’t do?
    – You say you should stand up when something is demonstrably false. That’s exactly what I did. Why are you attacking me for it? If you think I said something demonstrably false, what would that be?
    – “the comments described Davis as a Nazi and similar” Please quote EXACTLY which comments described Davis as a Nazi.

    You ask what the lesson here is. Since you can’t determine that for yourself, let me help you.

    Try listening.

    You didn’t do that at all. You left with the same distain for traditional Americans that you came in with. You learned nothing. I’d suggest you go through my comments slowly and really pay attention.

    And don’t tell people to “grow a pair.” It’s sexist and that didn’t advance your debate one bit.

    • changingnewsroom

      Re: Calling Davis a Nazi:

      sisyphus says…

      Mr. Davis – You make Hitler look like a nice guy!

      frankchristian says…

      Prof. Davis – This trash is the most disgusting example of a hate monger at work since communist Angela Davis.

      mattschmatt says…

      I hate you Charles Davis.

      Should I report myself?

  2. changingnewsroom

    Oh and wait, here’s a favorite:

    This on a Reason blog blasting the column, which ran Davis’ pic…and in the comments was this gem: I agree with 92% of what Matt said. This in no way reflects any personal bias whatsoever, despite the fact that I could not help but notice that the guy in the picture (Missouri School of Journalism Assistant Prof. Charles Davis) seems to be at least partially black…

  3. You wrote to me:

    “So we are “ideological zealots” for saying that death threats and calling the president a Nazi is out of bounds? Please, if we are going to have this argument, tell me exactly why you are cool with people who do that. Explain it to me.”

    Was that elevating the dialogue?

    As I and others made clear in the comments (but you didn’t mention), it wasn’t the calls for civility that were opposed, but the double standard of in applying them.

    Where was the “hate beat” when Bush was called a Nazi and war criminal? Where were Davis and you?

    If you really did write against slurs against President Bush at the time, please link to the Web posts showing so. You’ll have my most profuse apologies for doubting your impartiality in attacking hate.

    If you didn’t, then do some introspection and make a real, good-faith effort to understand how people of other political views think.


  4. Jeremy

    Probably didn’t help yourself with your wording, as you admitted. I’ve been there too many times; it’s easy to do when you feel passionately about something.

    Still, I don’t recall any Bush events where protestors were showing up with guns. Could be wrong about that, of course. In my mind, that kind of ups the ante from death threats, which I don’t worry about as much because they’re an everyday fact of life no matter who is president.

    I do wonder how anyone could interpret what Charles wrote as liberal bias though. I suppose it’s because the news event he was tying to was about conservative hate, but don’t people understand anymore that news is about things that are timely? Wouldn’t throwing in old material and a “yes, liberals did it too” caveat be playing the game by creating fake balance just so we could call it balance?

    And does a fair and honest opinion worth considering require that Charles have a track record saying that liberal hate needs to be covered? I always thought it was the opinion worth considering and you either accept or dismiss on the merits. Although I don’t think Charles went after liberal haters back in the day, I’m pretty sure he’d defend the same standard in that circumstance. It’s pretty hard to read that column and conclude something different.

    • SSAG

      “Although I don’t think Charles went after liberal haters back in the day, I’m pretty sure he’d defend the same standard in that circumstance.”

      Then why didn’t he? Why didn’t any journalism professor in the country? Why can you not find one article to pair with Davis’ article.

      When you act one way because it agrees with your values, and you act 180 degrees different when it does not, that is the very definition of bias.

  5. changingnewsroom

    Hi Saag and Bradley,

    I appreciate your comments. Thank you for following my blog so closely! That was a faster response than I anticipated 🙂 I appreciate your interest, and I certainly (as noted) am all for elevating the discourse, and I enjoy a good debate!

    In my view, all political parties are wrong when they make false claims, and we as both citizens and journalists should be fearless in pointing it out as such. Democracy itself depends on it!

    Let’s not make this overly personal. It’s okay to disagree and still respect someone else’s intelligence, and I was responding to more than just the two of you in my remarks about Davis’ column.

    It certainly seems like we agree that regardless of political party, making egregious claims and threatening violence or calling the other side “worse than Hitler” or similar is wrong.

    Saag, I apologize for a strident tone earlier – I do strongly believe that attaching ones name to ones opinions is one good way to remain accountable for what we say in public. It’s awfully easy to sling mud if nobody can call you on it. That’s why I do so at my own risk. But I could have spoken more politely and diplomatically. For that I do apologize.

    I’m pleased and heartened to hear that both of you agree with me that the folks showing up to Obama’s town halls with weapons and those who said things like “Bush engineered 9-11” are both crazy and deserve to be called such.

    Sounds like we agree on more than we disagree, when it comes right down to it. Reasoned debate is good, yelling at each other is bad.

    Cheers and best,

  6. hmm, your comments were inane.

    you said something along the lines of journalists not calling out bush on his “wmd lies” for fear of being identified as liberal.

    journalists didn’t suspect the veracity of his “wmd lies” because they were clinton’s “lies”. they were the “lies” al gore told when, during the 1992 election, he admonished bush41 for not following through on wmd intelligence. they were rep. nancy pelosi’s “lies” in 1998 when she said…

    “Saddam Hussein has been engaged in the development of weapons of mass destruction technology which is a threat to countries in the region and he has made a mockery of the weapons inspection process.”

    they were the “lies” spoken by sen. john kerry when he said…

    “[I] urge you, after consulting with Congress,and consistent with the U.S. Constitution and laws, to take necessary actions (including, if appropriate, air and missile strikes on suspect Iraqi sites) to respond effectively to the threat posed by Iraq’s refusal to end its weapons of mass destruction programs.”

    in fact, the only real lie about wmd in evidence is the one congressional progressive democratics told when they claimed that they were “lied” to by bush, anomolously, more than two years before he even took office.

    so can we put that little trope to rest?

    eight years of bush=hitler and calls to kill bush, beginning with organized rioting outside of the proceedings of the 2001 inauguration ceremony, motivated by conspiracy theories about electronic voting machines and blood libels…


    …now you want to report on the “hate” at protest demonstrations.

  7. jeremy:

    “I do wonder how anyone could interpret what Charles wrote as liberal bias though. … Wouldn’t throwing in old material and a “yes, liberals did it too” caveat be playing the game by creating fake balance just so we could call it balance? …does a fair and honest opinion worth considering require that Charles have a track record saying that liberal hate needs to be covered?”

    why would that balance be apparently “fake”?

    because it would have been a self-conscious, pro forma substitution for “a track record saying that liberal hate needs to be covered.”

    and, yes, that would be necessary for his suggestion to be received as an honest one.

  8. Thank you, Carrie. That was very gracious, and I hope others respond in kind.

  9. changingnewsroom

    Thanks Bradley. I appreciate it. Let’s continue to have some good dialogue.

  10. TA

    The Southern Poverty Law Center has for years covered in great depth hate groups in the United States. In fact, coverage of hate groups in U.S. journalism did not by any means stop after the events described in “Race Beat,” as Charles Davis seems to suggest.

    In addition, I’m baffled by your surprise that a column deriding the incivility of free speech would be met with comments that are less than civil.

  11. changingnewsroom

    Good point, TA. 🙂

    I don’t know if I would say I’m “baffled” by the incivility of comments. However, I do believe in taking a stand when they are.

    • Al

      Ms. Brown,

      Nice to see you bravely “taking a stand” against uncivil comments (at least from those with whom you disagree politically, who are obviously haters and bigots). Of course, you might have greater credibility if you also took a stand against the incivility in the original article. Or do you think it is civil for a professor of journalism of all people to call people “tea baggers” and to broadly paint those who oppose Obama as racists?

      Also, many of us are still waiting for you to post or link to all of your past criticism of those on the left who called Bush a Nazi, the devil, a chimpanzee, etc. or who called for violence against him (slurs and threats that were far more prevalent against Bush than against Obama). Again, did you (or Davis, for that matter) ever publicly criticize those people? and, if not, why not?



  12. malclave

    Funny, I didn’t see any comments calling the author a Nazi… maybe they were removed?

    I do have one question, though… Professor Davis does repeat the left-wing attack of calling protestors “Tea Baggers”. This is an obvious attack meant to marginalize the opposition, referring to the sexual act.

    How, exactly, does that eleveate the conversation?

    Is that what Davis teaches in his journalism classes? No wonder the “profession” sucks.

  13. SSAG

    “I’m pleased and heartened to hear that both of you agree with me that the folks showing up to Obama’s town halls with weapons and those who said things like ‘Bush engineered 9-11’ are both crazy and deserve to be called such.”

    Sigh. You just don’t get it at all. Not one bit.

    The 9/11 commission stopped investigating the second the planes hit the tower. I’m also not satisfied why a building (WTC7) fell straight down for no reason. I’ve seen reports that show there is a large amount of nanoparticle thermite all over the place. If that is true, and I can’t say one way or another since the media demonizes anyone who asks for an investigation, than no, I wouldn’t be able to rule out anyone, including Bush. It’s doubtful and as an American who loves his country I hope (and suspect) it isn’t true, but like many things we’ll never know all the facts because the lapdog media won’t bark.

    As for the people who bring guns to rallies. For a large segment of Americans, those who hide their weapon are criminals. If you have nothing to hide, you don’t hide your weapon. I could go either way on it. But regardless of what I think it’s completely legal, and one of the tenets of their concern is the right to bear arms. They are demonstrating, peacefully as opposed to the riots 6 years ago I might add, for rights they want to retain. If you don’t like it you can demonstrate to change the law. But for you to call them crazy is grossly inappropriate.

    So right there you’ve absolutely demonized as “crazy” two groups who only want to voice their opinion and question authority.

    You shame those who want to keep rights and ridicule those who seek truth.

    And then journalists ask how we could possibly think what they provide is valueless.

    Bring me more Michael Jackson, more Republican/Democrat war fodder, divide the country on race, demonize those who don’t agree. And most important defend each party as they both spend us into bankruptcy and a global depression and enslave us with laws and regulations and taxes that spider through us like a cancer.

  14. Terry Notus

    I don’t know if you want all the attention you are getting, but it is interesting stuff. You are right that Prof. Davis does not explicitly advocating a left-wing bias, but some of us can read between the lines.

    Say that we all agree with you that threatening violence is bad and worthy of news coverage. Imagine reporter “Joe Smith” is assigned to the “hate beat” but Joe is also highly partisan, perhaps without realizing it. When his side protests some new policy, the article describes “exuberant crowds” but when the other side protests, we hear about “angry mobs.” When a nut on the other side has a “Kill Him” poster, it is “an outpouring of hate, emblematic of the movement’s irrationality” and when a nut on Joe’s side has a “Kill Him” poster, he is a nut and not really news. Isn’t my hypothetical very BAD journalism? Readers dependent on that paper would be misinformed and it has political ramifications too.

    Now, to remove it from the hypothetical, when Prof. Davis uses the derogatory “tea bagger” term, when he criticizes the “mob” and not the politicians calling their own constituents “evil-mongers”, when his specific examples criticize the right (Rush, Hannity, Beck), and when reporters repeatedly self-identify as liberal, some of us suspect that Davis and all those Joe Smiths out there are liberals.

    So, no, we don’t trust the “hate beat.” In theory, we agree with you that threatening violence is bad, but when journalists put it into practice we see that threats are only newsworthy when they can be used as a lever to advance the liberal agenda. We agree with the stated principle, not the perversion that exists. Make any sense?

    And I don’t think I called anyone a name.

  15. Let’s calm this down. Carrie responded to me, one of her most persistent critics, with a nice reply, and a wish for true dialogue. Please take her up on it, and let’s see where this leads.

  16. changingnewsroom

    This post is not meant to be about politics. It is about civility, dialogue, and the contributions journalism makes to providing spaces for that dialogue to happen as well as for the facts that animate and make the dialogue possible.

    Let me just share a quote from a really nice email I got from somebody: “I hope you don’t let this online dust up weigh heavy on you. It’s a discussion of opinion at a nation’s crossroads. I’d worry if people aren’t passionate about it.”

    I couldn’t agree more. In a time of great change, sometimes we all let our passions get in the way of good communication, but that doesn’t mean it’s not important.

    I’d prefer not to get into a potentially endless exchange of “well, when did you speak up about Bush haters?” because obviously I could then turn around and ask for evidence that you did the same thing regardless of which political party was in office. I don’t really think that would advance the discussion very much. Also, I’ve gone on the record denouncing haters of all stripes, and I’ve yet to see the critics willing to do the same.

    Thanks for all the contributions! It kind of goes to prove the point that I think was at the essence of what Charles was talking about in the first place – the answer to people saying or writing things you don’t like isn’t to try to shut them up, it’s to keep talking. It’s through this that progress is made.

  17. Carrie,
    You deceive yourself by thinking the post is not about politics. You go easy on those who are close to your political views and are extra strict against those you politically disagree with. A rote statement denouncing “haters of all stripes” doesn’t change that.

    I am sure your belief is sincere, but it’s the common failing of liberal journalists who associate with like-minded people on the left. It’s easy to unconsciously caricature the views of people you avoid socially and think of as ignorant at best, evil at worst.

  18. changingnewsroom

    I think that your point about unconsciously caricaturing the views of people you avoid socially is a good one. I suspect, though, that comment cuts both ways politically speaking – e.g. both liberals and conservatives caricature the political views of others. The comments on this post alone seem to show a good bit of anger toward those who are perceived to be liberal, and a lot of fast assumptions are made about my political views and who I associate with socially, even though I haven’t discussed them here in any detail.

    I’m starting to think, though, that part of the critique of the “liberal” media is, in part, a reaction to what I would actually agree is a kind of elitism in the mainstream press, which as a native Midwesterner, I sense as well. Nobody likes the sense that someone is looking down on them intellectually or otherwise.

    The funny thing to me is that if I had to characterize most journalists I know politically, I’d say they lean libertarian. As watchdogs, most emphatically do not trust government and are fiscally conservative. But in general when it comes to social issues, they are more liberal leaning. But given how intensely their work is watched and criticized, I think political bias is actually the one that’s the easiest to avoid – other biases, such as those toward conflict, or toward false balance – are actually more troublesome.

    Few people though are extremists – most of us are probably closer to the middle than we realize on many things.

  19. Carrie,
    Okay, let’s have your corrections about the “fast assumptions” of your political views and who you associate with.

    I’ll open with mine.

    I’m a Libertarian (registered)

    Support of a free market

    Opposed to more government involvement in health care a la Obama

    Support legalized drugs

    Skeptical of the Iraq war

    Supportive of Roe vs. Wade

    Support of gay marriage

    I have a number of friends and acquaintances who lean right. Many of them can be found on the blog Patterico.com. I use them as a reality check when I hear something in the media.

    For example, here’s some deception from MSNBC on the guncarriers=racist trope. The audio was about the racist trend, and the video of the guncarrier was shown only from the waist down, hiding that the guncarrier himself is black.

    OK, your turn.

  20. Sorry for the garbled text in the previous message.

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