Thursday, February 10, 2011

Critics Say Times-Picayune Website Amplifies Discourse of Violence and Hate

New Orleans-based writer and attorney Billy Sothern started a blog last month called NO Comment that highlights the often offensive comments found on, the online home of the Times-Picayune. NO Comment's mission says,

This is a blog to highlight and discuss offensive, irresponsible, and inappropriate comments on's Times Picayune website. The blog is not an exhaustive daily monitor of offensive content on but instead the few comments posted and discussed here are exemplary of thousands of similar comments posted on the website.
For anyone who has ever read the Picayune online, much of this will come as nothing new. But Sothern makes some important points, asking why comments on the society page seem to be forbidden, while also pointing out the more aggressive moderation policies of other websites. He also points out that - unlike many sites - comments are given equal weight with the news articles.

One of my concerns with the lack of moderation of's comments is that I know, from personal experience, that the people involved in news stories, including crime victims, read the comments, which appear immediately after the story and get almost equal footing with the journalist's work.
As Sothern points out on his blog, he's not the first person to raise this issue. Sothern quotes a piece from blogger Deborah Cotton, which lays out the problem in detail:

Discriminatory practices exist that demonstrate a racial bias at the Times. The monitoring of the comments section is a prime example. The TP’s website has a notorious reputation for allowing racially charged comments that malign Black residents to fester without restraint, as in the case of the two college students who were kidnapped in ’09 and later found murdered. On the day that these kidnappings hit the press, a colleague of mine and I spent the better part of the day emailing and calling the office, pleading with them to either monitor the escalating hate speech or close the comment section altogether out of respect for the devastated families of the missing students. They all but ignored our requests - you can read the story and comments for yourself here. Meanwhile, Nell Nolan’s society column which chronicles high brow fetes of the White elite in New Orleans doesn’t endure such hostile defamation of its subjects because the comments section in the column are, as a rule, always closed (see here). This double standard creates an environment where the paper de facto condones readers attacking Blacks but goes great lengths to protect the wealthy White community from the same loathsome violations.
Kevin Allman at the Gambit has also written powerful commentary on the subject.

You've got to feel sorry for the T-P writers and editors who bust their asses to produce good work, only to see it undermined, hour after hour, day after day, by blithering racist knuckledraggers who can only see anything through the prism of race (even when it doesn't have any application to the story involved) and who, in a righteous world, would be tossed off the most insane, fringe moonbat radio call-in shows. Or maybe it's all a clever plan designed to staunch the bleeding in the print media, a way to get eyeballs off the Internet and back on the printed page. Whatever it is, it's bull, I'm tired of it, I've given up wondering if will ever take an interest in getting a handle on it, and I'm embarrassed to send out-of-town friends to the online Times-Picayune to read a story for fear they'll think we're an entire city of troglodytes.
Sothern's blog also quotes coverage of an exchange at a panel on the media sponsored by the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, where Louisiana Justice Institute co-directors Tracie Washington and Jacques Morial offered criticism of the comments. Jacques Morial is quoted as asking, “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?”

In the same discussion, former Picayune city editor Jed Horne adds to the critique.

“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.”
Sothern does quote a staffer who says (via twitter) that they have gotten better at deleting offensive comment. However, since Sothern continues to find racist and offensive comments - including several posted in the past 24-hours - the remedy clearly hasn't worked. Even when the comments are removed, Sothern calls it an "insufficient remedy," saying,

Removing offensive content may limit the number of people exposed to it but it does little for people who read it - like family members of victims of crime or tragedy - before it was taken down.
Somehow countless other news sites have managed to solve this problem, whether through allowing commentators on their site less anonymity, taking commenting privileges away from those who are consistently offensive, or through moderating comments before they appear. Times-Picayune readers - and journalists on staff, who are forced to have this hate-speech attached to their work - have a right to ask why does not to the same.


Anonymous said...

The hateful comments on NOLA know no bounds- racial, social, or political. That being said, I find many comments to be insightful and educational, especially regarding political and policy discussions. There is no reason to have "high society" articles up for comments. When they have been commented on, it was uniformly smears directed at innocent teenage girls and their families with no informational basis at all. Exactly the type of hateful speech Nola needs to more consistently moderate

Anonymous said...

The folks are amazing. I had one rep call me because they tracked a racially offensive comment to my place of employment, which is predominantly Black. They wanted ME, as a director, to do something about it. I wished them luck on their hunt. Hilarious.

Billy Sothern said...

I am really interested to hear that has gotten so proactive about tracking down users responsible for hate speech. Maybe its not reasonable for them to expect you to identify the employee involved but it is a positive step for them to try to create some accountability for their user's offensive comments.