As I write this, the Vanguard Editorial Board has discussed a formal policy on comments twice and is set to discuss it for a third time this Wednesday. Contrary to popular belief, this is a difficult process and one that we take very seriously.
The Vanguard ultimately wants to be a space of community dialogue where members of this community from a very diverse set of views can come together to participate in the discussion of local, regional and sometimes national issues. This is a unique space in this community – there is no other place where such a diverse group of people can get together.
Over the years this has been a contentious space, but in the last few years the Vanguard has been transformed. The community discussion, though no less spirited, has lost many of its most nasty elements. While we have improved the climate on this site immensely, we still believe there is work to do, and creating a formal set of guidelines will both help our readers to know where the lines are and help our moderator, who has volunteered his time for nearly five years, to do the same.
Our view, and I speak of the Editorial Board in this moment, though the policy is not codified, is that we wish to foster dialogue and conversation. At the same time, while we believe that comments that may reduce participation will be removed, we wish to err on the side of free expression, free speech, and allow the marketplace of ideas through debate and discussion to carry the day.
There are three areas that I wish to discuss here that tend to generate controversy, and all three have actively done so this week.
First, earlier this week an anonymous commenter on this site criticized two city staffers by name. Several people who post under their true names objected.
Let me be very clear on where the Vanguard stands on anonymous commenters. When I started this site in 2006, the atmosphere in this community was toxic and, during some of the vitriolic conversations that emerged, people were legitimately afraid to speak out against the group-think mentality that was permeating the community.
And so, when I created the Vanguard, it was in part to create a safe space for people to comment without fear of social retribution. It is therefore the absolute right of the commenters to post without identifying themselves, they are not second-class citizens, and they certainly have every right to criticize public officials – whether they are elected or city employees.
There is nothing that was posted that remotely rises to the level of slander and, in fact, I have personally heard many of the same things – and worse – from credible sources in the city and the community.
Second, the issue of racism is a serious issue that we discuss quite a bit on these pages. The incident in Ferguson opens a lot of old wounds and that is a serious contributing factor in the currently proceeding riots and the nationwide discussion of racism and policing policies that have emerged.
If we are going to get past racism in this country, we have to be willing to discuss it.
For instance, let’s look at the comment: “One white cop shoots and kills one black teenager and riots happen. Thousands of black teenager shoot and kill thousands of black teenagers and cricket happen.”
This is not a comment I agree with. But it is clearly an issue. Conservative elements in the community see the black community rising up when there is a police shooting or a shooting of an African-American by a white person, or a non-black person as in the case of Trayvon Martin.
At the same time, they see much violence within the community that they may seem to have a deaf ear about.
I do not see this as a racist comment. I do disagree with it. As I wrote yesterday, there is a difference between a shooting in a community by other citizens versus the shooting by the police under the banner of authority. It revives the worst elements of the southern apartheid system that we lived under for generations.
The Trayvon Martin situation generated a similar response because it seemed to be an unarmed black young man who was harassed, pursued, and ultimately shot by a quasi-law enforcement official.
The specter of racial profiling and police brutality remains a strong and polarizing force.
But we have to be able to discuss this and we cannot shut down the discussion when we disagree or by shouting “racism.”
The Vanguard is working on language for handling discussions on racism. It is more tricky than you might think. It is easy to pull non-substantive posts that are provocative and profane. But we have gray areas, as well, as they delve into legitimate issues of policy, whether it be on racial profiling, police shootings or illegal immigration.
Again, it is our preference that these issues are handled through debate and dialogue rather than censorship. Will that offend some people? No doubt, but how do we deal with controversial issues in a bubble?
Finally, one area not up for discussion is the debate about moderation policies — unless that debate takes place in an article like this one where the topic of the article is the Vanguard‘s policies. Look, we get that people don’t want to see their stuff taken down, but we are trying to facilitate discussion about issues, not our own policies. I’m willing to talk on the phone, exchange emails or meet in person, but I want those discussions offsite rather than in the middle of discussions where they threaten to sidetrack or derail substantive conversations.
We don’t have many hard and firm lines in the sand, but this is one of them and I don’t think this policy is unreasonable.
Now, this is a thread where people have greater latitude to discuss issues like moderation and what should be deleted and what should be left up. I promise that anything posted here will get all due discussion at this week’s editorial board meeting.
Thanks for reading.
—David M. Greenwald reporting