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Plenty of chaff, but where's the wheat?

Tom Lehrer theorized once that “the reason most folk songs are so terrible is that they were written by the people,” proceeding to demonstrate how “My Darling Clementine” could have been written by Mozart or Gilbert and Sullivan. Great stuff.

I think of that remark when enthusiasts gush about the Internet’s opening up the discussion of everything to everybody and the “unmediated” connection between writer and reader on the Web. I wonder who has time for all that.

Take blogging, for example. My estimable colleague Elizabeth Large has a sizable audience for her blog on dining, and the comments section is notable for freewheeling — and entertaining — responses. The Sandbox, as her core commenters refer to themselves, is a remarkably self-policing group. People who blunder in and make insulting remarks are quickly reproached and discouraged from repeating rude behavior. But that seems exceptional.

My esteemed colleague David Zurawik has generated considerable popularity in just a few weeks with his blog on television. He, too, has attracted commenters. His are not self-policing. You look at 150 or 300 comments on one of his analyses of coverage of the presidential election, more than half of which are variations on “Hey, you suck,” and you wonder who has time for this. Who has the inclination, and the patience, to winnow ignorant or ad hominem comments to get at a handful of thoughtful and informed ones?

Don’t jump to a conclusion that I am necessarily trying to squelch free expression or knocking “citizen journalism” or attempting to define journalists as a caste of gatekeepers. I’m fully aware that there are many non-journalists who are putting up literate and informed material on the Internet, and I am painfully aware of journalism’s deficiencies. (Just yesterday I turned my undergraduate students loose on a front-page story from The Sun a little while back, and they savaged it as ill-focused, ineptly organized and uninformative. They were right.)

I am just wondering how all of this is supposed to sort out. Writers, in addition to researching and writing articles, are expected to put in how much time responding to readers in “unmediated” exchanges? (I’m months behind in personal correspondence; are you better off?) And readers? They are supposed to spend how much time sifting through articles and blog posts and comments, filtering out the dreck? Is there to be little or no role for editors, for people who clarify and organize material for the convenience of the reader?

At the moment, it looks as if we’re pretty much hunter-gatherers, and I wonder how long it will take us to get agriculture.



Posted by John McIntyre at 2:21 PM | | Comments (7)


Tom Lehrer's "Clementine" bit on YouTube:

A favorite. Thanks for reminding me.

Comments to that YouTube clip reinforce Mr. McIntyre's point.

Re: YouTube...
(YouTube, by the way, has since implemented this feature.)

In his decision to pander to the screamers by his constant "talk" of political coverage thereby drawing in the lunatics, Mr. Zurawik has pretty much lost the people who were looking forward to his blog. Now that election coverage is over, Mr. Z could be a lonely man.

Thank you Mr. McIntyre, for your comments regarding The Only Blog You Need.

Some of us visit here quite a bit.

Ah, the classics. Tom Lehrer's "Clementine" is one of his best.

I've got a theory about which blogs work, like the Sandbox and Metafilter, and which don't. You need a moderator who is secure, doesn't mind criticism, has a thick skin but who will step in quickly when someone goes over the line. Someone who participates a bit, but who isn't afraid to let topics wander. Someone who doesn't apologize for doing the right thing, but admits it when they goof.

All of that, and possibly more, seems to lead to an online playground where folks play well with each other, rather than trying to hog the swingset.

Yes, you absolutely need a conscientious moderator. But daily newspapers are different -- I guess they don't have the staff anymore to moderate. My local paper allows comments on articles, and it's depressing to read them. It's clear that 90% of the people who leave comments have some ax to grind and are generally intolerant of others and, frankly, not very well-educated on the subject they're discussing. And of course they always tend to be the same people, who must not have jobs! Reading these comments always makes me want to pack my suitcase and leave my backwater town.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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