Bismarck Tribune To The Public: Shut Up

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The age of the internet has opened up a new way to interact with the media. Online commenting. At first newspapers embraced this new medium, assuming it would drive more traffic to their websites, which was (and still is) important because the trend in print advertising looks like this (you’ll note, per the red line, that online advertising hasn’t done much better):

But the old-media folks learned something about online commenting pretty quickly, which is that a) some people are real a-holes and b) other people are say inconvenient thing that don’t fit the narrative the old-media folks are used to controlling.

So slowly, with “a” being the excuse and “b” being the real motivation, the old media has got rid of the comments. At least, that’s the trend here in North Dakota anyway. Last year saw former Bismarck Tribune editor John Irby call it a career in the industry (he’s gone on to work as a flak for the higher ed system) blaming bloggers and online commenters for coarsening debate. Later that year the Fargo Forum got rid of anonymous commenting. Now the Tribune is clamping down on comments too.

You can read publisher Brian Kroshus’ explanation for the policy change here. He, as expected, uses “civility” as an excuse. But that’s all it is. An excuse to shut down a medium for dissent and disagreement.

Civility is a myth. It is a smug vanity that is incompatible with democracy. Disagreement and discord are inherent to politics, and politics is democracy. When people talk about a “return” to civility they are not only talking about a return to something that never actually exist in the first place, their true motivation is usually quashing dissent while pompously claiming the moral high ground.

This is an attempt to turn back the clock to a by-gone age in media where editors and publishers and producers controlled the narrative, with the only public dissent maybe coming from other media outlets or what little dissent made it through the filters in the form of letters to the editor and the like.

Here’s the truth: If you’re going to communicate about important and/or controversial things you’re going to inspire strong emotions and opinions in others. That should be embraced, not hampered and regulated. I’ve always run an open forum here at Say Anything (we’ll gladly welcome you Tribune readers who need a place to vent) because I think that’s one of the most important things I can contribute to public discourse in my little corner of the world.

Give me the brawling and the name-calling, because that’s real. That has value. The filtered, watered-down discourse the Tribune aspires to is not.

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Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com. In 2011 he was a finalist for the Watch Dog of the Year from the Sam Adams Alliance and winner of the Americans For Prosperity Award for Online Excellence. In 2013 the Washington Post named SAB one of the nation's top state-based political blogs, and named Rob one of the state's best political reporters. He writes a weekly column for several North Dakota newspapers, and also serves as a policy fellow for the North Dakota Policy Council.

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