Tuesday, January 18, 2011

"Profitting off racial strife and bigotry"

Matt Davis, a journalist with the terrific New Orleans Lens, wrote last fall about a journalism forum where NOLA.com comments were discussed by Jed Horne, the former City Editor of the Times Picayune and current editor of The Lens, Peter Kovacs, the Times Picayune's managing editor, and, from the audience, Jacques Morial, a progressive activist and son and brother of two New Orleans mayors.

Because the piece and the discussion on which is was based focus clearly and directly on the issues that this blog was created to address, I have pasted it below in its entirety (though you should check out Davis's posts and articles about the New Orleans criminal justice system on his website, matthewcharlesdavis.com, and at The Lens):

“Racist” comments on Times-Picayune’s website dominate panel talk on economics of media

A panel discussion on “the economics of media” at the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities tonight was dominated by a spirited back and forth about “racist” comments on the Times-Picayune’s nola.com website:
Panel from left to right: City Business editor Greg LaRose, Times-Picayune managing editor Peter Kovacs, Louisiana Weekly boss Renette Dejoie Hall, and moderator, former Times-Picayune city editor Jed Horne

Horne, who for the sake of full disclosure is now a board member at The Lens, where I work, raised the issue about half way through the 90-minute discussion, after a discussion of the internet’s impact on the news business. Comments that follow articles, he said, aren’t exactly a boon to the spirit of journalism.
“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.”
Kovacs addressed the issue later on.
“Whatever ugliness there is online is no different from the majority of the stuff published anonymously over the years,” Kovacs said — having given a history of American newspapering that included anonymous pamphlets in the early 20th century. “America is a pretty self-correcting place, and ugliness and bad ideas collapse under their own weight.”
“I don’t think the industry was prepared for the negativity of some of these comments,” Kovacs continued. “And various efforts have been made to try to tone it down, to monitor, to cut down on this stuff. Some websites are asking people for their names, although I don’t know what good that does because I don’t know how you could stop me from saying I’m Jed Horne.”
Horne responded.
“Actually the real absence is, where are the readers who are a counter-force? Why are we not more regularly seeing that ugly element shouted down?” Horne asked. “Perhaps we’re smug in the assumption that we’ll prevail, but there’s a remarkable lack of the full gamut of opinion.”
Plenty of readers are holding the Times-Picayune accountable for the nature of its comments by stopping reading it, activist attorney Tracie Washington said, from the audience.
“I think newspapers are conscious of the fact that ugly commenting is bad for business,” Kovacs said.
Audience member Jacques Morial, activist attorney and son of the city’s first black mayor, asked Kovacs a question to follow up on that.
“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?” Morial asked.
Kovacs said it’s unlikely that the paper will get rid of comments.
“If newspapers didn’t do it, somebody else would do it,” he said. “And if there’s one thing that newspapers have learned over the years it’s that surrendering lines of business to other people is a way to become extinct.”
Afterward, Morial confronted Kovacs at the back of the room. “You didn’t answer my question,” he said.
“There have been plenty of discussions about these comments,” Kovacs said, adding that ethical discussions take place all the time. But there hasn’t been a specific discussion along the lines Morial had asked about, Kovacs said.
In an ironic turn of events (for this blog, at least), the comments to the story were also interesting. Check them out.


  1. There's also the move of not even linking to the T-P articles on Nola.com, which I've been doing for over a year now. The comment sections do a great disservice to the T-P reporters' work, and I don't want to drive the site's numbers up. It's just li'l ol' me doing it, though, so I don't know how much of an effect it could really have unless a bunch of people decide to do it. And, for your purposes, you certainly can't do it. ;-)

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