Heard any good racist jokes lately? My wife told me these the other morning:
“How did they improve transportation in Harlem? They moved the trees closer together.”
“Have you ever seen a black person on The Jetsons? No. Looks like a good future doesn't it?”
Why would I marry such a horrible racist? I didn’t. She was actually reading those to me because she was appalled to find them on CNN.com. Has the Cable News Network’s website suddenly been taken over by moronic white supremacists? Nope, these awful “jokes” were part of a bizarre and lengthy string of “soundoff” user comments attached to a very brief article about Anderson Cooper and Melissa Etheridge each appearing in Broadway shows.
As the day went on, this silly little piece of puff journalism became a full-blown, living, breathing case study on hate speech and offensive language online. But when these stupid racist jokes were first posted, they were filled with the “N” word. Hours later, they had been “cleaned up.”
What that means, is that an employee at CNN actually spent real man hours changing the “N” word to “black” to make these racist jokes more palatable. Seriously? That’s actually much more offensive to me than the awful jokes themselves. Why? First, because I like my racism out in the open, where I can see it, engage it and combat it. Second, by changing the comments, you are actually altering what someone personally published, and that’s a serious free speech issue. You shouldn’t be able to change what someone writes without their permission.
One of the comments on the story addressed the irony of CNN’s selective editing process: “Hey cnn- stellar job of moderating this thread. It clearly states that comments will not appear on this blog until ‘they have been reviewed and deemed appropriate for posting’. So you censor a few curse words and let awful and racist comments fly back and forth unlimited? Sad.”
I’m not in favor of banning comments like this because I think making this type of hate speech go underground is even more dangerous. However, many people don’t understand that prohibiting these kinds of comments from being published is not a violation of someone’s right to free speech. CNN.com doesn’t have to publish a user’s comments to their stories any more than a privately-owned newspaper has to publish some nut job’s opinion piece about denying the Holocaust, just because he mailed it in.
Changing the “N” word in these online comments to “black” is exactly the same, and almost as egregious as the recent controversy surrounding changing calling Jim in Huck Finn from “nigger” to “slave.” It’s not what Mark Twain wrote, the “N” word has a very specific and pointed meaning, and as the brilliant Larry Wilmore recently pointed out on the Daily Show, Jim wasn’t even a slave – he had already escaped.
This CNN story shows that people are completely capable of evaluating this kind of filth for themselves. To wit, one user posted, “I like how an article about the arts has turned into a racist tirade. You all should be ashamed of yourselves. And congratulations, you are the problem.”
True. But I would much rather be aware of these kinds of problems and be able to defend myself against them than banish them to some unknown realm where they can fester, grow and multiply unchecked.
The New York Times policy regarding online user comments is another excellent case study in public commentary. The Times’ site is full of sage and reasoned responses to its articles and feature stories, but its policy regarding comments in general makes one wonder exactly how much editing and deleting goes on, and how that careful selection process skews the overall views of their comments sections.
At the bottom of a page of user comments, the Times explains its rationale for what it chooses thusly: “Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive.” For a paper that prides itself on facts and precision, that has to be one of the least precise statements the paper has ever made. Generally will be posted? Talk about wiggle room.
In the Times’ comments FAQ, things get even more vague and confusing. The paper advises that it does not want, “Profanity, obscenities or spiteful remarks.” However, later they explain that they also “welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work.” But just as long as the comments aren’t spiteful?
The Times also admits that they are looking for comments that are made “quickly and politely,” and that their decisions about what to publish and what not to publish in their comments section “are subjective.” But as we all know, the world is anything but quick and polite, no matter how much the Times wants it to be.
Comment sections engage users, create advertising inventory and are the cornerstones of building virtual community. But if user comments are subjectively chosen to create a quick and polite response to a highly charged issue, what value can they really have other than to parrot the point of view of the paper publishing them?
John D. Thomas, the former editor of Playboy.com, has been a frequent contributor at the New York Times and Chicago Tribune. He is currently writing a book about the cultural history of saliva.