The news is not good these days, yet I keep coming back for more. I live out in the country and can’t get a national newspaper delivered to my house. Nor can I get TV reception without one of those big ugly dishes planted in my yard–and I refuse to defile the property in that way. This means I depend on the web for news.
I could ignore the news sites and spare myself a daily dose of sorrow and anger and Schadenfreude. But I’m not there yet. I read the articles about the Presidential campaign and North Korea and global warming and then scroll down past the clickbait to the comments. With few exceptions, they are spiteful, repetitive, bullying, and staggeringly unoriginal. They are cowardly in their anonymity. They are the essence of frustration, hard little cubes of excrement put out there for fellow keyboard jockeys to sniff and kick.
The Washington Post‘s Gene Weingarten has compared a news story with a comments thread to a steak dinner with a side order of maggots. Just as one would be hard pressed to look at the steak without taking note of the maggots, I can’t read an online news story without peeking at the comments. This is a habit I need to break, for my own mental health.
Nobody ever said free speech would be pretty. And I understand that publications want readers to linger on their sites, commit their eyeballs to a commercially profitable experience, and maybe even read the pop-up ads. But I miss the days when I used to open my front door in the morning and find the newspaper hidden at the base of the azalea. I read it while eating breakfast and continued in the evening after work. I didn’t read it off and on throughout the day.
Sometimes I would read the letters to the editor, and occasionally those letters made me mad. But those writers had taken the time to organize their thoughts and compose a lucid letter with a beginning, middle, and end; they signed their names and gave their towns. Their submissions had been vetted by an editor and their publication was an honor, not a given.
Newspapers still print letters to the editor, of course. But the real action, such as it is, takes place in the comments threads. Those too-often vitriolic threads are ropes that strangle hope and goodwill and take the birdsong out of an early spring morning.
The candidates keep saying they get it, they know Americans are angry. I bet we’d all feel less angry if we got off our computers and took a walk around the block or strolled around the yard. I think we all need to be quiet for a while so we can learn to listen to each other again.