Essex column: Do we talk like this in public places?
January 8, 2017
Would you stand up in a restaurant and make a profane reference to intercourse loudly enough for everyone in the place to hear you?
I’m going to guess that most of the Post Independent’s readers, most Garfield County residents, most Coloradans and most Americans would not. I could be wrong; things are changing.
After more than 35 years in daily news — which obviously includes the entire time newspapers have had websites and online comments on stories, and the entire time our industry has used Facebook to interact with readers — not a lot surprises me. But I have to admit that I was taken aback last week by reaction to a Facebook post.
I didn’t expect it to be controversial, and I didn’t expect it to step into the chasm of our toxic political divide.
On Tuesday, I posted this on the PI Facebook page:
“New rule for the new year: If you use any one of the five harshest of George Carlin’s seven dirty words in comments on Facebook posts or on stories, you’ll be banned. We’re hosting a community conversation and we believe that certain words are not suited to that forum.”
Just as a restaurant is a public place, our Facebook page is open to all. It’s a public place.
In monitoring comments posted directly on our stories on postindependent.com and on our Facebook posts promoting those stories, Post Independent staffers, including myself, have hidden harshly profane comments and direct insults to other customers from public view.
When we do that on Facebook, the comments remain visible to the poster’s Facebook friends, but not to other people who happen into the comment thread.
Increasingly, though, some comments have been simply profane curses of the intellectual caliber of “f you.” At the same time, our Facebook followers and visitors to our website are increasing, making it more difficult to monitor the growing number of comments.
News organizations have struggled with this and growing vitriol for a few years, with several sites ending comments on their articles.
I don’t want to do that. Despite letting myself get sucked into discussions — oh, heck, they are arguments at times — and succumbing too often to the temptation to be defensive, I really like reading what most of our readers think about stories and issues, including criticisms.
I don’t mind being called names — if I did, I’d urgently need to find a new line of work. But I really dislike it when my staffers are unfairly attacked or a reader calls another reader an obscene name. Actually, any name-calling is hardly constructive discourse, and we will continue to hide such comments even if they don’t use profanity.
So perhaps it was naïve, but I expected little blowback from telling our audience that we would no longer tolerate the most taboo profanity on our Facebook page. I thought that referencing George Carlin’s dirty words routine injected a little humor into it.
Then came vigorous defenders of using some of the coarsest words in our language in a public forum:
“So silly. Get your play dough and safe room.” (Note to Hasbro: We know that the trademark is Play-Doh; please don’t bother with the trademark warning.)
“Wow, so much for freedom of speech!”
A couple of points here:
• We’re not restricting your freedom of speech. Share our story to your Facebook page and have at it. The First Amendment, though, does not require us to publish or share whatever you choose to say. We’re editing our Facebook page to conform with longstanding norms of civil behavior and with what we don’t publish in the paper or on the website.
• The PI is a business, just as a restaurant is a business. Businesses have a right to set standards of conduct within their areas of purview. I think we have an obligation to the bulk of our audience to do so.
Some commenters — and to put this in context, others agreed with us and 57 people “liked” or “loved” the post — accused us of political correctness or liberal sniveling. One such comment was, “I bet the 5 words are: Glad Trump kicked Obama’ ASS.”
This was not a political post. It’s not political correctness; it’s basic social courtesy that most of us were taught growing up. It’s not liberal; it’s prudish.
Yes, standards have changed. Our industry is old-fashioned in its use of language because our products are meant to be suited to anyone of any age who reads them.
There’s a big difference between a public forum and what we say in private. My 94-year-old mother would be ashamed of how I talk in private sometimes. Which is sort of the point — when I’m around her, I seek to be mindful of her sensitivities.
We’re merely asking readers commenting on our Facebook page to be considerate of the larger audience. If you can’t, you’ll need to exercise your right to free speech elsewhere.
Randy Essex is publisher and editor of the Post Independent.