NPR Exposes 'Nasty Comments' on the Internet -- Anti-Obama, Anti-Muslim, But None from the Left

NPR’s All Things Considered aired a long report on Thursday night on nasty Internet commenters – but reporter Laura Sydell’s examples centered on anti-Obama and anti-Muslim commenters (including one who wanted Obama shot), and no one from the left (like the Huffington Post people regretting Cheney wasn't shot in Afghanistan). She began with a sympathetic sick family that favored ObamaCare:

LAURA SYDELL: If you want to know what it's like to get attacked online, just ask Miki Hsu Leavey. She wrote a thankful letter to the editor of the local paper when the health care bill passed. She has lupus. Her 24-year-old son can't get health care because of a preexisting heart condition and her husband was diagnosed with liver cancer.

Ms. MIKI HSU LEAVEY: So my thank you note was really about the relief I had mentally.

SYDELL: When Leavey looked at the site the morning it was posted, she got comments like this one.

Ms. LEAVEY: Oh, my poor baby is sick. Only the great Obama can save him. Makes me sick just reading it.

SYDELL: Leavey was shocked by the vitriol.

Ms. LEAVEY: And I'm going, oh, my gosh, I can't believe what they're saying. Oh, my goodness, this is so personal. I mean, I guess, I wrote a personal story so maybe that's what I asked for.

Sydell did not note the rapturous prose of Leavey's letter to the paper, which ended:  

I am not sure how we can be helped by your historic legislation yet, but because you have passed health care for us, I believe we have a fighting chance to get help. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

You did it.  You heard us.  You have courage. And Barack Obama is the most hopeful, thoughtful, generous president we have had in my lifetime.

That's not to say Leavey deserved abusive comments, but NPR underplayed her own ideological ardor. Sydell then talked to experts who suggested that websites actually gain traffic from vitriolic commenters. Then came the shoot-Obama example from CNN.com:

SYDELL: And there's been some high-profile negativity on big sites like CNN.com. Lila King, a senior producer there, says during the last presidential election, a commenter kept putting up the same image.

Ms. LILA KING (Senior Producer, CNN.com): It's a little cartoon of a white stick figure and a black stick figure, and the white stick figure with a machine gun in its hand shooting the other stick figure and its heart exploding and red splatters all over the page.

SYDELL: It isn't just the big sites. It's the little blogs and specialty sites like Religion Dispatches. The site has long-form articles that look at the places where religion and politics meet. Many of the writers are scholars and academics. Editor Lisa Webster says an article written by an expert on Islam got some terrible comments.

Ms. LISA WEBSTER (Senior Editor, Religion Dispatches): Someone from our funder noticed and said, by the way, we're not interested in funding, you know, providing a platform for hate speech.

SYDELL: Webster began to worry that the open comments were detracting from the thoughtful tone of Religion Dispatches.

Ms. WEBSTER: It's also like old magazine days. You don't -- if you're doing a restaurant review, you don't put the restaurant review next to an ad for a garbage dump or something like that. You have to think about these things.

SYDELL: Religion Dispatches has a radical solution. They're getting rid of comments. Readers have to send a letter to the editor - it can be an email - but only a few of the best letters get published.

Sydell didn't cite the actual article or comments that are so awful. She also left out that Religion Dispatches is a liberal blog, whose advisory council includes "scholars" from liberal groups like the Center for American Progress, People for the American Way, the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, and one Harry Knox of the Human Rights Campaign, whose been quite a hateful commenter on his own. Sydell worried the "thoughtful tone" (synonymous with liberal expression?) would be compromised by rebuttals.

Sydell found that a better way was evolving, where editors get into the conversation with commenters. The San Diego Union-Tribune got involved when commenters protested a story about a murder by two men spray-painting a wall were called "graffiti artists," which, he said "made it seem that they were, you know, van Gogh with a spray can."

Then he said "I weighed it in, said that's a good point, I'll fix the headline. Someone asked another question about why it was written, and the readers started kind of answering and discussing among themselves, accepting my explanation. It was a valuable reader exchange. I'm glad it happened."

The piece ends where it began, with Miki Hsu Leavey hoping for a more civilized space for Republicans and Democrats to discuss things. But NPR and Sydell didn't create any space for Republicans or conservatives in this piece.

Tim Graham
Tim Graham
Tim Graham is Executive Editor of NewsBusters and is the Media Research Center’s Director of Media Analysis