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The Tangled Web of the Grand Rapids Press

December 22, 2010

Last week, we reported on the number of racist, homophobic, and harassing comments that readers of the Grand Rapids Press were posting on its MLive website. Several people asked if we could contact the Press directly to talk about the problem with them, see if they were aware of its extent, and find out exactly how the site was monitored.

In the meantime, Editor Paul Keep made a big, although rather vague, announcement in Sunday’s paper: that the Press was making the shift to its long-hinted-at focus on its online edition. Keep calls this “Web-first, print-important.” This seems to mean that the Press will continue to issue a printed paper, but focus on its website content first. The announcement was short on details; Keep himself noted that the change’s “dimensions are somewhat murky.”  But it seems clear that the Press considers its website the lifeboat of the newspaper.

GRIID attempted to contact Paul Keep with no luck last week, but the Sunday article announced that online editor Meegan Holland was now in charge of the web edition. I called her on December 20, and she spent a significant amount of time explaining how the MLive site was monitored.

First, Holland made it clear that the Press is concerned about the vitriol and racism being posted daily about its articles. She said that in the past week, she had been engaged in “a number of intense talks” with MLive about the hate-speech posts, and added, “We’re upset about it, and our exploration of this issue has support from top to bottom here.”  She added that the Press staff also had a meeting last week about the subject, stating, “Everybody felt that something must be done. We really need to be digging in and addressing this.” The new “web-first” strategy, she noted, has made the problem a priority.

Asked if having a large number of comments on each article was an editorial goal, Holland replied, “We want the website to keep rolling; our goal is to have lots of comments.” This statement agrees with a comment she made in a Press article from January 15 of this year. But Holland made it clear that no one on staff wanted that at the expense of hate speech, and that there was no encouragement by management to leave posts up just to up the number of comments per thread.

Holland verified what another Press reporter had told GRIID earlier: that each writer was encouraged to read his or her comments and attempt to monitor them; but because of the reduced size of the staff and the demands on the remaining employees, many reporters were only able give this task limited time.

One surprise was that the chief monitoring came not from the Press or MLive, but via Advance Internet. Advance hires a team of subcontracted “sweepers” to review posts and remove them. However, Holland says that the Press is also reliant on reader input. “It takes a community,” she said. Readers using the Alert button and reporting offensive messages seemed to be one of the most reliable methods the Press had currently to keep up-to-date on the removal of offensive posts. Holland said, “We really need the community’s help.”

Other problems with the monitoring of the site that Holland discussed were anonymous posting, the “Most Comments” list, and the idea of having a voting system to vote comments up or down.

Holland stated that the Press was committed to anonymous posting. She said there were legitimate reasons for this: it allowed people to avoid repercussions from employers, church members, etc. I pointed out that anonymity was also the chief feature that allowed the hate speech to thrive. No one had to accept personal responsibility for what they posted online. I also told her that there was a growing movement among some readers to change their account names to their full, real names and then demand that hate-speech authors do the same. You can find this grass-roots activity in a number of threads now.

The “Most Comments” list appears at the right side of the screen, and shows account names with the largest number of posts per week. Both Holland and I agreed that this rewarded the regulars who tended to post the most offensive comments.

Holland seemed to feel that voting individual comments up or down would be a good addition, but I told her that because this regular hate-speech gang online was so active, it seemed this would just give them the means to remove any commentary that challenged their views from the site.

While it’s encouraging to learn that the Press is addressing this problem with serious intention, one hopes that the newspaper won’t end up taking a fall-back position of giving readers the main responsibility for monitoring the site. And until the Press puts solutions in place, the hate speech continues unabated. From this week’s articles, here are a few examples:

An article about a Black woman who sued the United Way for discrimination on the job elicited many comments by people assuming that she was just attempting to “blackmail” the company and her claim was baseless, even though the EEOC found that her case had merit. The article caused one reader to make the strange and racist assumption that since most of the people who benefited from United Way programs were Black, no settlement for the discrimination suffered by the employee should be made: …$250,000 in punitive damage to a person that suffered no physical or mental harm being taken away from an organization that raises money for hundreds of local charities, many if not most, serving black clients is just plain selfish.

Other comments included:

• I think Dire Straits said it best: “You get your money for nothin and your chicks for free!” This woman sounds like she was lucky to even have a job. It is becoming way too easy to throw out the race card these days.

• I have seen this so many times, and it is alarming how often people cave in to this kind of blackmail…I’d fire her now on my first opportunity for the smallest infraction. She needs to be out of there. She will try to sue again, because she’s the type, and needs to be ousted. That’s what you get for playing your card.

This is a perfect example of why you cannot hire a black person for any job.

Attached to a cross-posted article the GR Press featured from Muskegon about how minimum wage eliminates jobs, there was this statement that seems to argue for minimum wage, but with a disturbing, hate-speech slant:
Slaves who are starved to death don’t do much work, and letting them die and constantly having to replace them is highly inefficient, thus costly. Even fleshless machine tools require the expense of regular maintenance…In conclusion, minimum wage has the same onus today, as meeting the basic needs for slaves did in plantation days. And it must be raised periodically to adjust for the increasing costs of those needs. Very basic logic, what?

A number of posts argued that corporations should not be made to pay minimum wage because profits suffer, and included these:
Minimum wage is a job killer. In the middle of a resesion/depression, in the midst of widespread unemployment where people can’t afford to purchase extra items, if sales are down, how can a business afford to pay more?

Minimum wages does nothing more than increase labor costs without regard to productivity. In the early years of minimum wage it was a way for unions to keep blacks from getting their jobs.

And the vitriolic blaming of the unemployed for their own plight was on full display in comments on two stories about extending unemployment benefits. About one of the featured unemployed people in an AP wire story, one author wrote: Uh ms.smith, from the picture look’s like you haven’t miss a meal so I really don’t think you are having a bad time… So you have been collecting unemployment for 18 month’s wow! Is this the set standard for unemployment ins? Heck go on welfare after being “unable” to find work after 18 month’s. Hey kid’s can you say the word “Lazy”.

Other comments included:

• People, there are employers screaming for employees – some even offering free housing! But giving up a guaranteed $477 a week before taxes, food stamps, heating help, free this and free that, might be hard to do. In that case, unemployment is a choice.

•It is tiresome to be forced to carry the burden on our backs of all the feel-sorry-for me whiners.

• If people are losing their jobs in their 50’s and are homeless in a year then you obviously didn’t save or spend your money wisely.

• ohhhh look the free money money…Bunch of unemployed useless bums.

Let’s hope that the Press finds workable solutions to this situation soon.


5 Comments leave one →
  1. Fake Name permalink
    December 22, 2010 10:51 pm

    What’s the difference between anonymous and Fake Name. If you’re going for full blown racist comments, then you’re just going to make up a name, same as anonymous. Won’t change a thing…

    What’s with capitalizing “Black,” by the way?

  2. Kate Wheeler permalink
    December 22, 2010 11:28 pm

    Capitalizing ‘Black’ and ‘White’ puts these races on a par with terms like Latino and Indian and also nationalities like Chinese or French. Black and White are lowercased in AP style, but the Chicago Manual of Style states they should be capped and why: “White & Black. It is appropriate to capitalize White and Black when referring to the American racial groups. As always, be consistent….Many lower-case color terms have disparaging connotations: red, yellow, brown. Do not use these terms.”

    GRIID (along with a number of other independent news sites) chooses to cap them to equalize racial terms and to treat all terms with the same respect.

    As for account names on MLive, of course people can make up fake names. The readers who are pushing for required names are doing so as a wake-up call to those who feel they can post any racist or hate-language tirade without accountability. Read the threads to see readers discussing their reasoning and how they confront anonymous posters with the idea of using their real names.

  3. ben permalink
    December 23, 2010 11:42 pm

    I don’t think the up and down rating works. Look at all the comments on yahoo news stories, and those rated highest.

  4. May 16, 2011 8:15 pm

    Hear, hear! It’s about time all posters stepped up to be recognized. If you’re too ashamed to have your name publicly associated with the commentary, then don’t post. Pure and simple. Have the courage to stand behind your words. Or, according to the Spanish idiom: “Don’t throw stones and then hide your hand.”


  1. New Hate Speech Watch blog started in Grand Rapids « Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy

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