Roy Exum: What Anonymous Cowards Love

Sunday, December 29, 2013 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

It comes as a sad awakening that the nation’s top websites and Internet news agencies are beginning to take a hard look and draw a strong line against anonymous readers’ “comments” that follow articles and opinions. Too many today spew vitriolic hatred, bigotry, vulgar language and incite all that is wrong and bad about freedom-of-speech.

The truth is that the police-free Internet has allowed America to become different than it once was – rather than hail the hero our first knee-jerk reaction is to knock him or her from their well-earned pedestal. Mind you, I believe very strongly in freedom of speech but believe it must come with a caveat; it should be accepted only when it can be attributed to an actual person who has the fortitude, or courage, to stand behind his or her opinion. Cowards do not and should not qualify, no more than any other ghost.

I also feel strongly about vulgar language that some sites commonly allow in the reader comments. What if a 14-year-old studying Obamacare for a school project comes across racist filth, uncensored vulgarity, and worse? I think the nation’s web masters, be it at the Washington Post, Google news or so many others that I enjoy, should most definitely have the right to maintain a sense of decorum. Freedom of speech has nothing to do with the public profanity that is actually against the law elsewhere in the public domain.

As an opinion writer, I get hundreds of comments almost every day and, most are enjoyable – particularly from those who respectfully disagree and courteously explain why. These mean the most to me because they teach, cause me to think and consider the opposite view. I usually hold on to my original belief, but it is wonderful to recall such lessons before I take my next stand on the next controversy.

I also receive a fair share of daggers from the “Legion of the Miserable;” those who seek nothing more than to trigger pain, anguish, hurt and turmoil. They want to drag others down to their lowly depths and, when I read this week that reader comments are becoming too deplorable to be publicly acceptable, I must admit I have known all about it for years..

Not long ago I got an email from some unknown with the screen name, “your-turnnow.” No other identification, no name, no telephone number. The message began, “I'll be watching to see if you have enough journalistic integrity to write about this outrage against women everywhere that Christian Catholics have any power.”

Are you kidding me? Here is a coward who wants me to use my name and my column to get involved in some fistfight involving “When Bishops and a Pope Tie the Doctor’s Hands.” Don’t you see, rather than confront this alleged problem in an open and sincere manner on their own, “your-turnnow” apparently believes that if they can challenge my “journalistic integrity” in the very first sentence to me, that they can craftily maneuver stupid me into supporting their hidden agenda. Sorry, but this ain’t my first rodeo.

Mankind’s loathsome anonymous comments were first born on sports talk shows, of all things, some years ago. The radio host would urge listeners to call in and give their “expert” opinions. Even today it is a total sham.

The first thing you must know is that all too often “Joe in Cleveland” is really a shameless liar named Freddie who lives near Dunlap. The first lie always told is the imaginary alias. Secondly, virtually none of them has a clue what they are talking about. There is more misinformation and blatant lies told over a faceless radio call-in crowd than any other medium.

The target of such slander has no recourse. Almost every college coach and athlete loathes talk radio because a listener can – and does – say anything. While the blatant lies are broadcast without question, the truth doesn’t stand a chance because you can never identify or find the liar to demand a public retraction.

Side story: Back in the day former UT coach Johnny Majors and I were brutally and repeatedly attacked one year by some liars who hosted a sports talk show. Fortunately for us, the two hosts of the show said some things that were clearly libelous, and attorneys were also able to voice-recognize four or five callers.

The lawyers assured us we could successfully sue for damages, but we couldn’t figure out what to do with the station once we owned it! The owner and general manager made earnest apologies, personally and on-air, and we accepted them but everybody involved realized the lies were like the ringing of a bell – they could never be taken back. Coach Majors and I will never forget it.

Most often it isn’t the station’s fault, or the host’s fault. You’ll remember “Al from Dadeville” who never dreamed he would get tracked down after poisoning the beloved oak trees in Auburn. While he got caught, those in the sports media have long recognized the worst source in America for the truth is “Billy from Dalton.”

Now the disrepute and slander has seeped into the Internet and newspapers, websites, and a growing number of forum sites are no longer offering the public the ability to respond. Granted, it is a shame because I believe civil discourse strengthens any singular view but let one of two bad apples get in the mix and a story is better standing on its own legs than allowing a faceless liar to unfairly twist it.

There is an old country expression that holds, “Every hen in the chicken house is not a good layer.” On comment boards this would mean that while you have many good responders, there are those who would purposely lie, deceive and spoil the process in order to discredit the story. The Germans did this in World War II with false propaganda and a far different agenda. This is hardly a new phenomenon but it stinks up any hen house. encourages public comment but only if it is signed and can be verified. The same holds true for the Chattanooga Times-Free Press, and other news outlets all across the country are quickly aligning a verification process to weed out the miscreants who have already ruined what was a noble forum.

Incidentally, the No. 1 rule on the Internet today is that you NEVER open an email attachment unless you know who sent it. You can read a kook’s letter but do nothing it suggests (like clicking on a site in blue). Delete it instead. This is how the “Legion of the Miserable” sends viruses and if a person that you know doesn’t include a personal message, giving just a place to click on a line of gooble-gook, opening such a site will likely get you hacked in a hurry.

Among your New Year’s resolutions, please continue to stand up for what you believe but do it is a way that draws credit to your name … your real name. It is important for you to be heard – and for others, too --  but with it should come a responsibility, one that you should respect because it just like your opinion, it also belongs to you.

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