Forum flame wars are a sad commentary

Have you noticed an overflow of bile curdling the milk of human kindness lately?

No? Then perhaps you haven't been reading enough threads on the Mail Tribune's forums.

There's a saying that "no good deed goes unpunished." This familiar adage recently demonstrated its sad truth on our ever-popular public forums.

A recent story about a Medford woman's humanitarian efforts to provide free cars to needy families started several forumites spewing a week-long stream of venom against a Rogue River family who received the first donated vehicle.

A nonprofit agency had provided the family's contact information. The young mom, Jessie Jimenez, couldn't have been more accommodating. Within 45 minutes of our phone conversation, a photographer and I arrived at the home Jessie shares with her fiancé, 3-week-old baby girl, toddler son and two young stepsons. Her fiancé was at work. Recovering from the effects of a postpartum illness, she had nevertheless agreed to have her family's privacy intruded upon that steamy afternoon because she wanted to spread the word about LeArta Romero's "Driving-Out Poverty" program.

I apologized for the short notice. Jessie was gracious in her reply.

"That's OK. I'm happy to do this. It might help other people, too," she said.

I wonder if Jessie regrets her "pay it forward" decision. No battered old van could possibly be worth the public flogging she and her family endured after a roving band of anonymous trolls on the Mail Tribune forums mounted its attack.

The alias-wielding pundits accused Jessie of begging for free wheels. They chastised her for being a welfare queen. They upbraided her for contributing to overpopulation. They even chided her for owning a humongous dog.

LeArta must have been horrified to see the outreach program she created to honor the memory of her deceased son becoming the source of such sour commentary.

Some forum-posters attempted to point out that these accusations were unproven, unfair and certainly unprovoked. For example, the 180-pound Great Dane mentioned in the story actually belonged to the van's donor, Medford City Councilwoman Jill Stout. But the rational voices didn't slow down the feeding frenzy of the mobbing majority. Truth flies out the window when vilifying vultures begin to squawk and pluck. And so Jessie and her family were berated day after day. A whopping 121 posts were tallied before the Mail Tribune's online staff pulled the discussion from the site.

I guess somebody finally called the newspaper and complained. I wish they'd done it sooner. I wish I'd raised hell, too.

But it goes against a journalist's grain to pull the plug on someone's right to flap their yap — even when we vehemently disagree. We are proponents of free speech. We're trained to be. Or maybe it's in our blood.

My heartburn is with dialogues that are anonymous — which all too often sinks the discussion to its lowest common denominator. I'm not too sure what that says about our collective humanity. But it can't be good.

Even the most innocuous forum topic threads have a way of devolving into written screaming matches in the blink of a cursor when folks are allowed to play peek-a-boo with their identities. And the literary sulfur rising from ever-popular "flame wars" creates an all-too-common stench.

But let's not lay the blame solely at the trolls' and sock puppets' invisible feet. The Mail Tribune, like thousands of other news sources with Internet sites, provides the literal forum for the forums. And, while we certainly didn't invent this beast, we can't deny we share the responsibility to keep it from devouring folks — or even its own members.

Maybe I'm just too "old school," but I groaned when the Trib — a newspaper that once won a Pulitzer prize for taking on a bunch of crooked citizen "watchdogs" — set up its two forum sites. The "classic" forum was touted as the hot new trend in online newspapers. Then the second forum arrived. Online readers can comment directly at the end of any news story. The newspaper was providing an opportunity for increased citizen journalism, the powers-that-be said.

Community input and commentary are great. But after participating in several forums on AOL for more than 10 years, I can attest to the fact that allowing folks to hide behind fake names and freaky avatars leads to a lot of sandbox squabbles — and worse.

The personal-attack commentary described above is sadly typical of many "discussions" on Internet forums. It may be a lot of things. But one thing it is not is journalism, citizen or otherwise.

In the newspaper, we require our letters to the editor to have verified signatures. Guest opinion pieces require a byline. But online forum members don't have to demonstrate the courage of their convictions by providing proper identities.

It should be noted that some forum members actually do use their real names. But others have opined that requiring posters to step out of the cyber shadows, were it even technically possible, would have a chilling effect on the free-flowing discussion.

Perhaps a dose of cold water isn't such a bad idea. Civility might improve if forum flame-throwers at least pretended they were backing their white-hot passion with a legitimate John Hancock.

Many of us actually do. Including Jessie Jimenez and LeArta Romero.

Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 776-4497 or e-mail

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