Friday, May 27, 2011

The Peanut Gallery

Endless Conversation

Express Staff Writer

I remember the godlike visage of Walter Cronkite that appeared on television each evening when I was a kid. No ruckus was allowed in the house while this all-knowing and powerful Oz delivered his messages to America.

My mother would stop doing the dishes. Dad would listen intently. It seemed as though the entire world held its breath until anchorman Cronkite finished delivering his comments about all that mattered in the world.

Times have changed. People expect news from more people on more topics in more countries in a world that has become increasingly interconnected through public opinion. Diverse viewpoints from the multitudes are available on the Internet, and some of those opinions are proving more capable of toppling governments than armed revolutions.

I wonder how Cronkite's authority would be challenged by the mosh pit of public opinion that exists today on the public comment sections of news organizations. Nowadays, every story that hits the World Wide Web is subject to comment, revision or ridicule, depending upon the whims, opinions or areas of expertise of readers.

Some comments are edifying, adding much-needed ancillary information that relates to the topics presented. After writing about "The Singularity" last year, I got schooled by a Silicon Valley brainiac who knew far more about artificial intelligence than I will ever know. I was humbled.

Others have helped me to come to terms with mystical beliefs at the core of the Republican and Democratic liturgies.

Some public comments are snipish and discursive. They often come from anonymous sources that lurk in the shadows at the edge of cyberspace. Some comments are as simple as "yawn," placed by someone who should have looked for entertainment elsewhere. Others are aggressive and provocative, like belches from the id that should have been delivered at happy hour and forgotten the next morning.

Many use evasive nom de plumes—predators from the animal world seem to be popular—and build reputations for themselves for wisecracks, mud-slinging and sometimes informative comments. Some day they should step forward and take a bow for adding some color to local news coverage. The only problem is that they have picked so many fights online, with fourth-generation Idahoans and others, that they would have to wear disguises at the supermarket.

There is a difference between purposeful dialogue and inflammatory rhetoric. As long as newspapers focus on the former, people can have as much fun with the latter as they want, as far as I'm concerned. But it would be troublesome if readers were to confuse the two.

Those writers willing to attach names and addresses to their comments could one day graduate to the letters-to-the-editor page, but then again they may already be there.

Tony Evans:

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