Has the Internet Hampered Rational Discussion?

Scurrilous and unsubstantiated arguments seem to be more and more prevalent. Is the internet responsible?

Flipping through the TV channels this morning, I came upon an interview with an elderly gentleman with intelligent eyes who voiced his concern about the decline of mutually respectful civil discourse. He was a retired editor of a major newspaper. He joked about the waning influence of the printed word and said that an appropriate question a journalism grad seeking a job at a newspaper and an editor might ask each other might be "What are we doing here"?However, as newspapers decline in readership, there is another decline that bothered the former editor even more: a crude and generally ignorant tone that characterizes many comments on the editorial pages. Scurrilous and unsubstantiated accusations have become more and more common there. The man's words brought me back in time to when one of our grade school assignments was to read the editorial pages to familiarize ourselves with intelligent argument. I remember discovering Sydney Harris's column there and becoming one of his regular readers, his wit and style drawing me in. Come to think of it, I recall that when I was in high school I sent a letter to the editor of the Chicago Daily News and it was published. In those days you did not have to have your name published, and I doubt I would have sent the letter in if I had thought my identity would be revealed. Yet scurrilous and unsubstantiated commentary was pretty much nonexistent.When the former editor spoke of his editorial pages of yore, it was with great pride. He felt quite sure that it was the Internet that was and is responsible for the decline of civil discourse we see in print and all around us. Maybe the elderly gentleman with the intelligent eyes has a point. What do you think?

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Eric Grenier January 29, 2013 at 04:23 AM
Gary - I find that checking multiple legitimate sources for the story can usually reveal that bias. Also, bias is pretty easy to spot anyway. A large and related problem is when non-journalists force their editors to publish sensational and/or misleading headlines to generate clicks. This also leads to a lot of what you're talking about.
Donald E. Russ January 29, 2013 at 03:33 PM
The elderly gentleman with intelligent eyes was civil. June and Gary were civil. Eric was the first in this conversation to call his perceived opponents “liars”. We are all journalists now. Here in the Patch comments I tried to notice the Lake Bluff School Board’s tax rates of recent years – a simple matter of fact – and a Mr. Timothy L. Brown responded with sarcasm and insult. http://lakeforest.patch.com/articles/lake-bluff-school-board-cuts-tax-levy-3-1-million#comments_list So we understand that there are as many standards for civility as there are authors, but still I think that taxpayers are entitled to expect a high degree of honesty from the boards who speak for taxing districts. Consider: http://65.pxxq.com/generations.html The real complaint is not with folks like Mr. Timothy L. Brown but rather the Lake Bluff School Board which should be held to a high standard but has historically failed in its duty of transparency and candor.
Eric Grenier January 29, 2013 at 06:17 PM
Point well taken regarding my use of "liars". Should I have said, "Those whose standards do not meet those of trained journalists"? That wording sounds weasel-y to me. I didn't mean to accuse, only to state a general first-hand observation. Regardless of the reason for or motive behind it, I believe false information due to lack of journalistic standards is a significant contributor to the lack of civility on the internet. Composer/satirist Peter Schickele once said, "Truth is truth. You can't have opinions about truth".
Donald E. Russ January 29, 2013 at 07:15 PM
“It’s not ‘dirty campaigning’ when you inform people about your opponent’s record. If there’s anything negative in the reporting, it is the fault of the perpetrator – not the fault of those reporting it. As the late Andrew Breitbart said: “The truth is not mean. It’s the truth.” http://watchdog.org/23118/thurber-sherrod-browns-26-year-old-abuse-charges-are-fair-game/ And when the perpetrator has a duty to tell the truth, as a school board does, and fails in that duty, the fault is great: http://65.pxxq.com/dissemblings.html
Eric Grenier January 29, 2013 at 08:56 PM
I'm trying to ignore your bait but you're not letting go. This was an enormously complex, 5-year school design and construction project that has nothing to do with this discussion. What is factual is that the school board provided to the public what we knew at the time and involved the public extensively in open concept and design meetings beginning in 2004 and continuing into 2008. Just consider that a lot of people and a lot of different entities and agencies had their cut at the project after it was approved by the community, including but not limited to: Students, parents, teachers, administrators, volunteer groups like PTO, BLDD Architects and CS2 Design Group, Village of Lake Bluff engineering, LB Zoning Board, US Green Building Council and LEED, Lake County Planning and Building Development, Lake County Board of Education, Illinois State Board of Education, Illinois Dept. of Transportation, Lake Bluff Open Lands, and the Lake Bluff Park District. There were hiccups and more than a few changes to the plan along that tortuous path, but we had intended from the start that this be a triumph of community involvement and it was. You can pick the process apart, but you'd be picking on an awful lot of people.


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