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A stand for civility on the Internet

Goodbye, Richabri. Farewell to MickeyMouse. Sayonara to DiversityHater.

Au revoir to the horde of folks who hid behind the cover of anonymity to spew racist, homophobic and otherwise offensive garbage on The Buffalo News' Web site.

Goodbye. And good riddance.

It is a bad day for the legion of folks who habitually had online comments taken down as too vile for public consumption. So much for the dragging of civil discussion into the cesspool.

News Editor Margaret Sullivan announced this week that, within a few weeks, readers will no longer be able to anonymously comment on articles posted on the Web site. The News is the first major daily to make the move, which is getting national notice.

Score one, as I see it, for common sense and decency. And welcome, presumably, to more civil online discussions.

Anyone commenting after an online story -- or commenting on another comment -- has to use his or her name, verifiable with a phone number. No more hiding behind "MailGuy272", "NYCGal" or other on-screen masks. Everybody stands behind their words. And everyone has to live with the reactions, criticisms and judgments of other folks in the online forum.

The Wild West days of cyberassaults are over. Hallelujah!

The ugliness wrought by the no-holds-barred forum bothered me and a lot of my colleagues. It upset people whose names appeared in articles and were unfairly attacked. Readers I heard from were disgusted by descents into gutter-level discourse.

All columnists and reporters at this newspaper puts their name behind their words. I think it is only fair that anyone reacting to their writing does the same.

Time and again, I have seen anonymity -- whether in a blog or a letter or a phone call -- bring out the worst in human nature. When someone calls and starts pounding on me for something I write, I ask for a name. If I do not get it, the conversation is over. If I do, the conversation -- nearly every time -- rises to a higher level.

To my mind, anyone hiding behind anonymity is too embarrassed, ashamed or afraid of the potential blowback from the broader community.

"Anonymity allows people to sling mud," said Lee Coppola, dean of St. Bonaventure University's Russell J. Jandoli School of Journalism. "They will say things they will not say in open company. I think it undermines the profession of journalism, and brought the paper down.

"Newspapers put their toes in the water with this, to enhance the online product. They are seeing that [commenting anonymously] carries it too far."

Let's not mix apples and oranges. There are times when journalists reluctantly use anonymous sources to get information that, as noted by ex-investigative reporter Coppola, "could cost [sources] their livelihoods or, in some situations, their lives."

Denying blogging anonymity is not about protecting lives or livelihoods. It is about people cleaning up their acts. I think the new rules will chill down folks who do not have the guts to stand behind their words -- and welcome those who avoided the online free-for-all, for fear of being splattered by anonymous sludge.

Andrea Haas, a volunteer in last year's "Extreme Makeover" of a West Side community, told me afterward that volunteers "felt like [we] were punched in the stomach when reading the slew of negative comments on The News' Web site. When people responded, there was name-calling and racist remarks."

Not fair.

The rules of the game have changed. The News' Web site will became a more civilized place. It is high time that the law comes to Dodge City.


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