Fallout Due to Authoritarian Action

Friday, March 5, 2010

In November of 2009, Kurt Greenbaum, an editor for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch tracked down an anonymous commenter on the newspaper's Web site, who posted a vulgar response dealing with the female anatomy to the "Talk of the Day" feature. Greenbaum then informed the commenter's employer of the vulgar response, who subsequently fired the employee. Lastly, Greenbaum documented this story in his blog and on Twitter.

At the time, Greenbaum could not have expect the type of negative reaction his actions would cause. However, in the four months since, Greenbaum has faced widespread criticism, especially on the Web. Thursday, in an article for the Columbia Journalism Review, writer Justin Peters examined the fallout from the incident and its implications for the future of journalism.

As Peters pointed out, most of the overall anger directed towards Greenbaum stems from question, what led him to believe he had the authority to censor the Web site? This question points to the shifting nature of journalism. No longer, do newspapers have the authority to control readers' attitudes the way they could in the past. In the past, newspapers established authority by sifting through news and deciding what stories to publish. In turn, they set a standard for the appropriateness of certain topics among the paper's community. Readers had little access to other news resources, which forced them to adhere to the standard.

Over the past several years, however, and with the development of the Web and forces such as social media, readers have found new mediums of news consumption. In addition, they have become better equipped to participate in a more democratic format of media. With this new format, those who participate now expect greater power to set standards for conversation, making Greenbaum's actions, in which one person/entity controls and censors the conversation seem to authoritarian. Also, readers and community members have become more empowered to form their own "news organizations," in this case a Web site dedicated to criticizing Greenbaum.

Currently, I'm rather split on this issue. On one hand, I understand Greenbaum's actions and that preserving the integrity of organization's Web site may have necessitated the removal of the comment. However, in the end, I agree that on an ethical level, Greenbaum was wrong to go above the democratic process to censor material he disagreed with. His actions set a precedent that this kind of behavior is acceptable for news organizations and in the future, the public will have to be responsible to hold organizations accountable in similar circumstances.


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