5 x 8: Uncivil discourse civilly discussed


The Current has now posted the audio from Monday’s night’s Policy and a Pint at the Varsity Theater in Minneapolis where we discussed whether the comments sections of news stories and web sites have any value.

I admit I was surprised by the number of people who said they don’t, considering that most of the audience appeared to be people most likely to have something intelligent and valuable to say.

After the event, I talked to several people who explained they’d never consider posting an online version of their very principled arguments they were using to explain why, and I still left somewhat confused why.

We probably spent too much time talking about trolls and not enough time talking about the sociology surrounding how we communicate with each other and why we’d attempt it differently online than we would, say, at a watering hole.


These are the stories that keep you out of the water. A brain-eating amoeba has killed another young person. Since 1962, National Geographic says, there has only been one survivor. The family of a 12-year-old girl hopes she’ll be the second.

A Stillwater girl died when she contracted the parasite while swimming in 2010. A 9-year-old boy died after swimming in Lily Lake last August.

National Geographic this week provided a list of what we know and don’t know about why this happens:

Millions of people swim in these bodies of water every year and don’t become ill. So it is difficult for us to say why one person would become ill and other people who swam in the same place and did the same activities did not. It certainly can affect anyone.

What is the chance of survival?

Since 1962, there have been 128 cases of Naegleria fowleri [infection] and only one survivor, not including the current case. Back in 1978, a patient survived after being treated with antibiotics. The same regimen has been tried unsuccessfully on other patients.


Attention bicyclists: You don’t have a right to ride in the center of the road. The Volokh Conspiracy details a Massachusetts case in which a man insisted riding near the centerline is safer than riding along the shoulder.

No, the Supreme Court said.


Ray Widstrand, the man beaten by alleged gang members on Saint Paul’s East side last week, opened an eye for the first time yesterday, according to his Caringbridge.org page. He’s been in a coma since the beating, which has finally focused more attention on a reality: the gangs are running the neighborhoods.

In his article today, the Pioneer Press’ Ruben Rosario calls out the city leadership and African-American leaders in the city:

“No question these hoodlums have been getting bigger and bolder and out of control in that area for over a year, blocking traffic, harassing people,” said the officer, who asked to remain anonymous because he is not permitted to speak publicly without advance approval from the department.

The cop also added that fellow colleagues working the East Side feel their hands are tied by police leadership they suspect is more concerned about community backlash if they aggressively enforce curfew and other quality-of-life laws.

“Look, recreation centers are fine and they may help, but these (gang members) don’t go to rec centers,” said the officer. “It’s not all law enforcement, but in this case right now, the hammer needs to come down on these people.”

He also noted a lack of outrage, particularly from the African-American community, over the recent beating, but more so the gang-related slaying of a 17-year-old youth by another last month in the same area. Both were black. The suspects in the Widstrand beating also belong to a predominantly black gang.


Yesterday was “Go to bat for brain injury” day at Target Field. So Andre Robinson, 6, threw out the first pitch. He was badly hurt when he was just 19 days old, according to KARE.

“He has had nine surgeries. We have been in the hospital 16 times,” said his mother.

Related: Paralympic rules under fire after paralyzed teen banned (CBC)

Bonus I:24 Reasons Matt Saracen Is Your Dream Boyfriend.

Bonus II:Dunkin Donuts coming to La Crosse area. Pay no attention to the comments, it’s news. Big news, people.

Bonus III:Chicago scoutmaster travels to Minnesota camp each summer at age 94.(Forum)


Daily Circuit (9-12 p.m.) – First hour: Rep. Keith Ellison and Rep. Betty McCollum.

Second hour: Many recent events from Trayvon Martin-George Zimmerman, to immigration reform discussion, to even pop culture TV. shows or films, challenge our own preconceived biases. While we might think we are open-minded in how we perceive and treat others, research shows that we may actually be predisposed to bias. But before we lose hope in ourselves, research is also showing that we can retrain our brains to recognize personal biases and rein it in.

Third hour: War reporters and photographers.

MPR News Presents (12-1 pm): From the Aspen Ideas Festival: Education reform. T Common Core curriculum. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and former superintendents John Deasy and Joel Klein.

The Takeaway (1-2 p.m.) – As deaths rise to more than 500, a look at next steps for Egypt, U.S.-Mideast relations.

All Things Considered (3-6:30 p.m.) – Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak makes his final budget speech today, and it’s possible he’ll announce the first cut to the city’s tax levy in recent memory. Like St. Paul, Minneapolis benefited from DFL control at the state Capitol. It will get almost $12 million in new state aid next year. MPR’s Curtis Gilbert is covering the story today.

  • Nikki

    I don’t comment on news articles, or on News Cut, even though I read it every day and find that the comments are thoughtful and conducive to discussion. Certainly, there are times where I do think about posting a comment, but decide against it because I’m not sure other readers would really care what I have to say. In fact, when I read news articles online, I avoid reading any comments. I get frustrated when I read them and I doubt I’m adding anything to the experience by arguing with someone, often using anonymous profile, that has more of an interest in an adding a voice to an echo chamber than engaging in a discussion with a stranger. I know there are people who have different points of view, many of them have spent just as much time forming them as I have, but I have to pick my battles and I’d rather not engage my fellow readers in this format. Frankly, I would rather listen to the news or read a printed newspaper to avoid feeling the way I feel after reading comments.

    • I’m reminded of a constant comment I hear whenever I approach people to write about them for NewsCut. They almost ALWAYS say “I’m not very interesting.” But the fact is we all have life experiences that shape how we view things and are… interesting. Ideally, online comments — discussions, observations, what have you — aren’t so much about arguing as about sharing perspectives and, again ideally, getting the rest of us to think more internally.

      • Jim G

        The only person who has lived my life is me. I do have an unique perspective that I occasionally share here on NewsCut, Today’s Question, and more rarely on the Daily Circuit. I’ve decided that my voice is worth adding to the conversation. In fact, it’s probably worth more when it’s a minority opinion. I value the comment sections on MPR because they are moderated and the craziness is mostly muted. Thanks!

    • boB from WA

      So Nikki why did you comment today? I find it interesting that you would comment on why you don’t comment. As one who shares some of your views, I too think that what I have to say isn’t that interesting, yet there are times when I think my perspective might add something to the discussion. I look forward to seeing your name again sometime.

      • Nikki

        I guess I just couldn’t resist the question. It IS fascinating that people would have a principled argument about why they wouldn’t respond to the question “Why don’t you comment?” and then not explain why. I think there’s a little more to it, though- News Cut is the first place I go when I turn my computer on in the morning, if I’ve come to rely on it so much, shouldn’t I participate in the community? And as you all have pointed out, we all have a unique perspective and this is a good place to have a discussion. Today’s question was an easy way to get my feet wet.

        • MrE85

          Jump right in, Nikki. The water’s fine. No brain-eating amoebas in Lake NewsCut.

  • I’ve been online since the days of dial-up and bulletin boards. In fact, my first paying job online was moderating boards on Compuserve back when they charged almost $6 an hour for access. You would think all that history would make me someone who comments a lot on stories. But this is one of the few places I bother.

    Part of it is just the percentage of noise to value in most threads. From the local newspaper sites to ones like Politico, way too many of the comments are just predictable variations of “the other side sucks.” Which is too bad. I love a healthy back-and-forth polite disagreement. One of the most fun jobs I ever had was appearing regularly on a Christian-oriented talk station. It was fun trying to expose listeners to a rational (I hope) voice from my side and I appreciated hearing another point of view. I wish there were more places those types of discussions could take place. In theory, comment threads would be one of those places, but that is rarely the case.

    • The secret of affording CompuServe was TapC$s. But, anyway, CompuServe’s boards were terrific for a couple of singular reasons (a) they were well partitioned by subject and (2) they were well moderated. I was a moderator in the journalism forum back in the day (which is also how I got my MPR job).

      But this gets back to the discussion (which I hope people will listen to). Do people really WANT to consider perspectives? Do they really want to challenge themselves?

      The best conversations I have tend to be questions and answers in which people explore their own feelings.

      Unquestionably, society is increasingly partitioned where we associated only with people most like us. That’s not entirely healthy.

      It’s not too late; but it’s getting there.

      • Craig

        Self-examining as suggested, perhaps I comment when I miss college. I love family life, responsibilities and private living space, but those three changes have slowly removed opportunities for honest, unguarded debate. Perhaps I don’t comment (even when I feel I could offer something new and true) when my inner critic asserts that desire for such debate is intellectually neotenous.

      • Christin

        The reason I love NewsCut and read it first before anything else every morning is because I find the blog and comments more thoughtful, insightful, and challenging than any other news source. I love to challenge my own perspectives and debate in a productive, healthy way. This blog encourages that and I appreciate it. I have not seen another online news source with comments that meet this criteria. I am often hesitant to comment because I think too much about it and by the time I am ready to post it’s been hours, and sometimes I am afraid that my contributions to the conversation aren’t necessarily that interesting.

  • Ken Paulman

    There’s a bit of nuance that the excerpt linked in item #3 doesn’t really capture. If you look at the map, you’ll see that the roadway segments where the cyclist was ticketed had a shoulder/right turn lane which, while not ideal, is objectively safer and legally where he should have been riding.

    Minnesota law requires cyclists to ride as far to the right “as practicable,” meaning a cyclist can ride in a traffic lane if it’s too narrow for a car and bike to occupy safely.

    So, item #3 is really about a jerk causing trouble and trying to use the First Amendment as defense against a traffic violation. It really doesn’t change or clarify anything about the rules of the road for cyclists.

  • jon

    @#1) speaking of internet comments that don’t add to the public Discourse:

    @#2) Speaking of staying out of the water – http://www.theregister.co.uk/2013/08/13/ballbiting_fish_chomps_on_swedish_mens_bits/

  • Sonya Burke

    I find a large part of the reason that I don’t comment on news articles is that I like to take my time to think about the items that I have just read, and re-read. Frequently my perceptions will change from one reading to another, or with the passage of time. By the time I am ready to comment (with a serious, non-pithy response), it seems that everyone else has made the same point that I wished to make. Then I am left with my original pithy comments on their deep ones.

  • kennedy

    Re #1: Newscut is the only place I comment with any regularity. It’s also the only place I regularly read comments. The two are definitely related for me. Thoughtful and respectful and even irreverent comments make for an enjoyable conversation, which encourages participation.

    Re Bonus2: This may run counter to the preceding, but in my experience Dunkin Donuts are average. There are none in the metro area anyway. Does anyone have a recommendation for a good donut spot?

    • The secret of Dunkin’s popularity isn’t the donut. It’s the coffee.

      • Jack Ungerleider

        I know my brother (in NY) feels that way.

      • Craig

        Metaphor intended?

  • Jack Ungerleider

    I too find myself only commenting here and maybe one or two other places. I think Bob does a good job of reminding us all to be civil in our discourse. People seem to keep to topic more on News Cut then other blogs I frequent.

    @kennedy: If you want decadent donuts the place to go is Mojo Monkey (http://mojomonkey.biz) on West 7th St in St Paul.

  • KTFoley

    Because introverts like me don’t often like to express a partial thought. it takes a good while to process a complex topic, and the conversation flows on to other things.

    Why don’t I read the City Pages anymore, much less post on their site? Thinking
    it through, I believe the City Pages approach to commenting is just putting the
    “lazy” in “laissez faire”. My impression is that the trolls are running their online scene, and they are far more interested in edginess than speech rights or discussion. Aaron Rupar’s approach has not improved the dialogue enough to make it worth the effort to scroll through the junk. But that’s what the paper chooses
    to be, so perhaps I’m just not their target demographic.

    Similarly, it has taken since Monday for me to settle my conclusion that, for
    whatever reason, the panel sidestepped Professor Thiel-Stern’s assertion that
    there are places online where the commenting is a base, vicious expression of
    the seediest dumps of human nature. Why was that?

    Professor Thiel-Stern could have said more about the trade-off for page views that bloggers make when they contribute a post to a newspaper site and tie that post to their blog. I would like to know what she expected of papers in backing up the bloggers, exactly, when the comments shift to their site from the newspapers’.

    There’s a lot more to say about how Mr. Ojeda-Zapata’s recommendation on “engaging with the posters” is a softly-worded version of “holding them accountable”. An answering post seems to be enough when the topic is something relatively safe like technology. However, the options need a much fuller examination when the topic touches off people’s fear & anger. It comes out in stories on crime, yes, and in also anything about race, gender, religion, class, sexual identity, immigration status, and so on. I was disappointed that Mr. Seel seemed to accept
    Mr. Ojeda-Zapata’s assertion that trolling isn’t that big a deal, and just went
    on from there to the next question.

    Maybe we don’t need a litany of examples of just how pervasive it can be and how
    graphic it can get, but it’s out there. For an example, check out the twitter hashtag #solidarityisforwhitewomen that erupted while we were at the Variety Theatre. A current topic, lots of deep-seated anger & frustration being expressed, and throughout the stream are posters wearing their ignorance like a turdhat. What to do about that?

    Back around to the first paragraph: this won’t be posted until the afternoon and, in online time, it’s years after the opportunity to converse. I don’t regret not having posted more here or elsewhere; I do regret not introducing myself while we were both standing at the bar before things got rolling, to say in person how much I appreciate your work here.