The Billings Gazette on Tuesday shut the spigot on the firehose of public comments that had marked its online edition for years.
The decision to kill public comments was announced in a Sunday column by Editor Darrell Ehrlick. He gave readers until Tuesday to respond. More than 200 did before the comments section went dark on Tuesday.
Ehrlick wrote, “What began as a noble experiment in conversation has been mired in name-calling, epithet and trolling.” He noted that National Public Radio also recently ended reader comments on its website and said that other newspapers are following suit. Readers can still comment on Facebook and, of course, they can write letters to the editor.
Unfortunately for Ehrlick, he undermined his own column by using the first half to list examples of angry comments readers had made about him. This caused many of those who responded to his column to argue that he was just too thin-skinned to take it anymore.
“Comments are only words,” one wrote, “and it is too bad that you have to insulate yourself from dissenting opinions, by fixing it so that you will no longer have to know about them, although opinions will not change.”
Others made disparaging comments about Ehrlick’s weight and intelligence, thereby, still others noted, demonstrating that he was right about the tone of many comments.
Some saw the ban as another instance of the gradual decay of journalism at the Gazette. One wrote, “Stopping public comment is a step backwards for sure, but that is consistent with the steps backward that the Gazette has taken in recent years. I wonder if Gazette staff will have to use typewriters instead of computers to shield them from what is being said and done in the world?”
Some blamed the “feckless moderators” at the Gazette for failing to control trolls.
Others were more sympathetic, such as this reader: “Can’t say that I blame the Gazette — discussion thread trolling has become a national recreational pastime. It’s a shame, because amidst all the abusive and ignorant noise, some useful signal does manage to come through, but trying to referee the mess has to be a thankless, exhausting and dispiriting job.”
Another wrote: “Sharing a comment is like throwing a piece of meat out in the open and letting the wolves tear it apart and then run back to their hiding place.” And another: “We did have some reasoned debates from time to time and those I will miss but I can’t say as I blame the Gazette for saying enough is enough.”
Some saw the banning of comments so near the election as a means of cutting off conservative responses to the Gazette’s presumed pro-Clinton stance.
“Now the propaganda paper is free is spread its liberal agenda without rebuttal,” one wrote.
Some responses really can’t be characterized, like this one:
“TELL US YOUR THOUGHTS
When the Billings Gazette soon goes out of business, what will the building be used for?
o Marajuana grow site
o Gay bar and nightclub
o Yellowstone Jail Expansion
VOTE see results”
Another commenter contributed a limerick that rhymed “Ehrlick” with “derelict.” And there was this: “Wtf !@#$ how am I going to troll anymore?? I’m telling Jesus on you.”
And this: “CLEARLY another ploy by the UN to push Agenda 21!
“Sorry you yipping curs, your half baked, misinformed, illiterate vitriol has been delegated back to the bathroom stalls where it came from.”
Of course, we liked this comment the best (and swear we didn’t write it): “This comes as no surprise. Removal of comments will leave room for more click bait, which has come to dominate the Lee papers instead of news.
“Let’s all just go over to Ed Kemmick’s Last Best News where it is free of click bait and has high quality writing.”