Peterson: Who wants to clean up this mess?
Thank you, Philip Qualman. Thanks for saying what has needed to be said for months now, and for putting the focus back where it needs to be.
If you missed last week’s two-hour plus school board meeting that resulted in a vote on a district reopening plan, you missed the superintendent calling out all the armchair experts and trolls in the online comments underneath Vail Daily stories.
“I’ve read a lot of Vail Daily articles and got sucked into the rabbit hole of the comments,” Qualman said before mentioning the story of a man being arrested at the Avon City Market following an argument over wearing a mask. “Those debates need to stop. We need to put our energy towards following the five commitments of containment that public health has identified for us.”
Couldn’t agree more. The reason people live here, vacation here or buy a second home here is because this valley is a stunningly gorgeous, prosperous place where you’ll encounter world-class service and hospitality. We’ve got great schools, we’re highly educated, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a healthier county on the planet.
But wade into those comments, and you’d think the Vail Valley is some backwater full of extremists and idiots.
It’s nauseating. It can be, at times, humorous. But, more than anything, it’s pointless.
No one is winning these arguments. The only thing that’s winning is the stupid — and the stupid is running strong nearly five months since our first reported case of COVID-19 in Eagle County and less than 100 days from Election Day.
These commenting forums have turned into a toxic waste dump of misinformation, harassment, name-calling and general idiocy. And that’s on a good day.
And while I’d love to say it’s harmless, like a few cows burping in a field, we should know by now that all those cows burping is bad for the planet. Likewise, for all these stupid, selfish debates about wearing a mask or following the directional arrows in the grocery store.
It’s no wonder why the United States leads the world in COVID-19 cases and deaths — 149,684 and counting — and why 21 states have outbreaks so serious they’re in the red zone, logging more than 100 new cases per 100,000 people in the past week. Or why here, in Eagle County, we’re in our own red zone, based on key performance indicators for COVID-19 transmission, with a shrinking window to turn things around before the school district has to start the academic year with remote learning because we, as a community, can’t get our act together.
We are better than this, Eagle County. You know it. I know it. Does it really have to take our superintendent, or the public health director, or the county commissioners, or the CEO of Vail Resorts, or the president of the Vail Valley Partnership, or the editor of the paper, to constantly remind everyone where we should be directing our energy as a community? That schools don’t just magically open in a vacuum? That to get kids back in class, so parents can get back to work, and our economy can stay up and running, we’ve all got to do our part.
This is grade-school science, and we’re failing. These five things you’re being asked to do in those commitments of containment — they’re so unbelievably basic.
It’s time to move past these inane arguments. It’s also time to kill the narrative that all of these debates are inherently political or that one side is being muzzled based off what does and doesn’t make it through our comment moderation software. Or that I’m somehow behind the scenes, playing favorites.
Real talk: Most of these claims of censorship end up being the result of boomers not being able to figure out how to set up a profile and post. Trust me, I get all the emails.
What also inevitably happens is some particularly nasty troll gets brought to my attention, or my web editor’s attention, via email, and we warn them or boot them— and that person just shows up trolling under a different profile shortly thereafter.
Dumb and dumber.
Past that, we’re not equipped, as a small publishing outfit, to monitor these comments 24-7. If we did, we wouldn’t spend any time doing any actual reporting and editing. You tell me what’s more important.
As a newspaper group, we entered into this online engagement sphere like other publishers with noble intentions of fostering healthy community discussions. It says right up top: Start a dialogue, stay on topic and be civil. If you don’t follow the rules, your comment may be deleted.
But just as other larger sites have learned, these appeals go unheard and the trolls win. They figure out all the loopholes and they’re relentless.
The comments that adhere to those guidelines, and don’t resort to name-calling or mudslinging, have become the exception, not the norm. That’s a shame.
I spent eight years working at CBSSports.com. Somewhere in the middle of that, with comments running into the hundreds and thousands on any story about Colin Kaepernick, or NFL players kneeling for the national anthem, or pretty much anything Tim Tebow did or said, the company just decided to just do away with the comments altogether. And perhaps the least shocking thing is that web traffic went up after the move.
A free press isn’t a free-for-all, and no publisher is under any obligation to host these forums. It’s a privilege, not a right.
So what say you, Vail Daily readers? Do you want to get schools back open? Do you care about parents being able to make it through a workday knowing their kids are getting the best education they can get — in a classroom? Do you want the online debate in your local newspaper to actually reflect the community you live in?
Or are you resigned to letting the trolls win?
It’s your paper. You decide.
Nate Peterson is the editor of the Vail Daily. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.