PW's Tara Murtha Can't Stop Reading Philly.com Commenters

By Tara Murtha
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 7 | Posted Oct. 19, 2011

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Editor's Note: Due to an editing error, Tara Murtha's piece stated that a local columnist slandered her in an Inquirer column. Flowers did not. We regret the error and have updated the story here.

I still subscribe to the weekend print edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer. But while there’s nothing quite like snapping crisp pages over a fresh cup of coffee in the morning, a hard copy lacks one of my favorite—by favorite I mean mesmerizing and riddled with psychic pain—parts of reading our city’s paper of record: the trash-talking of Philly.com commenters.

Philly.com is the website for both the Inky and Philadelphia Daily News.

Sometimes, they provide valuable context for stories by posing unanswered questions or writing thoughtful counterpoint. Not every single Philly dot commenter is a racist spewing (woefully predictable) hate speech from behind the cloak of anonymity.

But most are.

Take last weekend’s headlines, for example. It was the usual Philly fare: gunfire, arrests and courtroom updates on grisly murders and foul sex crimes.

I clicked on a story about Lenroy Laurance, a local man found guilty of carjacking, kidnapping, weapons offenses and murdering an innocent 57-year-old woman. In the mugshot accompanying the article, Laurance struck a familiar thug pose: head slightly cocked back, remorseless eyes and a defiant smirk.

Any regular Philly.com reader already knows what to expect when you scroll down.

“Here’s your cage, critter,” writes Burb Guy. “Can’t we just kill these a-holes?” seconds RobertB. “Animals,” writes Marcie. “No respect for life.” Another calls for Jane Goodall since she, you know, worked with chimpanzees.

And so on.

Calling black people animals, references to monkeys, phrases like “welcome to the jungle, baby” and “That’s how it go in da hood” are all standard comments beneath crime stories on Philly.com when the perp is black.

And we haven’t even gotten to the anal rape fantasies that regularly litter sexual offender and police corruption stories. I cringe as bloodlust-y readers work themselves into a lather writing about how they can’t wait for the offender to learn what “being a bitch” is from “Big Bubba.”

I have friends who’ve sworn off the stuff. They say it’s too depressing so they go the way of the ostrich. So why do I read them?

Averting my eyes is not my style. I read grand jury reports and listen to police radio. I need to know how grimy people can get when things like shame, embarrassment and last names aren’t part of the picture. It’s an occupational hazard.

My obsession has only increased since I crossed through the looking glass. A few months ago, a Philly.com columnist wrote a really classy piece addressing a column I wrote that disputed another local columnist’s assertion that women invite rape through sartorial choices. She basically wrote that I have the mentality of a gang rapist. It was kind of cool—being written about by this particular columnist is proof you’re on the right path in this town. The bonus was I got to watch as some of my beloved Philly dot commenters alternately defended or eviscerated me in the comment gallery.

Anyway, even if you don’t find yourself the actual subject, the comments aren’t that depressing. Despite a recent Salon.com piece that extrapolated from reading Philly dot commenters that “discussions about race in Philly are usually met with a deafening backlash from local whites,” Philly dot commenters don’t reflect society, or Philadelphians, at large.

On one hand, they’re even worse than you know. A “filth filter” loaded with terms— including creatively spelled ethnic slurs for the clever racist—prevents the most offensive posts from appearing at all. On the other hand, experts on Internet equality estimate that approximately 1 percent of participants write most of the comments. A standard theory holds that 90 percent of readers never comment, 9 percent comment every once in a while, and 1 percent comment incessantly.

Wendy Warren, vice president and editor at Philly.com, says that sounds about right.

For example, in the first half of this month (up to Oct. 17), the most active commenter posted 319 times. “Then we have a group of about 100 that commented 50 or more times. And then everyone else is less than that,” says Warren. That’s out of approximately 3,200 comments per day—way too much volume to moderate effectively without a dedicated staff or outsourcing the task.

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COMMENTS

Comments 1 - 7 of 7
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1. steveeboy said... on Oct 19, 2011 at 11:26AM

“so, when stu writes yet another "column" in a long line of rants against cyclists where he smears us all as dangerous sidewalk riding outlaws, pointing out that he sounds like Grampa Simpson in need of an enema is out of bounds...

But, Stu can refer to people who call him on his BS as:

"“fucking, no-good, motherless, shit-heel yellow curs.” And “gutless cocksuckers” who “shit on people”?????

Well, I guess I need to step my game up when dealing with this asshole, dickhead, cock-sucking, old and withered piece of shit.

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2. Hortense said... on Oct 19, 2011 at 11:43AM

“I read these every day as well and usually I don't make any comments because I can't even begin to think about how to respond to some of the ridiculous things people will say. There is small group of frequent commenters who bring race into absolutely everything, even when there is no reason to. I remember a very brief article about a middle aged woman being found dead in a courtyard in center city. There was no other information than her approximate age and the time and location they found her. And people immediately started leaving comments about how it was "just more black violence," and other things that I would be too embarrassed to repeat, even anonymously. The article never mentioned the victims race or even insinuated that she had been murdered. And it turned out she wasn't murdered at all, she was homeless and had not gotten proper medical care and died of a treatable illness, but at the time that was all the information the journalist had. It's almost like they were reading...”

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3. Hortense said... on Oct 19, 2011 at 11:58AM

“...the news with the intention of saying something racist, like they woke up, got on the computer and said "well this is what I want to say today, now which one of these articles best supports my racist views?" I really believe most of these people do not actually live in Philly, if that's really how you feel than why would you? They must be so miserable and enraged all the time, I mean pretty much anywhere you go in our city you're going to be required to interact with someone who is of a different racial background than you. Maybe I will start commenting more, just to help balance the argument and help like minded people not feel intimidated out of saying what they think. But it's hard to know what to say when the arguments against you are baseless, illogical and just ridiculous.”

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4. cn2004 said... on Oct 19, 2011 at 12:35PM

“I notice that you refer to may comments as being "racist." But i also notice that you don't refer to them as being "wrong."”

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5. Vic Livingston said... on Oct 19, 2011 at 02:15PM

“It is the opinion of this extrajudicially persecuted and "blog-spammed" veteran Philly area journalist that the most venal of this comments emanate from military contractor psyops units -- whose mission is to bury, ridicule and obscure the comments of so-called "targeted individuals" deemed to be "dissidents" or undesirables. When I tried to post this comment to the website of Poynter.org, I got an almost instantaneous message that I was being banned from posting any further comment to that site -- what I believe was even more draconian military contractor interception and censorship. I have written a series of articles documenting this covert media manipulation regime -- paid for with taxpayer multibillions:
nowpublic(dot)com/world/u-s-govt-censors-internet-political-speech-fraud-deception”

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6. Monica Yant Kinney said... on Oct 19, 2011 at 02:23PM

“Hey Tara, thanks very much for writing this. What is often lost in discussion about the loutish commenters is the impact of their venom on unsuspecting innocent parties -- regular joes subjects of our stories and columns. I try to remember to warn those who allow me into their lives, but sometimes forget and then feel lousy when they see what's said about them. I'm a big girl who gets paid to take the shots, but everyday Philadelphians don't deserve to be punished and pummeled just for sharing their lives with our readers.”

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7. Biff said... on Oct 19, 2011 at 03:11PM

“Rob, I think you'll agree with me that it's pathetic to hijack a woman's brutal murder as an excuse to indulge in racism. Her family is suffering and wants to be left alone; the last thing they need is to have their pain co-opted by some political vendetta. This would be true even if the issue weren't something as braindead as philly.com's comment section.

It's also silly to imagine that there is any question of whether or not brutal rapes and murders are outrageous. Any literate person of average intellect can tell you that it's possible to object to uncivilized, racist discussion without endorsing a plainly odious crime.

Regardless, here's a tip: if you're really bent out of shape over the fact that your views on race relations aren't gaining the traction you'd hoped for when you wrote something like "THE DOGGONE MONKEYS NEED TO BE SENT ON A TRIP TO THE CAGE STORE," you might consider that elevating your diction can go a long way toward selling your weird, racist agenda.”

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