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One late afternoon in August, I was engaged in animated conversation at the Harvard Club bar with a friend when a new cell phone in my pocket started ringing, much to the consternation of two attendants who firmly stated the establishment’s belief that such intrusions violated a cardinal rule of Club etiquette. How quaint, I thought, but sensible enough; problem was, I hadn’t yet mastered the particulars of this complicated model and hadn’t even a rudimentary idea of how to turn it off. Somewhat flummoxed, I retreated to a hallway to answer the call and then returned to my stool, only to receive another message a few minutes later.

A few days later, I recounted this embarrassing moment to a Wall Street Journal columnist of my acquaintance and he commiserated, half-jesting that his hands were now prematurely arthritic due to an excessive reliance on his BlackBerry while en route to his office each day. “I’ve decided to cease and desist,” he said, “and restore a semblance of order to my commute. You know, I’ve never read the darn thing, but my new favorite magazine is Real Simple.”

This comes to mind because in the last month I’ve noticed the comment sections on websites—from the most extravagantly funded to the one-man band hobbyists—have become easier to read, less larded with the gibberish, appalling grammar and obscenities that not long ago defined this subset of the blogosphere. Perhaps it’s wishful thinking, but is it possible that a majority of keyboard correspondents are actually thinking before posting reactions to articles, writing in complete sentences and eschewing once prevalent shorthand, such as “LOL,” “OMG” and phrases like “I 4got to tell u that yr. art. really sucked,”?

I hope so, because online reaction has largely replaced traditional letters to the editor in today’s media, and if a chaotic format hurts your eyes to even read, what’s the point? Earlier this year, for example, I’d visit Daily Kos and, while the entries themselves were usually coherent, the hundreds of comments following a post were often indecipherable, written either in all lower or upper case letters, riddled with misspellings and factual mistakes that rendered them absolutely useless. Mind you, this was not confined to Mr. Kos’ forum, but also at conservative destinations such as and RedState.

This is progress, I believe, as proprietors have evidently invested in personnel to bring the level of the “vox populi” up to the same standards as the main content presented in their online publications. Still, one cringes at the continuing lack of editing practiced, especially on a daily newspaper’s ever-increasing number of blogs that augment the print component that’s now available for free on the web. Politico, the well-funded website featuring well-known reporters that started earlier this year, is particularly egregious in cleaning up the language of its correspondents.

The New York Times has been the most diligent in presenting a clean “comments” section—and you’d hope so, given the company’s extraordinary resources—but the mistakes are still far more numerous than anything that would find its way into the print “letters” column. (Obviously, any daily print paper has a number of typos, but it’s far worse online.)

One of the paper’s political blogs is called “The Caucus,” anchored by Kate Phillips, and on Oct. 31 there was an entry on the previous night’s Democratic debate in Philadelphia, in which The Times selected a bunch of Harvard students to send in their reactions—“almost live-blogging”—about how the candidates fared. Sort of an elite group, I’d say, but nonetheless made for interesting, if predictable, reading. Yet you’d think a copy editor would’ve been on hand to prevent readers from making themselves look silly in reaction to the anointed students. “Julie,” for example, was vexed at the perception that Hillary Clinton was unfairly attacked by her competitors, and praised “Tim Russell” for relentless questioning. Any editorial assistant, or intern, could’ve saved “Julie” by eliminating not only her mistaken reference to NBC’s Tim Russert, but also cleansing the missive of numerous grammatical errors.

Still, at other major dailies, too often the “anything goes” mindset is still in practice, especially at the Washington Post and Los Angeles Times. This attitude was demonstrated by the latter paper’s Andrew Malcolm, who led a discussion on Oct. 30 about Ron Paul, the longshot GOP presidential candidate who’s lately garnered notice for his surprising success at soliciting donations via the Internet. A correspondent called “Dion” took exception to the blurb and wrote, “This article show the bias of the mainstream news in the U.S. One must go the Internet to find the real stories… When [Paul is] elected, he will be responsible for changing the course of the US and putting this country back on track with the constitution. Get real, Andrew, and report the news as it is and as your corporate leaders dictate.”

Dion’s is a minority and perhaps slightly paranoid view, certainly, but did he deserve the following slap on the wrist from Malcolm? “Dion—A reminder. This is a blog. NOT a newspaper story. Big diff.”

How does one interpret that remark? That since his item on Paul was contained in a blog it shouldn’t be held to the same regimen as a “newspaper story”? That it’s make-work that a diminishing pool of Times reporters are forced to perform and that they don’t take it all that seriously? It seems to me that, given the current media equilibrium, everything a publication presents online should be held to the same standards, however rigorous they may or may not be.

A few more. Responding to a Robert Novak column in the Washington Post last week about the deficiencies of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the key-punchers went apoplectic. “Ductchess2 wrote: “Novack is merely doing his lickspittle thing… Why is this traitor to the United States and all it stands for still allowed to write for any major newspaper?” Or, from “lou1”: “Hey TRAITOR Novak! Why don’t you write about the most powerful Vice President in history? Oh, I know! Because you’re his bytch!”

The Post is sloppy in this regard, but it did beat The Times in allowing readers to comment on actual articles and not just blogs. As Gawker reported last week, The Times has just begun “allowing” the peanut gallery to respond to selected pieces that also appear in the print edition, although the in-house email from Vivian Schiller and Jonathan Landman contained this troubling nugget: “[P]roducers and editors will be able to designate certain users as ‘trusted,’ potentially allowing some comments to bypass moderation.” C

One of the benefits of the web is being able to read the views of non-journalists, whether deemed “trusted” or not.

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