The recent passing of Syracuse icon Gertis McDowell is instructive for two very different reasons.
One, we can all learn from his upbeat attitude and the happiness he spread to strangers even when he was in pain.
Two, we can try to put a stop to media outlets that allow “trolls” to hide behind anonymity as they write hurtful comments on the internet.
I wrote about Gertis here last April. He was a 67-year-old diabetic who used a wheelchair and sat at a corner on the Syracuse University campus, shaking a cup of coins and greeting strangers with a cheerful “Hey, Big Papi!” and “Hey, pretty lady!”
He was always happy, friendly and certainly non-threatening. Students enjoyed his presence; some filmed videos about him for YouTube and Vimeo.
When a former SU student, Robert Axelrod, wrote a tribute to Gertis that ran on syracuse.com (the digital outlet of The Post-Standard newspaper), the haters pounced. That’s easy to do when you’re a coward who can hide behind a “cute” user name.
I waited a couple of weeks after his death to post this, to make sure the short-attention-span trolls had directed their venom to new targets who can’t defend themselves. (By my count, there were initially 72 comments about Gertis; almost half were then deleted by the web site’s moderators, but not until after they had been published.)
I won’t give examples, and I can only hope if Gertis had family, they didn’t see any of them. Trust me, some of the comments were despicable, hateful and just wrong.
I’ve challenged syracuse.com on the anonymous troll issue before (over comments about 12-year-old twins who use wheelchairs because of a disease), and have yet to hear a satisfactory explanation of their policy. The moderator didn’t respond to my last reply about the Gertis tribute, when I pointed out that 30-some comments had to be taken down. I asked her, “This is journalism?” . . . Crickets.
Some media outlets have adopted tighter policies in an effort to curb nastiness, or they’ve done away with anonymous comments altogether. Some in the media defend anonymous policies, saying it fosters “community engagement,” gives web users a voice and the freedom to speak without fear of retribution.
That’s part of the problem. They can hide. I maintain that if you have something to say that’s controversial or might offend someone, have the balls to put your name on it. And please, say something that adds to the discussion, an enlightening nuance that others can learn from as part of civil discourse. Freedom of speech carries the weight of responsibility and accountability; it is not a free pass to engage in borderline hate speech.
As for media outlets, what’s stopping them from investing in the staff or technology to moderate comments before they see the light of day and hurt people?
Speaking of money, I’d pay a good sum to watch a well-paid executive at syracuse.com meet face-to-face with Gertis’ family. The exec could go through the hateful comments line by line and explain to Gertis’ family (sitting uncomfortably close, I hope) why those comments were published for tens of thousands of people to read.
And I would love to hear the higher-up’s answer when a family member looks him or her in the eye and asks, “What if this were your loved one being called these names?”
Blog readers, if the media outlets where you live allow anonymous hate speech and you’ve had enough of their pandering to the lowest common denominator, I encourage you to challenge them on it.
And by the way, Gertis — rest in peace. You made a lot of people happy over the years and will be remembered long after the sorry, hateful trolls are forgotten. Then again, we don’t know who they are.