Friday, January 18, 2008

A Poor Example

Congratulations to the Bangor Daily News for showing us the human face of poverty.

Sure, it may have been a cartoon caricature face, but at least it was a face.

Reporter Diana Bowley described one family's courageous struggle to afford heating oil along with medical expenses, food, home repairs, pet food, cigarettes, lottery tickets, exotic dancers, and fine imported ales.

The article, titled “Milo Family Struggles to Keep Warm,” appeared on the BDN website January 15.

“When Darlene Cook and her daughter, Renee Baillargeon, are not busy working to support their pornography addictions,” Bowley writes, “they roam the neighborhood looking for swarthy men to have sex with so they can get wealthy off the state by having as many children as possible.”

Okay, actually, the article did not say any of those things. I made them up.

The folks at the BDN would have no problem with this. Their “reader comments” section on this article is filled with malicious, unverified information.

“Give up the cigarettes!” writes one “Be from Milo,” even though the article does not mention if anyone in the house smokes. “Renee, stop having children, the state doesn't assist people so they can get rich!”

This informed citizen apparently “knows the family,” which could mean anything from:

1)“is in the family,” to

2)“saw them once at the grocery store, I think, on the same day I noticed the Virgin Mary's face on an Alpo label.”

A photo of the family's house showed a shingle that had fallen from the roof. “Be” suggested picking it up because “God helps those who help themselves.”

Cool beans! I had no idea that if I only neatened up my yard, God would send me 100 free gallons of heating oil! Thanks for the tip!

I wish I could say this was one isolated lunatic, but many of the “reader comments” featured similar themes.

“Get a wood stove, cut some wood,” said another person who is apparently lucky enough to own both a chainsaw and a forested lot. “How in the world has mankind survived for thousands of years without LIHEAP?”

Well, I wouldn't be surprised if, over the vast expanse of human history, some members of mankind did, in fact, freeze to death. Some may have shivered like wet chihuahuas for weeks at a time before the advent of federal heating assistance.

“George of Lagrange” advises the young lady featured in the article to “close her legs.” She has two children.

All of you out there with more than one child who are having trouble paying your heating bills should be ashamed of yourselves.

This is why most newspapers don't print anonymous letters to the editor. Why the same standard does not apply on the Web is beyond me.

BDN Managing Editor Mike Dowd says the paper screens comments for profanity and libel. “Basically, we eliminate those that accuse someone of illegal activity.”

But they don't edit the comments or try to ascertain how much truth is in them.

So I can use their site to call someone a promiscuous, midget-wrestling transvestite, even if it's not true.

Dowd points out that lots of other newspapers around the world and in Maine provide this type of forum.

In other words, it's legal, and all the other sleazeballs are doing it, too, so it must be okay.

And why not? Jerry Springer-style spewing probably generates more reader traffic and more ad revenue.

Newspapers were once considered gatekeepers who would publish only reliable information.

Now, the gate is a revolving door, and the press is doing its best to transform itself into an overpaid bellhop.

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