Commenting on the News.


Have you seen this story? It’s an lengthy piece by Gloria Campisi for the Philadelphia Daily News about a group of black workers at a city trash facility who are suing over racially segregated bathroom and water facilities. And apparently, these workers have been filing complaints about racism since 1999, with no investigations or follow-ups from the city.

Lawrence “Lonnie” Powell, 58, a semiskilled laborer at the city’s Northwest Transfer Station, in Roxborough, said that since he began working at the trash-handling plant in 2003 he has had to seek the superintendent’s permission to go to the bathroom — then descend five flights of stairs to use it.

Powell, who is black, said that white employees have been permitted to use a bathroom just 25 feet from his work station.

“On several occasions I’ve actually defecated on myself, trying to get down to the bathroom,” said Powell, who operates a machine that packs trash into tractor-trailers to be taken to landfills.

Among those allegations is that for several years Gill has kept a “supervisor’s bathroom,” one flight up from Gill’s office, that “only the white employees were allowed to use…whether or not they were supervisors,” Powell wrote in an affidavit last month.

“Quite often, while I’m up there, I could be sitting in my booth, and I see white guys going into the bathroom,” Powell said in an interview. “They walk right by the door and go right in the bathroom there. That’s maybe 25 feet away from where I’m at.”

But when he has to go to the bathroom, he said, he has to go down to Gill’s office to get permission, then descend five more flights.

Two other black workers, Gibson Trowery, 55, and Leslie Young Jr., 51, filed a complaint with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission in October 2007 and a lawsuit in January alleging discrimination by the city and infliction of extreme emotional distress by Gill.

Howard K. Trubman, a Center City attorney representing the black workers at the station, said that the law permits Trowery and Young to take their case to court because the PHRC did not rule within a year.

But black workers had complained in writing about what they considered racism at the station as far back as 1999, Young and Trubman said.

In August 2007, Powell aired the black employees’ grievances in a meeting with Gill and Streets Department Deputy Commissioner Carlton Williams, who then ordered Gill to open the supervisor’s bathroom to everyone, court documents show.

That meeting came three days after a job action on Aug. 17, 2007, in which no African-American employees at the station reported for work. The workers still refer to the protest as “Black Friday.”

Powell said that he later saw a black employee, who had been promoted to a supervisory position, using the “supervisor’s bathroom” several times.

But that didn’t last, and that employee went back to driving a truck, Trubman said.

Reading the comments on stories like this is often an exercise in patience. News stories about race, women’s rights, homosexuality, and Obama seem to attract bigots like flies.

When I read the piece this morning, there were 27 comments on it. Two had been removed, presumably by the editors. As I scrolled down, there were comments like “these men should be ashamed of themselves for bringing frivolous lawsuits against hard-working, upstanding men like Mr. Gill” (paging 1954!). And, “That guy should get Depends, they make them for both whites and blacks.” And, “I don’t know who’s worse, Campisi for writing this story, or the Daily News for putting it on the front page!” And, “Why do blacks want to be babysat??” These are, of course, paraphrased by yours truly, because while the comment section was closed by the time I got there, it has now been completely deleted.

G.D. tells me that the Philadelphia Daily News is right-leaning, like most metropolitan tabloids (think New York Post, or the cover of today’s Trentonian), so I’m not surprised by the vitriol in the comments about a story about blacks taking action against racism. But I am surprised by the decision to not allow the comments to be viewable, if not remain open.

Did the outright racism in the comments section make the editors uncomfortable?

34 thoughts on “Commenting on the News.

  1. Leigh July 29, 2009 at 12:37 pm Reply

    This is the 2nd local paper where I’ve seen what seems to have been a controversial comments thread deleted. The first was a local Alabama paper I found through links to my blog, and the story was about public housing (I think)…or a related poverty topic. There was an update from the editor(s) about decorum and civility in the comments and a note that the thread was closed. But it was gone when I got there, a few days after the story was published on-line.

    Maybe editors are starting to delete them more often, hoping the problem of a bigoted, un-/mis-informed readership will just go away as opposed to reflecting something about their reporting.

    • shani-o July 29, 2009 at 12:44 pm Reply

      Right, that’s what I was thinking. I think it’s a matter of not wanting to be associated with that kind of readership. But…that’s the readership you attract.

      • Winslowalrob July 29, 2009 at 1:54 pm Reply

        Careful leigh and shani, this is a long way of blaming the victim. I mean, should people be held accountable for who reads their stuff? I’ve gotten one person in particular to comment on my blog who I… had problems with, but is it a function of my blog or just salty-ass people who like to spout crap?

        • Leigh July 29, 2009 at 2:04 pm Reply

          I’m not sure this is equivalent…

          I’ve got a mix of like-minded and hostile commenters on my site. That’s not a bad thing; I think if I only had bottom feeders it would arguably reflect on my perspective and writing.

          There’s 2 issues here:
          – echo chambers
          – bigotry

          I’m not sure you having one particular gnat in your ear reflects anything other than you writing about something that is controversial at least to this person. But if you were getting nothing but salty dogs I might think there was something about you, yes.


          There’s also a larger historical context of media coverage and tabloid journalism in particular (one I’m not equipped to pontificate on here) that should be considered around the relatively new addition of comment threads.

          • Winslowalrob July 29, 2009 at 2:13 pm Reply

            i see where you are coming from, but i dunno how many of the truly crappy stuff is banned, and if it is two comments out of a hundred, that does not strike me as a critical mass.

            still, even if i am not totally comfortable with this line of thinking, i am coming around to your side. but i see more equivalence than you do.

        • shani-o July 29, 2009 at 2:06 pm Reply

          It’s not victim-blaming, Winslow, because I’m not holding the paper ‘accountable’ for its readership. I think it’s just a fact that different types of publications attract different groups of readers (mostly, that is; there are those who comment whenever they see a particular topic come up, no matter the venue). I mean, compare The Atlantic to The National Review. Blogs — especially small blogs — are a different matter.

          Also — and this is unprovable, since they deleted the thread, but — there were several specific comments criticizing the paper for putting this on the front page, which seemed to imply that this is not what those readers are used to seeing there.

          I don’t care that they get the kinds of comments they get. I’m just curious why they chose to delete them in this instance, and not, presumably, others.

          • Winslowalrob July 29, 2009 at 2:16 pm Reply

            ahh, now i see. yeah, there is a lot of delete-worthy comments, and i cannot really tell what calculations went into the ones that got deleted.

            wait, so you DON’T comment on the national review? thats the finest publication in america!

          • shani-o July 29, 2009 at 2:16 pm Reply

            Also, out of the 27 comments on the thread, 2 were deleted, and 3-4 were in favor of the men in the story. The rest were variations of what I wrote in the post.

  2. K. July 29, 2009 at 12:37 pm Reply

    I read that site every day. It could be a story about fruitflies in Antarctica and the racist comments on that site (home to the Daily News and the more mainstream Inquirer) would be exactly the same. I almost wish they would never open the comments on news articles. They seem to simply serve the purpose of allowing bigots to vent.

  3. Jeremy July 29, 2009 at 12:44 pm Reply

    I tend to have a weird relationship with comments sections. On the one hand, I like to check out the right wing ones just to see what folks are saying/thinking about certain issues and/or topics. It’s my glimpse into the mind of the conservative, if you will, now that I’m out of college and socialize with less than I used to.

    But, on the other hand, I really don’t know how many people actually contribute to message boards and blogs, and how representative they are of the masses. I mean, literally, from a statistical point of view, we really don’t know (sidebar – maybe this can be Danah Boyd’s next project). We can make conjectures and reasonable estimations based on computer ownership, the digital divide, etc….but at the end of the day, are we just reading the same (figurative) handful of commentors over and over again? What are they really telling us?

    I will admit, however, that I tend to reserve the latter thought (that it’s only a few people commenting all over the Internets) for times when I get downright depressed at the vitriol espoused throughout these right wing mags and blogs.

    • Leigh July 29, 2009 at 12:53 pm Reply

      As a blogger, I’d anticipate that there’s a definite subset of regular commenters, if commenting and internet use patterns for newspaper articles are similar to the blogosphere. But there’s probably a much bigger set of infrequent commenters, and the general level of discourse is MUCH lower than on the average blog, which have some sense of community.

      As for the demographics of the average Inquirer, NY Post, Boston Herald, etc. commenter, that I don’t know. I tend to assume they’re a lot of the white, working class types I know, but now I’m just sterotyping them!

      • Leigh July 29, 2009 at 12:55 pm Reply

        Maybe the age/racial/ethnic/income demographics vary, but they represent the most base thinkers of any particular population! And they seem to be a lot of men, it seems to me…

        • Leigh July 29, 2009 at 12:55 pm Reply

          or male aliases, at least…

          • Jeremy July 29, 2009 at 2:39 pm Reply

            Well there’s two things going on here: 1) WHO comments; and 2) HOW REPRESENTATIVE are they of the rest of America.

            I think you’re right that the majority are white males, at least one the major right wing sites and major news sites. But, I’m still not sure how representative they are. In other words, I guess I’m optimistic that people aren’t this overtly and passionately racist.

            So to put some more specific context behind my comments – I regularly read , a blog that (to me) parallels the huffington post. A post on Gates, for example. has thousands of comments, nearly all racist in nature (the topics on race and/or crime tend to devolve to blacks are culturally violent as a race and just want to kill each other and we should support profiling to save our children etc etc, with oountless references to monkeys, bananas, and the like). The bloggers tend to be more NRO-style conservatives than Glen Beck (read: batshit crazy) style, but when they post something debunking the “birthers,” tens of thousands of their commentors demand their resignation from blogging. It’s incredible.

            The question that remains unanswered…is this a measure what Americans think, or is it an overly vocal minority?

            • Leigh July 29, 2009 at 2:47 pm Reply

              I think they’re a vocal minority, egged on by the anonymity of the web.

            • Winslowalrob July 29, 2009 at 2:51 pm Reply

              Read Nixonland.

              When Ta-Nehisi Coates talked about 30-40% of Americans (or just white Americans?) are racist, I think that is a good estimate. But it is a LOT better than 70-80% of the white population 40 years ago. I really do think that every succeeding generation is going to get better at this, but thats just me.

              • Leigh July 29, 2009 at 3:03 pm Reply

                “Everybody’s a little bit racist” – Avenue Q!

                Seriously though, what does that mean – only a 3rd of Americans are racist? Don’t we all spend all our lives unlearning and shelving and breaking down and fighting back stereotypes, vs. believing them and acting on and spouting them? that’s a weird stat; how is racism/racist defined?

                • Winslowalrob July 29, 2009 at 3:12 pm Reply

                  Lets bracket it off at white american bigotry against blacks (I will not get into latinos, 🙂 ). I have three criteria: let a black person marry your daughter (because of the gender dynamics this is a lot more potent than a son I find), be willing to live next to a black person, and get no more pissed off if a black person takes your job/promotion/university place than a white person. If you can’t do all three, I bust out the ‘R’ word. I know that a lot of discourse looks at racism as a system of privelages rather than individual attitidues, but yeah, those are my metrics.

                  • Leigh July 29, 2009 at 3:18 pm Reply

                    The problem with your system, though I appreciate it for its relative clarity and efficiency, :), is that people can easily re-work in their minds that their particular sons-in-law, neighbors, co-workers are exceptions to the rule, and continue to hold racist beliefs about the rest of a particular population.

                    • Winslowalrob July 29, 2009 at 3:32 pm

                      But if enough people are seen as the exception then they become the rule.

                      And yeah, in the shifting landscapes of racist attitudes, my hard and fast rules are obviously silly, but if enough people believe them they are on the right path. Trust me, I had to (and still have to) go through it ;).

              • Jeremy July 29, 2009 at 3:15 pm Reply

                yeah i saw that – – more accurately, there is probably a gradient of racism. Like, maybe you don’t even think blacks are human, on one end of the continuum. Or, maybe you would grant blacks full citizenship rights, but cross the street in fear of getting jumped by some black folks. Or maybe you despise multi-cultural initiatives, diversity initiatives, affirmative action.

                I’m not saying any of these things are, in fact, racist (arguments can be made either way). But, my point is that maybe there’s a scale that TNC didn’t delve into.

                Either way, extreme racists exist. And they spend a lot of time writing comments on blogs (and emails to me, SMH).

  4. Steve July 29, 2009 at 1:13 pm Reply

    umm LOL at the cover of the Trentonian though…that is ridic

    • shani-o July 29, 2009 at 1:16 pm Reply

      haha, dude I saw it this morning at work and all I could do was just shake my head.

  5. K. July 29, 2009 at 1:41 pm Reply

    Did anyone else notice the elderly man in the Sexy Singles section up top? *Gag*

    • K. July 29, 2009 at 1:41 pm Reply

      Next to a Viagra headline at that! LOL!

    • shani-o July 29, 2009 at 1:46 pm Reply

      Yeah, I was lost in his eyes for a minute there.

      • Leigh July 29, 2009 at 2:05 pm Reply

        He kind of looks like Davy Jones from The Monkees. Paging Marcia Brady!

  6. K. July 29, 2009 at 2:42 pm Reply

    @ Leigh – That actually is Davy Jones. You have a good eye – I only knew b/c I skimmed the article.

    • Leigh July 29, 2009 at 2:46 pm Reply

      Former Monkees fan! Oy.

    • shani-o July 29, 2009 at 2:53 pm Reply

      That IS Davy. Wow. I had to squint, but I see it. I used to love that show.

      • ladyfresh July 29, 2009 at 2:59 pm Reply

        omg guys it is!

        (hey hey we’re the monkees!)

  7. ladyfresh July 29, 2009 at 3:02 pm Reply

    i’m not sure why i read the comments.

    like GD’s last post highlighting Brent’s comment was like a blessing i’ve started avoiding the comments section unless i was feeling particularly masochistic (and yes i have masochistic days)

  8. […] By Guest Contributor shani-o, originally posted at PostBourgie […]

  9. There is No Binary. « PostBourgie August 26, 2009 at 3:56 pm Reply

    […] This might be my first time ever saying it: kudos to The Root for running this piece. (Although I noticed that the editors removed the comment section that was up earlier. Reminds me of something else…) […]

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