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Website Forced To Pull Comments Section After Nasty Greenwich RTM Race

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The town of Greenwich, Connecticut, was one of several around the country to see local Democrats win seats in this week’s election. But it drew national news, before the election, when the campaign turned ugly online. 

WSHU’s Davis Dunavin sat down with local journalist Leslie Yager in Greenwich to find out what happened. Below is a transcript of their conversation.

Leslie, you’ve covered a few local elections in Greenwich now. How is this one different than the past?

It’s in the wake of having a president with a low approval rating, and Greenwich is a pretty conservative, overall Republican town, but we’re changing. And I feel like it’s a little in response to what’s happening on a national level. A lot of women of all stripes went down to the women’s march in D.C. in January, and when they came back, they wanted to do something more.

Sort of right afterward, one of our long-term RTM—that’s the representative town meeting—district leaders who’s had 16 terms, was arrested for sexual assault.

That local lawmaker, Christopher Von Keyserling, lost his seat this week as political newcomers swept Greenwich’s local elections. Most of them are women who were mobilized to run after the Women’s March on Washington and protests against Von Keyserling. A lot of them are part of a local activist group called March on Greenwich.

And they’re like, whoa, whoa, whoa, we wanted to come back doing something.

This local election actually drew quite a bit of national coverage—from the New York Times, from Vogue magazine—after a local blogger encouraged residents not to vote for any female candidates.

He told his readers, and he has a pretty big readership, do not vote for this "coven of shrieking banshees."

So what kinds of things did you start to see on your own comments? I know a lot of local sites are encouraged to push commenting as much as possible to increase traffic and draw advertisers.

If that’s your only goal, is to make money and increase traffic at the expense of what I think is real journalism, I think ultimately you’re shooting yourself in the foot. So when I started Greenwich Free Press, my goal was to work really hard and earn eyeballs and not get the traffic from the comments. That’s why I said you have to use your real name, and you can’t use swear words and you can’t use threats.

And a couple of days before the election, you decided to disable the program that allows people to comment on your site.

I think it was actually the eve of the election. And I was so busy, but people started writing to me, saying, scrub it, they’re revealing my identity. I said, I’m sorry, ‘I can’t help you.’ I found myself spending three hours trying to help these people and not write my story. The whole point of this app that you use to have comments is not to moderate them but to give everyone a free voice and they’re guaranteed anonymity. Well, that was never my goal. So I called my techie guy and I said, just deactivate it.

And you’re not the first new outlet to do that. A lot of news outlets, including NPR, have shied away from comments. Some people seem to think they cause more problems than they’re worth.

Every time I write a story and publish it, I’ll take the link and I put it on the Greenwich Free Press Facebook and Twitter. And as soon as I put it on Facebook I got, good for you, you go girl. Good decision.

It seems like your readers are getting what you’re going for here, trying to encourage a little more civility, a little more accountability.

Civility was a big theme in this election in Greenwich. We have a new school superintendent who is lovely, and she wrote in her November message to all the community, all the families of Greenwich public schools, she said venting is one thing but toxic vitriol is another. And it was very timely because this election was so, so ugly in Greenwich.

Now that the election is over, do you think the tone is gonna get a little less ugly now that you see some new faces?

If people take a lesson from what the results were, they’ll realize that behaving badly and making disparaging remarks doesn’t work. It’ll backfire. And I hope it’s a lesson to everybody, I really do. Being a troll with an alias is fun, you can say what you want, but it’s not worth it. It’s not worth it to be a jerk.

Leslie Yager is the editor of the Greenwich Free Press, an online news publication in Greenwich, Connecticut. 

Davis Dunavin loves telling stories, whether on the radio or around the campfire. He started in Missouri and ended up in Connecticut, which, he'd like to point out, is the same geographic trajectory taken by Mark Twain.