A Letter to the Editor, Los Angeles Times
April 2, 2017
In an opinion dated September 6, 2016, the LA Times Editorial Board wrote, “We share the frustration over Citizens United (the decision) and ‘Citizens United’ (the metaphor for the outsize role of money in politics).”
And yet now, the LA Times has instituted a pay-for-play “points” system in its comments sections, supporting the concept that money entitles you to drown out the opinions of others.
The Times has hired a vendor, SolidOpinion, to allow reader-commenters to actually — yes, literally — buy a ranking for their own opinions. It’s called “promoting.” Very few people scroll all the way through the comments section, and the result is that posts positioned at the top always have the most influence.
So while the traditional method of comment-ranking — up- or down-voting by other commenters — allows a popular opinion to carry more weight by positioning it at the top of the section, those who want to have their opinion placed at the top of the comments can now buy that privilege, and that influence. With money.
When an article is about a political subject — like the LA Times Project beginning with an article entitled “Our Dishonest President” — that means comments can be “weaponized” into political advertising. And since readers are not required to use their real names on their comments, the money used to buy those political ads is, in fact, dark money.
I understand that there are times when the opinion of an editorial board will differ from that of the corporation that owns the news organization, but when the LA Times publishes an important political project like this one and then allows unknown parties to buy top position for trolling — and for supporting an illegitimate resident of the White House — they are promoting the malignant spirit of the Citizens United decision, and its disastrous effects.
The dollar amounts are radically different — $1 to $100 vs. millions — but the effect is the same: those who have money are stifling the opinions of those who don’t. Just as a TV ad repeated a hundred times has more impact than one that plays only once, late at night, these pay-for-play opinions distort the democratic voice.
And while I am not a lawyer, this policy also brings up questions of transparency for the Times. When a comment is converted into political advertising and there is no fine print that reveals at least the name of the organization that paid for that ad, isn’t the Times somewhat responsible?
The political-ad aspect of this may only come into play during an election, so will the Times turn off this system during all election cycles? Or turn it off for any article that mentions a candidate or proposition? Or will the Times moderate all comments closely enough to pre-screen and ban all pay-for-play comments that promote a candidate or proposition?
If this pay-for-play system is allowed to stand, the LA Times will be guilty of the kind of hypocrisy that now inhabits the White House.
If the Times gets rid of the ability to buy comment-ranking points with money, and reverts to a traditional community-based points system, you will be demonstrating that you mean what you say.