America

Learning Lessons From A Cruel Comment: Florida Paper Says 'Every Life Matters'

Writing for this blog, I have been amazed by the quantity and quality of comments on some posts.

When my colleague, Mark Memmott, wrote about Glenn Beck's "Restoring Honor" rally, for instance, more than a thousand readers weighed in. There are 600 comments on a post about a Pew study on religious knowledge that JJ Sutherland penned.

I don't need to tell you that a comment thread can unravel. Thanks to anonymity, readers are able to make ad hominem attacks. A post itself can become unimportant or irrelevant. WHAT'S TO KEEP YOU FROM USING CAPITAL LETTERS, exclamation points, and interrobangs?!

Earlier this month, Neil Alan Smith — a long-time dishwasher at the Crab Shack restaurant in St. Petersburg, Florida — was killed. It was a hit-and-run. Police have been unable to locate the driver of the "white or light-colored midsized sedan — possibly a Ford Taurus or Mercury Sable" that ran Smith, riding his bike, off the road.

The St. Petersburg Times announced his death on its website. Then, a reader left this comment:

A man who is working as a dishwasher at the Crab Shack at the age of 48 is surely better off dead.

What happened next?

"Web editors removed the comment, deeming it an offensive and insensitive insult to a dead man's friends and family," reporter Andrew Meacham wrote.

Though hardly unusual — check out the comments beneath stories about any recent tragedy — this one spurred the Times to make Mr. Smith the subject of this story, as a reminder that every life matters.

Meacham paints a vivid portrait of a man who worked very hard for very little money. During a decade as a restaurant dishwasher, he never made more than Florida's minimum wage.

Smith was divorced. His twin sister lives in Massachusetts. His parents have died.

In 1999, Smith moved to Florida. He lived in a trailer at Hollywood Park. He loved to watch the Red Sox, Celtics and Patriots; to listen to Aerosmith and Celine Dion.

Friends and neighbors say Smith was private and quiet, but generous.

Since the St. Petersburg Times posted Meacham's story, 50 readers have commented.

"There's no such thing as menial labor, only menial people," darwinprime said. "This guy doesn't sound like one."

"Every life has value," Classical wrote. "I'm sorry that Mr. Smith's friends and family had to read the garbage that people post about others on this site."

Then there was this one, from Karen McAllister, one of the newspaper's audience editors:

We delete comments that clearly violate our guidelines. Our other choice is to turn off commenting altogether on particular stories. I prefer to allow readers to share their reactions and discuss hot topics of the day. Would I prefer if all comments were civil, respectful of others? Absolutely.

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