On-line commenters: The underbelly of journalism and justice in Missouri

commentkeyWhenever I think my progressive values might need a reality check, all I have to do is go to the online version of my local daily newspaper and read some of the comments readers post about various articles.

I should know not to do this. My blood pressure has been high recently, and this can’t help. But many of the people who post about articles (the St. Louis Post-Dispatch calls some of them “top commenters” and rewards them with a star) have such a different world view than I do that it’s become almost my dirty little secret that I check in on them periodically.

My latest foray into this journalistic underbelly occurred when I read an online article headlined “St. Charles County parents sentenced to 7 years in prison for caging autistic son.”  The article described how Terry and Victoria Smith, who were convicted of child endangerment after their severely autistic six-year-old son was discovered in a crib/cage in their basement, received the maximum sentence allowed. They were also fined $500 each.

Never mind that the Smiths have five other children at home. Never mind that the family physician testified that all of the children were well cared for. Never mind that no one cared enough to help this family and provide an appropriate safe bed for their child. Never mind that the parents have never been in trouble with the law before.

Early posters on the “commentverse” went into gear immediately. Some samples: “These parents are horrible, horrible people.” “Get these two nut jobs out of parenting business.” “Not long enough.” “Should have been 70 years.” “These people should not get the chance to be free ever again.” “This is what the parents deserve.”

There are so many disturbing things about this that it’s hard to know where to start. First, with the sentence: six little children will be separated from their parents and from each other for a very long time. It will cost the state of Missouri much more to provide for these kids in foster care than it would have cost to provide some help for the family. And when the parents get out of prison, they will be felons. Good luck getting a job with that on your record.

Wouldn’t it have been smarter, kinder and more economical to provide some help for this family? The parents are probably not stupid, they were probably completely overwhelmed by the needs of their children and their inability to provide for them.

Second, about the comments: I realize that with this piece I, too, am commenting on the article (Occasional Planet does not need to give me a star). Those who share my views, and those who don’t, can respond. I can take being called a bleeding-heart liberal, or worse. What I have difficulty with is the level of hate and venom many of the Post commenters directed toward this family.

For those who think seven years in prison for two people who made one serious parenting mistake is an appropriate sentence, I have a suggestion: do something to help one of the Smith children while their parents are away. They are the ones who will be paying the penalty for this decision, which masquerades as justice in St. Charles County, Missouri.