15 November 2006

Censorship at the New York Times?

How biased are newspaper moderators against comments that undermine their preferred world view? I thought they were supposed to be fairly neutral. Now I am less sure.

NYTimes.com has a Readers' Comments section, which states that

Comments are moderated and will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive.
This seems like the morally correct policy. But is it true?

On Saturday, NYTimes.com published an article on the increasing diagnosis of children as suffering from depression, ADHD (attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder) and so on, and resulting medication (Ritalin, Prozac, etc). "At least six million American children have difficulties that are diagnosed as serious mental disorders, according to government surveys — a number that has tripled since the early 1990s" said the article. Its tone was concerned, pointing out that diagnoses had a tendency to vary widely for the same child. Nevertheless, it underplayed criticism of the psychiatric profession. The Readers' Comments section invited feedback.

I am pretty sceptical about what I see as the current overmedicalisation of childhood, and the tendency to treat a child's dissatisfaction with contemporary versions of 'education' as a psychiatric problem. On Sunday I submitted the following comment. By Monday it had been posted, although it mysteriously said above the comment "awaiting moderation". As none of the other comments had this qualifier attached I was a bit baffled, but thought it might be an error. By Tuesday my comment had been deleted.
"Paul was a gifted reader, curious, independent. But after a screaming match with a school counselor, he walked out of the building and disappeared" [this is a case quoted in the article] - after which he became labelled as disturbed, though the precise diagnosis varied. How many other stories are there like this, and how many of them are cases of intelligent youngsters encountering a hostile educational ideology, primed to interpret exceptionality as linked to pathology? The change in attitude is enormous, claims a Columbia psychiatrist, but it's unclear whether the change represents more than sticking on new labels. Frustration with a boring syllabus is now “ADHD”, unhappiness about lack of challenge is “depression”. In any case, the staggering growth rate in diagnosed cases should make us hesitant about seeing the source of the problem in children rather than in the educational system.
I would like to know what went into the decision to remove my comment, which can hardly be described as abusive. I emailed NYTimes.com to ask why it was deleted, but they have not yet provided an explanation. Perhaps it was too critical for their tastes. Or perhaps the article's author, who had offered to respond to readers' comments, did not want to have to address my points.