When newspapers launched websites and allowed real-time comments on articles, they hoped to establish a new marketplace of ideas.
What has developed, instead, is not as much a marketplace as a really crummy garage sale.
One where the shoppers hide behind card tables and wardrobe racks and call each other morons and idiots, socialists and fascists.
One where good questions and constructive criticism get drowned out or shouted down. The trolls usually win. What they actually win is beyond me.
Id have no misgivings about naming names here, were there names to name. Since most commenters are anonymous, I dont know their identities any more than you do.
Which brings us to almostinnocentbystander, a commenter at the Spokane Spokesman-Review.
In February, almost took an anonymous shot at Kootenai County Republican Party chairwoman Tina Jacobson over $10,000 missing from GOP coffers. Jacobson filed a defamation suit against almost in April and took the Spokesman-Review to court as well.
On July 10, Kootenai County District Judge John Patrick Luster ordered the paper to turn over information identifying almost. (Kootenai County GOP activist Linda Cook, however, came in from the cold Monday and identified herself as almost.)
Yes, the prospect of being outed by a judge could have a chilling effect on commenters especially those with a compelling personal or professional motivation to stay in the shadows. But lets keep perspective. As the Spokesman-Reviews own Shawn Vestal argues in a terrific July 12 column, the comment boards have become little more than a sewer of stupidity and insults and shallowness. ...
The idea that the newspaper has to spend time and treasure defending this nonsense not protecting a whistleblower, not battling the government for access to public records is repulsive.
And there is your other, perhaps more salient chilling effect. This legal mess could conceivably happen to any newspaper that allows anonymous comments including the Statesman. No matter how a newspaper tries to monitor its comment sections, there exists some element of legal exposure.
Is the risk worth the reward, the bump in online page views?
Since a coarse online shouting match does not enhance a newspapers brand as a leader of constructive community discussion, when does this circus become more headache than it is worth?
I know this much, from personal experience.
I do read comments at my blog, and try to weed out the off-topic posts and personal attacks, but I respond sparingly. If a commenter raises a good, on-point question, Ill try to respond and if a commenter makes a factual assertion I know to be false, Ill try to set the record straight.
But my most constructive, transparent dialogues with readers generally take place on Facebook or Twitter, where people are less likely to hide behind a cloak of anonymity. Ill go where a good conversation is taking place, and, yes, I wish it occurred more often at IdahoStatesman.com.
If Lusters ruling prods newspapers to rethink commenting, that might prove to be a blessing in disguise.
A VANDERSLOOT VENDETTA?
Frank VanderSloot the CEO of Melaleuca in Idaho Falls and seven-digit Mitt Romney campaign donor is feeling a bit picked on these days. Were I in his shoes, Id probably feel likewise.
In the past two months, VanderSloot has found himself the subject of IRS and Labor Department audits. This comes two months after a Barack Obama re-election campaign website assailed VanderSloot as litigious, combative and a bitter foe of the gay rights movement.
Asked about the audits by The Associated Press, VanderSloot had this to say: I am not claiming there is a connection and I dont know that there is one. But the fact that it comes right on the heels of being named on the presidents enemies list is curious to say the least.
The IRS tells the AP that its audits are based solely on tax law, while Labor says its audits are usually random. So, as usual, it is far easier to suggest a conspiracy than to prove one. Based on VanderSloots account, curious is a fair description.
Make no mistake. Ive been no fan of VanderSloot and his free-spending and heavy-handed political activism. When he groused this spring about the backlash from the Obama website, the longtime political power player sounded overly defensive and laughably naive. But there is a difference between fair-game criticism and the yes, unprovable possibility of administrative harassment.
COMMENT IN 140 (OR LESS)
The England trip could have gone worse. Romney also could have said he never quite got Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
Kevin Richert: 377-6437, Twitter: @KevinRichert