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Mainstream media online comments sections were supposed to be one of those glorious triumphs of citizen democracy in the new Internet age. They offered a public space where ordinary readers could talk back to writers and to the people they wrote about, a free-range forum for spirited, intelligent discussion of civic issues…
Instead, it has come to this.
On Dec. 16, the Globe and Mail hastily disabled public comments on a blog item concerning Nova Scotia Liberal MP Scott Brison’s Christmas card to his constituents. Brison’s seemingly innocuous pastoral-scene card featured the MP, his
same-sex spouse Maxime St. Pierre and their dog Simba standing—at a discreet distance from one another—in the middle of a yellowish autumn field.
“Comments have been closed due to an overwhelming number of hateful and homophobic remarks,” explained an Editors’ Note. “We appreciate that readers want to discuss this issue, but we can't allow our site to become a platform for intolerance.”
The Toronto Star didn’t wait for the deluge to shut off its comment taps. “So crazy hateful people should probably walk away from the keyboard now,” advised its Ottawa correspondent, Susan Delacourt.
Unfortunately, the Brison brouhaha isn’t unusual. Virtually every online news site’s reader comments section has been hijacked by crude crazies of all different shades of intolerant ideology, whose always thoughtless, often venomous upchuckings seem to have discouraged almost anyone else from bothering to post. Including at serious news sites like the Globe’s.
The problem, it seems to me, is that the news sites—partly to avoid having to manage what, in a gentler, less digital era, used to be called letters to the editor, and partly to generate a bottomless pit of cost-free content—have abandoned their own responsibility (except in extreme situations) to identify and vet what people post.
Like the quaint idea that people should pay for content, the notion that individuals should be responsible for what they say now seems hopelessly dated. Pity.
A follow-up to columns I wrote before Christmas about the police commission’s failure to pay attention to the city’s alarming number of unsolved homicides. Chairman Russell Walker tells me he has no intention of seeking out two respected retired senior officers—who’ve publicly expressed concerns about the force’s ability to investigate major crimes—and ask them to meet with the commission. “They know the channels,” he says. “They know where to find us.” I’m sure that will comfort the families of murder victims.
Copyright 2010 Stephen Kimber