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Threads, bare: Some comments on comments

SCOTT: So, citing uncivil behavior, the Review-Journal has turned off its comment threads, long derided by many as witch cauldrons of bigotry, whackadoodle aggression and horrid grammar, with the occasional nugget of useful perspective buried within. Your first response?

ANDREW: Purely as a reader, I’m celebrating this victory for a refreshingly dread-free online reading experience. Under the former free-for-all comment regime, I could never manage to resist the churning undertow sucking me into the comments section, that black-bubbling whirlpool of Cro-Mag anger, hatred and racism. I know, I know: Dude, just ignore it! Easier said than scrolled. Maybe I felt some vague duty to face the ugly face of a very real segment of the RJ readership — and a very real segment of Las Vegas. Then again, maybe it was just Sherm Frederick under multiple nicknames.

But seriously, I applaud the spirit behind the decision if not the specific method for carrying it out. Call me naive, but I’m heartened that the RJ has found it in the scaly folds of its reptilian medulla oblongata to make a public acknowledgment that civility means something. 

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SCOTT: I too am relieved that the sucktide of seething, posturing, smug, troglodyte angst is gone, and with it so much inability to distinguish between your and you’re. Though I, for one, am somewhat unconvinced by the RJ’s sudden blush of rectitude here. As if they were shocked — shocked! — to discover bad behavior on the part of the very readers they’ve courted so assiduously over the years with the paper’s awkward, Frankenstein lunges at Harry Reid (gawd, remember the campaign of 2010?!), the president, public education, public employees — pretty much anyone to the left of Ayn Rand. The folks befouling the content threads were their people. So one wonders if the threads finally achieved some critical mass of skank — one too many comparisons of certain ethnic groups to cockroaches, for pungent example — or if something else is in play. A few speculations are afoot that the paper may eventually be for sale, with owner Warren Stephens having recently unloaded his other newspaper chain; if that’s true, debugging the RJ’s comment threads may just be one shipshaping move among many, the equivalent of scraping the black gunk off the bottom of your car before driving it to Carmax.

A larger context beckons: Does the community lose out in some way? Was there, embedded in the goop, enough legit public dialogue to make all the vile crap worthwhile?

ANDREW: Go ahead, smash my dreams. Eh, you’re probably right — lurking ulterior motives galore. But I hope what may just be a grasping, mercenary pantomime of civility will rouse some brain over there into considering the zany idea that some (not all!) of a media outlet’s fundamental journalistic responsibilities and values extend to the comments: Comments count; they’re content. They’re more than just incidental graffiti on the wall; they’re one of the walls. They’re not journalism, but they’re not not-journalism.

If this wholesale shutdown of comments is the operation — and not just the first incision in some badly needed reconstructive surgery — then yeah, I feel there’d be some marginal loss to public dialogue. Buried deep in the muck was a dim pearl here, a nugget there, a frayed rope of intelligent thought to hold on to. At least on pieces that naturally invite different perspectives and opinions (op-eds, political columns) and perhaps service journalism that benefits from interaction and info-sharing (The Road Warrior, say), a careful curation could amplify and enrich the discussion rather than drown it out in a chorus of primal banshee shrieking about chemtrailsObamacareillegals911insidejobReidisevilallhailFoxNews. 

But that would require, oh, an actual new editorial position. And we all know the RJ, if it could, would not have actual employees, but instead just use ritual blood sacrifice to embody the newspaper as a transdimensional physical excretion of its wicked sponsor god, Q’thlorrg the Befouler.

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SCOTT: What would that new employee’s job title be? Cerberus?

Okay, okay, as I step away from the fish barrel to reload my gun, I should note that not everyone agrees on the rightness of the RJ’s action. (Which, the paper says, may only be temporary.) Howard Beckerman, a civic leader from Temple Sinai, said on KNPR’s State of Nevada that the threads often have “one or two comments that are very reasonable, and should be the grounds for a dialogue and discourse. Those are the ones worth reading and worth keeping the comments for.” And, according to a Facebook post by a Review-Journal reporter, someone sent the paper a “news tip” that included this: “The RJ has joined sides with such groups as the Al Qaida and ISIS in banning comments on news stories that are deemed uncivil (a cheap little word that can have broad reaching interpretations).” This tipster suggests the RJ have its right to practice journalism revoked.

Well! Sure, that’s silly, and it’s hard to see any real free-speech conflict here —journalism existed before Internet commenting, and the First Amendment guarantees no one a platform — but Beckerman’s thought echoes yours about reconstructive surgery, and makes one hope the RJ eventually devises, buys or stumbles upon a way to thresh the useful comments and toss the hate-crud. In these fraught times, the city could use more real dialogue. Meantime, at least we can read in peace.

ANDREW: Agreed. And if and when they pull the lever to turn the system back on, I plan to shock RJ readers with my earnest, thoughtful, polite comments that will find common ground on divisive issues and point to realistic bipartisan solutions. It will shock them because those comments will be delivered under the nickname ShermFrederick2.

Scott Dickensheets is a Las Vegas writer and editor whose trenchant observations about local culture have graced the pages of publications nationwide.
As a longtime journalist in Southern Nevada, native Las Vegan Andrew Kiraly has served as a reporter covering topics as diverse as health, sports, politics, the gaming industry and conservation. He joined Desert Companion in 2010, where he has helped steward the magazine to become a vibrant monthly publication that has won numerous honors for its journalism, photography and design, including several Maggie Awards.