The Washington Post published a smart, thorough takedown Wednesday of the baseless charge that Barack Obama spurned a visit with wounded troops because he couldn't turn the trip into a public relations coup.
Reporters Michael D. Shear and Dan Balz showed that Obama never planned to take the media to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, putting the lie to charges from John McCain that the Democrat was on the prowl for a cheap photo op.
After reading the Post story online, I ventured to the adjoining public comment board to see how the public was receiving news about the bogus McCain attack. I shouldn't have bothered.
By midafternoon Wednesday, the washingtonpost.com forum had been flooded with nearly 1,400 messages. A few ventured toward rational discussion of Obama and his overseas travels, but the forum also overflowed with ignorance, profanity, impertinence and racism.
It was just one message board attached to a single story. But it provided unfortunate proof that, despite its power to inform and connect people across cultures and time zones, the Internet all too often discourages, or coarsens, a healthy civic discussion.
It's hard to say from the few minutes I could stomach of the online forum which of the anonymous contributors deserved the award for Most Offensive.
It might have been Daman1, who described Obama as a backer of Kwanzaa and called the annual celebration of African heritage "a made-up holiday to celebrate the first time Dr. J dunked from the foul line."
Or perhaps the top offender might have been Dianne72, who complained about "the 'whitey' rants of Michelle Shaniqua Obama. Doesn't she realize that it was whitey's affirmative action policies that got her where she is today?"
Those gentle souls, with their concocted and racially charged stereotypes, had company from a platoon of other name-callers, including soonipi6, who railed over "the most corrupt, most insidious, most fascist, most criminal collection of Republicans I have witnessed in my 63 years as an American."
And Thunder2, who scored a high imbecile quotient with just 42 words that painted McCain as a "songbird" and traitor because of the limited statements he made to his captors during 5 1/2 years of brutal wartime imprisonment in North Vietnam.
The problem with Internet discussions at many websites, including latimes.com, is that participants are not required to identify themselves. Many use the veil of anonymity to spew the most vile and inane remarks you can imagine.
"There has been a lot of talk about how these discussion boards inspire public participation," said Andrew Keen, a cultural commentator and author. "But these people brook no real discussion. They vilify anyone who disagrees with them. It's not particularly antidemocratic. But I don't think it lends itself to building a richer democracy."
Online discussions appear to get particularly unruly on washingtonpost.com and other sites that monitor submissions only after they have been posted for all to see.
Elizabeth Spayd, editor of washingtonpost.com, said an electronic screen helped weed out profanity, though there are dodges around that minimal protection. A "report abuse" button beside each posting helps alert the paper's monitors, another aid in weeding out inappropriate postings, post-publication.
Still, Spayd conceded it was "not a foolproof system" and that debate continues -- in the industry and in her newsroom -- about whether to impose screening prior to publication.
"We also live in an age where we ask people to view what we put out to them," Spayd said, "and it seems reasonable to allow them to comment on it."
The Los Angeles Times, New York Times and other news sites screen public comments prior to their appearance on the Web.
But most news websites give wide berth to allow a range of opinions.
"The people who post on these sites have become accustomed to behaving like beasts because they can, because no one is really monitoring them," said Keen, whose polemic on the dangers of the Internet, "The Cult of the Amateur," is due in paperback next month. "It's creating this civic vulgarity that we don't need."
Webmasters could begin to fix the problem and heighten the level of discussion by requiring folks who want to share their views to also agree to publication of their real names. If you're not willing to put your name beside that lovely screed, maybe it really isn't fully fit for human consumption.