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Posted at 01:09 PM ET, 12/12/2011

Reader Meter: Foreign protests, Virginia Tech shooting, and that sticky Post Web site

E-mails from foreigners looking for help to overthrow their regimes, anger at Post columnist Petula Dvorak over her column about this week’s Virginia Tech shooting, and the aggravating Post Web site were the toppers in the ombudsman’s inbox this week.

From Syria, the videos show boys 10 or 12 years old screaming in pain from shrapnel wounds as they are treated with rudimentary first aid in private homes. Outside, videos shot from rooftops show columns of tanks rumbling down the streets of the Syrian city of Homs, the lead tanks firing at anything that moves in front of them. In Bahrain, video shows tear gas canisters raining down on demonstrators. In Russia, e-mails come with video of ballots being stuffed and elections being rigged.

That’s just a sampling of video attachments I got this week with hundreds of e-mails, much like I get every week, from people in foreign countries who write to the ombudsman, and any other e-mail address they can find at The Post, appealing for help.

They attach shaky cell-phone videos of horrible violence or mass protest in their countries, or they link to similar videos posted on YouTube. Most of these e-mails are in Arabic or Russian; occasionally some will be written in broken English. And all want The Post to cover their fights for democracy, the violence done to them, the injustice that they feel.

Most of these, especially those from Syria, are technically unverifiable. Western reporters are essentially banned from that country. But the videos look real enough.

I haven’t written about these e-mails even though they actually dominate my inbox every week, and have been since the Arab Spring gained momentum earlier this year. This week, the e-mails from Russia were No. 1, followed closely by Syria, and then Bahrain and Yemen. But the mix changes from week to week depending on events.

These e-mails have little to do directly with Post journalism, so I leave them off my Friday Reader Meter summary of the week’s e-mails.

Still, they are heart rending. Anyone scrolling through them every week, occasionally clicking on a video, comes away saddened, and yet heartened that so many people are risking their lives and futures for democracy. People are amazingly brave in the face of brutal force.

Change is afoot. Some of these street revolutions have been successful — in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya — some have not yet been: Syria, Bahrain, and Russia.  But we can all hope that the tide of history is behind these determined democrats, and that The Post, as it has, and when it can, will cover their struggles.

After the foreign democracy e-mails this week came an influx of writers angry with Post local columnist Petula Dvorak for her commentary on the Virginia Tech shooting, in which a campus police officer was killed, and the shooter then committed suicide.

Most, but not all, of the angry readers were Tech alumni, or parents who have children there. They especially didn’t like when Dvorak observed that this new shooting, because of the past shooting in 2007 in which 33 people died, “became amplified into the epic, unshakable curse of the Hokie.”

You can almost hear the readers wince at that one. Here’s a typical reaction:

“Please press your leadership for an apology for this offensive, sensationalist piece by Ms. Dvorak, and get it off the home page immediately.  As a double Hokie parent since 2006, you cannot imagine the pain she causes to students and the Hokie Nation when she speaks of a ‘Hokie curse.’  It's not true, it's lousy journalism and is not worthy of newspaper tabloids, let alone The Washington Post.  I have subscribed since 1980 and have weathered a number of offenses in the belief that a free press serves liberty, but this is too much.  She is reviving an attempt to label the school that had thankfully failed in 2007.”

Dvorak did reply to one of the letter writers (not the one above) and copied me on it:

“Thank you for your note.
And yes, you are right, ‘curse’ isn’t the right theme for a piece like this. I wish it weren’t in the headline -- that is certainly not my choice and I don't write the headlines -- because that wasn’t the point of this.
The ‘curse’ is the everlasting fact that people will remember 2007 and a sad, horrible event like yesterday will always be seen in the context of ‘again,’ a burden that other campuses without a similar history will never bear.
But I was hoping, [when I quoted] Prof. Giovanni’s words, it would be clear that this was not, in fact, ‘again.’
This was an isolated event on a campus that knows sorrow, but also knows the power of healing.
And Hokies and everyone else will again remember her powerful words from 2007, ‘We are Virginia Tech. We are Virginia Tech.’
Hopefully, that part was clear in the column I wrote.”

I generally don’t like to interfere with Post columnists; they are entitled to their opinions. But when dealing with deaths, whether painful and violent, or even just an obituary after a long peaceful life, sensitivity is paramount.

Finally, readers, per usual, complained about the long download times of The Post Web site. Some initial fixes were implemented over the Dec. 10-11 weekend, with more coming later in the month and early next year. Without going into all the technicalities, The Post information technology team says that content should load a bit faster, but this first phase will be show less-significant improvements than later phases. Readers, let me know if you notice any improvement.

 

By  |  01:09 PM ET, 12/12/2011

 
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