By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 21, 2006
An experiment in open expression and free speech has proved a bit too free for The Washington Post and its Web site.
The newspaper company has temporarily shut down Post.blog -- a section of Washingtonpost.com that invites reader comments -- after receiving hundreds of posts, many using profane or sexist language, responding to columns by The Post's ombudsman, Deborah Howell.
The deluge, which overwhelmed the Web site's screening efforts, began after Howell wrote in a column published Sunday that disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff "had made substantial campaign contributions to both major parties." That is incorrect. As Howell noted on Thursday morning in a short piece on Post.blog, Abramoff did not make direct contributions to Democrats but directed his lobbying clients to do so.
By then it was too late. Spurred in part by various liberal Web sites, readers had begun flooding Post.blog with comments, most of them criticizing Howell. Many of them used language unsuitable for a public forum. Unable to keep up with a stream of more than 1,500 postings, editors of the Web site decided to close it down until order could be restored.
The episode was another demonstration of the unbridled -- and often uncivilized -- discourse that can take place on the Internet around political issues. The Los Angeles Times faced a somewhat similar situation in June when it enabled online readers to rewrite one of the newspaper's editorials about the Iraq war; the paper dropped its "wikitorial" feature after some users posted obscene photos and foul language.
It also comes at a time when newspapers, via their online operations, are attempting to foster more dialogue and interaction with their readers. Post.blog is one of more than two-dozen Web logs, or blogs, on the Post site that enable reader feedback, much of it unedited. Indeed, some of the offensive postings that had been on Post.blog before its closure began to migrate to another section of The Post's Web site, although those were quickly removed.
The blog will remain closed while Washingtonpost.com staff members sort through the postings about Howell's column, said Jim Brady, the site's executive editor. The staff will re-post comments deemed appropriate when the site reopens. The company, he said, is taking "technological and human" steps to prevent a repeat of the incident.
Although The Post's Web operations are separate from the newspaper, the editorial standards are much the same, said Leonard Downie Jr., The Post's executive editor. "If it's not something we'd tolerate in the newspaper, it's not something we'll tolerate on the Web site," he said. He said the general expectation is that reporters and readers alike will act like guests in someone's home: "You don't expect someone to strip naked, swear or attack you under those circumstances," he said.
Howell said yesterday she felt "stunned" by the reaction to her Sunday column, which she called "imprecise" in its characterization of Abramoff's actions. As an editor and reporter for decades, she said she has been criticized by readers for controversial articles, including a Pulitzer Prize-winning series about AIDS in the Midwest that she edited at the St. Paul Pioneer Press in the 1980s.
Despite the harsh tone of the comments she received, Howell said she did not ask the Web site to shut down the blog. "It's a free country," said Howell. "I'm a First Amendment freak."
The critical postings appear to have been generated by a group of liberal Web sites that began criticizing Howell not long after her Sunday column appeared. This group includes MediaMatters.org, Dailykos.com, FireDogLake.blogspot.com and Atrios.blogspot.com, according to Jamison Foser, a senior adviser to Media Matters for America, which describes itself as a progressive media watchdog organization. The group is partially funded by insurance magnate Peter Lewis, a major contributor to Democratic candidates and party organizations.
"I certainly understand that readers can get out of hand," said Foser, whose own organization has dealt with a flood of virulent comments in the past. On the Media Matters Web site, he said, "we try to make clear the importance of dealing with substantive [issues] and not personal insults. Those kinds of comments are not encouraged by us and we do not approve of them."
At the same time, he said, news organizations shouldn't "throw the baby out with the bath water" by permanently shutting down a channel for general expression. "We hope The Post puts the appropriate comments back online and figures out a way" to keep the dialogue going, he said.