Sunday, February 12, 2006
I am a twit without a functioning brain.
I also do not have any [ censored ].
Despite 10 years spent in online media, I really don't understand the Internet.
I am a dangerous ideologue , an enemy of
At least, that's what I've been told -- in much stronger language -- by dozens of people who have never met me.
My career as a nitwitted, emasculated fascist began the afternoon of Jan. 19 when, as executive editor of the Post's Web site, washingtonpost.com, I closed down the comments area of one of our many blogs, one called post.blog. Created primarily to announce new features on the Web site, the blog had become ground zero for angry readers complaining about a column by Post ombudsman Deborah Howell on the newspaper's coverage of the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal. If I had let them, they would have obliterated any semblance of civil, genuine discussion.
As it was, things got pretty ugly, and it's worth figuring out why. In her Jan. 15 column, Howell erred in saying that Abramoff gave campaign donations to Democrats as well as Republicans. In fact, Abramoff directed clients to give to members of both parties, but he had donated his own personal funds only to Republicans.
Howell's inadvertent error prompted a handful of bloggers to urge their readers to go to post.blog to vent their discontent, and in the subsequent four days we received more than a thousand comments in our public forum. Only, the word "comments" doesn't convey the obscene, vituperative tone of a lot of the postings, which were the sort of things you might find carved on the door of a public toilet stall. About a hundred of them had to be removed for violating the Post site's standards, which don't allow profanity or personal attacks.
To my dismay, matters only got worse on Jan. 19 after Howell posted a clarification on washingtonpost.com. Instead of mollifying angry readers, the clarification prompted more than 400 additional comments over the next five hours, many of them so crude as to be unprintable in a family newspaper. Soon the number of comments that violated our standards of Web civility overwhelmed our ability to get rid of them; only then did we decide to shut down comments on the blog.
So was I suppressing free speech? Protecting the Bush administration? That's what you'd think, judging by the swift and acid reaction to my move. They couldn't get to post.blog, but they sure let me have it elsewhere in the blogosphere. I was honored as "Wanker of the Day" on one left-wing blog. Another site dissected my biography in order to prove that I was part of The Post's vast right-wing conspiracy.
Out in the Web woodshed, a handful of bloggers called me gutless or a puppet; some of them compared me to assorted body parts and characterized me as the worst person to come along since, well, Deborah Howell. And any nasty posts I didn't see myself, my friends gleefully provided to me via e-mail. A few friends said they came close to jumping online to defend me, but chose not to for fear they'd be next in line for a public flogging.
This all raises a question: Why are people so angry? It was a mistake, it was corrected. Part of the explanation may be the extremely partisan times we live in. For all the good things it has brought our society, the Web has also fostered ideological hermits, who only talk to folks who believe exactly what they do. This creates an echo chamber that only further convinces people that they are right, and everyone else is not only wrong, but an idiot or worse. So when an incident like this one arises, it's not enough to point out an error; they must prove that the error had nefarious origins. In some places on the Web, everything happens on a grassy knoll.
Another culprit in Web rage: the Internet's anonymity. It seems to flick off the inhibition switch that stops people from saying certain things in person. During the Howell flap, many of the e-mails I received that called me gutless, a coward or both were unsigned.
Maybe this level of anger has been out there for a long time, waiting to be enabled by technology. Forget about writing a letter, getting a stamp and mailing it in. Anger now has an easy and immediate outlet.
How did it feel to be mugged by the blogosphere?
Personally, I don't believe there's any such thing as "the blogosphere" as opposed to "the mainstream media." It's silly to assign organizations to one category or the other, pretend that there's uniformity in either grouping, or imagine a battle between the two. According to Technorati, a search engine that tracks the blogosphere, there are 27.6 million blogs on the Web, and they cover countless topics. Blogs are at odds with each other just as often as they're at odds with the media. Similarly, there are thousands of traditional media organizations in this country -- newspapers, TV stations, radio stations and magazines, most with their own Web sites. And anyone who has ever worked at one of them can testify that the media is not one big happy family. We're extremely opinionated about what our fellow journalists do. And it's impossible to say that either blogs or the mainstream media share one philosophy.
Even if you could define the blogosphere and the media as discrete entities, I've never understood why they'd be viewed as competitors. If you want to be positive, you could say blogs and the traditional media have a symbiotic relationship; if you want to be more negative, call it parasitic. Either way, they're connected. They co-exist like this: The media writes articles or files reports, then blogs use them as starting points for discussions. When the blogs do this, they almost always provide links back to media Web sites, and there isn't a news media site on the Web that doesn't receive a good chunk of its traffic from blogs. Each entity has an important yet distinct role in this potentially virtuous circle. Blogs don't have big media's capacity for expensive, coordinated news-gathering from Baghdad to Biloxi; newspapers and TV networks, even when they dive into the Web, can't match the (sometimes irresponsible) feistiness and flexibility of the blogs.
Blogs play a crucial role in the national conversation, whether it's giving readers insight into a specific topic, providing a forum for healthy debate or holding the media's feet to the fire. Bloggers have indisputably helped fan controversy over a CBS memo on a broadcast about President Bush's National Guard service, publicize then Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott's comments on Strom Thurmond and spread word of a contentious speech by CNN executive Eason Jordan.
What's distressing about my recent experience is that a small number of highly partisan, energetic bloggers poisoned the debate instead of contributing to it. Some of those angry about Howell's error didn't bother to present all the facts on their own sites. Instead, they picked the facts that conveniently fit their worldviews and ignored anything that didn't. One prime example: It was largely the reporting of the Washington Post that brought the Abramoff scandal to light in the first place -- an inconvenient fact if one is attempting to assert that The Post takes its orders from the Republican White House. And many bloggers who offered up Howell's error as proof of The Post's right-wing leanings gladly point to Post articles that reveal faults of the Bush administration. The selective reading isn't limited to the Howell incident. One site refers to a "fantastic" Post piece by a "first rate" journalist on eavesdropping, then talks about the paper becoming "a complete swamp of simpering kow-towing pantywaists."
During the controversy over the pulling of comments, a few bloggers claimed that some Web sites had preserved a page from post.blog that proved that we were being dishonest about why we shut down comments. Despite my frequent response to this question -- that such a page is merely a snapshot in time and would not have displayed comments that we had removed -- I still see references on blogs today saying it has been "proven" that we were lying about the tenor of the comments and that I continue to avoid this question. But not providing the answer someone wants is not the same as avoiding the question.
My favorite story from this adventure involves one blogger who proudly runs a no-holds-barred blog that relishes name calling. Nonetheless, we invited this blogger to participate in an online discussion about ethics on the Web. During the discussion, this blogger peppered me with many of the same questions that I'd answered in other forums. In one of my responses, I noted the investigative nature of her questions and suggested that when she was done playing Columbo, she might actually discuss the topic we'd invited her to discuss. More than 50 of this blogger's readers later sent e-mails to me demanding a public apology for comparing this blogger to a fictional television detective. One of the complaints about my manners closed by telling me to go do something unprintable with myself "and that Wa:Po rag you ride about town." Uh, thanks.
The irony of the backlash to my decision to shut off this comment string last month was that we've taken numerous steps during the past year to open up the Post Web site to its readers. We have 80 to 90 hours of live discussion programming every week, almost half of which involve Post reporters and editors. We've launched more than 30 blogs, which allow for reader comments and which have built vibrant communities. On our article pages, we've added links to related blogs. Just last week, we began hyperlinking all bylines on the site to allow readers to more easily send e-mail to Post reporters and editors. We'll continue to add features that allow us to interact with readers.
But we won't allow our comments area to become a place where people can use whatever vulgar language they want, personally attack Post staffers or bully other contributors to our pages or discussions. There are folks who call this position naive. That's their right. There are those who will decide not to be part of the discussion we're having on washingtonpost.com because they don't like our rules. That's their choice. We have chosen to build a certain type of community on our site, and based on the e-mail and letters I've received in the past three weeks, there are a lot of people who want to join it.
But what do I know? I'm an idiot. Just ask the people who don't know me.
Jim Brady is the executive editor of washingtonpost.com.