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Online, Churls Gone Vile

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 26, 2007

One of the unique qualities of Internet discourse is its freewheeling, no-holds-barred nature, where passionate arguments are often accompanied by some choice expletives and a virtual finger in the eye.

But what happens when the talk turns ugly, racist and violent?

In recent weeks, some of those who post comments on the conservative blog Little Green Footballs have said they wished that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed had succeeded in what the Gitmo prisoner says was a plot to kill Jimmy Carter. And some who posted comments on the liberal Huffington Post have expressed regret that the suicide bomber at a military base in Afghanistan failed to take out the visiting Dick Cheney.

No corner of the Net is safe from this bile. The Washington Post's Web site has been grappling with a surge in offensive and incendiary comments.

The really gruesome stuff represents a tiny minority of those online. But is there a way of policing the worst stuff without shutting down robust debate?

The comments about Cheney at the Huffington Post included: "You can't kill pure evil." "If at first you don't succeed . . . " "Dr. Evil escapes again . . . damn." Founder Arianna Huffington wrote that "no one at HuffPost is defending these comments -- they are unacceptable and were treated as such by being removed."

The comments about Mohammed and Carter at Little Green Footballs included: "Can we furlough him -- just so he can realize the Carter plot? Please?" and "Even this schmuck had some good ideas."

The site's founder, Charles Johnson, wrote on Little Green Footballs that such comments "reflect only the opinions of the individuals who posted them" and doubted that they "rise to the level of hatred that showed up in Arianna's readers' Cheney-related comments."

Some conservatives and liberals seized on the incidents to denounce the other side, but no conclusions should be drawn from wack jobs on the fringe.

Since last summer, washingtonpost.com has allowed registered users to post comments on any news story. A recent report about New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, who said the slow recovery of his city was part of a plan to change its racial makeup and leadership, led to a number of offensive or inflammatory remarks:

"Some Black politicians are [expletive] idiots." "IF a white MAN were to speak as you do, you'd look for a lynching party." One person described Nagin as a racist and a women's sanitary product.

Washingtonpost.com Executive Editor Jim Brady says he does not have the resources to screen the roughly 2,000 daily comments in advance. He has one staffer deleting offensive comments after the fact, and banning the authors from further feedback, based on complaints from readers. Brady plans to devote more staff to the process and to use new filtering technology.

"The medium allows for readers and journalists to engage in conversation, and to say we're not going to take advantage of that doesn't make a lot of sense to me," he says. "I'd rather figure out a way to do it better than not to do it at all."

But Post reporter Darryl Fears is among those in the newsroom who believe the comments should be junked if offensive postings can't be filtered out in advance. "If you're an African American and you read about someone being called a porch monkey, that overrides any positive thing that you would read in the comments," he says. "You're starting to see some of the language you see on neo-Nazi sites, and that's not good for The Washington Post or for the subjects in those stories."

After Post reporter Darragh Johnson wrote in February about a Northeast Washington teenager who was fatally shot while being chased by police, some readers posted comments, including racist comments, criticizing the boy. Johnson says the 17-year-old's father cited the comments in declining to answer most questions about his son.

What is spreading this Web pollution is the widespread practice of allowing posters to spew their venom anonymously. If people's full names were required -- even though some might resort to aliases -- it would go a long way toward cleaning up the neighborhood.

More Charlie

For the first four Mondays in April, Charlie Gibson will have more time to deliver the news -- five minutes more on each half-hour evening, to be precise.

ABC's "World News" will air a special series, with correspondent Bill Weir traveling around the world to examine issues such as global warming and infant mortality. The project is based on agreements for a single advertiser, starting with pharmacy giant CVS, to sponsor each newscast.

"We're always frustrated," Gibson says. "The pitches come in every day and you just don't have the time. With this incredible luxury of time, we thought it would be interesting to take people to places in the world they don't ordinarily go."

"NBC Nightly News" was the first to air an expanded, single-sponsor newscast in December. Gibson says he hopes to do more special reports -- Weir is visiting places such as Zambia and the Pacific islands of Kiribati -- if willing advertisers can be found. "I'm curious whether they think it pays off for them," Gibson says.

Spinning for Gonzales

The internal government e-mails that left a long paper trail on the controversial firing of eight U.S. attorneys provide a fascinating window on how the Justice Department deals with the press.

On Jan. 15, Justice spokesman Brian Roehrkasse wrote colleagues that "our new Wall Street Journal beat reporter will publish a story tomorrow" and "believes at least six U.S. Attys were forced to resign . . . I didn't confirm, deny or otherwise comment beyond cautioning him that he better be careful his sources are accurate."

The reporter had "raised questions about political motivations" and a new law allowing Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to name interim prosecutors without Senate confirmation. "However, with all of the background information we provided . . . I don't think [the story] will be as politically focused," Roehrkasse wrote. "More likely, he will write that the department is pushing out USAs because they are underperforming or not embracing the department's priorities."

Roehrkasse, who included some "talking points," was largely wrong.

The Journal piece, by Evan Perez and Scot Paltrow, said the U.S. attorneys were "leaving or being pushed out"; that there was "concern that some high-level prosecutions may suffer"; and that "Democrats claim the administration is using a little-noticed clause in the Patriot Act to circumvent Senate confirmation" for some replacements.

Perez says the Justice strategy "obviously didn't work very well. I don't think they stopped us from saying anything we wanted to say."

Roehrkasse says in an interview: "Clearly we were operating without the full set of facts in making tactical decisions without knowing the larger context to the whole situation. In retrospect, this additional information would have been extremely beneficial in helping us make decisions about what to communicate from day one."

On Feb. 7, Roehrkasse wrote to other officials that Kyle Sampson, Gonzales's chief of staff, who has since resigned, suggested "a clearly worded op-ed and reaching out to ed boards who will write in the coming days. I think from a straight news perspective we just want the stories to die."

That didn't quite happen. On Feb. 16, Justice official Monica Goodling wrote colleagues, referring to Margaret Chiara, the U.S. attorney in Grand Rapids, Mich.: "Looks like someone is trying to out Chiara and it may break soon." Goodling added that Washington Post reporter Dan Eggen had called and "said he was following up on a tip that a female U.S. attorney in the midwest was asked by Main Justice to step down from her post on December 7."

Justice told Eggen -- who was focusing on the wrong prosecutor -- that he was off base, without disclosing that Chiara had been fired. Eggen reported her dismissal eight days later.

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