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The Choler of Online Comments

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By Dana Milbank
Sunday, April 19, 2009

Dear Reader:

I wish to apologize to you for my behavior last week.

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On Tuesday, I learned that I am a right-wing hack. I am not a journalist. I am typical of the right wing. I am why newspapers are going broke. I write garbage. I am angry with Barack Obama. I misquote Obama. I am bitter. I am a certified idiot. I am lame. I am a Republican flack.

On Thursday, I realized that I am a media pimp with my lips on Obama's butt. I am a bleeding-heart liberal who wants nothing more than for the right to fall on its face. I am part of the ObamaMedia. I am pimping for the left. I am carrying water for Obama. Lord, am I an idiot.

I discovered all this from the helpful feedback provided to me in the "reader comments" section at the end of my past four columns on washingtonpost.com. I undertook this exercise on the advice of former washingtonpost.com editor Doug Feaver, who wrote on these pages recently that journalists need to take the comments seriously ["Listening to the Dot-Comments," op-ed, April 9]. Further, he added in his blog, "those who don't are making a mistake."

Now, I may be a pimp and an idiot -- but I did not want to make a mistake. So I reviewed all 1,800 comments posted on my columns over the course of a week. As a sociological experiment, it was fascinating.

The comments are naturally an unscientific indicator, but the impression I got is consistent with what I've heard from colleagues: The vitriol of last year's presidential campaign has outlasted the election. For the right, this isn't terribly surprising; their guys lost the White House in 2008 and control of both chambers of Congress in 2006, so lashing out in frustration is to be expected. The left, however, is more difficult to explain. It made sense for them to be angry when George W. Bush was in the White House. But now, even under Obama, the anger on the left is, if anything, more personal and vitriolic than on the right.

A reader in an online chat brought this to my attention a couple of months ago, noting the animosity in the comments following a column. "Did you torture their cats and grandmothers? Most of the truly unhinged comments appear to come from Democrats, who apparently think you're Cindy McCain in reverse drag."

I replied that, to keep my blood pressure under control, I don't read the comments, and that I did, in fact, torture their cats.

Well, last week I read the comments. On April 10, I wrote a column about an Obama appearance urging Americans to refinance their mortgages -- a fairly gentle piece pointing out that the president sounded like a LendingTree.com pitchman. The comments compared me to Bernard Goldberg and Glenn Beck. One complained that "I gave Bush and the Republicans a pass."

Actually, a National Review column called me "the most anti-Bush reporter" in the White House press corps, but never mind that. "Uh oh, Milbank," wrote commenter "farfalle44." "Now the Obamabots have labeled you an Obama hater -- watch out!"

For Thursday's column, I criticized the "tea party" outside the White House. Conservatives left hundreds of indignant comments -- I was an Obama "lap dog" and "licking Obama's shoes" -- but that didn't buy me credibility with the left. "You do a real good job of attracting all the ill-informed, mathematically challenged, left-wing haters," said one reader. "I bet ya mom's really proud!"

So why is the left so angry? I don't know (I'm an idiot), so I put the question to the readers in my weekly online chat on Friday.

A reader from Rockville described it as a "sore winner" phenomenon. "People get used to being angry and when things change, they don't. So they find stuff to be mad about." Another said that some on the left "feel obligated to stay in the fight" because of the harsh treatment of Obama by the right.

But many focused on a frustration on the left caused by Obama's centrism -- his opposition to prosecuting those involved with torture, for example. "I am angry because the whole Republican party has not been rounded up and thrown into a black site," one wrote. A reader in Evanston, Ill., took a similar view, that true believers on the left don't want "b.s. rhetoric about looking forward." Okay, but why wouldn't this be directed at Obama? Readers explained that some of it is. But, "if we yell obscenities at Obama," replied a reader in Dunnellon, Fla., "we get a visit from the Secret Service. Yelling them at you is worry-free."

So the angry left should thank me: I'm taking one for the team.

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