Online Spat Provokes Questions on What to Publish

By Andrew Alexander
Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Post recently ran a front-page story about those who pretend to be employed rather than suffer the embarrassment of no longer having a job.

"For weeks after he was laid off," it began, "Clinton Cole would rise at the usual time, shower, shave, don one of his Jos. A. Bank suits and head out the door of his Vienna home -- to a job that no longer existed."

It said Cole, who had been a business development manager with General Dynamics Information Technology, had been too ashamed to tell anyone but his family after losing his job in February.

These kinds of stories often elicit compassionate online reader comments. But when this one appeared Aug. 12, they turned nasty.

Cole's wife blasted her husband. Rather than being laid off, Lori Cole wrote in a comment, he was "fired for poor performance." She said their marriage is broken.

Then Elizabeth Cole, who identified herself as the couple's 13-year-old daughter, posted a comment saying her father had mental problems.

Others keyed on these comments. Clinton Cole was vilified.

But he says it's not true. He has no mental problems, he told me, and insists he lost his job through downsizing. His wife is "conducting a smear campaign because, quite frankly, she's trying to win a large amount of money in a divorce court."

Cole said he was stunned by the comments. Before agreeing to cooperate for the story, he said, reporter Annie Gowen had told him The Post monitors abusive comments. He had been reassured after reading The Post's rules that forbid inappropriate comments.

"What level of responsibility does the Post have [for] what should be considered unacceptable comments?" he asked me last week.

The Post's Web site can get more than 20,000 comments a week. On a typical day, between 100 and 150 are deleted for violating the rules.

Legally, The Post isn't liable for comments. Under federal law, responsibility rests with the commenters.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company