A Lost Job and a Question of Online Fairness

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.

But journalistically, what about accuracy and fairness? Is it all right to say someone is mentally ill without proof? What if Cole wasn't fired?

The Post struggled with these and other questions the day the story appeared. Readers had flagged several comments, including those by Lori Cole, by clicking the "Report Abuse" button. But Web site monitors decided they were acceptable.

Subsequently, Lori Cole contacted The Post and asked that her comments be removed because she'd acted in anger. But by then, her comments had prompted many others. Raju Narisetti, the managing editor in charge of the Web site, concluded they should remain. Other top editors concurred.

"If we decided to take her comments down, then we'd need to take down 40 or so others," Narisetti said. "Also, we don't take down comments just because someone later changes their mind."

Hal Straus, who oversees online comments, defended the decision not to remove the allegations about Clinton Cole. There was no immediate evidence that they were false, he said. "In this case, it seemed that the comments were relevant to the subject of the story," he added, noting that the wife and daughter had direct knowledge of the situation.

Late that day, The Post decided to cut off comments until it could resolve whether Cole was fired. It's central to whether he was accurately portrayed as being laid off.

After the story was published, Lori Cole provided documents to The Post (and, separately, to me) suggesting that her husband was fired. In a Feb. 18 letter from his employer, Cole was told he was being immediately terminated for "unsatisfactory job performance."

Cole insists he was a victim of downsizing and provided a Jan. 23 company form saying he had been authorized to seek an intracompany transfer. General Dynamics declines to comment. Post editors say they do not have enough information to determine whether a correction is warranted.

Lori Cole insists one is in order and faults The Post for not contacting her before publishing the story, especially since it identified her and the Coles' two adolescent children. Gowen said she asked Clinton Cole to introduce her to his wife, but that he dissuaded her because of stress in the family from his job loss.

Hindsight is 20/20. Perhaps that should have been a red flag. I don't fault Gowen for trying to be sensitive.

The comments are a different matter. I think they should have been removed when The Post received the initial abuse report. Further reporting could have been conducted before deciding whether they should appear. With such incendiary charges, it seems only fair.

Andrew Alexander can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at ombudsman@washpost.com. For daily updates, read the Omblog .

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