Friday, January 20, 2006; 12:00 PM
On Thursday, washingtonpost.com turned off the reader comments feature on post.blog , a blog dedicated to sharing news by and about The Post and washingtonpost.com. The move came after several comments containing personal attacks, profanity and hate speech were posted on an item about Washington Post ombudsman Deborah Howell's recent column about the Abramoff scandal: Getting the Story on Jack Abramoff , ( Post, Jan. 15 ).
In a posting to the blog, washingtonpost.com Executive Editor Jim Brady wrote, "Transparency and reasoned debate are crucial parts of the Web culture, and it's a disappointment to us that we have not been able to maintain a civil conversation, especially about issues that people feel strongly (and differently) about. We're not giving up on the concept of having a healthy public dialogue with our readers, but this experience shows that we need to think more carefully about how we do it."
Brady was online Friday, Jan. 20, at Noon ET to discuss his decision and user interactivity.
Cache Valley, Utah: if ya can't stand the heat...
Publish partisan lies and not expect a backlash? Get real pal!!!
Fire that f***ing b**** forthwith and all's well that ends well, no? Otherwise, batten down the hatches, pal, 'cause there's a storm a brewin' and it's gonna be nasty.
Jim Brady: Afternoon, thanks for all your questions (well, maybe not this one). But I wanted to start with it to make a point that this was the kind of stuff we spent all week cleaning out of our message boards (except there were no asterisks). And when the amount of time it took to ferret these kind of posts out exceeded the bandwidth we could devote to it, we decided to close commenting on post.blog down. Now, on to some intelligent questions, of which there were many.
Washington, D.C.: Mr. Brady,I can understand why you would want to temporarily shut down reader comments (re: the Howell matter) if your staff could not handle filtering out a large quantity of profanity and hate speech. However, that doesn't explain why you deleted all of the reader comments that had been posted and therefore had presumably passed your staff's scrutiny. Many comments were well-reasoned and supported by facts -- why not leave them up?
Jim Brady: Good question. The reason was that shutting them all off together was just that it was the quickest way to remove the problematic ones that were starting to overwhelm our ability to get rid of them. But, you're right, there were lots of good posts, and over the next few days, we'll go back through them and restore the ones that did not violate our rules, though we're still going to leave comments off on that blog for the time being.
Los Angeles, Calif.: Mr. Brady,
Does The Post believe that Ms. Howell's reporting on the Abramoff scandal as involving Democrats is fair and accurate? If so, based on what facts?
Jim Brady: Just to be clear on the issue of the column itself, that's not my domain. I am the executive editor of the web site, not the newspaper, so that's a question that you'd need to take up with them. What I'm looking to do here is to answer your questions on the decision made to shut off comments on post.blog, and make sure the people reading this discussion can see some of your takes on the decision.
Ithaca, N.Y.: How is it ever acceptable for a newspaper to silence its critics?
Jim Brady: How has The Post "silenced its critics"? We're having a discussion right now in which -- believe me -- I can assure you there are more critics than supporters. We shut down comments on one blog on a site than has 30. You can e-mail or snail mail letters to the editor. Deborah's e-mail is available on the site. There are plenty of avenues to critique what happens at the newspaper or web site. We don't have an obligation to keep every one of those avenues open if we run into problems like we did yesterday.
Washington, D.C.: Mr. Brady, while I certainly agree with the need to maintain decorum and the rules of the blog, is not the real issue that the Washington Post ombudsman failed to review and change The Post's reporting in her own column about Jack Abramoff's political contributions? Please continue to exercise your discretion in monitoring the content of the blogs, but also know that inaccurate reporting will not be tolerated by your readers -- and should not be tolerated by a venerable institution such as the Washington Post.
Jim Brady: Thanks. As has been mentioned by other Post staffers this week, Deborah will be discussing this in her column on Sunday. So the issue you raise is not being swept under the rug.
Pensacola, Fla.: After reading the over 400 of the comments in question, which by the way, were saved by someone before they were removed, I saw no hate speech, one four letter word, and I can't imagine what you found so offensive as to remove them. Could you please explain exactly what problem you had with them?
Jim Brady: You were reading the ones that were posted live. There were a few hundred others that were removed the site altogether, and those would not be on the page you're looking at.
Annapolis, Md.: 'If readers can restrain the hate speech, it will continue to the benefit of all.' This was Jim VandeHei's comment to a reader's question about the comment shutdown. I fear this is a very 20th century attitude.
I'm sure that in the "olden" days when people wrote handwritten letters to the editor, there were many a crackpot letter that you didn't publish. I sincerely feel that the post.com needs to research a filter method that will rid them of profane or threatening e-mails, and allow the 90 percent of us who are articulate, civil, and concerned citizens communicate with our local newspaper.
Jim Brady: I couldn't agree with Jim (and you) more. I agree that a large majority of people who want to comment have honorable intentions. One of the amazing things about the web is its ability to bring different people together. But the openness of it also makes it easier for a few bad actors to derail intelligent conversations. And those bad actors seem to enjoy the attention they get by doing that.
Philadelphia, Pa.: Mr. Brady,
Was your first question posed to you today or was it one of the comments you and your staff objected to and deleted while comments were allowed just to make your point? You see, at this point, I'm not sure I can believe anything you have to say about this situation. I sure hope you give me a good reason to not give up completely on The Washington Post, because I'm very close.
Jim Brady: It was a question submitted to this discussion specifically.
Tallahassee, Fla.: Every blog I read handles objectionable posts by simply deleting the posts rather than suspending all comments. The Post's actions seem consistent with outright censorship. How do you respond to this criticism?
Jim Brady: For the record, we did not suspend all comments, we suspended comments in one blog. As for the censorship question, that seems to imply you think we've decided not to allow anyone to criticize the Post. That's not what we've done. As I said earlier, there are plenty of avenues to do that, and those all remain available. Comments on this blog were shut off because of the tone of it, not the substance.
IP: Salon has a screen shot of the comments from the shut down blog. They are just critical of the inaccurate and misleading statements being made by your Ombudsman.
I did not see anything offense other than an uprising against the tyranny of lies coming from the MSM supporting the fascist Bush jutta.
What happen to freedom of expression in America?
Jim Brady: As I said earlier, that screen shot is only what was live, not what we blocked. There's no way for you to see what we blocked, and you should be happy about that, believe me. I learned some new words this week.
Chicago, Ill.: I agree that readers calling Deborah Howell a "b****" or a "wh***" or those using other profanity should not have used those words. But why does The Washington Post feel it is necessary to provide a sanitized version of the comments? (this assuming the number of foul comments overflowed your capacity to delete them). The comments obviously are not attributed to your paper. So again, what harm was being cause by letting these comments (along with the rest of the well-researched comments) stand?
Jim Brady: I think it goes to basic human decency. You may not like Deborah Howell or her column from Sunday, but like you, she's a human being. She shouldn't have to read people publicly calling her a "b****" or a "wh***," and we're certainly not going to allow that on our site. Does anyone out there really think that adds anything to the discussion? If you need to use that language to make your point, I'm sorry, you don't have one. You want to critique the column, go ahead. You want to say we we wrong, fire away. You want to call one of employees a "b****" and a "wh***," you should go somewhere else.
Lexington, Mass.: Jim -- I admire your guts for just showing up to this online forum. Thanks.
When will Froomkin be back?
Jim Brady: The proud papa will be back back Tuesday.
Bloggs Park: I guess the most obvious suggestion, and I'm sure you considered it, why not have someone screen the submissions the way Amazon does on its buyer reviews?
Jim Brady: Pre-screening is something we've discussed, but in a perfect world, that would not be necessary. Real-time debate about the issues of the day is exciting, and what the Web can provide. Any pre-screening makes that harder, but in certain subject areas, it may be the way we have to go. But we'll see.
Crofton, Md.: Do you think part of the problem is that there are no real rules for blogs? It's a relatively new technology, and I've seen curse words throughout other blogs, such as Wonkette and the Huffington Post. How are blogs regulated? Is the FCC scanning blogs looking for George Carlin's seven dirty words?
Jim Brady: Well, I think part of the problem is that many blogs do allow an "anything goes" philosophy about comments. So I'm sure some of the folks who created problems here may have assumed this was the case here. But it's not. We've chosen not to have an "anything goes" mentality, and once the stream of comments reached a point where we could not get the bad ones off as fast as they were coming in, we decided to close down the blog.
Washington, D.C.: Please, Mr Brady. I think we are all waiting for comments on how issues like this will be handled in the future. Exactly like this, or will you tweak the process, and how?
Jim Brady: Too early to tell. We need to look at how we're staffed to handle comments, especially in cases where's there's been a concerted effort to flood us with comments in a short period of time. We also need to look at the technology, specifically how much weeding out of offensive content can be automated, etc. To be honest, the experience we've had since we launched blogs a year ago has been very positive, but we found out this week we're not equipped technically or personnel-wise to handle a flood of problematic email...
Comments, Comments: Is this whole discussion only about the deletion of comments? Without addressing the larger issues of Howell's article, this is pointless. Sorry that you, the Web site, have taken the flak more than the paper, but unless the .com wing OR the paper are going to print a correction NOW rather than waiting for Howell to write another insulting non-apology, we all get nowhere.
You'll continue to catch the brunt of consumer ire, the paper will continue to lose credibility, and your readers/consumers will continue to be resentful.
What solution do you propose, or are you simply going to give another weak non-answer about "we're just the Web site, don't blame us"?
Go ahead and have the Web site print its own retraction, pull her column, whatever, until the paper gets on the ball.
Jim Brady: If it's a weak answer to say that I can't speak for a part of the company I don't work for, then I guess you'll have to accept it.
New York, N.Y.: Do you think that the dialogue with the readers may include us bringing up pertinent facts that your articles omitted? Is that an acceptable contribution to the dialogue, or it's "personal attack" as it implies the imperfection of your news reporting?
Jim Brady: Of course it's OK to raise those issues, and people have been doing it in our blogs for a year. It is not a personal attack to question an article or how it was produced. It is a personal attack when you start calling reporters names that some of the ones referenced earlier in this discussion, which frankly, were not the worst of the lot.
Chicago, Ill.: Are we really looking at a clash of media cultures? Your web audience is on Real Time and expecting much more timely response to legitimate requests for corrections. However, some of your editors and columnists appear to be working in Print Time, wanting instead to respond in scheduled columns. Don't you think this could be behind the frustration that has built to outrage?
Jim Brady: Good question. There's no doubt the Web culture and print culture have some major differences, and the 24/7 nature of it is clearly one of them. But we also have a lot in common, and one of those things is the desire to make The Washington Post and washingtonpost.com successful, and that's why we've launched so many blogs, offered links to bloggers through Technorati and produce 12-15 hours of live discussions like this one every day. So, sure, the issue you raise is one we need to keep looking at, but I think we've shown an ability to adapt pretty quickly.
Philadelphia, Pa.: What other means will you be offering for those of us who want to comment on your paper's coverage and opinion, including the ombudsman?
Jim Brady: If you go to our Opinion page, and click on the Feedback button, there are plenty of ways detailed to reach Deborah and others at the newspaper.
Wayne, Pa.: Thank you for being here today Mr. Brady. I agree with you that some of the language was really unnecessary and perhaps uncalled for. Would you care to posit a response on why so many people seemed angry about Ms. Howell's article in the first place? While reading the comments I felt a few good points were made and it would've been nice to have more rapid response from Mr. Howell herself, rather than having to wait for her next article (this is an interactive fast-paced cyber-world, after all).
Jim Brady: In case you missed it, Deborah did respond yesterday to the folks who had been raising issues about her column Sunday... Here's that response:
I've heard from lots of angry readers about the remark in my column Sunday that lobbyist Jack Abramoff gave money to both parties. A better way to have said it would be that Abramoff "directed" contributions to both parties.
Lobbyists, seeking influence in Congress, often advise clients on campaign contributions. While Abramoff, a Republican, gave personal contributions only to Republicans, he directed his Indian tribal clients to make millions of dollars in campaign contributions to members of Congress from both parties.
Records from the Federal Elections Commission and the Center for Public Integrity show that Abramoff's Indian clients contributed between 1999 and 2004 to 195 Republicans and 88 Democrats. The Post has copies of lists sent to tribes by Abramoff with specific directions on what members of Congress were to receive specific amounts.
One of those lists can be viewed in this online graphic, while a graphical summary of giving by Abramoff, his tribal clients and associated lobbyists can be viewed here. The latest developments in the Abramoff investigation are available in this Special Report.
-- Deborah Howell, Washington Post Ombudsman
Grand Rapids, Mich.: This is a dilemma, because you are either censoring (choosing what is viewable), or not. Perhaps the problem is the format. Do you think a newspaper can honestly retain its decency standards by opening the door to outside submissions? It seems that these chats, where you choose the questions, might be as far as The Post can go. Thoughts?
Jim Brady: I think you could drive a truck through that definition of censorship. But on your second question, I think that's what we're trying to figure. I do believe the journalism of the mainstream media and the feedback from its readers can -- and should -- co-exist. We're just reaching a point where we need to figure out the best way to do that.
On that point, what we're planning on doing next week is tracking down a handful of bloggers and journalists to start an online debate designed to start getting to some of the tough questions this issue has raised, specifically how to make sure the dialogue between the media and its consumers can flourish online. So some of you may be hearing from us.
Indianapolis, Ind.: Didn't you also yank the Technorati links on the troublesome blogs?
Jim Brady: No, we've never had Technorati boxes on our Typepad blogs for technical reasons.
Worcester, Mass.: Perhaps my (negative) judgment about your decision to stop comments (and remove those already posted) is not entirely based on accurate information. Would you please tell us - How many comments did you receive, how many were deleted as inappropriate and how many were posted? if you are sincerely interested in transparency (and I do so want to believe you are), the actual data would help. Thank you.
Jim Brady: I don't have the figures in front of me, but we had about 1,000 posts on one posting and a few hundred of those we had to axe. There were also a few hundred posts after Deborah's response, and we had to remove a good chunk of those as well, but I have not checked on exacts...
Rockville, Md.: Comment:I think one of the objections your consumers have to the removal of the comments section is that their comments will only be seen by Post staff, and not the general public. There is tremendous frustration, reflected in many of the recently deleted posts that made it to "print," that facts are being (seemingly) intentionally obscured by what is called the mainstream media, and there doesn't seem to be any way to get actual facts, as opposed to spin, into the public discourse. These comments provide such a vehicle, and also show that there is an enormous pent-up desire for more factual reporting.
Jim Brady: Thanks for the comment.
New York: I guess your saying, here is our generous forum, express yourselves only as we see fit, and trust that we know best. If you print articles with untruths how are we supposed to trust you, what ever department you represent.
Jim Brady: I'd say our forum rules provide a pretty wide latitude, and if you can't stay within those, I don't know what to tell you. We're not asking you speak "as we see fit," we're merely asking for a modicum of decency. I guess what I'd ask you is: Is that really too much to ask?
Ellicott City, Md.: Are Ms. Howell's recent, controversial columns still posted on The Washington Post's Web site? The most recent one on her page concerns New Year's Resolutions.
washingtonpost.com: Her archive appears to be bombarded right now. Here's the direct link to the column: Getting the Story on Jack Abramoff
Jim Brady: Here's that link...
Bethesda, Md.: Quite frankly, this whole discussion points out the serious problem with Blogs and other Internet discussions. There are no editors. Anyone can, seemingly, say anything. Suddenly, it's out in the great endless ether. It has, for some people, the ring of truth, whether backed by verifiable facts or not.
I must say that I do have a problem with the Posts even-handedness, in that the Post tends to provide a forum for all oppositional views, whether valid or not. Again, lack of strong editors.
That having been said, if The Post leans slightly left and the Washington Times more than slightly right and USA Today is only at the most shallow level, well, it is up to the reader to make some sort of judgment him/herself.
Jim Brady: Figured one note from a supporter would be OK. :-)
Burlington, Vt.: Was it solely your decision to shut down blog comments? Did anyone at The Post direct, steer, recommend, suggest or ask you about shutting down blog comments?
Thanks for coming on here to answer questions from readers. It is frustrating when an open dialogue does not exist, and I appreciate your efforts to encourage one.
Jim Brady: It was my decision, 100 percent. That's not to say I wasn't aware of how folks at the paper and web site felt about this, but in the end, the decision was mine, and I accept full responsibility for it.
San Diego, Calif.: Do you feel it is also a personal attack to imply that the Democrats are just as crooked as the Republicans in this scandal? Do you feel it is a personal attack that Mrs. said that Democrats took "tainted" money from the corrupt Republican machine when there isn't any evidence for that? Do you feel that it is a personal attack that your paper implied that the victims of this scam (the Indian tribes) are also the criminals in this matter? You're offended by "personal attacks"?... Please give us a break!
Jim Brady: I'm not sure how you personally attack a political party, which is not an individual. But on that note, it's time to go personally attack a turkey sandwich, so thanks for the questions. We'll keep working to get comments back up on post.blog.
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.