Washington Post “Shuts off comments”: Big Media’s Troubles in Adapting to Blogging

UPDATED

The biggest question facing political and news workers in the years to come will be “what do I do about blogs?” Many newspapers and political campaigns will have to experiment, since nobody has yet written a definitive rule book on integrating blogs into big media and professional politics; indeed, PolicyByBlog is about that process of exploration. And blogs may evolve faster than large corporations or campaigns can adapt to them.

Take the Washington Post. Like many newspapers, it has opened up blogs as yet another component of its online edition. One is edited by its ombudsman, Deborah Howell.

Self-evident good idea, yes? Build new interactivity with readers, cultivate (possible) customer loyalty, be up-to-date.

The Post, however, just announced that for the time being “we have shut off comments on this blog indefinitely.”

Jim Brady, executive editor, explained:

At its inception, the purpose of this blog was to open a dialogue about this site, the events of the day, the journalism of The Washington Post Company and other related issues. Among the things that we knew would be part of that discussion would be the news and opinion coming from the pages of The Washington Post and washingtonpost.com. We knew a lot of that discussion would be critical in nature. And we were fine with that. Great journalism companies need feedback from readers to stay sharp.

But there are things that we said we would not allow, including personal attacks, the use of profanity and hate speech. Because a significant number of folks who have posted in this blog have refused to follow any of those relatively simple rules, we’ve decided not to allow comments for the time being. It’s a shame that it’s come to this. 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. Any thoughtful feedback on that (or any other issue) is welcome, and you can send it to executive.editor@washingtonpost.com.

The shutdown was (apparently) in response to a storm of negative (and caustic) comments toward a column by Howell in which she wrote that lobbyist Jack Abramoff “gave money to both parties” or, as she revised her wording later, “‘directed’ contributions to both parties.”

Search the terms “Deborah Howell” and “blog” in Google and witness the fiery response to her column among leftbloggers.

The controversy recalls the observation by Rebecca Blood, author of one of the bibles of blogging, the Weblog Handbook: “The weblog’s greatest strength–its uncensored, unmediated, uncontrolled voice–is also its greatest weakness.”

As I discuss in my book BLOGWARS, since the commercial and publicly accessible Internet started up, when you create an open network, or open discussion, anyone can enter, setting up the possibility of “flame” wars, psychotic rants, and partisan attacks. I was briefly a member of several Web-platformed political discussion groups in the mid-1990s but dropped out because instead of Plato’s Dialogues, what I got in my e-mailbox was usually potty-mouthed monologues. The anonymity of Web interactions, as well as the absence of a face-to-face exchange, encouraged e-mail correspondents to be more hostile than they would probably have been in real life.

In my pseudonymous political blogging tenures, also, I have experienced considerable frustration: a zealot who attacked me viciously until I banned him; an e-mail box stuffed with 300 spams offering cheap Viagra and bank accounts in the Congo; making the enemies list of several bloggers. Such voluntary associations I could do without. Indeed, one of the reasons I disagree with projections that “everybody will blog” is that not everyone likes to get hate mail (or attack-comment posts).

The key point is that those of us who write regularly for the popular press on controversial topics are accustomed to negative responses to our writing. My hate e-mail file contains hundreds of letters. Some were written to the chancellor of my university insisting I should be fired for “abusing the minds of children” because of my political opinions as written up in newspaper and magazine op-ed pages. I don’t like it, but tenure provides a certain amount of security. Consider the guts it takes to be a blogging car salesman or an untenured gym teacher and swallow such poison. Even political elites have the same fear: at a forum on “personal democracy” in 2004, a New York congressman mentioned that he refrains from blogging for several reasons, among them that each time he appears on television he gets a hundred pieces of hate mail, so why open the e-mail gates to more?

But you would think that a major newspaper like the Post (a) would anticipate getting angry mail on a hot-button subject, (b) understood that shutting down dialogue was not the answer, and (c) appreciated the difference between personal attacks and spirited argument. Would they have accepted a White House announcement that the President, at news conferences, will “no longer respond to negative questions”?

In perspective, almost all bloggers have informal, formal, or situational policies to deal with commenters who, in their view, get out of hand. “Troll” is the common term among bloggers (although often one blogger’s troll is another’s brilliant polemicist). I find it interesting that the Post seemed unprepared for occurrences that are familiar to every blogger.

Technically and legally no one has the “right” to be published in a newspaper–or to post comments to a blog. But what does it say that in reaction to negative responses a major newspaper, essentially, closes off a public forum? If bad language or name-calling was the problem, just filter those comments out, or hire somebody to do that. But kick out everybody? Recall Brady’s word’s “the purpose of this blog was to open a dialogue…” Obviously, big media need to figure out how to open dialogues credibly via blogging.

Again this is a non-partisan blog, but I liked the Swiftian satire of leftblogger Steve Gilliard who announced to his readers: “No more comments, peons… Look, if the Washington Post is able to shut down comments, why not me. I get tired of the intelligent commentary and thoughtful responses. This is about ME, ME, ME.”

And let us recall that a primary reason that so many people, left and right, participate in political blogging is that they feel shut out of big media. The Post’s crackdown offers support to both left and rightblog assertions that big media are unresponsive to readers. There must be another way for them to blog better.

UPDATE: Slate‘s Jack Shafer reports and comments on the “Posters vs. the Post: Lessons from the Post.blog meltdown.” Among his comments:

I don’t envy the washingtonpost.com executives who had to decide whether to preserve the nasty Howell posts in the name of free speech or delete them in the interest of maintaining a civil, family-friendly space. But having erected a coffeehouse where readers are supposed to get their say, it seems like washingtonpost.com was late to the question of what to do when nihilists, vandals, saboteurs, and the excitable misbehave on its premises.

Indeed, the only answer can be that nobody high up at the WP had blogged before.

Originally posted January 20, 2006 at PolicyByBlog

Comments

  1. Original Reader Comments (16)

    Although the Washington Post copped out of comment-based blogs, other newspapers are still paving the way for this type of discourse between media and readers. John Robinson, editor at the News & Record in Greensboro, North Carolina, has had a blog for more than a year now and uses it to respond daily to reader criticism. The paper has about 15 other blogs headed up by reporters on staff who post and respond to comments.

    The blogs aren’t edited and the comments aren’t either. Robinson believes that blogs allow readers to expect to challenge news media and open up opportunities for the news media to respond. His policy on comments is that if they remain unedited, the newspaper cannot be responsible for the comments. Robinson says that feedback ranges from “people calling each other idiots and their mothers idiots to very insightful commentary.”

    Robinson and News & Record are trying to move the blog commentary and blog story ideas into the newspaper. A write up about Robinson’s blog can be found in the fall 2005 issue of Neiman Reports or you can go to his blog at
    http://www.news-record.com/apps/pbcs.dll/Section?Category=NEWSREC020205
    January 21, 2006 | Unregistered Commentersmarin3

    If the Post wishes to reinstate their blog’s comment feature then the solution was already suggested in this post: hire someone to filter out profanity and decidedly inappropriate comments. Not every letter to the editor gets published and neither should every blog comment. The notion that everyone deserves to have his or her opinion read is unfounded. If a blog is to be associated with the image of a given newspaper, then that newspaper must maintain control over its blog. Editors cannot allow for complete freedom with their blog comments, as this would be harmful to the product.

    One could argue that, by shutting off comments, the Post has significantly altered the form and purpose of their blog. Comments, however, are not a required component of any blog. Wikipedia explains that, “some bloggers prefer to pre-screen or block comments”. Clearly, by current standards, this action is acceptable. Of course, by making this decision, the Post must acknowledge that they may alienate some, if not most, of their blog readers. Knowing that blog readers enjoy the comment feature so much, the Post ought to consider reinstating it and assigning to it an editor to filter out comments deemed inappropriate by Post standards.

    A double standard exists here: on the one hand the public may freely judge journalists on their journalistic integrity (or lack thereof), and on the other hand members of that same public feel that they deserve to participate in published political debate without being held up to the same standards. Perhaps each person who wishes to comment on a newspaper blog must complete a journalism course in order to ensure that he or she is qualified to comment. If that seems unreasonable (and I would hope that it does), then we must surrender to the reality that a newspaper has an image to uphold, and part of that task includes filtering out those comments that might damage the image. Those who don’t like it can do what you have done: publish your own blog.
    January 22, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterdiversgirl

    “…I have a tough hide, and a few curse words (which I use frequently) are not going to hurt my feelings,” responded Howell in a follow-up response to her article that received so many malicious responses.
    “I didn’t ask washingtonpost.com to shut down an area reserved for comments about me, as it did on Thursday night.” (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/01/21/AR2006012100907.html?nav=most_emailed)
    The quasi-cliché, “if you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen,” comes to mind in response to the fact that the Post’s executive editor, Jim Brady did shut down reader-response capabilities on the Post’s blog.
    The thing is, in this free-enterprise democracy that we have the privilege to live in, Brady and his peers can do whatever they want with their publications business. If they don’t want to haggle with the ill-informed responses of a few readers with zero rhetorical skills, that’s their own freedom to exercise.
    January 22, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterlittle34

    The Post had to know of the risks prior to starting up a blog on its website. One would think that the newspaper leadership would have thought through all contingencies before giving the green light for such a new project. Instead, the organization looks like it is reacting to something unforeseen, so just turn the light off on everyone.

    These actions by this newspaper show it operates on double standards. I can just see those calling the shots regarding the blog. “Just tell everyone to go away. We will let them know when we are ready to start back up.” President Bush or other political leaders probably have dreamed of telling the press to go way because they did not want to deal with subject X, Y, or Z. The problem is they could not do that. They had to stand there in the firestorm of questions from the press, which included the Post.

    So why does the Post get a free pass when the fire gets too hot for them? You say that they created the blog, so they have the right to halt or end its run. You are probably correct, but this action does show a lack of leadership and a plan on the part of the newspaper.

    As mentioned by others, many newspapers have been successful in their blogging adventures and had plans emplace to counter potential obstacles such as these encountered by the Post. If this is the way this organization reacts about a blog, should the paper’s readers be concerned about the decision-making process of the actual newspaper? What other information or new-stories may there be that are having their lights turned-out by the Post?
    January 23, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterBigAL1993

    The Washington Post shut-off indicates the fact that the blogosphere realm does not always foster civilized dialogue. That does not detract from the fact that it allows all readers whose comments did not make it to be published as a letter to the editor, to have a chance to state their claim within an established media forum.

    If email users can filter their email, so too can blog managers filter unacceptable blogs by approving or rejecting a post based on unacceptable language. Each blog sight can post upfront what is decent language and if bloggers do not abide, their posts can be removed. What is needed to make blogging more established is for bonafide media to embrace blogging and to institutionalize it so that it is acceptable to the masses and facilitates the dialogue that newspapers and newscasts are unable to schedule in daily.
    January 23, 2006 | Unregistered Commentertrinireporter

    It is difficult to believe that a journalistic juggernaut like the Washington Post didn’t know what it was getting into when it launched a blog and invited its readers to respond. To create an open forum like a blog invites all manner of response, and the Post should have been ready to manage both the positive and negative feedback, regardless of how caustic and profane. Further, if indeed the Post placed a warning to discourage personal attacks, the use of profanity and hate speech, perhaps this warning only served as an invitation for such offensive postings. In a brief review of other major newspapers that have blogs, such as the Dallas Morning News, Miami Herald, Philadelphia Daily News, New York Times, Chicago Sun Times and San Francisco Chronicle, not one posted any warnings that prohibited any particular dialogue. Maybe if the Washington Post understood that respect is a two-way street, its first venture into the blogosphere would not have been aborted so quickly.
    January 23, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterHog79

    It seems that the Post chose to close their comments on the blog due to “the personal attacks, the use of profanity and hate speech” which are almost unavoidable in anonymous cyber space. Although contrary to the editors’ aim of “civil conversation”, these reactions are still reflections of people’s real opinions and even more believable than those made with real names, because people in cyber space react basically according to their real thoughts but not the codes and norms which they are expected to follow in reality. Therefore, I think it may be a better choice for the Post to use some filters in order to avoid personal attacks at most rather than close dialogue completely if they want to hear the voices of readers.
    January 23, 2006 | Unregistered Commentereusuee

    I agree that the Washington-Post made a mistake by shutting down their blog. I think, from a business and reputation standpoint, the Post made a poor decision and may lose some of its readership. I also feel the Post symbolically loses credibility by removing this service. Their action to revoke or halt the use of their online blog, furthermore, will not solve the problem, which involves politically interested individuals feeling “shut out of big media.”

    I think it should be obvious that if one starts a blog service, especially someone like the Washington-Post, “personal attacks, the use of profanity and hate speech,” as Brady calls it, will occur. They should have been prepared for this to happen. The better action would have been to hire someone or a committee of people to monitor their blog and remove inappropriate blog entries. According to the Oregonian writer, Robin Franzen, the responsibility of Lt. Col. Chris Conway, a spokesman for the Defense Department, is to “keep blogs in check under its standard information-release policy.” This is just one example involving an organization that uses monitors to administer their blog.

    Financial Times (London, England) writer, Kevin Allison, wrote about IBM in his article, “Who’s afraid of the big, bad blog? Corporate Internet Policy : Some companies find that letting employees do the blogging may be the key to success in the blogosphere,” and their decision to encourage its employees to partake in business blogging about their company. In the process of encouraging their employees to blog, they developed guidelines on proper blogging behavior. Allison wrote, “IBM’s guidelines read more like a list of best practices than a rulebook. Along with the obvious advice about not sharing company secrets or commenting on sensitive financial information, they encourage IBM bloggers to use their real names, state their position in the company and stick to writing about what they know.” While this is an entirely different situation, I think the Washington-Post could have developed a blogger guidelines list. If the blog user did not adhere to the list, the blog monitors could remove their blog access.
    January 24, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterNOLA 7

    The post author asks, “Would [the Washington Post] have accepted a White House announcement that the President, at news conferences, will ‘no longer respond to negative questions?’” That question unfairly distorts the focus. The Post did not shut down comments because of a “few negative questions.” According to some reports, the comments that were removed contained profanity, hate speech, and name-calling, some of a sexually degrading nature. If any one of these issues erupted at a news conference, the White House would shut down the conference faster than you can say “No comment.” For that matter, any other conference, political debate, or meeting would do the same. But the question at hand is, “Was the paper’s decision the right one?” Edleman, an international PR firm, conducted a survey on blogging behaviors for one of its clients. The 2005 findings showed that the highest number of respondents (33.86%) cited “visibility as an authority in my field” as the top reason they blog. At a very close second, 31.54% cited “to create a record of my thoughts” as their top motivation. (Other reasons included “connect with others” and “generate revenue.”) If we examine the top two quoted reasons closely, they seem largely divergent. I wonder how these two groups will ever get along. Bloggers who curse and hurl personal insults defend their behavior by quoting the First Amendment (much to the dismay of the idealist blogger who wants serious political discourse). I say that law and order is exactly what the blogosphere needs. Henry M. Robert, author of Pocket Manual of Rules of Order, said, “Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty.” The Washington Post created a set of rules (laws if you will) for its blog, and a substantial number of people did not follow the rules. Their decision to shut down those comments (and later return only the ones that complied with their rules) is a message to users that their site is not a free-for-all. If you want to participate in healthy, useful debate, then come on in. And if you don’t agree with the rules…go create your own blog.
    January 24, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterweezy138

    Providing a public forum for the exchange of ideas is one of the foremost goals of journalism as an institution. And in pursuit of this goal, our modern “objective” newspaper ought not to filter through the exchange for political purposes. But it has every right to (and ought to) filter through the exchange to weed out personal attacks on its own journalists.

    Newspapers exercise this right all the time. In its letters to the editors section (perhaps the closest traditional institution to blogs), editors filter through the hate-mail to find the constructive, sometimes leftist, sometimes rightist, comments.

    The blog offers a new dimension to this: letters to the editor in real time, without the benefit of a filter.

    Given the fact that blogs are a new and still developing forum for communication, I don’t blame the Post for shutting down their blog. They still are dealing with how to fix what has happened. I agree with PBB/Editor that in the best of all possible worlds, the Post would have a staff to cull out the personal attacks. A look at the blog postings from the days after Howell posted her infamous Abramoff post suggests the Post may have made an effort to do this.

    For example, one blogger posted this:

    Why was my comment removed?
    Pathetic.

    Another posted this:

    It seems to me that WaPo is deleteing some posts
    even now.
    The paper still doen’t get it.
    If you want to have a web presence and attract
    readers, do not engage in censure. The readers are
    intelligent enough to discriminate between posts
    that are relevant and the ones that are not.
    In any case you should publish objective
    guidelines for the posters if you want to delete
    the posts that do not satisfy your criteria of
    publishability.

    It’s not unreasonable that the Post should take some time to figure out how to handle the personal attacks. And they were personal. One blogger wrote:

    The Indians were the victims in the Abramoff scam.
    They don’t deserve to be in any way connected with
    Abramoff’s crimes. And if the Indians aren’t
    guilty, then neither are Democrats for taking
    their money.
    But you know all of this already, don’t you?
    And you don’t care, do you?
    Because your job is to be a Washington Post
    ombudsman, a creature of the media cocktail party
    circuit and general DC “personality”. And to be
    all of those things requires that you not be
    overly concerned with writing real reports about
    real events for the real human beings who depend
    on you for information.
    Given how brittle and disingenuos our little
    Debbiekins appears to be, I highly doubt she would
    honestly answer all questions. I make her out to
    be one of those who would put favorable comments
    first, and then fish for the most knee jerk
    unfavorable ones so she could easily dismiss them,
    and spike the ones loaded with facts.

    There are dozens like this. Here is my personal favorite:

    Dear Mrs. Howell,
    Gilligan, the Skipper, The Professor and Mary Ann
    all voted you off the island.
    Thurston Howell III says he wants a divorce.
    Better start looking for a raft

    Maybe the Post should have had some contingency plan, but in the face of personal attacks on one of their staff members, in the face of a blog leaning away from debate about an issue and toward debate over a staff member, the Post had a right to do what it did. It probably was even a good publicity move (bloggers – like us all – love controversy).

    PBB/Editor’s comparison between shutting down the blog and stopping questions at the White House, moreover, is not a good one. A better comparison would be calling off the conference if reporters refused to ask questions and insisted on calling the president a buffoon who should be fired. Again, the better response is to remove the reporters (or posts) causing the problem. But perhaps, for the Post, learning to do this will take time.
    January 24, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterrepublic3

    In Jim Brady’s updated post.blog entry that initially announced and then attempted to justify the shut down of the Washington Post blog (http://blogs.washingtonpost.com/washpostblog/2006/01/shutting_off_co.html), he responds to accusations that the Post was avoiding criticism and that there were no profane or inappropriate posts to be censored. There seems to be consensus that it was a mistake to begin the endeavor in blogging without proper foresight into the behavior of bloggers and incensed Post readers. Brady states that people were not seeing the “problematic posts” because they were being removed as quickly as possible to preserve “the reasoned arguments many others were making.” He goes on to say that hundreds of posts were removed. Censoring profanity and name-calling was “becoming a significant burden.”

    I think the Post’s error was in beginning the blog without proper planning and without a “Plan B” of sorts. A proper SWOT analysis of any business decision should have at least uncovered an inkling of what to do in the case of unfavorable or uncooperative bloggers. Shutting down the site until they can come up with a plan that better adheres to their initial blogging goals might be one of the smartest decisions they have made thus far. Better to handle the situation better in the future than to continue to let it handle them.
    January 24, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterow1018

    When considering whether to pull the Washington Post Blog, Jim Brady had more to consider than merely whether the comments were vulgar and insulting or not. Brady was forced to consider one of the most important questions in American society: the limits to speech.

    On the one hand the First Amendment and America’s ideal of free unrestrained speech tells us that all speech is equal and that everyone has a right to be heard. However, sometimes it is socially necessary curtailing of speech to protect national security and guard against libel and slander among other ills. These two competing ideals, or interest, weigh against each other; the conflict is between the interests of the individual against that of the society. This is the old conflict between liberty and civic virtue.

    And while the Post had no constitutional requirement to publish all of the Blog’s comments, it is under pressure to let all voices be heard.

    However, what if all voices are not worthy of being heard? A high school teacher once told me that cursing and insulting others only meant that I was not creative and constructive enough to express myself in an intelligent manner. I think the same also applies to Blogs and all other journalism.

    In order to protect our right to free speech, someone in America has to look out for the virtue of that speech. I applaud what the Jim Brady did. In order to preserve free, intelligent, and meaningful debates in American politics, Brady made the hard move. In order to preserve our liberty of speech, someone had to put a stop to license.
    January 24, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterjohn444

    I think that Rebecca Blood’s statement: “ the weblog’s greatest strength – its uncensored, unmediated, uncontrolled voice – is also its greatest weakness,” is a poetic and accurate summation of interaction on blogs. This creates a new “pseudo-anonymous” domain for the public, the statement about not enjoying hate e-mail is completely valid, but this domain provides the aforementioned quasi-anonymity that allows people to voice opinions and express obscenity with impunity. While this may not be proper, and indeed may be a hindrance to furthering healthy debate about issues of public concern, I feel that it comes with the territory. As mentioned in the post the writers and staff of the Washington Post are familiar with critical responses to their publication, and should not shy away from an opportunity to get true feedback from audience members. Filtering comments, in whatever way the Post feels to do so, would have been a better alternative than shutting out the very people who clearly have something to say. The blogosphere is made up of bloggers who voice their opinions and share their ideas and try to comment on current events and provide new insight into other areas of interest, and to shut them out altogether is similar to ignoring all criticisms, both constructive and destructive. The Internet is a new way of putting oneself in the public eye, and with that comes both positive and negative responses, and of course the drawback to this is that tactless attacks will exist without reprimand.
    January 24, 2006 | Unregistered Commentervanguard15

    Internet allows any user to post any content online, that is, the channel supports interactive exchange. Unlike traditional mass media which represent a one-to-many communication model, the Web represents both many-to-one and many-to-many models (Morris, M. & Ogan, C. The Internet as Mass Medium. Journal of Computer Mediated Communication 1 (4) 1996, June 15). In other words, many individual Internet users can initiate communication to the same web site at the same time.
    As blogs become more popular, newspapers and political campaigns face the dilemma of learning how to deal with them. The Washington Post’s decision to “shut off comments” on a political blog edited by Deborah Howell needs rethinking. Though some comments on the blog included vicious criticism, profanity and hate speech, it should not discourage The Post from continuing maintaining the blog. As stated above, interactivity is the factor that distinguishes Internet communications from other media, and it is the key advantage of the medium.
    January 24, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterfocus1

    This publicly embarrassing event demonstrates what will always be a problem in public debate. It’s public. Anyone can say anything. Getting upset about that is equivalent to, um, spitting in the wind. If we’re going to have open, unmoderated debate, sometimes that debate will sink to the lowest common denominator. It goes with the territory. However, the Post is completely entitled to shut off comments, selectively post comments or put any rules it chooses on the comment process. Ultimately, the Post is a private business and not an unmoderated public forum. This lowest common denominator tendency is why I don’t spend much time with blogs, and I can’t fathom spending time reading the comments on other people’s blog entries. I also don’t stop to listen to the preachers in Free Speech Plaza. My interest level in the information being conveyed in both venues is about even.
    January 24, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMelissa7005

    The Washington Post had poor planning skills when setting up the blog site. The editors should have realized that any type of free speech is bound to come with unfavorable words and views. These unfavorable views would of course include profanity and attacking comments. The only true way to avoid these comments would be to censure any postings containing them. This would involve individuals submitting their comments and having an editor review them before they are actually posted on the site.
    The problem with this process is it is taking away from the advantages of the blog site. If editors begin to censor what they consider to be inappropriate, then what stops them from censoring other things?
    Blogs have numerous advantages, but they do have these disadvantages. If the editors wanted a blog site, then they are going to have to settle with the bad points of it as well.
    January 24, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterQTPi1021

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