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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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