In turning off comments on a blog that it had recently opened as a channel for dialogue with its readers, the Washington Post today followed the same road that the L.A. Times went down last year when it shut down an experiment with wiki-based editorial reviews. Instead of grappling with the flood of input from their customers, these institutions are throwing up their hands and reasserting the one authority that they are most comfortable with — control of the mike.
The Post had been trying to contain a brewing controversy over a piece by its ombudsman, Deborah Howell, which enraged many readers by stating (incorrectly, as Howell eventually admitted) that Democrats as well as Republicans had received contributions from disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff. (It’s Abramoff’s clients that directed some portion of their cash toward Democrats, though the lion’s share seems to have wound up in Republican pockets.)
Post readers thronged the paper’s blog with complaining comments. Unfortunately, we can’t read those comments now and decide for ourselves whether the Post was right to turn them off — the paper didn’t just block further comments, it effaced the entire body of reader contributions.
CBS News blogger Vaughn Ververs reports that the many comments he read were angry or disrespectful and many called for Howell’s head, but they weren’t “hate speech” or explicitly personal attacks. Of course, maybe we never saw those: A “late update” to Post Web editor Jim Brady’s discussion of the decision suggests that Post editors were already pounding the “delete” key like mad, and getting tired.
What’s obvious is that, like the L.A. Times before it, the Post was sadly clueless about how to deal with the situation. If, in 2006, you’re an iconic media institution that’s seeking to give the public a platform to vent its disagreements and complaints, you should plan for a certain volume of problems. You should expect some disrespect. You should state what standards you intend to enforce, and you should have a plan for how you expect to enforce them.
Instead, we have the repeat spectacle of newspapers naively opening their doors — imagining, it seems, that they are going to have a little tea party with their readers — and then, shocked at the volume and the vitriol, slamming the same door shut again.
Ververs tries to lay some of the blame for the Post’s abrupt retreat at the users’ feet: “More than that, the news audience has been terribly served by a few loudmouths incapable of having a rational discussion….Real dialogue, after all, is a two-way street.”
I don’t doubt that there were a lot of obnoxious loudmouths posting screeds on the Post blog. But that’s a given, an inevitability. Hosting any kind of forum means taking measures to keep the loudmouths from swamping the rest of the speakers.
I wouldn’t expect newspaper editors to start out as experts in that difficult art. But it’s not too much to expect them to try to learn it — or simply to acknowledge that, if they want to host a dialogue, it’s part of their job.
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