Story location: http://archive.pressthink.org/2006/01/20/jmb_qa.html
When Jim Brady decides to shut down the comments at post.blog to prevent even bigger problems we’re going backwards in our ability to have a conversation with the Washington Post. That isn’t good. If the press decides to close itself off because the costs of participating in the new openness are judged to be too high, that is a loss for everyone. (For background, see the AP story, the summary by Editor & Publisher; Vaughn Ververs at Public Eye here, and here; Fishbowl DC on Media Matters vs. Deborah Howell; and this blogger for a detailed chronology with links.)
Maybe we can get it changed back to open again. I hope so because I was the one who reminded Jane Hamsher at Firedoglake that the post.blog had a comment function. It had taken heavy use, including some very angry people making themselves known, during the argument over Dan Froomkin’s White House Briefing. Posts that Froomkin, and national political editor John Harris wrote attracted 1,000+ comments, some of them quite heated, and over the top. Jane took my suggestion and recommended that her readers bring their reactions to the “Maryland Moment” thread, which was at the top of the post.blog. From there it snowballed.
I understand why people were angry at Deborah Howell. She seems to have taken the concept of balance to new lengths, where not only news accounts and ombudsman columns need to be balanced, but the Jack Abramoff scandal itself “needs” to be balanced between the two major parties.
Her both-sides-fed-at-the-trough statements have been called inaccurate, outrageous, unfortunate, less-than artful. “He had made substantial campaign contributions to both major parties…” I read these strained descriptions of bipartisan exposure as more of a wish— a wish for balance in the facts of the scandal itself. (See also Deborah Howell responds at the post.blog.)
But I also understand why Brady did what he did. If washingtonpost.com lets stand extreme charges aimed to maximize rage at Howell, and some of the charges contain ugly personal insults, then Brady’s position becomes impossible if the staff of the Washington Post objects, and demands to know:
And I don’t think Brady had good answers to any of that—do you?—so he shut down the comments for now. The only good thing about his decision is the room he left for practical suggestions. (Got any? Head to comments.) That, and he’s willing to explain himself and talk about the controversy. Here’s my Q & A with Brady, which we did by e-mail late last night and this morning.
Q: Has transparency at the Washington Post taken a hit with your decision to close comments at post.blog?
Jim Brady: Despite all the names I’m being called—and there are some creative ones in my e-mail, I assure you—I’m all for transparency and am more than willing to talk about this decision publicly. It’s pretty simple, actually: As a site, we’ve decided there have to be limits on the language people can use. I’m getting a lot of e-mail saying, essentially, that I need to accept the fact that profanity and name-calling are part of the web DNA. That may be true for the Web as a whole—though I hope not—but I don’t run the Web as a whole, I run washingtonpost.com, and on our site, we get to make the rules. Readers can reject those rules, and post elsewhere. That’s their right. There are plenty of blogs that will allow commenters to say whatever they want; we’re just not going to be one of those.
I think evidence would suggest that we’ve been working hard at being transparent. We make reporters and editors of the paper and site available for Live Onlines on a daily basis (in fact, I’m doing one today at noon.) We cut a deal with Technorati that points to blogs discussing Post content (often in a negative fashion). We have used post.blog to try and communicate with readers during the Dan Froomkin controversy last month and over the past week.
So this isn’t about our unwillingess to hear criticism, it was an unwillingness to continue to have Post staffers viciously attacked on the site and an inability on our end to work quickly enough to avoid those posts from showing up. The readers who have complained that there was nothing offensive or profane in the comments should remember that they didn’t see the ones we removed. If they had, they would better understand why we did what we did. If you look around the site, we’ve built great communities in other blogs and through Live Online, so I feel pretty comfortable about our willingness to engage our readers.
Q: So do you still want to encourage criticism of the Washington Post and its writers?
Jim Brady: I’d say that we want to encourage discussion of Post content. Some of that will obviously be critical, and that’s fine. I don’t think there are many reporters who oppose thoughtful criticism of their work. What they oppose is being called vulgar names and assigned all sorts of evil motives by people who don’t know them. That’s not a dialogue, in my opinion, it’s akin to shouting insults from a moving car.
In this case, obviously people were angry at Deborah’s column, so they vented for a few days. Then, in an act that actually displayed transparency, she responded to the readers online — three days before her column in the paper — to address the complaints. And because she didn’t say exactly what the commenters wanted her to say, she was attacked again for most of Thursday before we decided we couldn’t effectively manage the flow any lomger. So you could say that our attempt to be more transparent is what got us in trouble here.
Q: Some of the stuff I saw, I would definitely have taken it off, and if I couldn’t get to it fast enough then I would have no choice. So I understand your decision to pull down the comment boards. In my experience, open forums in “visible” places without moderation simply don’t work. Have you come to the same conclusion?
Jim Brady: Not yet. I still have hope that we can do this without moderation at some point, though I’d be lying if I said this didn’t shake my faith. But it should be noted that we’ve had blogs on the site for more than a year now, and we’ve had very few problems. We’ve built really energized communities all around the site, and that’s more important to me than what’s happened in the past week.
Q: A lot of people thought that Deborah Howell engaged in escalation of a kind by not correcting or clarifying what she wrote about Jack Abramoff and the Democrats. I would like to know your opinion on that. And wouldn’t the ombudsman be better off with a blog where she could add to, clarify, and further report on things in her column, and answer questions that have constituencies made of thousands of active readers?
Jim Brady: Well, as I said, she did eventually post on our blog, a few days before her column was scheduled to appear in the paper. Maybe we should have done that sooner, but I’ll be honest, I don’t think the tone would have been much different if she’d posted something on Monday or Tuesday. The basic issue here is that she didn’t deliver the exact message her critics wanted her to. So I’m not sure how much the timing had to do with it, though it’s a valid question
As far as the blog goes, Deborah just started in this position a few months ago, and like all ombudsmen, she’s swamped with letters, calls and e-mails. Deborah has worked closely with washingtonpost.com since she started, and there’s been some discussion about her doing more online, but I doubt the events of the past week have helped that mission much.
Q: It seems to me that when the complaint is about the adjudicator of complaints you’re in a different situation. In this case, where was discontent with the ombudsman’s misstatement—or “inartfully worded” one, as Howard Kurtz said—supposed to go? And what about discontent with her performance in the job? To whom are people supposed to complain, or is that one that is better taken outside the Post domain?
Jim Brady: Well, I think it’s safe to say everyone at the web site and the newspaper are aware of this particular issue, so the openness worked in that regard. Even with comments closed off for now, readers can submit letters to the editor, or an Op-Ed. And once we make some changes in how we manage comments, we’ll look to reopening those areas.
Q: “We’re not giving up on the concept of having a healthy public dialogue with our readers,” you wrote, “but this experience shows that we need to think more carefully about how we do it.” PressThink readers might fancy some of that, but give us a better sketch: think more carefully about what? What are the problems rearing up that you need better answers for?
Jim Brady: There are two factors: human and technical. In the human case, we need to take a better look at how many people we have handling comments areas on the site. We’ve actually been working on a few projects that would expand site interactivity, and with this experience under our belts, we’re going to need to re-evaluate how many people need to patrol these new areas, what hours they need cover and how they deal with problematic posters.
On the technical side, we need to be more creative with our profanity filters. We do block a handful of profane words, though for reasons I can’t yet explain, it didn’t seem to work in all cases here. But, either way, our list was not long enough or creative enough. Also, we’ll be looking at whether we need to review comments before going live, either across the board or only for particularly controversial topics. Additionally, we need better measures for blocking users who continue to cause problems. So those are some of the things we’re re-evaluating.
Q: Under what conditions would you re-open comments at post.blog?
Jim Brady: Probably only after we make some of the changes mentioned above. But it should be noted here that we did not turn comments off on any other blogs, just this one.
Q: Let me tell you a danger I see and get your reaction to it. This isn’t a comment on your decision with the post.blog, but a larger problem. There’s a danger when journalists look at complaints about the news from people involved in a political struggle and discount them because they come from partisans. The highest rates of participation in politics and in the arguments found in newspapers have come during periods in our history when things were intensely partisan. A partisan might be defined as someone who gives a shit about the outcome of the political stuggles read about in the Washington Post in such splendid detail.
It seems to me if you’re dismissing the complaints of the partisans you’re reacting in exactly the wrong way; they’re your best customers. They’re way involved in the news. You have to find a way of hearing them, or your sunk. Of course some of them are crazy, excessive, extremely rude and they say things for shock value or just to rage at the machine. Maybe it’s hard to find the signal in the noise, but that is exactly what the press has to do. There’s an idiocy to partisan complaints; there’s also the heart and soul of politics in them. No political journalist can afford to ignore that, and no online editors, either. I’m afraid that after an incident like this, more will. What do you think?
Jim Brady: I guess my quibble would be with the core assumption that the issue here was partisanship. The issue here was civility. Whether it’s from the left or the right, we’ve decided as a site that we’re not going to have an “anything goes” policy. If you want to take issue with articles in The Post or on washingtonpost.com, go right ahead. If you want to complain that you think we’re biased to the left or right — and, believe me, we get it from both sides — have at it. But if you want to viciously attack and insult Post or Post.com staffers or other blog commenters, then go somewhere else to do it. That’s the deal we’ve had with a large majority of our loyal readers for years, and we’ve decided that’s going to be our policy going forward.
Q: Thanks, Jim, for answering my questions. (End.)
My commentary: About transparency and the need for the Post to engage with critics, you’re not going to find anyone in the national press who gets it more than Jim Brady does. And so Jane Hamsher is wrong in her post about the comment shut down, where she raged at Brady, claiming he wanted to silence critics of the newspaper. “I’m assuming WaPo management just imperiously decided they didn’t want to have a public record of opposition to the embarrassment that is Deborah Howell, and Brady was forced to make some excuse for shutting it down.”
That’s a reckless assumption. I think he’ll try to bring the comment board back at post.blog, although I’m not sure “civility” should be the watchword there when he does. In fact Brady said in his online chat today that he hopes comments critical of Howell will be returned to their place in the dialogue. “We’ll go back through them and restore the ones that did not violate our rules.”
Meanwhile, flaming the friends of transparency isn’t helping anyone. Get it, Jane?
I don’t think “civility” gets Brady anywhere. And I’m not confident I know what he means when he says, “The issue here was civility.” Absent enforcement by pro-active moderators, The Rules the Post declares in force will simply not be in force. This is not a new finding about the Internet.
Jane Hamsher was therefore right when she said at her blog: “anyone who runs a board open to the public just knows that people who show up are often not going to play by the ‘rules’ you set up, in fact they’ll break them just because you have them.”
If that is correct (realistically, I think it is) then a commitment to having open comments means a commitment to moderating them carefully. If you don’t do that, then you can’t really say: it’s a shame a few rotten apples spoil it for everyone. To demand civility is one thing, to expect it something else.
Brady said he was expecting breakdowns with the outpouring at Howell, but it just got to be too much. I wonder what the results would be if “trusted readers” did the moderating for a few hours (2-3) a week, or something like that. Probably it wouldn’t work, but maybe someone reading this knows better.
We could just say: hire the people you need and re-open the boards, washingtonpost! But then Brady’s cost of being open to comment just increased, and that has consequences for future acts of openness. Bad for transparency at the Post. Driving up the internal costs of opening outward is not smart politics for those who want two-way newspapers that speak, listen, hear and get heard.
Deborah Howell answers back: The Firestorm Over My Column.
Going forward, here’s my plan. I’ll watch every word. I’ll read every e-mail and answer as many legitimate complaints as I can. The vast majority of my work takes place outside this column. But I will reject abuse and all that it stands for.
To all of those who wanted me fired, I’m afraid you’re out of luck. I have a contract. For the next two years, I will continue to speak my mind.
Keep smiling. I will.
She also revises her language on making a mistake about Abramoff: “I wrote that he gave campaign money to both parties and their members of Congress. He didn’t. I should have said he directed his client Indian tribes to make campaign contributions to members of Congress from both parties. My mistake set off a firestorm…” Sure to be talked about.
David Carr of the New York Times weighs in with a column arguing that comments are not worth the trouble. “It was not that long ago when readers enraged by something they had seen in the newspaper would have to find a pen, a piece of paper, an envelope and a stamp to make their feelings heard. Now, mainstream media outlets find themselves under attack for not providing bandwidth and visibility to people who wish them dead.” He has more on Howell being “stunned” by the reactions to her. And he says if you want to respond to him, write a letter and mail it— like, with a stamp.
Farhad Manjoo of Salon interviewed Howell and Post editor Len Downie and winds up with the best reported piece I’ve seen. A must if you’re following the story closely.
Saturday’s Post had Deluge Shuts Down Post Blog (Jan. 21) Paul Farhi:
The deluge, which overwhelmed the Web site’s screening efforts, began after Howell wrote in a column published Sunday that disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff “had made substantial campaign contributions to both major parties.” That is incorrect. As Howell noted on Thursday morning in a short piece on Post.blog, Abramoff did not make direct contributions to Democrats but directed his lobbying clients to do so.
“That is incorrect” is what we weren’t hearing before. “Howell said yesterday she felt ‘stunned’ by the reaction to her Sunday column, which she called ‘imprecise’ in its characterization of Abramoff’s actions.”
Kevin Drum at Washington Monthly:
Flame wars aren’t pretty things, to be sure, but I think Jim Brady is dead wrong when he says, “I don’t think the tone would have been much different if she’d posted something on Monday or Tuesday. The basic issue here is that she didn’t deliver the exact message her critics wanted her to.” In fact, if Howell had posted a simple correction to her column on Monday saying that she had made a mistake and Jack Abramoff donated money only to Republicans — and left it at that instead of straining to justify her original error — none of this would have happened. The messenger may have been rude and crude in this case, but the messenger was also right.
“When you actually watch — from the inside — how mainstream newsrooms work, it is really not too much to say that they operate on two guiding principles: reporting the facts and avoiding impressions of ‘liberal bias,’ says Josh Marshall. Things like the Howell blow-up aren’t pretty, but they’re “evening the balance, creating a better press.”
Brad Delong on Howell’s “Firestorm” column:
I’m happy that she’s changed her line on why Democrats aren’t in the first tier of people being investigated from “stay tuned” to “it’s not a bipartisan scandal; it’s a Republican scandal.”
“Jay, you’re wrong.” Steve Gilliard responds:
The Post doesn’t want transparency. They didn’t like the fact that they were challenged on a major issue of credibility and factual error. Deborah Howell refused to conceed this major error and when challenged, they mischaracterized the response and then shut down comments.
Glenn Reynolds at Instapundit: “Given the Post’s addition of technorati links to many of their stories, they’re in a better position than most to say ‘the blogosphere is our comment section.’ And, you know, it is.”
Slashdot is on the case.
Jim Brady did Hugh Hewitt’s radio show, and talked about the suspension of comments. But Jane Hamsher and Atrios are not impressed with his choice of venue.
Harry Jaffe of the Washingtonian has questions about where blogging is going at the Washington Post. He sees dangers ahead.
“I sympathize with the managers at the Post, but the reality is that they chose to play in a Media 2.0 space by launching blogs in the first place,” writes Terry Heaton. “Just because you don’t like the outcome doesn’t justify juvenile behavior like taking your ball and going home.”
Heaton points to Umair Haque at Bubblegeneration, who has a wilder take. We’re in a different risk climate but there’s value for those who can handle it. How Not to Manage the Edge: Washington Post Case Study: “I’m not saying that lunatics should be given free reign to comment. But neither should editors and execs think they have, anymore, totally free reign to dictate how the resources of the firm are used. In many cases, they’re much better off thinking of those resources as common resources - in this case, editors are much better off thinking the paper belongs to both readers and writers.”
Reader’s suggestion in comments: Why not host a debate between Howell and a “civil” proxy for the blogger critics/readers, such as Brad DeLong?
“They think we’re all trolls.” Jane Hamsher responds to Brady’s Q and A with Post readers, and to this post. “Flaming the friends of transparency isn’t helping anyone,” I wrote. “Get it, Jane?”
What I get is that listening to Brady and Rosen discuss the management of a large public board is like listening to two white, middle-aged Exxon executives discuss “what’s really wrong with the negroes.” As if this was some huge, unforseeable problem.
Anyone who sets up a public board like this in a highly partisan world with really active readers and doesn’t make plans for troll management in their system architecture is a full-on, four-flushing idiot.
Atrios on it: “We politely ask for corrections. They don’t happen. We start screaming for corrections. They still don’t happen. Eventually some half-assed weaselly blame-the-uncivil-critics statement is released. We scream louder. And, then, the horeshit pops up again on CNN.” See his follow-up too.
Will Bunch of the Philadelphia Daily News writes a letter to Romenesko about the inexplicables of Deborah Howell: “Seriously — to whom does one complain at the Washington Post when the person who is there to receive reader complaints defiantly gets it wrong?”
Mister Snitch isn’t buying:
Rosen points out that Brady’s loudest complainers are the paper’s best customers, and on that basis chides Brady for shutting down comments. But Rosen wants it both ways, going on to criticize Jane Hamsher for her comments about the shutdown. You know Jay, either comments get shut down or they don’t. You never sounded more like a hopeless academic…
But Jane Hamsher might be wrong in her comments about Brady, and the Washington Post might be wrong to dismiss complaints it reflexively labels “partisan.” That’s not having it both ways, Mister. That’s saying two things are true that don’t exclude one another. I expect a logic correction.
Ryan Pitts of the Spokesman-Review at his group blog, DeadParrots.net. “Sometimes a cooling-off period is exactly the right thing.”
“What a bunch of babies.” That’s Stephen Spruiell at National Review’s Media Blog about those who are livid at the Post. Hey, SS: when will we see comments at the National Review’s blogs? (The Corner, for example.)
Stephen now says: “comments on NRO blogs would be above my pay grade, but I wouldn’t be opposed.” He then revised his post: “Maybe this episode can help conservatives keep things in perspective the next time we challenge the media.”
Steve Yelvington has been in the newspaper biz:
Yes, it was out of control. Yes, people were attacking reader rep Deborah Howell personally. But so what? When Deborah Howell was editor of the St. Paul Pioneer Press, she was nicknamed “Dragon Lady.” She’s a tough woman and she can stand the flames.
We “big media” folks have to take the heat, both personally and institutionally, even if we think it’s craziness. So I don’t think I would have shut this one down.
But that doesn’t mean I think newspapers should never put the clamp on online behavior. I have no tolerance, zero, for members flaming each other. And if an interactive environment turns into a slum, I wouldn’t hesitate to bulldoze it … and build a new, better place.
Glenn Fleishman at Romenesko letters says: “You can’t ask for civility. You can’t expect it.”
When Brady asks for civility, he’s thinking about an audience similar to that which reads his print paper, not several hundred million people worldwide who might happen to trip into his forum. When Kinsley said that a few bad eggs spoiled the Wikitorial, apart from the very terrible idea that the Wikitorial represented, he also thought he was dealing with a subset of all users.
The Internet is global, folks!
Scott Rosenberg on what to expect: “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.”
In a follow-up post Rosenberg compares conversation-by-blog in the software and political world. It’s too tribal to work in politics, but it is working in tech, he argues.