Meltdown At The Mainstream Intersection

Temperatures reached the boiling point today in the battle between The Washington Post and news consumers outraged by last Sunday's column by the paper's ombudsman, Deborah Howell. PE readers will remember that the flap, which we've addressed previously, stems from Howell's statement that members of both political parties "have gotten" campaign money from Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff. The indicted Abramoff personally donated money only to Republicans, but the real scandal lies in who his clients gave to – members of both parties – and what they may have gotten in return. Democrats and their supporters have fiercely argued that only Republicans are involved in this mess.

Following the fury unleashed on the post.blog, many comments were deleted by the paper – something that made those outraged by her column, well, even more outraged. After a couple days of quiet (Howell did have a small dust-up with Media Matters about it, after which she reportedly vowed, "from now on, I don't reply"), the ombudsman popped back up on post.blog to offer a clarification of her wording:
"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."
Howell even offered up documents obtained by the Post to back her up. Not good enough for those upset with Howell – and the paper. It didn't take long for comments to come flooding in – none too supportive. Late this afternoon, Jim Brady, Executive Editor of Washingtonpost.com posted the following message:
"As of 4:15 p.m. ET today, we have shut off comments on this blog indefinitely.

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."
I've already weighed in on the substance of this debate (I think the inclusion of Democrats is accurate when discussing this scandal given what we know at this time). But this episode points to a potentially more disturbing and damaging problem for those interested in finding a way to break down some of the walls that have traditionally surrounded mainstream media outlets.

First off, I read a great many of the comments posted to Howell's clarification today -- not all of them, and certainly not ones the Post may have deleted before pulling the plug for good. What I saw was certainly aggressive criticism, some off base, some more on point. There were a lot of attacks on Howell's ability to be an ombudsman and on the paper for its reporting. And there were an awful lot of calls for Howell to resign or be fired over the issue. (It was clear that few of the commenters had a solid grasp of exactly what the role of an ombudsman is, or who Howell reports to). I didn't see any profanity, hate speech or explicitly personal attacks (again, I did not read them all). Nevertheless, the discussion was hardly one that could be considered respectful, or even civil.

This unfortunate chain of events leaves everyone in the new media landscape in worse position. The Post, laudably, was making an effort to engage readers in a dialogue – just what so many press reformers have clamored for. By closing that comment door, they've perhaps taken a step backward from trying to be more open in the future.

More than that, the news audience has been terribly served by a few loudmouths incapable of having a rational discussion. At a time when organizations like the Post, NBC News, CBS News (here at PE) and many, many others are opening themselves up to participation from the audience, those very consumers who wanted it failed at their end of the bargain today. Crude and crass attacks on the imagined motives and connections of the Post and Howell do not constitute a "dialogue," and certainly don't help the cause of those launching them.

Hopefully, the Post will once again open its blog up for comments. Hopefully, those who want to really participate in a conversation and argue their positions will go there and do just that. But if we see more repeats of today, I'm not sure we can really expect that to happen. Real dialogue, after all, is a two-way street.

Update: As stated above, I did not read the all the comments posted on post.blog and, in the many I did read, I saw no profanity, hate speech or personal attacks. Had I read them all, I would have been able to state that some those elements did exist in some of the comments. A Washington Post reporter provided Public Eye with screen shots of the comments that show that occurred in at least a dozen instances. These screen shots appear authentic and include comments I had previously seen, so I take them to be real.

As to why I may have not seen those posts originally, Brady updated post.blog this evening, stating:
"The reason that people were not routinely seeing the problematic posts I mentioned were that we were trying to remove them as fast as we could in order to preserve the reasoned arguments many others were making. We removed hundreds of these posts over the past few days, and it was becoming a significant burden on us to try and keep the comments area free of profanity and name-calling. So we eventually chose to turn off comments until we can come up with a better way to handle situations like this, where we have a significant amount of people who refuse to abide by the rules we set out."
Public Eye's policy on posting is to police our comments and remove any individual posts that we feel violate our rules of engagement. We feel this is the best way to try and facilitate a real discussion, and that is preferable to completely shutting out comments. This exchange relies on the ability of we here at PE to be honest, fair and accurate and for our readers to express themselves in a manner that approaches civility.