Top Bloggers Hold Online Chat on the ‘Howell’ Controversy at ‘Wash Post’

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By: E&P Staff

As a follow-up to the firestorm over a recent column by Washington Post ombudsman Deborah Howell, the newspaper’s Web site this afternoon hosted a panel of “star” bloggers discussing “Ethics & Interactivity.”

The dispute over the Howell column caused washingtonpost.com editor Jim Brady to close one of the paper’s blogs to comments after, in his view, many of them turned excessively harsh and profane. More debate followed on whether this was the right move.

Today he hosted bloggers Jeff Jarvis (BuzzMachine), Jane Hamsher (FireDogLake), Jay Rosen (PressThink), and Glenn Reynolds (InstaPundit).

A few highlights, as they responded to reader questions.

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Jay Rosen: I think it would have been wise if Deborah Howell, in her latest piece, “The Firestorm Over My Column,” had elected to share with readers not only the rude, crude and disgusting things sent her way, but some of brilliant and inspired ones that made her think, caused her to question herself, or introduced problems she had never considered before. She said she had suffered “a public stoning,” but she was also treated to a live seminar on the politics of balance in the news columns, and the complaints of a newly-assertive online left. Did she learn anything from it beyond: I have to watch what I say?

Jane Hamsher: The post.com should be thrilled by the passion and intelligence and civility exhibited by the vast, vast majority of commenters.

Jim Brady: I don’t think being a mainstream media site and having blogs with comments are mutually exclusive. We’ve been doing it for a year, actually. Of course people from both sides will use those boards to make political points , and that’s fine. Others will use the forum to criticize the paper and its reporting. We knew that going in to. So, no, I think these somewhat different cultures can — and need to — merge.

Jeff Jarvis: The age of controlled conversation is over. The age of open conversation is here. But that is damned hard for the controllers to get used to. And I don’t say that with the perjorative edge it seems to indicate. The journalists thought it was their job — emphasis on job, responsibility, value — to control by verifying and judging and so on. If the job, instead, is to enable, then you have to start exercising new muscles. And it is important to keep in mind that a democracy is better served by the airing of more viewpoints and perspectives. And journalism is better served by the exposing of more news.

Glenn Reynolds: More speech is good. But, of course, there’s no obligation for anyone to provide you with more speech on their site.
I love open comments, just as I love free beer, free pizza, and other giveaway goods. But I’m not entitled to them. And those who partake, I think, owe a certain degree of civility to their hosts. In an age where there’s less control, I think that such informal measures matter more, not less….

I’ve never had comments. I get about 1000 emails a day, and I don’t have time to look at those, post on my blog, AND moderate comments. And unmoderated comments raise a risk of the kind of thing I mention above, as well as possible libel and copyright issues. I’ve actually considered bringing someone in to do that, but that seems too impersonal.

***

Jane Hamsher: “Hate speech” is a very specific, loaded term, and since the Post has so far refused to release any of the comments that could be thus characterize they insist we take their word for it. Are they referring to what Ed Gillespie calls “hate speech?” There are any number of people who have managed large online communities (though none of them here) who deal with these problems every day. Kos (of DailyKos) says “I would challenge them to release the emails and messages that were so abusive that it gave them the vapors. On DailyKos, hidden comments are still visible to trusted users. Transparency goes a long way toward verifying that censorship is being responsibly managed.”

Jay Rosen: I agree with Jane that hate speech is a loaded term. I also think that there is such a thing as “press hate,” and it does fit easily into what’s called the paranoid style in American politics. Press hate has, I think, had a very long and active life on the right, but it also has appeal to some on the Left. Maybe more appeal than ever. The reasons for it are many.

How can we tell press hate from just angry passionate criticism? When the journalist’s efforts to correct, improve, understand and engage are met with instant rejection and suspicion, there is a climate of press hate. I am not in favor of censoring it. But I am wary of where the emotion leads.

Jeff Jarvis: How does one defuse hate? By facing the bully eye-to-eye, eh? Nine times out of 10, when someone has come spitting bile at me in my comments, I find that if I bother to address them directly and call them on their behavior toward me, they back off and we end up in a decent conversation.

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