‘Wash Post’ Suspends Comments on One of its Blogs

By: E&P Staff

Jim Brady, the executive editor at washingtonpost.com, notified users of the post.blog that the public comment feature had been suspended “indefinitely” after “a significant number of folks” posted personal attacks, profanity, and hate speech.

The move is related to controversy in recent days over Sunday?s Post column by ombudsman Deobrah Howell. She has been heavily criticized by some political Web sites and bloggers for writing that indicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff gave money to both political parties, when most research shows he only gave directly to Republicans.

In response to the Post shutoff, bloggers critical of Howell quickly directed users to another blog that allows comments at the Post site, and dozens of comments ripping the paper for its latest move soon appeared there. Another blog published the Howell-related comments that had been deleted by the Post. A typical one concerning Howell reads: “She doesn’t get the benefit of the doubt regarding her honesty. The Post ought to be ashamed of the way she is doing her job.”

Just two days ago, Hal Straus, opinions editor at the Post’s site, revealed that it was experiencing technical problems because of the more than 700 comments received concerning Howell’s column. He said the Post had tried to remove about a dozen comment “that failed to make a substantive pointand were simply personal attacks on Howell and others.”

Then, this morning, Howell responded at the Post?s blog, explaining that she had heard from ?lots of angry readers? and wished that she had written that Abramoff “directed” contributions to both parties, adding: ?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.?

This explanation, in turn, drew an immense and sometimes nasty response to the comments section today, with some critics pointing out flaws in her reasoning and comparisons. A few hours later, Brady announced the blog comment turnoff, without mentioning Howell directly.

The post.blog was created as a way to create “a dialogue about this site, the events of the day, the journalism of The Washington Post Company and other related issues,” Brady wrote. “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 Brady went on to say that readers refused to follow the site’s simple guidelines prohibiting personal attacks, the use of profanity, and hate speech.

“It’s a shame that it’s come to this,” Brady wrote. “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 executive.editor@washingtonpost.com.”

Three hours later, Brady returned to the blog to explain a bit more and to argue that the Post is not overly sensitive to criticism and is, in fact, “transparent.”

Mainstream media organizations have struggled to embrace blogging and the open dialogue new Internet technologies enable. The Los Angeles Times last year shut down its “wikitorial” project — an experiment in creating user-written Op-Eds — after vandals posted profane messages and pornographic images.

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