This past week has been an especially tough one for The Washington Post – and for its detail-oriented readers. And their response to reader scrutiny has been to retreat and play the part of the victim.
It all started with the WaPo ombudsman Deborah Howell’s Sunday column this past Sunday. Entitled “Getting The Story on Jack Abramoff,” the column sang the praises of WaPo reporter Susan Schmidt, who wrote about how Abramoff “had made substantial campaign contributions to both major parties.”
Of course, this is complete bunk: Abramoff’s dealings were exclusively with Republicans, with not a single Democrat involved. Had the Post actually done its homework on this, rather than rely on GOP talking points, they would’ve quickly discovered that no Abramoff funds had made their way to Democrats. And the readership of the Post, both print and online versions, wrote in to correct the errors.
Over the course of the past five days, over 700 comments had appeared on the WaPo blogs, causing errors with their content management system. While some comments were fairly nasty, many were detailed and even-keeled, simply pointing out the errors in the articles of Schmidt and Howell and providing evidence to show that the Democrats were not part of the Abramoff scandal.
However, Howell stuck to her guns, reacting to the comments by repeating the same GOP talking points which had been debunked not only be readers, but by non-partisan observers and investigators involved in the indictment of Abramoff. Comments again flooded the WaPo blogs, perhaps getting a bit more nasty as Howell failed to provide anything of substance to the argument that hadn’t already been refuted.
The final blow came today, when the Post disabled comments:
As of 4:15pm 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. Any thoughtful feedback on that (or any other issue) is welcome, and you can send it to [email protected]
Executive Editor, washingtonpost.com
So the Post took two steps back into the land of old-school media, shutting off what has been a land of (mostly) healthy discourse.
This didn’t have to be, as the WaPo blogs use TypePad, which has an option for user verification called TypeKey. No, TypeKey isn’t perfect, but it does put in a form of accountability for one’s statements in a blog comment. TypeKey was tested – and eventually abandoned – at DCist, where comment flame wars got out of hand. DCist eventually dropped the TypeKey requirement due to a precipitous drop in comment volume, which made their site a lot less interesting to both regulars and passers-by.
But the Post wasn’t ready to deal with the next step in media, deciding to retreat, lick its wounds, and figure out what to do next. Hopefully, commenting and dialogue will return to their site. What they had was quite progressive for an old-school media outlet, and it would be a shame to cede progress in the name of fear. After all, the first step is often the hardest – but often the most educational.