Saturday, January 21, 2006

Blog Comments: A Few Naive Observations

How important is it for a newspaper to allow readers to leave comments on its web site? That's the unstated question underwriting the number-one current affair among web media critics, namely Washington Post executive editor Jim Brady's recent decision to suspend comments to one of the paper's blogs after a flood of "profanity and hate speech." Most of the harsh rhetoric was directed against ombudswoman Deborah Howell, who on Sunday made the following factually-challenged statement in a piece defending the reporters who'd broken the Abramoff scandal:
Schmidt quickly found that Abramoff was getting 10 to 20 times as much from Indian tribes as they had paid other lobbyists. And he had made substantial campaign contributions to both major parties.
According to Brady, this misrepresentation set off a firestorm of profane ad-hominem attacks from angry liberals in's comments section, which was eventually closed at 4:15 pm on Thursday, Jan. 19. Last night editors restored "some previously posted comments" to the offending blog post, but new comments are still shuttered.

Jay Rosen offers the definitive take on this controversy, incorporating a brief summary of events leading to the shutdown, an informative Q&A session with Brady, his own typically incisive analysis, and reactions from interested parties. Rosen and the other old-media experts try to play it nice and detached with the liberal bloggers, but Steve Gilliard's, Atrios', and Jane Hamsher's rage at Brady's decision can barely be contained. The gist of their complaint is that the Washington Post is unresponsive to and uninterested in reader criticism, a charge that ignores the paper's pioneering leadership among national news dailies in integrating public feedback into its online presence (cf. its chat sessions, Technorati links, and the fact that its other blogs still allow comments).

All the bandwidth spent debating this affair prompted the question that leads off this post: what's the big deal? The Washington Post is the only national newspaper that offers readers the opportunity to make public comments on its content—is this a right or a privilege? Rosen contends that silencing 'partisans' is bad for business; Brady answers that his concern is tone rather than tendentiousness per se. Brady makes a valid point: the Post should in theory be able to apply the same content standards to its comment areas as it does to letters to the editor. I say 'in theory' because the same technology that makes it easier and more attractive for readers to post comments online than write letters to the editor also makes policing the former more difficult than the latter. One of the more common observations made about this whole situation is that rhetorical civility on the Web is a typical casualty of high site visibility combined with perceived anonymity, and that it was foolish of the Post's editors to expect genteel discourse to erupt spontaneously in a moderation-free environment. If so, perhaps it was a mistake (from the Post's perspective) to offer readers the opportunity to post unsupervised comments in the first place.

Steve Gilliard says moderators aren't necessary to keep comment areas clean, citing Slashdot and the Daily Kos as examples. But both are apples to the Post's orange: Slashdot doesn't generally cover politics and DKos's members all share the same underlying value system. It seems likely that due to lack of agreement over what constitutes news "objectivity," living moderators would probably be necessary to enforce the Post's brand of politeness/relevance. The problem wouldn't stop there, though: overzealous readers would continue bickering over the definition of "relevant commentary" and skirting the limits of good taste.

Despite all the foregoing concerns, it may yet be that offering readers the opportunity to respond publicly to the Post's stories on the Post's web site is a compelling public interest that takes precedence over the staff's interest in not seeing their site sullied by libel and profanity. In my view, this has not been conclusively shown. Much as I hate to agree with Glenn Reynolds, the blogosphere already churns out more daily news commentary than one person could possibly consume, and readers can still email comments to the appropriate Post employees and participate in live chat sessions.

I hasten to add that the ability to leave comments on newspaper web sites is a feature well worth pursuing, and I hope that the Post can find a way to make it work for its more contentious content. In fact, judicious moderation could (if we're lucky) help's comment threads develop a reputation for intelligent inter-ideological conversation, something the blogosphere sorely lacks today. But are comments necessary? Probably not. We got along perfectly well with our non-interactive newspapers before the Internet came along (much better, as it turns out), and it's easier now than ever for laypeople to get their media criticism heard. Taking reporters and editors to task when they err is still vitally important, but unwarranted vitriol from the fringes only cheapens the enterprise for all involved, regardless of what site it appears on.