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Friday, January 20, 2006

Blame the Barbarians

The push is on to take the heat off the Post and their kneepads journalism in the Jack Abramoff matter by placing the blame on their unruly readers.

Jim VandeHei, this morning:
It is sad that a group of very mean-spirited readers can not engage in thoughtful, mature and provocative dialogue about stories and controversies. Instead, they revert to cowardly personal attacks on people without the courage to attach their names. As a reporter, I am a staunch supporter of free speech and welcome criticism. But readers should keep their comments to the issues and not make personal attacks that add nothing but empty anger to the debate.
Get it? No distinction between legitimate criticism over the Post's refusal to correct a blatant innacuracy and the inflamed rhetoric employed by a few. We are all trolls.

To his credit, Jim Brady takes reader questions this morning in an online chat. But if anyone thought it was going to be anything other than a "blame the barbarians" hatchet job, the first question -- chosen, one would assume, out of many, was this:
Cache Valley, Utah: if ya can't stand the heat...

Publish partisan lies and not expect a backlash? Get real pal!!!

Fire that f***ing b**** forthwith and all's well that ends well, no? Otherwise, batten down the hatches, pal, 'cause there's a storm a brewin' and it's gonna be nasty.

Respectfully yours.
This supposedly sets the table to educate people as to what the poor Post has been having to deal with. Brady says as much:
But I wanted to start with it to make a point that this was the kind of stuff we spent all week cleaning out of our message boards (except there were no asterisks). And when the amount of time it took to ferret these kind of posts out exceeded the bandwidth we could devote to it, we decided to close commenting on down
Maybe I'm more tech illiterate than I thought, but how exactly does "time" exceed bandwidth? Any number of boards have reproduced both the Howell and Maryland Moments comments with no "bandwidth" issues. Does Brady even know what "bandwidth" is?

(Note: I am told "bandwidth" is an "old white guy term" for "resources." I guess it's obvious I'm not a member of that particular club.)

When people commented that nothing in the comments on the board (that are still preserved by Salon and DU) seemed remarkably out of line, Brady said:
You were reading the ones that were posted live. There were a few hundred others that were removed the site altogether, and those would not be on the page you're looking at.
So we assume that the ones that did make it onto the board were, at some point, okay with the Post's policies, because the ones that weren't were removed. At what point did the policy change?

Brady then ducks the question of Howell altogether on the chat saying it is not his place, but he addresses it this morning with Jay Rosen:
I'’ll be honest, I don'’t think the tone would have been much different if she'’d posted something on Monday or Tuesday. The basic issue here is that she didn'’t deliver the exact message her critics wanted her to. (my emphasis)
I have a great amount of respect for Jay Rosen who questions Brady at length this morning about his decision to shut the comments section down, but he concludes that Brady is someone we should be supporting, not criticizing, and takes me to task for saying Brady's excuses are not the least bit convincing:
Meanwhile, flaming the friends of transparency isn'’t helping anyone. Get it, Jane?
What I get is that listening to Brady and Rosen discuss the management of a large public board is like listening to two white, middle-aged Exxon executives discuss "what's really wrong with the negroes." As if this was some huge, unforseeable problem.

Anyone who sets up a public board like this in a highly partisan world with really active readers and doesn't make plans for troll management in their system architecture is a full-on, four-flushing idiot. If you do have a problem (and I maintain it is nothing that considering the number of comments involved couldn't be handled in five minutes hovering over a delete key, we do it every day) it is utterly disingenuous to lay off blame for your own shortcomings by blackening the readership. And given the fact that everyone at the WaPo now seems to be toeing this line, I do not think I am overboard in suggesting that this is part of some larger management decision that refuses to take responsibility for a very big problem.

Nobody at the Post has taken responsibility for Howell's comments. Nobody has printed a retraction, and the wagons have been circled by the likes of Howie Kurtz and Jim VandeHei, who now excuses Howell's comments as "a somewhat inartful way of making the point that Abramoff's clients, at his direction, gave money to members of both parties."

This attempt to "blame the trolls" and shift the dialog over onto a remedial internet issue that people like Kos, Atrios, Americablog, Digby, MyDD, Crooks & Liars and other deal with every day of the week quite seamlessly is bullshit. It is a cheap excuse to divert the focus from the real problem -- Deborah Howell fucked up. She said something that was blatantly untrue. The Post management have refused to print a correction. Peoplejustifiableyable angry and to let them hijack the dialog over to "impolite commentary" is an attempt to get themselves off the hook. And it won't work.

The Maryland Moment blog is still open for comment.

Update: Reader Bionic just emailed this:
I just heard Kira Phillips on CNN talk about the WaPo blog comment turning off incident. It was pretty onesided - hate speech and personal attacks cited as the reason they turned it off and then she said that the reason people were angry was that Howell had said Abramoff had sent money to both Repubs and Dems. Then she said and I quote "Well that's true."
This is the way this is one going to go down if we let it go unanswered.

Update 2:Atrios reports that this is the actual Phillips quote:
What set off readers was a Sunday column by Post ombudsman Deborah Howell who wrote that corrupt former lobbyist Jack Abramoff gave money to Democrats as well as Republicans. That's true but most of the money went to Republicans.
This is an incredible opportunity to speak up and both educate the media and dicipline them into telling the truth on this one very important point. We've got their attention now. Let's not waste it.