January 23, 2006
Ombud Meets Blog

Last week, we saw a WaPo blog under fire from its readers, who launched a spate of angry comments that used "profanity and hate speech" responding to a comment from its ombudsman. As close as I can figure, the blog administrators removed the worst of the comments either before they were posted or a short time after they appeared. Then, overwhelmed, they decided to close comments altogether. The result is a resounding clash between the blog world and the newspaper world.

The reader fury that resulted when the comments were turned off must have singed some eyebrows. Oddly, many purveyors and readers of personal blogs are philosophical about doing this. People turn off comments all the time, for various reasons. Sometimes people just turn them off because they can't or don't want to interact with readers, or they're tired of dealing with spam or, worst case, harrassment by creepy stalker types. Whatever the case, the reader just has to live with it. (Personally, I would not only delete comments from people who called me "f****** b****", I would sic my mom on them, no kidding!) But things are different for national newspapers. But in this case people not only expected to be able to comment, they demanded it. They thought it was their due, even--perhaps especially--those who were blindly spewing foamy, blood-flecked invective.

Ironically, most newspapers are sensitive to community standards of decency, as they are often pelted with angry letters after they print, for example, a gory photograph. It was probably a similar awareness of standards that prompted the blog to close comments. But here's the rub: In this case, however, the blog probably should have toughed it out. A better alternative might have done better to publish all the comments they received before deciding to turn them off, showing their correspondents for what they are in all their foamy, blood-flecked horror. As it is now, the blog purveyors have just given more red meat to people who want to brand them as MSM tools.

WaPo nerd note: Interesting how the executive editor of the Web site wants to make clear delineations between the site and the paper. "I can't speak for a part of the company I don't work for," he says here . (He seems to be saying the site is not responsible for the views of the ombudsman. This seems beside the point, as an ombudsman's role is to have his or her own ideas that might not jibe with those of the newspaper.) Why the rush to distance? It's not like post.com is a subsidiary of a non-publishing entity. Shouldn't both wings of the organization be operating under similar editorial policies?

Finally, some of the comments on the post have since been restored. On a bad day, reading what remains reinforces, to me, that that as much as the Internet is a source of community (and, naively, I still believe it is) it is also a vast echo chamber verging on dystopia. Feh.

Posted at January 23, 2006 06:36 PM