Washingtonpost.com temporarily shuttered its Post.blog message board last week after hundreds of personal attacks and profane, sexist, and generally hateful comments were placed there by readers—and others—to protest the work of Washington Post ombudsman Deborah Howell. (Disclosure: The Washington Post Co. owns washingtonpost.com, the Post, and Slate.)
Howell's sin was erroneously stating that the Post reported that Jack Abramoff "had made substantial campaign contributions to both major parties"and then stepping in it all over again by stating that he "directed" money to both, which Howell critics found equally erroneous–and infuriating.
Various lefty blogs and activist groups appear to have urged readers to criticize the ombudsman, writes the Washington Post's Paul Farhi, including MediaMatters.org, Dailykos.com, FireDogLake.blogspot.com, and Atrios.blogspot.com. The Media Matters site blogged about Howell on Jan. 15, the day her column appeared, again on Jan. 17 when Post media reporter Howard Kurtz wrote about her poorly written column, again on Jan. 18, to criticize Howell for criticizing Media Matters on an internal message board at the Post, and again on Jan. 20 to knock CNN for its reporting on the Howell flap. At each juncture, Media Matters urged its readers to "Take Action" against the Post or CNN for their transgressions by contacting them electronically in a "polite and professional" manner. Media Matters told Farhi they did not approve of "out of hand" postings.
The mass mau-mauing of Howell may seem like something that could only happen on the Web, but conventional instigators have been known to boost displeasure for media outlets into the stratosphere. Back in 1986, a local radio broadcaster organized a protest against the Washington Post because she thought the debut issue of its relaunched Sunday magazine treated African Americans unfairly. She directed her irate listeners to trek to the Post's offices once a week to dump stacks of the magazine on its doorstep in protest.
In 1992, politicians and activists convinced about 200 people to picket the Reader, a Chicago alternative weekly, following its publication of what they thought was a racist cartoon of an alderman. In 1990, ACT UP vilified New York Times reporter Gina Kolata by plastering Manhattan with stickers denouncing her as "the worst AIDS reporter in America" and continuing their protest through the U.S. mail by sending her 200 angry Christmas cards. During the great Detroit newspaper strike of the mid-'90s, which was marked by violence and property damage, union organizers attached signs urging shoppers not to buy the struck papers to 30 mice and loosed them in a department store. See also any one of the letter-writing campaigns sponsored over the decades by Accuracy in Media or the perennial Christian protests against the godless TV networks.
One of the great mysteries—and disappointments—of my own career is that despite my best efforts I've never been the target of a protest by an angry minority organization, a special interest group, or a political caucus. No chief dittohead has ever directed his troops to lock up my publication's switchboard with harassing calls, stage a denial of service attack on my Web site, or visit my home at 3 a.m. with air horns.
I don't envy the washingtonpost.com executives who had to decide whether to preserve the nasty Howell posts in the name of free speech or delete them in the interest of maintaining a civil, family-friendly space. But having erected a coffeehouse where readers are supposed to get their say, it seems like washingtonpost.com was late to the question of what to do when nihilists, vandals, saboteurs, and the excitable misbehave on its premises.
I can't pretend that Slatehas all the answers when it comes to managing message areas, but our "Fray" message board does a good job of encouraging spirited discussion without engaging in heavy censorship. Fray Editor Kevin Arnovitz tries to elevate the dialogue by encouraging posters to compete for higher ground, awarding "checks" to posts he judges good and "stars" to posters who earn a slew of checks. The system seems to work. See, for example, the Fray associated with this column. Want to see only the messages Arnovitz has given checks? Click and it's done. What to block specific users who regularly offend you? A click sends them into oblivion, too. Admire an individual post and want to read more by the writer? Click for his back pages. Reading the Fray with the filters off can be like walking the streets of a vital, chatty city that happens to have open sewers. But all you need do to clear the air of 99 percent of the stink is click a button.
Arnovitz deletes messages by posters whose use of the seven dirty words—made famous in the George Carlin case—is gratuitous to an extreme. Personal threats, general vileness, and libel are shown the door, too, but strong language in support of an argument is considered no vice in the Fray. The biggest gun in Arnovitz's arsenal is his weekly "Fraywatch" column, in which he quotes especially meritorious postings, easily the biggest award a poster can receive. Arnovitz concedes that our system isn't perfect. Many check-worthy posts go unrewarded, and inappropriate posts escape his radar. Even so, I think he does a terrific job of moderating. Here's a link to comments by one of his favorite posters, Col-BullKurtz.
Are organized talk-backs destined to become a regular affair on Web sites? I reckon so. Today, for example, Media Matters' "Action Center" is exhorting the faithful to send e-mails that "Urge MSNBC to bring Chris Matthews back to reality," " Urge CNN not to provide a platform for conservative misinformation and hate speech," and ask "Why is CNN hiring conservative misinformer Bill Bennett?" When similar talk-back campaigns send readers to a news organization's bulletin board in droves, it's incumbent upon the news organization to be prepared for the hurricane and have people and computer code in place that allow for responses more subtle than shutdowns. Folks who live in houses with big windows should always keep a big stock of plywood on hand.
One last point: I invite you to go back and read both Howell's pieces and what her critics wrote about her. (Technorati links to the relevant blogs.) I'm no Howell fan, but blogger accusations that she is carrying water for the right or peddling some bias are completely unwarranted. Attacking somebody as if they are your enemy when they clearly aren't makes no sense. Unless, of course, you're among the perpetually aggrieved and you've tired of flogging the usual villains.