Reddit Moderators Apologize for Handling of "Bad Journalism" Ban

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Nov. 1 2013 3:11 PM

Reddit Moderators Apologize for Handling of "Bad Journalism" Ban

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Update, Saturday, Nov. 2, 1:45 p.m.: The moderators of Reddit's politics section have posted a new thread apologizing for the way they've handled the decision to ban certain domains and the resulting controversy. They've also added a frequently-asked-questions section explaining some of the rationale behind their approach. They added: 

We've tried to get to your specific concerns, but there are only a few of us, and the response has been staggering. There's been frantic work going on in the back and we're working on several announcements, clarifications and changes. The first of these will appear no later than sometime Monday.
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One moderator of the site also responded to my request for comment yesterday and asked that I clarify a couple of points in the post below. There is no "whitelist," the moderator maintained, and the list of domains with "custom flair" should not be considered a tacit endorsement of those sites.The moderator also explained why this very post that you're reading right now was taken down from the front page of /r/politics on Friday after it was posted there and sparked a lively discussion. The moderator's explanation, in part: 

Our users want relevant, up-to-date information about the subject of politics and the moderators aim to provide that experience in the best way possible. As such, meta posts and articles about /r/Politics are pulled down from our queue. Those posts are not on-topic, and are more appropriate for some of the other wonderful subreddits on the site.

Original post: Reddit as an organization, just to be clear, has not banned links to Salon, Mother Jones, Huffington Post, Gawker, and numerous other publications. But the volunteer moderators who run the site’s widely followed politics section, the /r/politics subreddit, have. And the decision has a lot of people—including a good number of the politics subreddit’s own 3.1 million subscribers—mystified and furious.

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Will Oremus is Slate's senior technology writer. Email him at will.oremus@slate.com or follow him on Twitter.

On Monday, /r/politics drastically expanded its list of “banned domains” to include not only explicitly ideological sites like Breitbart.com and Democratic Underground but some of the most popular politics sites on the Internet from across the spectrum. The rationale might seem reasonable on first glance. As the section’s moderators explained in a post on Tuesday, the goal is “to reduce the number of blogspam submissions and sensationalist titles.” The purge, the moderators explained, is also aimed at sites that provide lots of “bad journalism.”

But if the goals are admirable, some of the moderators’ choices as to which sites to ban appear to border on arbitrary. Does the Huffington Post engage in a good deal of what the moderators might call “blogspam”—i.e., “quoting other articles to get pageviews?” No doubt. But it also won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize in National Reporting for a 10-part series on the struggles that wounded U.S. military veterans endure when they come home. Does Salon sometimes appeal to its readers’ liberal ideological bent to stir up their emotions? Sure—but so do plenty of other outlets that lack half the intelligence and insight of some of Salon’s best writers.

In fact, I can think of another seminal Internet magazine that starts with the letter “S” that has been known to write a clicky headline or two in its day. Yet far from being banned from /r/politics, Slate is listed among the section’s “sources with custom flair,” a tacit endorsement of the quality of its coverage. I won’t dispute the notion that Slate’s politics coverage is better and more ideologically diverse, on the whole, than Salon’s—of course we’re better!—but I wouldn’t blame my counterparts at Salon or some of the other banned outlets if they didn’t see the distinction. 

Among the least defensible inclusions on the “banned domains” list, as others have pointed out, is Mother Jones, a venerable, much-lauded, and reporting-driven nonprofit magazine that routinely turns out important and deeply researched investigative stories. Mother Jones was the site that landed one of the biggest scoops of the 2012 presidential campaign, the leaked Romney fundraising video. Presumably Mother Jones was banned because it has a progressive editorial viewpoint. But so do many other great magazines, including The New Yorker. Meanwhile, Reddit’s self-appointed arbiters of journalistic quality apparently see no problem with ACLU.org, Al Arabiya, Common Dreams, Russia Today, Talking Points Memo, the Washington Times, and many other outlets that few others would hold up as paragons of objectivity. Never mind that objectivity as a journalistic ideal is notoriously problematic.

Most egregiously, the Daily Mail—purveyors of some of the most witless and unscrupulous tabloid garbage and blogspam on the entire Internet—is listed alongside the BBC, the New York Times, and the Economist on the /r/politics whitelist.

In an interview with On the Media’s delightful new TLDR blog, Mother Jones co-editor Clara Jeffery said she was dumbfounded by her magazine’s ban. “It’s not something you expect in a free society, and especially for [a site like Reddit] that prides itself as being at the bleeding edge of user-driven content and First Amendment principles.” In an illustrative bit of irony, Jeffery noted that a story Mother Jones had broken on Thursday morning, about Ted Cruz’s father, was disallowed from /r/politics—but that a summary of the Mother Jones piece in Talking Points Memo was the subreddit’s top story.

For an added layer of ridiculousness, TLDR’s interview with Jeffery was itself apparently deleted from /r/ politics.

It isn’t just journalists who are crying foul. Despite the moderators’ insistence that the impetus for the blacklist came from user feedback, the user feedback on the change itself has been overwhelmingly negative. Even a former Reddit moderator called on the subreddit’s new chieftains to rethink their policies:

You guys screwed up on this one. Many of you know it. …
It's hard to admit error and do a 180 when the crowd is yelling at you, some of them calling for your heads, etc. It makes you want to dig in your heels, or at least want to save face and preserve some part of the mistake so you can call it a victory. But there comes a time when there really is no way forward but to say "Hey, we screwed up on this one, and we're rolling it back."

To me, the most trenchant criticism so far came from another Reddit user in the comments section on the subreddit’s own policy changes:

This sort of violates the point of Reddit, right? Users are supposed to upvote material they find interesting, rather than have editors sequester content they find relevant.

I’ve contacted one of the site’s moderators for comment today and have not yet heard back. But at least one /r/politics moderator apparently did talk to Mike Masnick, editor of Techdirt, another site that found itself on the wrong end of the Reddit moderators’ great crusade. In a comment on TLDR, Masnick said the moderator told him some users had complained about Techdirt content, but would not give specifics. Here’s Masnick:

When I pointed out—as have many r/politics users—that if people dislike the content, they can just vote it down, I was told (1) that I do not understand Reddit and (2) that I couldn't possibly comprehend the nature of being a moderator for such a community.

I’d argue it’s the opposite: It’s the /r/politics moderators who don’t understand Reddit or comprehend their role. Here’s hoping they reconsider.  

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