THE BLOG
01/21/2006 03:34 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Deborah Howell and the "Fair and Balanced" Journalism of the Washington Post

The push is on to take the heat off the Washington Post and their slavish subservience to GOP talking points in the Jack Abramoff matter by placing the blame on their unruly readers. Last Sunday ombudsman Deborah Howell made a statement that is patently, demonstrably false, even according to the Post's own reporting -- contrary to what Howell claims, Jack Abramoff gave no money to Democrats. Period.

Somehow the fact that readers might be a smidge upset about this -- a sentiment they have expressed in legion on the post.blog -- seems to mystify the Post, who are now attempting to shift the focus to these "barbarians at the gates" to obscure the fact that now, six days later and in the face of all evidence to the contrary, the situation has escalated from bad reporting to a deliberate attempt to stand in defense of an outright fabrication.

Post reporter Jim VandeHei::

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.

To his credit, Jim Brady took reader questions yesterday 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 post.blog down

When people commented that nothing in the comments on the board 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?

The politically neutral techies at Slashdot aren't buying Brady's explaination either:

I find it interesting that this comes the day after NYT columnist David Pogue responded to a rash of personal attacks and other stupidity with his rules for internet hate mail [nytimes.com]. Pogue dealt with the idiots with humor. The Washington Post had to close down a blog....

The Post could employ some automatic filters to weed out some of the worst offenders, and thus it seems hard to believe their claim that it was requiring two full-time moderators to keep out the blog comments that violated their standards. Either those were some pretty heavy standards that made context such an issue that automated filtering was ineffective, or their web guys are pretty inept.

What Brady is talking about -- although he doesn't seem to be aware of it -- are referred to in internet parlance as "trolls." People who show up on internet boards causing trouble. Everyone has them, everyone has to deal with them. It's a basic fact of life and Brady seems to recoil in horror at the phenomenon like and 8 year old who's just been told his parents have sex. The comments which were deleted are preserved here and hardly rise to the level of "hate speech" they are now being characterized as by shreiking CNN virgins like Kyra Phillips and Lou Dobbs. Believe me, fourteen year-olds all across the internet are sniggering at the ignorance of these corporate giants about a fact of life any net resident simply takes for granted.

Says Steve Gilliard:

[T]here was no question that the comments, the vast majority of comments were not uncivil or needed moderation. Frankly, I got nastier comments for insulting Chicago-style hot dogs and had a raging debate over mac and cheese which would have curled Brady's hair.

I'm not surprised they've never heard of them, but to dismiss all participants in this discussion just because they've never heard of the problem before is not only absurd, it leaves them playing a role in a larger constantly repeating cycle that Atrios sketched out so clearly today:

[T]his whole situation is really reminiscent of the 2004 Adam Nagourney incident. Rough version: Nagourney wrote an article which passed on Bush administration peddled horses**t about how after the handover to the transitional government in Iraq U.S. casualties had declined. But they didn't. No matter how one squinted at the data, casualties hadn't declined. There was no way to slice it and dice it to make it so. Many angry exchanges between people and Nagourney and the useless Okrent. Many denials from them. Finally half-assed correction and an Okrent column which revealed the name and hometown of a rather "uncivil" reader because of his dastardly incivility.

We've been down this road before.

Brady then ducks the question of Howell altogether on the chat saying it is not his place, but he addressed it yesterday 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 suppose telling the truth is an impossibly high standard to expect from journalists, but it's somewhat surprising that the Post doesn't even aspire to it.

I have a great amount of respect for Jay Rosen; in fact it was Jay who initially suggested to me that the focus of everyone's comments on this matter should be the "Maryland Moment" on the post.blog (something I haven't talked about before because until Jay spoke about it on his blog I didn't know if he wanted his role in all of this revealed). He questioned Brady at length 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.

The irony only increases when Jim Brady goes crawling to right-wing blogger Hugh Hewitt for comfort (a man who has no interest in taking comments on his own blog, or engaging his readers in any kind of public discussion) and participates in a slime of major bloggers Kos and Atrios, who are referred to in the course of the conversation as a "fever swamp." Says Atrios:

Let's get this straight. The Right hates honest journalism. Has run a 35 year campaign against it. Hugh Hewitt does almost nothing but blast regularly what he considers to be "the liberal media" which, of course, includes the Washington Post. All we, on the left, wanted was a straightforward correction and admission of error and a genuine attempt to correct the record.

Good one, Jim. As the guy tasked with setting up an internet presence for the Post, igniting a land war with two of the biggest names in the blogosphere was a really shrewd move.

This attempt to "blame the trolls" and shift the dialog over onto a remedial internet issue that people like Kos, Atrios, Digby, MyDD, Crooks & Liars and other deal with quite seamlessly every day of the week is absurd. It is a cheap excuse to divert the focus from the real problem -- Deborah Howell screwed up. She said something that was blatantly untrue. People are justifiably 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.

(graphic by Jesus' General)

Jane Hamsher blogs daily at firedoglake.blogspot.com