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Transparency at the Post: Q & A with Jim Brady of Washingtonpost.com

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When Jim Brady decides to shut down the comments at post.blog to prevent even bigger problems we're going backwards in our ability to have a conversation with the Washington Post. That isn't good. If the press decides to close itself off because the costs of participating in the new openness are judged to be too high, that is a loss for everyone. (For background, see the AP story, the summary by Editor & Publisher; Vaughn Ververs at Public Eye here, and here; Fishbowl DC on Media Matters vs. Deborah Howell; and this blogger for a detailed chronology with links.)

Maybe we can get it changed back to open again. I hope so because I was the one who reminded Jane Hamsher at Firedoglake that the post.blog had a comment function. It had taken heavy use, including some very angry people making themselves known, during the argument over Dan Froomkin's White House Briefing. Posts that Froomkin, and national political editor John Harris wrote attracted 1,000+ comments, some of them quite heated, and over the top. Jane took my suggestion and recommended that her readers bring their reactions to the "Maryland Moment" thread, which was at the top of the post.blog. From there it snowballed.

I understand why people were angry at Deborah Howell. She seems to have taken the concept of balance to new lengths, where not only news accounts and ombudsman columns need to be balanced, but the Jack Abramoff scandal itself "needs" to be balanced between the two major parties.

Her both-sides-fed-at-the-trough statements have been called inaccurate, outrageous, unfortunate, less-than artful. "He had made substantial campaign contributions to both major parties..." I read these strained descriptions of bipartisan exposure as more of a wish-- a wish for balance in the facts of the scandal itself. (See also Deborah Howell responds at the post.blog.)

But I also understand why Brady did what he did. If washingtonpost.com lets stand extreme charges aimed to maximize rage at Howell, and some of the charges contain ugly personal insults, then Brady's position becomes impossible if the staff of the Washington Post objects, and demands to know:

* Why are we giving Post.com space to people who wish for our destruction and call for our heads?

* Jim, it's not like there aren't other spaces online where that can and will be said robustly.

* Does transparency really mean making room for: death to the Washington Post, and down with their ombudsman too?

And I don't think Brady had good answers to any of that--do you?--so he shut down the comments for now. The only good thing about his decision is the room he left for practical suggestions. (Got any? Head to comments.) That, and he's willing to explain himself and talk about the controversy. Here's my Q & A with Brady, which we did by e-mail late last night and this morning.

Q: Has transparency at the Washington Post taken a hit with your decision to close comments at post.blog?

Jim Brady: Despite all the names I'm being called--and there are some creative ones in my e-mail, I assure you--I'm all for transparency and am more than willing to talk about this decision publicly. It's pretty simple, actually: As a site, we've decided there have to be limits on the language people can use. I'm getting a lot of e-mail saying, essentially, that I need to accept the fact that profanity and name-calling are part of the web DNA. That may be true for the Web as a whole--though I hope not--but I don't run the Web as a whole, I run washingtonpost.com, and on our site, we get to make the rules. Readers can reject those rules, and post elsewhere. That's their right. There are plenty of blogs that will allow commenters to say whatever they want; we're just not going to be one of those.

I think evidence would suggest that we've been working hard at being transparent. We make reporters and editors of the paper and site available for Live Onlines on a daily basis (in fact, I'm doing one today at noon.) We cut a deal with Technorati that points to blogs discussing Post content (often in a negative fashion). We have used post.blog to try and communicate with readers during the Dan Froomkin controversy last month and over the past week.

So this isn't about our unwillingess to hear criticism, it was an unwillingness to continue to have Post staffers viciously attacked on the site and an inability on our end to work quickly enough to avoid those posts from showing up. The readers who have complained that there was nothing offensive or profane in the comments should remember that they didn't see the ones we removed. If they had, they would better understand why we did what we did. If you look around the site, we've built great communities in other blogs and through Live Online, so I feel pretty comfortable about our willingness to engage our readers.

Q: So do you still want to encourage criticism of the Washington Post and its writers?

Jim Brady: I'd say that we want to encourage discussion of Post content. Some of that will obviously be critical, and that's fine. I don't think there are many reporters who oppose thoughtful criticism of their work. What they oppose is being called vulgar names and assigned all sorts of evil motives by people who don't know them. That's not a dialogue, in my opinion, it's akin to shouting insults from a moving car.

In this case, obviously people were angry at Deborah's column, so they vented for a few days. Then, in an act that actually displayed transparency, she responded to the readers online -- three days before her column in the paper -- to address the complaints. And because she didn't say exactly what the commenters wanted her to say, she was attacked again for most of Thursday before we decided we couldn't effectively manage the flow any lomger. So you could say that our attempt to be more transparent is what got us in trouble here.

Q: Some of the stuff I saw, I would definitely have taken it off, and if I couldn't get to it fast enough then I would have no choice. So I understand your decision to pull down the comment boards. In my experience, open forums in "visible" places without moderation simply don't work. Have you come to the same conclusion?

Jim Brady: Not yet. I still have hope that we can do this without moderation at some point, though I'd be lying if I said this didn't shake my faith. But it should be noted that we've had blogs on the site for more than a year now, and we've had very few problems. We've built really energized communities all around the site, and that's more important to me than what's happened in the past week.

Q: A lot of people thought that Deborah Howell engaged in escalation of a kind by not correcting or clarifying what she wrote about Jack Abramoff and the Democrats. I would like to know you're opinion on that. And wouldn't the ombudsman be better off with a blog where she could add to, clarify, and further report on things in her column, and answer questions that have constituencies made of thousands of active readers?

Jim Brady: Well, as I said, she did eventually post on our blog, a few days before her column was scheduled to appear in the paper. Maybe we should have done that sooner, but 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. So I'm not sure how much the timing had to do with it, though it's a valid question

As far as the blog goes, Deborah just started in this position a few months ago, and like all ombudsmen, she's swamped with letters, calls and e-mails. Deborah has worked closely with washingtonpost.com since she started, and there's been some discussion about her doing more online, but I doubt the events of the past week have helped that mission much.

Q: It seems to me that when the complaint is about the adjudicator of complaints you're in a different situation. In this case, where was discontent with the ombudsman's misstatement--or "inartfully worded" one, as Howard Kurtz said--supposed to go? And what about discontent with her performance in the job? To whom are people supposed to complain, or is that one that is better taken outside the Post domain?

Jim Brady: Well, I think it's safe to say everyone at the web site and the newspaper are aware of this particular issue, so the openness worked in that regard. Even with comments closed off for now, readers can submit letters to the editor, or an Op-Ed. And once we make some changes in how we manage comments, we'll look to reopening those areas.

Q: "We're not giving up on the concept of having a healthy public dialogue with our readers," you wrote, "but this experience shows that we need to think more carefully about how we do it." PressThink readers might fancy some of that, but give us a better sketch: think more carefully about what? What are the problems rearing up that you need better answers for?

Jim Brady: There are two factors: human and technical. In the human case, we need to take a better look at how many people we have handling comments areas on the site. We've actually been working on a few projects that would expand site interactivity, and with this experience under our belts, we're going to need to re-evaluate how many people need to patrol these new areas, what hours they need cover and how they deal with problematic posters.

On the technical side, we need to be more creative with our profanity filters. We do block a handful of profane words, though for reasons I can't yet explain, it didn't seem to work in all cases here. But, either way, our list was not long enough or creative enough. Also, we'll be looking at whether we need to review comments before going live, either across the board or only for particularly controversial topics. Additionally, we need better measures for blocking users who continue to cause problems. So those are some of the things we're re-evaluating.

Q: Under what conditions would you re-open comments at post.blog?

Jim Brady: Probably only after we make some of the changes mentioned above. But it should be noted here that we did not turn comments off on any other blogs, just this one.

Q: Let me tell you a danger I see and get your reaction to it. This isn't a comment on your decision with the post.blog, but a larger problem. There's a danger when journalists look at complaints about the news from people involved in a political struggle and discount them because they come from partisans. The highest rates of participation in politics and in the arguments found in newspapers have come during periods in our history when things were intensely partisan. A partisan might be defined as someone who gives a shit about the outcome of the political stuggles read about in the Washington Post in such splendid detail.

It seems to me if you're dismissing the complaints of the partisans you're reacting in exactly the wrong way; they're your best customers. They're way involved in the news. You have to find a way of hearing them, or your sunk. Of course some of them are crazy, excessive, extremely rude and they say things for shock value or just to rage at the machine. Maybe it's hard to find the signal in the noise, but that is exactly what the press has to do. There's an idiocy to partisan complaints; there's also the heart and soul of politics in them. No political journalist can afford to ignore that, and no online editors, either. I'm afraid that after an incident like this, more will. What do you think?

Jim Brady: I guess my quibble would be with the core assumption that the issue here was partisanship. The issue here was civility. Whether it's from the left or the right, we've decided as a site that we're not going to have an "anything goes" policy. If you want to take issue with articles in The Post or on washingtonpost.com, go right ahead. If you want to complain that you think we're biased to the left or right -- and, believe me, we get it from both sides -- have at it. But if you want to viciously attack and insult Post or Post.com staffers or other blog commenters, then go somewhere else to do it. That's the deal we've had with a large majority of our loyal readers for years, and we've decided that's going to be our policy going forward.

Q: Thanks, Jim, for answering my questions. (End.)

My commentary: About transparency and the need for the Post to engage with critics, you're not going to find anyone in the national press who gets it more than Jim Brady does. And so Jane Hamsher is wrong in her post about the comment shut down, where she raged at Brady, claiming he wanted to silence critics of the newspaper. "I'm assuming WaPo management just imperiously decided they didn't want to have a public record of opposition to the embarrassment that is Deborah Howell, and Brady was forced to make some excuse for shutting it down."

That's a reckless assumption. I think he'll try to bring the comment board back at post.blog, although I'm not sure "civility" should be the watchword there when he does. In fact Brady said in his online chat today that he hopes comments critical of Howell will be returned to their place in the dialogue. "We'll go back through them and restore the ones that did not violate our rules."

Meanwhile, flaming the friends of transparency isn't helping anyone. Get it, Jane?

I don't think "civility" gets Brady anywhere. And I'm not confident I know what he means when he says, "The issue here was civility." Absent enforcement by pro-active moderators, The Rules the Post declares in force will simply not be in force. This is not a new finding about the Internet.

Jane Hamsher was therefore right when she said at her blog: "anyone who runs a board open to the public just knows that people who show up are often not going to play by the 'rules' you set up, in fact they'll break them just because you have them."

If that is correct (realistically, I think it is) then a commitment to having open comments means a commitment to moderating them carefully. If you don't do that, then you can't really say: it's a shame a few rotten apples spoil it for everyone. To demand civility is one thing, to expect it something else.

Brady said he was expecting breakdowns with the outpouring at Howell, but it just got to be too much. I wonder what the results would be if "trusted readers" did the moderating for a few hours (2-3) a week, or something like that. Probably it wouldn't work, but maybe someone reading this knows better.

We could just say: hire the people you need and re-open the boards, washingtonpost! But then Brady's cost of being open to comment just increased, and that has consequences for future acts of openness. Bad for transparency at the Post. Driving up the internal costs of opening outward is not smart politics for those who want two-way newspapers that speak, listen, hear and get heard.
Jay Rosen teaches journalism at New York University. His weblog is PressThink, where this originally appeared. You can find reactions to this post and views from around the blogosphere at his post.