Shafer Breaks Through the Comment-Gates

Jack Shafer today takes a look at last week’s debacle over washingtonpost.com’s decision to remove comments from their post.blog following a barrage of negative comments directed against Ombudsman Deborah Howell (fyi, some comments have been returned).

    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.

Shafer also examines his own publication’s (Slate…which is owned by the Washington Post Company) experience with comments in their “Fray” feature, and thinks they’ve figured out a decent system that “does a good job of encouraging spirited discussion without engaging in heavy censorship.” (Read Shafer’s piece for a more elaborate breakdown of how it works).

But Shafer’s main question addresses the kind of “organized talk-backs destined to become a regular affair on Web sites” (and which the Howell situation brought to light). On this, Shafer hits the nail on the head:

    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.