The Brady Hunch and Howell’s Foul

As we follow Comment-gate, one impression jumps out at us: (and Executive Editor Jim Brady specifically) is essentially fielding the flak for Ombudsman Deborah Howell (who is expected to discuss the issue in her column this weekend). One can argue with Brady’s decision to shut down comments, but we should also not lose sight of the fact that the whole thing started a.) with Howell’s most recent column and (more importantly) b.) her decision to just barely respond to reader/interest group complaints about that column.

Why didn’t Howell also offer to host a chat today? Brady couldn’t/shouldn’t discuss most of the reader complaints–which concerned Howell’s column–because, as he said, “that’s not my domain. I am the executive editor of the web site, not the newspaper, so that’s a question that you’d need to take up with them.”

Perhaps Howell should address/discuss many of the concerns brought up in these comments, so that readers don’t feel as if their feelings are being ignored. By opting not to do so, she’s merely deflecting all of the flak towards the poor web techies at

(We should also not lose sight of the curiously odd and ironic situation the Post and Howell find themselves in: The Ombudsman, whose job is to police and correct the paper, is now the one coming under scrutiny and review.)

When Howell endured the (let’s be honest, relatively tame) rath of, she declared that the lesson she learned was simply to not respond. That is what really sent this thing into emergency-mode, let’s not forget.

Two side notes:

  • The New York Times got the Post blog story wrong, claiming that the Post had shut down a blog, when, in fact, they had only shut down comments.

  • Consider DCist’s experience with comments:

      Oh Jim, we know the road on which you travel all too well. We struggled for quite a while with rogue commenters, the types that resort to posting multiple times under various aliases and offer nothing short of online verbal diarrhea for comments. We even tried to impose a little order in the anarchic world of comments, only to see our regular commenters bristle at the idea. So we decided instead to embrace the lawless world of online discussion, hoping that those interested in real conversation would drown out the — well, we may as well say it — Jonathan Rees’ of the world. And so far it has worked.

    DCist also points out (like a few of you) the glass Fishbowl we live in:

      Sidenote: Pot, meet kettle. Even though Fishbowl DC criticized the Post’s move, they themselves do not offer the chance to comment on their posts.

Highlights from and analysis of Brady’s chat after the jump:

  • 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 down. Now, on to some intelligent questions, of which thre were many.

    Fishbowl Commentary: So only intelligent questions allowed?

  • over the next few days, we’ll go back through them and restore the ones that did not violate our rules, though we’re still going to leave comments off on that blog for the time being.

  • How has The Post “silenced its critics”? We’re having a discussion right now in which — believe me — I can assure you there are more critics than supporters. We shut down comments on one blog on a site than has 30. You can e-mail or snail mail letters to the editor. Deborah’s e-mail is available on the site. There are plenty of avenues to critique what happens at the newspaper or web site. We don’t have an obligation to keep every one of those avenues open if we run into problems like we did yesterday.

  • Tallahassee, Fla.: Every blog I read handles objectionable posts by simply deleting the posts rather than suspending all comments. The Post’s actions seem consistent with outright censorship. How do you respond to this criticism?

    Jim Brady: For the record, we did not suspend all comments, we suspended comments in one blog. As for the censorship question, that seems to imply you think we’ve decided not to allow anyone to criticize the Post. That’s not what we’ve done. As I said earlier, there are plenty of avenues to do that, and those all remain available. Comments on this blog were shut off because of the tone of it, not the substance.

    Fishbowl Commentary: Will eager commentors just go to some other blog with their Howell comments? Will Going out Gurus get flooded? Think Tank Town?!?

  • IP: Salon has a screen shot of the comments from the shut down blog. They are just critical of the inaccurate and misleading statements being made by your Ombudsman.

    I did not see anything offense other than an uprising against the tyranny of lies coming from the MSM supporting the fascist Bush jutta.

    What happen to freedon of expression in America?

    Jim Brady: As I said earlier, that screen shot is only what was live, not what we blocked. There’s no way for you to see what we blocked, and you should be happy about that, believe me. I learned some new words this week.

  • Chicago, Ill.: I agree that readers calling Deborah Howell a “b****” or a “wh***” or those using other profanity should not have used those words. But why does The Washington Post feel it is necessary to provide a sanitized version of the comments? (this assuming the number of foul comments overflowed your capacity to delete them). The comments obviously are not attributed to your paper. So again, what harm was being cause by letting these comments (along with the rest of the well-researched comments) stand?

    Jim Brady: I think it goes to basic human decency. You may not like Deborah Howell or her column from Sunday, but like you, she’s a human being. She shouldn’t have to read people publicly calling her a “b****” or a “wh***,” and we’re certainly not going to allow that on our site. Does anyone out there really think that adds anything to the discussion? If you need to use that language to make your point, I’m sorry, you don’t have one. You want to critique the column, go ahead. You want to say we we wrong, fire away. You want to call one of employees a “b****” and a “wh***,” you should go somewhere else.

  • We’ve chosen not to have an “anything goes” mentality, and once the stream of comments reached a point where we could not get the bad ones off as fast as they were coming in, we decided to close down the blog.

  • We need to look at how we’re staffed to handle comments, especially in cases where’s there’s been a concerted effort to flood us with comments in a short period of time. We also need to look at the technology, specifically how much weeding out of offensive content can be automated, etc. To be honest, the experience we’ve had since we launched blogs a year ago has been very positive, but we found out this week we’re not equipped technically or personnel-wise to handle a flood of problematic email…

  • Philadelphia, Pa.: What other means will you be offering for those of us who want to comment on your paper’s coverage and opinion, including the ombudsman?

    Jim Brady: If you go to our Opinion page, and click on the Feedback button, there are plenty of ways detailed to reach Deborah and others at the newspaper.

  • I don’t have the figures in front of me, but we had about 1,000 posts on one posting and a few hundred of those we had to axe. There were also a few hundred posts after Deborah’s response, and we had to remove a good chunk of those as well, but I have not checked on exacts…

  • New York: I guess your saying, here is our generous forum, express yourselves only as we see fit, and trust that we know best. If you print articles with untruths how are we supposed to trust you, what ever department you represent.

    Jim Brady: I’d say our forum rules provide a pretty wide latitude, and if you can’t stay within those, I don’t know what to tell you. We’re not asking you speak “as we see fit,” we’re merely asking for a modicum of decency. I guess what I’d ask you is: Is that really too much to ask?

  • Jim Brady: It was my decision, 100 percent. That’s not to say I wasn’t aware of how folks at the paper and web site felt about this, but in the end, the decision was mine, and I accept full responsibility for it.