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Saturday, January 21, 2006

The Washington Post "comments kerfuffle" 

Regular blog readers are probably dimly aware of the Washington Post "comments" kerfuffle, rounded-up by Glenn Reynolds here and discussed at some detail here. The lefty blogs have worked themselves into a particularly high dudgeon over this, in part because WaPo executive editor Jim Brady defended the decision in an interview with Hugh Hewitt (transcript here) that, allegedly, "slimed" Daily Kos and Atrios. Whatever. Brady defended his decision thusly:
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....

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.

I doubt it -- certain political bloggers attract and seem to tolerate extremely nasty comments, really hair-curling stuff. The WaPo's critics just think it all part of the give and take.

Anyway, I speculate that the WaPo has not come entirely clean with the real reason why it shut down the comments. Speaking as somebody who has been in charge of the law department at one public company or another for more than ten years, I don't think that thin skin or "family values" or any other lame-ass consideration drove the WaPo out of the comments game. Nope. I believe that the decision was probably driven by its law department out of fear that it had created a "hostile environment" for its employees by permitting the unmediated publication of comments about them. Think about it -- what other business does that? None, for any number of reasons, the fear of liability not least among them. If you give people the means to write horrible things about your employees, you are setting yourself up for one huge lawsuit, and probably not even from the employees who are the subject of the criticism. The fact of the nasty comments on a WaPo blog is probably enough, in some courts, to establish a "hostile environment" for other Post employees. Who wants to defend that case?

You don't believe me? You are clinging to the outdated idea that free speech is more important than a work "environment" free of "harrassment." People who are interested in the degree to which "hostile environment" litigation has constrained free speech should dig through Eugene Volokh's extensive online resources on the subject here.

10 Comments:

By Blogger sirius_sir, at Sat Jan 21, 09:39:00 AM:

Exactly what is wrong with "constraining" free speech anyway? Civilized people do it all the time; it's called self-discipline or restraint.

And when such is lacking, it falls on others to pick up the slack.  

By Blogger Meme chose, at Sat Jan 21, 10:07:00 AM:

I notice that precisely the same thing happened at the LA Times recently, when they (for a few days) set up a wiki.

I think it's a great thing that journalists should be confronted in this way by the degradation produced by their 'one step further to the left is always better' ideology.  

By Blogger TigerHawk, at Sat Jan 21, 10:24:00 AM:

sirius_sir,

I'm not objecting to the WaPo's decision -- I'm only suggesting that its stated reasons are probably incomplete. And, in case it isn't obvious, I think that the effective impact of employment discrimination law on free speech is a shame. We allow restraints on speech under threat of EEOC findings (there's your state action) in the employment context when we would not tolerate them in any other. We have, in effect, elevated our concern for "employees" above free speech, which is in turn considered more important than virtually anything else. The whole thing is nuts.  

By Blogger M. Simon, at Sat Jan 21, 10:45:00 AM:

Silence is best.  

By Blogger sirius_sir, at Sat Jan 21, 10:59:00 AM:

Oh, I was just trying to be controversial, within the limits of acceptable discourse.

But surely M. Simon is correct, in some cases at least. Good counsel. And on this subject I should probably do well to commence following it right now.  

By Blogger Merv, at Sat Jan 21, 12:20:00 PM:

Some people forget the difference between insult and logic. Emotions on the left have driven many into the insult camp. It is not persuasive and that could be one reason why they are shouting louder and uglier.

I recall testifying at a trial one time where I responded to a question by saying I did not understand the question. The lawyer repeated his question several times getting louder each time, and finally I said, that I heard his question, it just did not make any sense. At that point he just moved on.

The left is at a point where they are still getting louder and more insulting and it is still not working for them.

Their anger at Ms. Howell was about her statements about how Democrats got contributions directed by Abramoff instead of dirctly from him and why that should make a difference. In the end, I don't think it will.  

By Anonymous topsecretK9, at Sat Jan 21, 03:23:00 PM:

regular blog readers are probably dimly aware of the Washington Post "comments" kerfuffle,

I think liability and brand protection were the 2 key factors. Your lead (above) demonstrates the brand part.

WAPO is highly regarded and not interested in cheapening their brand by hosting senseless, profanity laced comments. Deeply tacky to the dimly aware who happen to surf into it.

Their crime was simply not being prepared.  

By Blogger Cassandra, at Sun Jan 22, 04:28:00 AM:

Well, this will no doubt amaze you, but I'm going to defend the media.

Regardless of the reason the comments were removed, the WaPo was well within its rights to remove them, and it really takes a lot of gall for bloggers to criticize them for doing so.

The Post is under no obligation to provide a forum for foul-mouthed and abusive commentary. Period. Where they choose to draw that line is up to them as it is their forum. Last time I checked we weren't living in Soviet Russia, unless of course the noble proletariat taken ownership of the Post in the name of the People's Republic of Washington?

Honestly, I am all in favor of free speech, but let's not turn this into a faux First Amendment issue.

While I completely agree with this comment:

I think it's a great thing that journalists should be confronted in this way by the degradation produced by their 'one step further to the left is always better' ideology.

...I also have to applaud the Post for having the good sense not to elevate some asinine "free speech" argument over the common sense determination that their little experiment had gone to hell in a handbasket. Not all "speech" is worth preserving.  

By Blogger Chris, at Sun Jan 22, 07:49:00 AM:

I agree with Cassandra on this one. The Post is well within its rights as the operating entity to set the parameters of its own enterprises. I find it mildly surprising that bloggers would not immediately see the issue in terms of ownership, and the responsibilities and rights thereof. Their blog, their rules. Kind of refreshing in a way.  

By Blogger sirius_sir, at Sun Jan 22, 09:56:00 AM:

Cassandra, exactly right. That was more or less the point I was trying to make. But you make it much better.

The issue for me is the same as that regarding editorial policy towards letters to the editor. No paper is required by any obligation of 1st Ammendment considerations to publish all, or for that matter any, of the letters it receives from its readers. We always assume editiorial control in these matters and none of us has any right other than to shrug our shoulders and try again if our efforts are rejected.

It is an interesting development in this age of the internet, allowing as it does unprecedented opportunities for individual expression of opinion, that people should think that any barrier to public access means their right to speech is being trampled upon.  

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