Roasting the Post

When Washington Post ombudsman Deborah Howell published the false claim on Jan. 15 that Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff gave money to Democrats, the paper got a loud, swift and public lesson in the new realities of online interactivity and instant accountability. It was like watching a woolly mammoth being hauled shrieking and dripping with ice-age detritus into the 21stt century.

This lesson came in large part from the blogosphere, in the form of comments made on the newspaper's website and in posts made to political weblogs, such as DailyKos, Eschaton, and my own blog, Firedoglake. The collective daily readership of the largest political blogs now runs in the millions. We are news and politics junkies, instantly able to recite the last six jobs of Senate staffers and the names of reporters who cover every beat. We follow politics in real time and have zero tolerance for the kind of sloppy mistake Howell made. Hundreds of us swarmed to the site and immediately made our feelings known.

The paper's insistence on remaining silent in the wake of this was a clear indication that management did not understand that the days of one-way "we speak, you listen" information flow are over. It is no longer possible for a newspaper to simply publish erroneous information and then stonewall critics as they wait for everything to blow over.

In the face of Howell's continued silence, the paper's online readers stepped up their insistence that she post a retraction. After four days Howell wrote another article, but rather than apologize for her original mistake, she stated that she had intended to write that Jack Abramoff "directed" his clients -- the Indian tribes -- to give money to Democrats.

This statement was also extremely misleading, implying that money given legally by Abramoff's victims was as corrupt as the money run illegally through his well-documented money-laundering schemes for the GOP. As Bloomberg, the American Prospect and others have reported, legal donations by Indian tribes to Democrats also dramatically decreased after tribes engaged Abramoff, indicating that he actively sought to discourage rather than to "direct" donations toward Democrats. Howell's failure to provide this necessary context enabled those with an agenda to make this a bipartisan scandal, when it is nothing of the sort.

After the paper's message boards flooded with comments critical of this nonapology, the Post claimed it was "overwhelmed" by the "hate speech." Not only did editor Jim Brady shut down the online comments section of Howell's article, but he disappeared hundreds of comments registered on the matter in a way that outraged even people who had not participated in the initial Howell controversy.

Online anger grew as Post reporters like Howard Kurtz and Jim VandeHei began publicly lumping all the comments together as "cowardly personal attacks" and "hate speech," making no distinction between the content of legitimate concerns and criticism, and the language of a few angry outbursts. Then the story began to shift, depending on which account you read. According to various Post staffers, it was at first "a dozen" comments that were too shocking for public consumption. Then "fifty." Then "hundreds."

When copies of the comments began re-appearing online and people on both sides of the political spectrum acknowledged that nothing therein rose to the level of "hate speech," it became apparent that the Post was simply thin-skinned and couldn't handle the criticism.

The whining and handwringing on the part of the Post and its delicate-eared employees rendered them ludicrous in the eyes of millions of netizens to whom such interaction is an ordinary occurrence. Political bloggers are used to such strong criticism. The top blogs receive thousands of comments a day and are well-accustomed to the cranky folks who show up just to pick fights. There is even a word for them: trolls.

The reconstructed archives also indicated that the civility rate of the comments was something approaching 99 percent. Realizing that the situation was not just going to blow over, the Post held a moderated online discussion of the matter on Jan. 25 and began restoring many of the comments they had deleted. But the following is an example of those the Post still found so objectionable and laden with "hate speech" that it could not be reposted:

"When one sees $172,933 contributed to Republicans and $0 contributed to Democrats, one can reasonably conclude that your claim that 'the remark in my column Sunday that lobbyist Jack Abramoff gave money to both parties' requires a full retraction."
This is a dangerous path. Equating legitimate criticism of media coverage with "hate speech" is akin to right-wing conservatives calling "unpatriotic" any voice of dissent against the Bush administration's pre-emptive war in Iraq.

A larger issue also got lost in the Post's handy deflection of Howell's mistake into a discussion over whether bloggers are impolite or just plain mean. In the eyes of the online community, the Post's credibility was, and remains, on the ropes. Howell still has not posted a retraction to her original article, something that continues to frustrate her readers and calls into question the Post's commitment to honest reporting.

The fact is that Deborah Howell and the Washington Post were on the receiving end of justified criticism. And while Jim Brady may have been successful in getting Fox News host Bill O'Reilly to believe this was "online terrorism funded by liberal billionaires," people who regularly participate in internet-based political activities know differently.

The Washington Post's effort to silence and blame their critics, rather than hold themselves to higher journalistic standards, has dealt a serious blow to their integrity. It is also a curious strategy for cultivating trust with online readers -- a community that Washington Post chairman Donald Graham has identified as "the future of news."

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