Wednesday, January 25, 2006

We write letters

Sent to Washington Post editor Jim Brady, who just hosted a blogger ethics panel because of the Deborah Howell affair:

Mr. Brady-

I've watched this tempest rage back and forth for the past few days and I must say I think you've missed the most important lesson to be understood. If you allow public comments on your blog, the public is going to comment.

I was a participant in the online world of USENET back when it was only accessible to university students, professors, researchers, and similar professionals who had access through big institutions. All the newsgroups (well, most of them) were filled with high-value posts and lots of excellent, thought-provoking debate went on. Then in the late 80's/early 90's, large public-access companies such as Compuserve and (most notoriously) AOL began providing their subscribers access to our precious newsgroups. Can you imagine the shock and horror we felt as our clean, erudite, oh-so-high-level discourses were suddenly invaded by uneducated, loutish, often unruly members of the hoi polloi who thumbed their noses at our "netiquette" and flamed away however they felt? I think you can: because I am seeing you make the exact same statements with regard to the recent unpleasantness as we made then. How dare they, these ruffians, come in and slander our highly-regarded, experienced, professional reporters and editors? Didn't they learn any manners, why can't they post in a civil way without resorting to invective and profanity?

No, Mr. Brady, they didn't; or rather, they don't choose to. These are the REAL Americans out there. They watch NASCAR, professional wrestling, and Bill O'Reilly, and in their minds when someone says something disagreeable you don't go online and say "I say, with all due respect, I disagree with you"; no, what they have learned to do is say "you're a complete moron, how could anyone be as stupid as you to say what you did, you should be shot as a favor to future generations" and so forth. The general public are simply not interested (note I don't say they are incapable or uneducated) in playing nice with people they disagree with.

So you and the Post are going to have to decide whether you want to allow public comments and just accept that people are going to say whatever they are going to say, or just leave them turned off and accept that you are publicly declaring that journalism is a one-way conversation just as it always has been. Or you can try to find some middle road. But never forget that your readers are not all debate-club members who follow Robert's Rules of Order. In fact, I think you'll find that few of them are.

One comment on the panel today: it was a missed opportunity. By adopting the format you did, it became not so much a panel discussion as a weird sort of mutant Q & A. It wasn't really a discussion at all, and the questions often didn't seem relevant to the theme you wanted to pursue. It failed as a chat because it wasn't really a chat, and it failed as a Q & A because the panelists didn't all get to answer every question. It also failed a bit because you lost your cool with Jane Hamsher when you apparently couldn't answer her technical questions about the deleted posts; but I'm sure you recognize that.

Rob Woodard
Richardson, TX

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