Mooning the blogosphere

I thought they got it. Now I’m not so sure.

Just as the duststorm over shutting down the comments on the Washington Post blog had settled down, Jim Brady, editor of, decided to stir the shit and to do it from the mighty pulpit of the Post in print.

He moons the blogosphere.

Three-quarters of the way through the piece, Brady does spend three paragraphs (starting with, “Personally…”) giving a good description of the positive relationship between the press and blogs, but he spends the rest of the piece whining about every unpleasant thing that happened to him in the ombudstink.

This is not productive. It’s him telling the world how nasty and mean bloggers can be and were to him. Of course, there’s no saying how many of the 27.9 million blogs roughed him up on the playground. And there’s also no saying how many of the people who left playground epithets in his comments were, indeed, bloggers. By not naming the culprits who roughed him up, Brady also makes it seem as if they were somehow representative of more. He acknowledges that these were the comments of the few. So then, what makes them so newsworthy?

If you can’t stand the heat, Jim, get out of the pressroom.

You’d think that newsmen were tough, but the truth is that as a breed, they’re crybabies. They are used to dishing it out but not taking it. Oh, sure, they may be defter at the dishing. But ask any civilian who has ever been criticized or misrepresented in print how it feels. They don’t get a page of the Post to wail about it.

When the going gets tough, the reflex of the big-media guys is to retreat behind a roll of paper and whine about those people out there. Those people, otherwise known as the public they supposedly want to serve. Those people, also known as us.

I’m not sure why Brady did it. Perhaps this was his sop to the print newsroom people who have been pissing and moaning about those mean bloggers. Perhaps he wanted his own revenge, big time. But it’s unbecoming. Brady sinks to the whiny level of those he dislikes as if to say, “Oh, yeah, well, same to you, buddy!” Yes, that helps.

I’ll amend what I said in my advice to the Post on interactivity with a change of venue:

Too many people judge interactivity by the worst of it, which is rather like refusing to visit New York Washington because you hear there are a few assholes there. This, I think, comes mostly from people who wish they could dismiss interactivity, and the internet and blogs with it. Sorry, but interactivity — and New York Washington — are here to stay.

Brady took to the pages of the Post to concentrate not on the best of his experience online but the worst. He mentions a chat about this incident in which I participated but he concentrates only one his pissing match with a blogger there, making it seem as if this represented the quality of the interaction. He is the representative of online at the Washington Post and this is the face he puts on interactivity with the public. What he thinks that accomplishes, I don’t know.

: LATER: Says a blog with a long title:

Deborah Howell said something that made people angry. In the past those people might have written a letter to the editor. (We all know how often those get printed.) They might have grumbled to their friends at the bar. H*ll, they might have used the newspaper to wipe their a**. But now they have a place to say something.

(In other words, people were questioning the size and effectiveness of your genitalia in the past, Brady. You just couldn’t hear them.)

The magic of democractic participation. You can say stupid things when you’re angry that make you look like an idiot. G-d bless America.

:David Crisp says in the comments that I’m offbase:

…he blogosphere has taken what was once a small fraction of public feedback and magnified it a million times. Even the most thoughtful bloggers frequently have comment threads full of the worst kind of filth and abuse — most of it anonymous and without even the cooling-off period that finding a stamp and envelope requires.

It’s a problem the blogosphere will have to deal with if it’s going to grow up.

I reply:

And how do you propose we “deal with” that? How about ignoring the anonymous assholes and paying attention to the many people who have something worthwhile to say and judging the public and its interactivity on that basis instead of the one on which Brady would have his readers judge it?…

: Dan Gillmor says Brady is overly defensive:

Now, stop whining about it.

Brady points out, correctly, that the Abramoff scandal’s unveiling is due in large part to the Post’s own reporting: brilliant and dogged tracking of this sleazy activity that should make the paper proud. But he doesn’t acknowledge that the Post’s online arm enabled the hate-fest by not making its comment system more robust and less prone to gaming. (He knows about the problem, having told me so in a recent email.) Brady somewhat undermines his complaints with this omission.

Traditional news organizations are learning how to deal with the kind of harsh feedback that bloggers get every day. A thicker skin helps, but better is a willingness to truly listen.

I think the Post is doing better online than all but a handful of other newspapers. It can do better yet.
: Kos says Brady digs the hole deeper by saying that Abramoff directed clients to contribute to both parties and asks for the reporting to badk that up.

  • Great post – my favorite line is how he complains about what is ‘so crude as to be unprintable in a family newspaper’. Nobody in my family reads ‘a newspaper’ – especially my kids. On the rare occasion when I bring one home (usually after getting off an airplane because I wasn’t able to get online) my kids look at it like those 33 1/3 albums I have stored in the basement.

  • kat

    The MSM is having a hard time giving up control of what what we should or should not hear or read. Blogs don’t print the politically correct version of the news, they try to get at the truth. It is as difficult for MSM as it is to Pravda to give up the controlling of minds and instilling in minds the MSM version of events. The cartoon thing was an excellent example. We were told we must respect islam while being told Christianity and Judaism were fair game as the NYT dealt with the events by posting Mary made of elephant poop and CNN showed highly offensive cartoons regarding Jews, all the time being told over and over again that we must respect islam and not say anything against poobah. We must not think for ourselves, but accept the MSM as the gospel truth. Interactivity dares question the media mullahs.

  • I think you are way off base here. Brady points to a real and damaging problem: the extraordinarily low and abusive quality of discourse in the blogosphere. It isn’t true that newsmen aren’t used to taking it. Criticism comes with the territory, and you can’t survive if you can’t live with it.

    But news people apply a deep discount to anonymous comments: the people who send in unsigned letters or won’t identify themselves over the phone. That always has been the nastiest and least rational feedback. Lots of news people won’t even read unsigned letters; I always read mine, but I don’t think I’ve ever learned anything helpful from one.

    The blogosphere has taken what was once a small fraction of public feedback and magnified it a million times. Even the most thoughtful bloggers frequently have comment threads full of the worst kind of filth and abuse — most of it anonymous and without even the cooling-off period that finding a stamp and envelope requires.

    It’s a problem the blogosphere will have to deal with if it’s going to grow up.

  • kat

    That’s kind of a double standard. The media is beneath listening to anonymous people, yet constantly uses ‘anonymous sources’ to promote a story. I’m supposed to trust the media and accept their anonymous sources, no questions asked? I have news for the media–I apply a deep discount to their so-called anonymous sources…the people who give damaging info to the media, but refuse to be identified.

  • And how do you propose we “deal with” that? How about ignoring the anonymous assholes and paying attention to the many people who have something worthwhile to say and judging the public and its interactivity on that basis instead of the one on which Brady would have his readers judge it? In Brady’s own chat, there was lots of good interaction but he ignores that and doesn’t tell his readers (including those in the newsroom) about it but only concentrates on his juvenile pissing match with one blogger. That’s not what I would call “dealing with” it.

  • Gray

    100% ack, Jeff. After all, Brady says, wants to “open up the Post Web site to its readers”, they “launched more than 30 blogs” and “added links to related blogs”. And it sure pays off. They have lotzs of responses from readers and blogs. But it isn’t a dialogue yet, since the post doesn’t answer in Internet real time to the valid points readers and bloggers post. In fact, this led to the negative feelings about the ombudsstink. And to add insult to injury, Brady concentrates post debacle on blaming the rotten apples among the readers, not giving a single encouraging word to those who posted their opinion in a civilized and respectful manner.

    Well, I didn’t participate in the ‘Abramoff’ thread, but in the earlier ‘Froomkin’ outburst. And I feel p***ed that Brady is playing the blame game instead of improving the WaPo interactive experience. They need better software with filters (hmm, but not your filter, Jeff, you know what I think), Mods that will be i charge of the threads 24/7, and a new culture of accountability on valid critic raised by the readers. This online world requires another type of journalist, every sentence and wording matters because it may be used in political arguments. H.L. Mencken (who has been quite ‘liberal’ with the truth, I heard), wouldn’t be able to keep his job for 3 months nowadays. These are the demanding, but viable tasks Brady and WaPo are facing. A guy with “10 years spent in online media” should know when to concentrate on the issues and come over the setbacks of yesterday, no matter how insulting they have been. To stir up the discussion again and again, even when it’s damaging for the company, simply isn’t a sign of the professionalism that’s needed for the job.

  • Kat, You are quite right to discount anonymous sources in news stories, but that isn’t quite the same thing. The identities of anonymous sources are at least known to those doing the reporting, and their information presumably has been checked out. But there is no question that those stories deserve extra skepticism.

    Jeff, it’s a good question, and I don’t know the answer, but I don’t think it’s possible to just ignore the assholes. For one thing, a lot of thoughtful people won’t comment if they know they can expect at any moment to be dismissed as idiots and morons. Call them wimps and wussies if you will, but they just won’t do it.

    I don’t know that Brady ignored the good interaction; it just didn’t happen to be the topic of his column. And that’s the thing about the anonymous jerks: They drag down the tone of the whole discussion. Even my tiny blog gets overrun, no matter how I try to monitor it and admonish offenders.

    Maybe there’s a technological fix, but I think anonymity is the culprit. People who can hide behind a cloak will say things they would never have the guts to say in person or with their name attached.

  • David,
    You ask another very good question, which is how to not just ignore the asses but elevate the level of discourse. I get asked that all the time. And my advice is generally to enter in. If Deb Howell had come into the comments herself (and also just responded in a more timely manner) people would have had to treat her as a person. In a sense, she was the anonymous one and so they treated her as a commodity. I’m not justifying that, just talking about human behavior. When you face a bully, people tend to cool down. When you ignore an angry person, he gets more angry.
    As for Davids column, that is just my point: He picked the wrong subject. He threw the spotlight on the assholes when it would have been far more productive for all constituencies to throw it onto the intelligent, civilized, helpful members of the Post community. He devalued the entire community doing that. And that is not productive.

  • So, he devalued the Post community throwing “the spotlight on the assholes.” Do perhaps “the assholes” have some responsibility for devaluing that community as well? Or is it all the fault of those that control the site for even pointing out their existence?

    You seem to think they should simply be ignored, and focus on the “good guys.”

    Yet you used to get all bent out of shape and delete people who used the F-word in your comments. You pointed them out and said it wasn’t acceptable because it might get your site blocked by filters in some locations.

    It was your right to control your site in that manner. Pity the Post doesn’t seem to have the same rights.

  • Since blogs are a return to the days of pamphleteering, on my own blog I have suggested a return to the way these kinds of problems were handled in those days: dueling. People would be a lot nicer if they knew they might have to face a loaded pistol at dawn.

  • Great point! msm – they hate transperancy and oversight – directed at them. Originator of communication field, Paul Lazasfeld said in 1948 that media considers criticism to be vital to our democratic system, but hate criticism when it’s directed at them… the old guy is still right today when he called it “institutional disease”…

  • The story behind the brouhaha is fascinating, as well, that the ‘shared guilt’ which Howell claimed in Abramff’s largesse never existed, and yet in each new edition of the story the wapo ombudsman insists on it. The infuriated response was to the inaccuracy – Dems got no contribs from Abramoff, and ‘directing’ contribs to Dems as claimed in Sunday’s edition, would hardly have resulted in reduced funds to them, which actually happened – AN INACCURACY which continues from one version to the next. Why insist on reasoned response, when the basis of the story is insistently wrong. This does strike me as seeking to instigate reader rudeness.

  • I’ve been sitting back and observing this whole thing–since I also got the crap flamed out of me–and I think Brady’s simply trying to understand it all. He might even be trying to understand why so many people would feel the need to resort to the kinds of comments they did.

    But, Jeff, your right that his focus on the negative doesn’t do anything to elevate discourse out here. And he keeps calling the negative people “bloggers” when he has no way to verify if they are indeed other bloggers (the Post has no verification features). It kind of smarts to hear how the anonymous fools, who may not be bloggers at all, continue to get some sort of recognition, when the folks who are bloggers, who probably tried to reach out and have meaningful dialogue, were glossed over. The idea of Transparency should be reciprocal if there’s going to be meaningful dialogue

  • I’m constantly stunned at how smart people make this stuff more complicated than it is. Want community of respectable people? Want to cut down on trolls? Try the 80/20 rule. Spike the anonymity. Period. Force people to speak with their own name and identity – and 80% of the trash goes away.

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