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"The Lowest Comment Denominator"


We’re all about the First Amendment here at The Washington Post, but there has been some debate about the comments we let readers post at the end of stories and blog posts here on the web site. The comments can be vitriolic, to say the least. In 2007, then-Post ombudsman Deborah Howell said the comments “can be raw, racist, sexist and revolting." When one of the subjects of my story came under attack (“What scum,” one reader wrote), I worried in a recent blog post here on Story Lab that the comments might scare off sources.

Now, columnist Gene Weingarten jumps into the comments fray with one of his reader polls (scroll to the third question), asking: “In The Washington Post and other online news sources, should people who file comments to online stories be required to identify themselves?”

As of Tuesday afternoon, 762, or 39 percent, voted Yes; 922, or 47.5 percent, said No. Not a scientific survey, to be sure, but an interesting insight into how a fairly large group of readers--albeit one skewed by its passion for things Gene--regards the issue.

Here’s Gene’s take from his online chat, chatological humor:

"I'm ambivalent about the Comments. I LIKE hearing from the frothing nutcakes -- I think it's both entertaining and illuminating. And I'd be in favor of completely unfettered Comments, except for those that are utterly toxic. The ideal solution is to have nearly instant editing, but it's not practical; it would require a greater commitment of resources than any newspaper could realistically commit these days.

"So, I dunno. I'm torn. The vile stuff is ... vile. It should not see the light of day. When a newspaper allows it up there, it is passively condoning it."

He went on to say that it’s “wrong to read them expecting, say, an elucidation or elaboration or logical refutation of the original article. You must read them as entertainment, and as a way to take the pulse of the lowest comment denominator.”

What do you think? The comments board is below.

By Christian Davenport  | March 24, 2010; 10:12 AM ET
Categories:  Hard choices, Journalism , More on the story  
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Next: Pick of the day: Staying with the big story


The anonymous comment is one of the worst media inventions of all time. It is too easily manipulated. Who knows what person or organization is behind a comment or a flurry of comments? This seriously reduces the credibility of any publication. The anonymous comment is the equivalent of allowing a person to come into a room, level absurd charges, make unfounded statements or demean others without any accountability. That makes no sense anywhere and perhaps especially in a newspaper.

Posted by: mwentzel | March 24, 2010 11:52 AM | Report abuse

Newspapers traditionally required confirmed identification of the authors of letters to the editor and for good reason. It helped maintain civility in the dialogue by requiring people to stand behind what they say.
Now there's no civility and disinformation is the rule.
Signed, John Young, Butte, Montana

Posted by: Butteoid | March 24, 2010 11:58 AM | Report abuse

Anonymity allows for robust dialogue on some very difficult topics. Yes, it can get ugly. But I believe there is more value in knowing what people actually think, even if you don't know who thinks it.

I don't trust those who debate relying upon stigma, propriety and blow-back to referee important arguments.

Debate and democracy lend themselves to demagoguery, friction and offense--yes--but we all hold views, some views, that we wouldn't want published with our name attached. That doesn't make those views invalid, unimportant or deserving of suppression.

Posted by: RealityCheckerInEffect | March 24, 2010 12:16 PM | Report abuse

The anonymous online comment is not a media invention. It dates from the early days of the Web when users insisted on anonymity. However, I believe that the Internet has now outgrown the customs imposed by the early adopters (and I was one) and it's time to adjust to the fact that this is now a mass medium, where normal societal standards prevail. That means using real names.

Posted by: psullivan1 | March 24, 2010 12:36 PM | Report abuse

There can be vigorous debate and intense disagreement without use of vile, ugly, debasing, irrelevant personal attacks. Cowards hide behind anonymity to make childish personal attacks. Someone yesterday said he wanted to drink gallons of beer and piss on Ted Kennedy's grave in response to a poignant item about the Senator on the day his health care dream was realized. The Post condones this type of uncivilized attack by printing it.

Posted by: ChrisBlackx | March 24, 2010 12:49 PM | Report abuse

The problem I have with anonymous comments is the same I have with political ads (typically on TV) produced by ambiguously named organizations that do not properly identify who is really behind them. First Amendment free speech rights should come with the responsibility to openly identify yourself when making statements or taking sides.

Posted by: DonJacobson | March 24, 2010 12:56 PM | Report abuse

Newspapers need to start taking responsibility for the conversations they enable and the platform they provide.

Message board posters have always been a small percentage of a website's users. Most of us ignore the comments or read them for their entertainment value.

That's because informed, intelligent and thoughtful comments are rare, even on the Washington Post's boards.

Turning your back to "raw, racist sexist and revolting" comments in the name of free speech or under the pretense of keeping an eye on these people is a complete betrayal of the enormous power the First Amendment has given you. It is also inconsistent with the role you wish to play in the community.

Hate speech, as so many have said before me, is not free speech.

I agree that we should use this platform to interact with each other in ways that were previously impossible. But the newspaper has a duty to moderate that conversation and to vigorously enforce reasonable standards that eliminate extremists who add nothing to the discussion but lies, hate, fear and prejudice.

Requiring users to post with their real names would go a long way toward improving the situation. John Hancock had a radical opinion. He signed his name in big bold letters. He didn't hide behind a screen name like "True Patriot" or "Elmer Fudd."

Posted by: fhschecker1 | March 24, 2010 1:09 PM | Report abuse

Hiding behind the cloak of anonymity to spew hatred is the mark of a coward. Requiring such people to identify themselves would make them no less cowardly, after all; Beck, Limbaugh, Palin et al are identified and are still cowards.

Posted by: fpitz76 | March 24, 2010 1:27 PM | Report abuse

The media aren't helping with this, in more ways than one.
Case in point: This story starts with the obligatory "We’re all about the First Amendment here at The Washington Post." Problem is, of course, that the First Amendment addresses government censorship - it's got nothing to do with what a newspaper decides to publish or not to publish, and it certainly doesn't create an inalienable "right" for people to spew on your Web site whatever idiocy happens to be crossing their mind at the moment, anonymously to boot. If the Washington Post believes that allowing more voices is intrinsically a good thing, please argue the point on its merits without dragging the Constitution into it: You're perfectly within your legal rights to refuse to publish any of this garbage.

Posted by: jpecquet | March 24, 2010 5:04 PM | Report abuse

Anonymous comments are truly vile. I encourage all commenters to just say no to anonymity, and instead use a fake name like I do.

Posted by: mark16 | March 24, 2010 9:15 PM | Report abuse

A person who is unwilling to identify him or herself is already ashamed of what he or she is saying. The opinion has no value and does not deserve to be displayed.

Posted by: mitchc2 | March 25, 2010 9:01 AM | Report abuse

I find it ironic that every comment except for RealityCheckerInEffect (and maybe mark16, I'm not sure if he is being sarcastic) calls for the end of anonymous comments, and yet the only person willing to use their own name has been John Young of Butte Montana.

Comments are often so vulgar and ignorant that they destroy the credibility of the writer, but that is to the writer's own detriment. As soon as someone attaches their own name to a comment, I am going to take them ten times more seriously, but not everyone is ready or willing to do that. People should be encouraged to attach their names to their comments, but not forced to.

P.S. I appreciated the comment by jpecquet, making the distinction between governmental censorship and private media censorship. I think you hit on a largely held misconception regarding free speech in our country.

David Mayer, Portland OR

Posted by: DavidMayer | March 25, 2010 12:58 PM | Report abuse

It has been a long standing policy from almost every print medium that letters to the editor or opinions must contain the person's name and most, if not all, publishers reserve the right to refuse to publish some letters.
If online media hope to maintain the same reputation and level of credibility that it has in print form, the same journalistic standards need to be upheld. That includes identification of reader comments.
D.Shearer St.Louis MO

Posted by: DDSSTLMO | March 29, 2010 10:21 PM | Report abuse

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