Washington Post Blog Shuts Off Comments

The Washington Post shut down comments on their blog yesterday [The Post has a blog? -ed. Apparently.] after the shocking discovery that many people on the Internet are less than civil:

As of 4:15 p.m. ET today, we have shut off comments on this blog indefinitely.

At its inception, the purpose of this blog was to open a dialogue about this site, the events of the day, the journalism of The Washington Post Company and other related issues. Among the things that we knew would be part of that discussion would be the news and opinion coming from the pages of The Washington Post and washingtonpost.com. We knew a lot of that discussion would be critical in nature. And we were fine with that. Great journalism companies need feedback from readers to stay sharp.

But there are things that we said we would not allow, including personal attacks, the use of profanity and hate speech. Because a significant number of folks who have posted in this blog have refused to follow any of those relatively simple rules, we’ve decided not to allow comments for the time being. It’s a shame that it’s come to this. Transparency and reasoned debate are crucial parts of the Web culture, and it’s a disappointment to us that we have not been able to maintain a civil conversation, especially about issues that people feel strongly (and differently) about.

We’re not giving up on the concept of having a healthy public dialogue with our readers, but this experience shows that we need to think more carefully about how we do it. Any thoughtful feedback on that (or any other issue) is welcome, and you can send it to ex**************@wa************.com

Not surprisingly, they were flooded with emails and posted a lengthy response at 7 p.m., noting that they are in fact engaged in very open dialogue, including starting bunches of blogs and even linking to some blogs not owned by the Washington Post company! Also,

The reason that people were not routinely seeing the problematic posts I mentioned were that we were trying to remove them as fast as we could in order to preserve the reasoned arguments many others were making. We removed hundreds of these posts over the past few days, and it was becoming a significant burden on us to try and keep the comments area free of profanity and name-calling. So we eventually chose to turn off comments until we can come up with a better way to handle situations like this, where we have a significant amount of people who refuse to abide by the rules we set out.

Matt Stoler has a parody of this post explaining why he has turned off comments at MyDD.

As I have often noted in the past, blog comments sections get proportionally less civil as the number of comments and/or the popularity of the site grows. Even leaving aside bulletin board sites like Free Republic or Democratic Underground, almost all of the high traffic sites that still have comments long ago degenerated into the equivalent of Usenet. Take a look around at DailyKos or Little Green Footballs, for example. This is even on sites where the site authors themselves maintain a civil tone. See Political Animal, for example. Quite a few of the high profile sites long ago did away with comments altogether.

The only sites that I’ve seen escape this trend are those who attract mostly a specialized audience. Crooked Timber and, more recently, The Volokh Conspiracy are examples. By focusing on pure analysis, often of non-controversial topics, they have managed to maintain a much higher tone in their comments.

Spam filters, comments registration, moderation queues and other technical means can help police comments but, as WaPo’s editors discovered, that’s a lot of work. The bottom line, I think, is that a blog either has comments–which may well degenerate into crap–or it doesn’t.

As an aside, I should note that it is not just Right-leaning types that prefer order in their comment sections. Kevin Drum lamented the sad state of his own comment section in September 2003 and Noam Chomsky closed the comment section on his blog within the first day.

Update: Executive Editor Jim Brady had an online discussion on this topic today at noon.

Cache Valley, Utah: if ya can’t stand the heat…

Publish partisan lies and not expect a backlash? Get real pal!!!

Fire that f***ing b**** forthwith and all’s well that ends well, no? Otherwise, batten down the hatches, pal, ’cause there’s a storm a brewin’ and it’s gonna be nasty.

Respectfully yours.

Jim Brady: Afternoon, thanks for all your questions (well, maybe not this one). But I wanted to start with it to make a point that this was the kind of stuff we spent all week cleaning out of our message boards (except there were no asterisks). And when the amount of time it took to ferret these kind of posts out exceeded the bandwidth we could devote to it, we decided to close commenting on post.blog down. Now, on to some intelligent questions, of which there were many.

Heh. And most of the rest of the discussion is, indeed, more intelligent.

NYT’s Katharine Seelye points out that,

The closing was the second time in recent months that a major newspaper has stopped accepting feedback from readers in a Web forum. An experiment in allowing the public to edit editorials in The Los Angeles Times lasted just two days in June before it was shut because pornographic material was being posted on the site.

Yep. What’s amazing is that thousands of amateurs, running blogs in their spare time, somehow manage to handle what full-time professional journalists seemingly can not.

Update (1/21) Glenn Reynolds, who maintains an incredibly successful comment-free blog, observes, “It’s hard for me to get very exercised about this. Given the Post’s addition of technorati links to many of their stories, they’re in a better position than most to say ‘the blogosphere is our comment section.’ And, you know, it is.”

Jim Romanesko believes this is par for the course:

The Internet is global, folks! You can’t ask for civility. You can’t expect it. If you have an open forum, you’ll get “goatse” (don’t ask if you don’t know what that is). If you have a forum that requires registration via email, people will create fake addresses at Yahoo or Gmail to post vandalism or vitriol. If you require more severe forms of proof of identity, you restrict the amount of participation.

There’s no way to ensure a civil forum without moderation, and that moderation will always be second-guessed, whether it’s collaborative like Slashdot or an iron fist of a company employee making arbitrary or non-arbitrary judgements.

There is no way to ask for civility on the Internet while maintaining the
maximum participation.

Both are quite right. The old adage, “My house, my rules” applies, of course. Proprietors of Web sites are free to delete comments, ban commenters, or do away with comments altogether. Those irritated at the removal of their grafitti wall will exercise their freedom to bitch about it elsewhere.

Update (1/23): Catching up on my RSS feeds, I see that Michael J. Totten closed off his comments the same day that the Post did. For essentially the same reasons.



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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Bithead says:

    As a matter of course, I imagine that some of this falls into a discussion about what constitutes reasonable debate. The definition of that seems to depend on what blog you’re on. What passes for reasonable on Kos’ blog, may not here, as an example. OTOH, I don’t consder Kos to be reasonable, either. Or sane, for that matter.

    When I opened up comments on my own blog, I did so cautiously. I was ready to turn them back off quickly, I assure you. However, as it turns out, I’ve been blessed with quality readers as have most of the blogs I’m a regular on…. this one included.

    One thing that troubles me, in the WaPo’s writeup, is their editing out ‘hate speech’. That strikes me as a value judgement, and constitutes not reflecting opinion, but bending it…. soemthing they’ve been accused of often enough as regards their “news” content. If the trends follow from one content to the other, what we have here is an MSM trying to bend public opinion and finding out it’s more of a job than they bargained for.

  2. Herb says:

    I read the blogs on a daily basis. I find them most interesting and sometimes informative. I also watch the news on a daily basis and the same applys, interesting and sometimes informative. The comments ARE the blog for the average everyday person. Where else does the average person have the opportunity to “blow off a little steam”. Without the comments, I most likely would not bother to read the blogs. Most of the time I learn of news items on the local and national TV news and follow through with the blog sites. The attraction to the blogs are the comments, good or bad, and without them, a blog site is usually “old news” of little intrest to most.

    On OTB, there are comments that just p you off and some that you agree with, but most comments here are very civil in spite of the vast array of different opinions.

  3. James Joyner says:

    I’ve got a few regular commenters that engage in more ad hominem than I’d like but mostly they’re reasonable enough. For whatever reason though, I don’t attract as many comments as other blogs with similar traffic levels.

  4. Jonk says:

    I have always enjoyed the level of participation here. I hope it can continue without devolving into the usual you find on the internet.

  5. Andy Vance says:

    WaPoNI should have seen this coming a mile off. The lefty bloggers’ fuse was lit with the Froomkin Flap, and it was they who organized the pitchfork brigade to hunt down Howell.

    Rather than pull up the drawbridge – which will only lead to more resentment – I’d invite a proxy to represent the mob. Brad DeLong would be perfect.

    WaPoNI claims to understand the blogosphere, but they’re missing a big opportunity. Can you imagine what kind of traffic a DeLong-Howell online showdown would draw? They could charge admission.

  6. Ron says:

    This is even on sites where the site authors themselves maintain a civil tone. See Political Animal, for example.
    While I would agree that Kevin maintains a civil tone in his posts, I believe they are slanted to draw the extreme left. They are certainly successful at drawing the extreme left, whether intended or not.

    I defend that as follows: Kevin used to have basically as large of following as he has now, but the atmosphere of the comment section has degenerated drastically as he became less inclined to present both sides of an argument. At the same time, other moderate and moderate-left blogs have been able to maintain a civil atmosphere in their comment section. Kevin’s posts, while civil, draw the type of commenter that has allowed his comment section to become what it is.

    He still does a fine job of presenting a reasoned, liberal view; but he no longer provides any indication that a sane alternative view is available. This, I suspect, is what has drawn the extreme left; to get their worldview reinforced.

    Or maybe I’m all wet.

    To the WaPost thing, high profile sites are high profile targets. And, it seems to me that successful bloggers would have to adapt to maintain any type of control over their comment section. The WaPost is used to force feeding news, not working with news consumers.

    Given Kevin’s problem, and the WaPost’s problem, I have to applaud blogs with civil comment sections.

  7. G A PHILLIPS says:

    Dang, seeing that every word i type is almost always taken as hate speech they would have never even known i had tried to BLOG there.I learned a lot about “hate speech” anybody Know what happened to that thing called “free speech” or is that just more “hate speech”.please help me i am lost again,help me,quick somebody get Randell the Great. p.s. sorry Randell just trying to have a little fun,or was that like “hate fun” ?

  8. Herb says:


    While you may not get as many comments as other blogs, your site seems to attract those who have a very real appreciation for your content and style. One thing you might consider is, “No news is good news”. fewer comments should be taken as a compliment and a sign that most agree with the content of your posts.

  9. In other words, WaPo is telling its more annoying commenters that they’re free to spout off… on their own blog.

  10. jim says:

    Here’s the archived copy of the posts on the Post, before they were deleted.


    I know, I know, it’s DU; but they didn’t make it up. Jim Brady, the Posts’ editor, has already admitted that these were deleted. Perhaps some other posts showed ‘profanity’ and ‘hate speech’. But these posts don’t show that. So why were these posts deleted?

    The only reasonable explanation is that they utterly shattered Howell’s lame excuses for even lamer reporting. And the Post just couldn’t handle seeing their own ombudsman spanked in public like that.

    So, I think that a larger question than the ‘dealing with profanity in comments’ issue, is the question of a media outlet’s commitment to truth, and the ability to engage in the exploration of truth.

    Everyone on the internet, including the Post, has every right to deny readers the opportunity to blog on their own site, for any reason. But if the Post, as a newspaper, has a commitment to truth and accuracy, they have nothing to fear from the rich two-way dialogue that commenting makes possible.

    And the fact that they would shut down such an exchange, when their ombudsman is clearly at fault, indicates the Posts’ lack of commitment to telling the truth.