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Setting a High Bar for Vitriolic Comments

By Andy Alexander

The announcement early today of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s death late Tuesday prompted an outpouring of grief and sympathy -- along with the predictable vitriolic online comments that are now commonplace when a controversial public figure passes away.

The Post anticipated them. Raju Narisetti, the managing editor who oversees the Web site, conferred with others at about 3 a.m. and decided to set the bar high in allowing critical comments.

“The decision was made that on things about Chappaquiddick and those kinds of things, because he was a polarizing figure, we’d let those be,” Narisetti said. By mid-afternoon, about 200 had been deleted for violating The Post’s rules on inappropriate comments. Narisetti said several especially “offensive, ugly” remarks were about Kennedy’s cancer diagnosis.

But a great many critical comments remained, even those especially venomous.

“Mary Jo Kopechne CAN FINALLY REST IN PEACE!. Ted Kennedy was a murderer and a pathetic drunk,” wrote “xinunus,” referring to the 1969 incident in which Kennedy drove off a bridge on Massachusetts’ Chappaquiddick Island. It was hours before Kennedy, who escaped the submerged car, reported the accident in which Kopechne, a young aide, drowned.

“Only in America could a drunken bum rape a woman, kill her, and be remembered as a great man,” wrote “scudderi.”

“OhTheHumanity,” alluding to Kennedy’s battles with alcohol, wrote: “Flags are at Half Mast at the Jack Daniels Distilleries today,” adding that “20 workers (had) to be laid off due to the predicted slump in sales.”

One commenter wrote: "They are going to have to bury him in a secret location to stop people from defecating on his grave."

The Post’s Web site was not alone in allowing cruel comments.

A commenter on WTOP.com wrote: “I hope he rots in hell. Drunken murderer sucking on the teat of his trust fund.”

USA TODAY's Web site carried this comment: “Ted Kennedy was a worthless murderer. Nothing more, nothing less. The world is a better place with him six feet under.”

Web sites often struggle with where to draw the line on questionable comments. Hal Straus, who oversees commenting for The Post, urged leeway in an e-mail to various newsroom editors shortly before 9 a.m.

“Decisions on what to remove are made on a case-by-case basis and are often tricky,” he wrote, adding that “while we’ll work to remove over-the-top and profane personal attacks, we won’t aim to scrub the threads of criticism of Sen. Kennedy’s widely publicized and discussed personal failings or criticisms of his political positions.”

To do so, Straus wrote, “could be widely interpreted as evidence of political bias on our part.” Straus later wrote me: “My mention of bias wasn’t prompted by specific complaints. It’s a bedrock moderation principle for us that I thought was applicable.”

A few commenters did complain that The Post had not been as vigilant in monitoring online remarks that were critical of former President Ronald Reagan following his death in 2004.

Narisetti, who joined The Post earlier this year, said there might have been less scrutiny of online comments in the aftermath of Reagan’s death, perhaps because the level of malevolence wasn’t as predictable then. “My sense is that over the last year or two people have come to expect what might happen” with online comments when a divisive public figure dies.

By midday, the comments praising Kennedy seemed to outnumber those critical of him on The Post's site. And as is typical, a number of comments decried those who offered malicious assessments of Kennedy.

“I am absolutely sickened by all of the hateful comments being left by people,” wrote “ecummins82.” Kennedy was “by no means a saint,” but “who are any of you to judge him?”

“Obamaforprez” added: “Reading comments is like cleaning out the refrigerator; you know the milk is sour but you still have to smell it. Why do I come here and allow myself to be disgusted by the stench of opinions of the far right and left. Freedom of speech has taken on a whole new level, it seems mature discussions have taken a backseat to hatred, insults, partism [sic], and sheer madness. If the comments here represent us as a nation of people then we are without a doubt in big trouble.”

By Andy Alexander  | August 26, 2009; 2:52 PM ET
 
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Comments

While I vigorously support the rights of Americans to say what they want to, I cannot get behind the Post editors' decision to "raise the bar" on the venom and filth they permitted in online responses to Senator Kennedy's death. For the Post to permit such ugliness on the death of a well-loved if controversial statesman is not a defense of free speech but a pandering to the basest instincts of angry humans.

Indeed, every American should be able to stand on a street corner and give an opinion in whatever terms he/she wishes, as long as there is no harm done to passersby. But that right doesn't include venting online in national newspapers. Certainly, people can write any comments they wish, but their rights do not include a guarantee that the Washington Post will print them.

In the same way that newspaper editors in the old days (when newspapers were actually paper) would cull selections from the batches of letters-to-the-editor they received, editors of today's online newspapers have the right -- and, in fact, the obligation -- to reject messages that are hateful, defamatory, or just plain mean.

The Post editors needed to exercise judgment and responsibility here. They could have balanced their decision to omit particularly vile comments with an explanation to readers, but even that shouldn't be necessary.

Allowing such a hatefest to go forward may relieve the Post editors of the bias charge (which seems to have been their primary concern), but basic human decency demands setting aside the reputation of the paper and focusing on

Posted by: kjohnson3 | August 26, 2009 4:13 PM | Report abuse

Oops -- hit the submit buttom a moment too soon!

That final paragraph should read:

Allowing such a hatefest to go forward may relieve the Post editors of the bias charge (which seems to have been their primary concern), but basic human decency demands setting aside the reputation of the paper and focusing on their obligations to the larger society.

Posted by: kjohnson3 | August 26, 2009 4:16 PM | Report abuse

"A few commenters did complain that The Post had not been as vigilant in monitoring online remarks that were critical of former President Ronald Reagan following his death in 2004.

Narisetti, who joined The Post earlier this year, said there might have been less scrutiny of online comments in the aftermath of Reagan’s death, perhaps because the level of malevolence wasn’t as predictable then."

This passage made me laugh. You couldn't have predicted a "level of malevolence" toward President Reagan?

Posted by: DexterW | August 26, 2009 6:37 PM | Report abuse

Sadly, this is another indication of the coursening of our society as a whole. People are now encouraged to hate, be disruptive, and disregard what heretofore were considered the absolute minimum standards of behavior. That Mr. Kennedy was not perfect in his life (who is?) should not be a reason to behave or speak in such a vile and vulgar manner, which I note, is done almost entirely anonymously. May the senator rest in peace and his family and friends find solace.

Posted by: cgindc | August 26, 2009 7:49 PM | Report abuse

I believe the entire Washington Post message board experiment has been a fiasco. I knew today would be bad so I did not bother to read. But the day to day threats and hate speech from one citizen to another is beyond compare. First Amendment aside, no one has the right to yell fire in a crowded movie theater. And just because the internet gives you a nom de plume, does not give you the right to incite hate.

Posted by: mstov | August 26, 2009 8:19 PM | Report abuse

"By mid-afternoon, about 200 had been deleted for violating The Post's rules on inappropriate comments."

[sarcasm]What great defenders of free speech [/sarcasm].

Notice how the media think it's ok to monitor and regulate speech when it's things they don't like or don't want to hear....

Posted by: member5 | August 26, 2009 11:56 PM | Report abuse

Hugh Christopher Newsom, Jr., 23, and Channon Gail Christian, 21, were a couple from Knoxville, Tennessee. According to a Tennessee grand jury, they were both raped and murdered after being kidnapped early on the morning of January 7, 2007. Their vehicle had been carjacked.

This story is so horrible, yet so few know about it. The media has shown no real coverage of the case. This innocent young couple was tortured, raped, and murdered... their story should be told.

Posted by: tennsmile | August 27, 2009 12:35 AM | Report abuse


I second the thoughts so eloquently expressed by kjohnson3. As a frequent visitor to the boards, I was shocked by the lack of restraint shown by many of the posters and deemed acceptable by the editorial staff of a major national newspaper.

I have enjoyed participating, but since my further participation could only be construed as condoning this type of behavior, this will be my last post. Good luck to all.

Posted by: jack824 | August 27, 2009 4:18 AM | Report abuse

Excuse me pls, but a moderation that leaves this comment in place, despite it certainly have been "reported", isn't woth its name:
"Ted Kennedy was total TRASH until Orrin Hatch and Victoria Reggie straightened his slothenly buttocks out." (by nobama2012, 8/26/2009 5:50:03 PM)
And that after allegedly cleaning up this closed thread! Outrageous.

Btw, the thread you linked wasn't the only one on Kennedy, there's another one that has more than 1000 comments now and is still open. I'm gonna look if the moderation worked on that at all.

Posted by: Gray62 | August 27, 2009 4:38 AM | Report abuse

Ok, I now checked about 3-4 pages out of 51 of that other thread with 1000 comments, to which I already pointed yesterday:
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/08/26/AR2009082600063_Comments.html#none

That's what I found:

please put a price tag on all those wonderful things you credit this liberal pig of doing ... he helped the will nots and the lazy worthless slime of America

PEOPLE OF MASS YOU ARE ALL IDIOTS AND SAPS!

SOUNDS MORE LIKE OBAMA"S APPROVAL RATINGS..A TIRD GOING DOWN THE TOLIET! ... btw you need to put that bottle down

You can put everything he 'accomplished' in a list, he's still a rotten, rotten, person and can rot in hell.

The man was garbage and came from a family of trash. ... Good riddance to bad rubbish!
God is running his own 'Cash For Clunkers' I see. ... Pissah!!

Ted the Murdering Partisan Sot was the icon of Socialism.

LOL..... MORE LIKE THE NIGHTMARE IS ALMOST OVER ONE LESS KENNEDY!

Good riddance another dead Kennedy! America is a little safer today!

Make room Robert and John..you're drunken deadbeat American hating murdering brother is coming over to Arlington, what a disgrace!

And this after Straus and his team allegeldy did "work to remove over-the-top and profane personal attacks"? Excuse me pls, if this isn't "over the top", what is? WaPo would NEVER allow letters containing such stuff to get into the print edition, so why is the online publication held to another standard? This doesn't make any sense. The same standard for both print and online, and enforce it! This is a shame for the Post, and imho both Narisetti and Straus should resign. they made WaPo look worse like most blogs, and this should have consequences.

Btw, those are only the worst examples, of course. If you take the comment rule seriously (Comments that include profanity or personal attacks or other inappropriate comments or material will be removed from the site) about a third of the comments should have been deleted, and another third is totally off topic. And I'm sure the horrible impression all those stupid, hateful, and insulting rants left on many readers resulted in many not posting their reasonable thoughts there. We only have to look at the threads at NYT to see how the discussion could have looked like instead with serious moderation. A wasted chance.

Posted by: Gray62 | August 27, 2009 5:41 AM | Report abuse

One more point: WHY did Narisetti have to have a conferrance in the middle of the night about the moderation issue? The guideline for comments is clear, and hasn't changed for a long time. The problem is that Mr. Straus and his moderators are not enforcing those rules, but act according to another guideline which focusses on the misguided idea that freedom of speech means the freedom to get everything published at WaPo, no matter how stupid, insulting or hateful! Well, if the management wants to support this, its their decision. But then, they should change the smallprint under the comment field so that it accurately reflects the new standard of "everything is allowed".

This situation doesn't exist since yesterday, but for much longer, and so its quite surprising why this only became a topic yesterday night at 3:am. The problem isn't only the hatefest that takes place in the Kennedy threads, that's only the most recent example, and its evidence of longtime ignorance. And as I see it the editor's hasty reaction is too little, to late.

Posted by: Gray62 | August 27, 2009 6:01 AM | Report abuse

Sry, I don't want to spam this thread, but reading my stuff makes me notice that I didn't make a central point clear enough:

The Post SHOULDN'T hold ad hoc conferences in the middle of the night to adjust their standards for comments, however slightly! It's exactly this way of changing the rules in reaction to other circumstances that is evidence of missing impartiality. It should be obvious that the only reasonable policy is to set a standard for comments that reflects the standard of the paper, to enforce it, and to stay with it. Arbitrarily adjusting the limits up and down certainly isn't a serious policy that will be beyond criticism, and it's weird the editors can't see that.

This issue should have been solved before the comments on Bob Novak became a problem, it should have been solved before the comments on Ted Kennedy became a problem, and it's high time it will be solved now! Stop fumbling, get it done!

Posted by: Gray62 | August 27, 2009 6:17 AM | Report abuse

Where was all of this outrage by the libs for the vile, malicious comments after the deaths of Tony Snow and Robert Novak?

If it wasn't for double standards, libs would have no standards at all.

Posted by: waterfrontproperty | August 27, 2009 7:42 AM | Report abuse

I agree with waterfrontproperty. In fact, I told colleagues at work that the Post would censor comments about a DEMOCRAT in a way that it never does about a REPUBLICAN.

HYPOCRITES!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Posted by: WashingtonDame | August 27, 2009 8:03 AM | Report abuse

I too was nauseated by the filth spewed by the nastiest of commenters. However, as I have noted before--if there is one undeniable trait these imbeciles have in common (besides imbecility), it is cowardice. Solution: to post, one must use a real name and e-mail; each to be posted along with the poster's little puddle of bile. No restraints on "free speech," ("for me, but not for thee" of course is the bipartisan interpretation of First Amendment rights) just accountability.

Apropos of this thread, Mr Alexander, I do wish to add that giving the gossipy, ill-sourced and dyspeptic Ed Klein first crack at Q-and-A on the day of Sen Kennedy's death is a decision that I hope causes a head or to to roll or at least an arse or two to be chewed-out. I was very dismayed to see the Washington Post be first out of the gate in giving a forum to that sort of mean foolishness on so solemn a day.

Posted by: hongdb | August 27, 2009 8:03 AM | Report abuse

xxxxBy midday, the comments praising Kennedy seemed to outnumber those critical of him on The Post's sitexxxx
Well, of course if you cut 200 negative comments, the result will be generally positive responses. Why is this observation necessary? And if you are going to cut negative comments, surely fairness requires you to cut comments that are too overwhelmingly positive comments as well.

Posted by: edwardallen54 | August 27, 2009 9:14 AM | Report abuse

When you go public, life is different. Keeping it private costs more. The difference between a G20 and G150. One is all noise and protests and the other is noise and tests. Depends where you want to go and who is going where. Keep positive Post. Lots of people attack success instead of seeking it and reaching higher. Aim Higher and keep the water on. I have a private bar. I kind of want a flying bar. How about you?

Posted by: Dermitt | August 27, 2009 9:40 AM | Report abuse

A lot of this would not be necessary if the Post would simply adopt forum software that allowed readers to recommend certain posts. Editors' selection of certain posts would be wornderful as well.

The big problem with the Post forums, as others have noted, is that the Post articles draw a lot of comments, often over a thousand .. many of which are garbage (written simply to spite) or paid for plugs (a lot of party hacks post comments here). Good for them .. post away, but I don't want to read them nor do I have the time wade through them to get to the great and thoughtful comments of many others.

The Post could provide a great service to the DC area and its readers if it allowed us to note posts with some unique value. Just go to the NY Times site, pick an article highly commmented on then sort by readers' recommendations and editors' selections. If you're on the run looking for some good nuggets ... it's a good way to go.

Posted by: tslats | August 27, 2009 10:56 AM | Report abuse

What’s the point of having a “report abuse” option?

There are NO “standards” if you have a conference call in the middle of the night to discuss them and “…decided to set the bar high.” Surely you meant to say set the bar low.

Posted by: rlj1 | August 27, 2009 11:22 AM | Report abuse

Again with the comments.

Set the bar where ever you like, as long as you're consistent.

Posted by: tresangelas | August 27, 2009 12:23 PM | Report abuse

First, it's a shame that you don't set the bar higher for all of your stories.

Secondly, you didn't set it high enough.

It's bad enough that the Republican Party panders to Rush Limbaugh and his gaggle of wannabes. I don't understand why The Post feels it has to publish right wing vitriol in order to be balanced.

Haters, as my son calls them, can vent all they want at Fox News.

Posted by: SamA1 | August 27, 2009 1:20 PM | Report abuse

There is plenty of vitriol on the left and the right, and very little content from the middle, because those commentators get disgusted and sign off.

I totally disagree with the Post's laissez-faire attitude about comments, and believe that posts should reflect thoughtful discussion. Instead, we get comments that are more reflective of graffiti left on bathroom walls, complete with misspellings and grammatical errors.

I shudder to imagine what our moderators actually deleted.

Posted by: tonid@hers.com | August 27, 2009 1:36 PM | Report abuse

There is no way the Washington Post screen any of those comments. I read some of the Trash that was written, and I refuse to post any comment on this website. Your company clearly has rules, yet you did not enforce them, not within the past few days. No one should be allow to post comments like that in a Major News website. I feel sorry for the employees of the Washington Post,,,this paper is on it's way out of business, and letting all those Crazies write things like that, lets me know it won't be to long.

Posted by: austininc4 | August 27, 2009 4:42 PM | Report abuse

There is always a bit of a trade-off between free speech and blogs in that anonymity foments boldness. It is very easy to be bold behind the bits and electrons that power the Internet, which makes it a powerful tool. However, like any tool, it is the user's intent whether it is one for edification or destruction.

I find some of the commentaries here foolish, and sometimes offensive, but I am of the view that rational human beings can ignore "cybernetic graffitti". I believe that extreme reverence and/or vitriol over the death of someone should be avoided, except in the most extreme cases. After all even Pol Pot (to avoid using a cliched historic bete noir) had a family.

I was taken aback by some of the things I heard said among certain left-wing circles when Ronald Reagan died, despite disagreements with what he believed. It is fair now, that one of the most famous figures on the left, certain right-wing circles now repay with the same coin.

It is deplorable that even on the death of a major political figure, partisan narrow-mindedness does not recognize the fact, that while misguided the views, this person did the best to serve the country as he or she could. Nevertheless, I also hold to the right to express even the most idiotic views as long as they're not libelous.

Posted by: Kruhn1 | August 27, 2009 5:37 PM | Report abuse

Oops, I forgot to add. However, the idea to copy a system similar to the one on the New York Times, of those DIGG-type services would be welcome, as those thoughts people found most helpful and thoughtful would theoretically be voted up the list while "cybernetic graffitti" would probably stay at the bottom.

Posted by: Kruhn1 | August 27, 2009 5:40 PM | Report abuse

High Bar
http://www.gulfstream.com/products/g650/_images/g650_interior_fg_hallmark.jpg
Want it higher?

Posted by: Dermitt | August 27, 2009 5:45 PM | Report abuse

Where does one go today for intelligent discussion of serious issues--I mean in real life. Nearly all the people I encounter do not use facts and they cannot stay with one issue long enough to connect and assess relevant facts. It appears to me that the Limbaughs and the Becks of the world have established the pattern by which nearly everyone, educated as well as not, that I am encountering in real life now uses to "think". What is appearing in the comment section of "newspaper" websites is what is going on in real life. Americans are losing their capacity to reason.

Posted by: joeparadis | August 28, 2009 5:51 AM | Report abuse

Why was my last comment deleted. Could it be that it was restrained and thoughtful?

Posted by: joeparadis | August 28, 2009 6:02 AM | Report abuse

I would never have bothered reading those ugly comments in the first place. What purpose did the Post serve in repeating them!?

Posted by: dmalham | August 28, 2009 11:10 AM | Report abuse

I suspect Hiatt ok'ed all the vitriol pointed at Kennedy, after conferring with
Bush.
This paper has gone downhill ever since he got into power. The Post has lost all respect and its increasing right wiing tilt in its editorials and placing the likes of gershon, Krautfecal and other sick Bush era rats whose true actions should have them in jail, is what is sickening. I have given up on the Post ever returning to a true conscience of the people of this country.

Posted by: rosenfan1 | August 28, 2009 1:54 PM | Report abuse

It was all about the Deal,

Ted Kennedy , in the Senate for over forty years. Longer than any politician should ever have been or should ever be in public office. Above all else he was not one to follow the desires of his voters. He was a "Kennedy" first and a public servant second. I have heard all manner of comments pro and con as to the integrity of Sen. Kennedy. Integrity had nothing to do with it. He was from the very beginning the doer of the Deal. It was all about the Deal. It didn't matter weather you won on an issue or you lost on an issue. It was all about the discussion , the nagotiation , the give and the take. The Deal. He would argue with any fellow Senator on any Issue for no other reason that to argue a point. If he lost on an issue he wouldn't comment on the Issue but on the debate , or the quality of the debate. He would push an issue as far as he felt it would go , weather it was good for America or not. He should have retired years ago but he couldn't give up the making and doing of Deals..........HW 09.03.09

Posted by: winterh111 | September 4, 2009 9:55 AM | Report abuse

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