Thursday, January 7, 2010

Stopping the online venom -- Jan. 7, 2010 column


In May 2007, the ombudsman for The Washington Post wrote about a fairly new online feature that allowed readers to comment instantly on stories and columns.

Under the headline “Online Venom or Vibrant Speech?” Deborah Howell said that in the old days readers who wanted to complain had to write signed, civil letters to the editor. Online comments are immediate, allow the writers to be virtually anonymous “and can be raw, racist, sexist and revolting.” she wrote.

The harsh tone of the online feedback had surprised reporters and some readers, who wanted the Post to police the site and remove rude and incendiary remarks.

“Two important journalism values -- free, unfettered comment and civil, intelligent discourse -- are colliding. My two cents: Monitor the comments much more vigorously and use the old journalism rule: When in doubt, take it out,” Howell wrote.

In 2010, when every Web site encourages instant comment, these words resonate with sad irony. On Jan. 2, Deborah Howell, a trailblazer and inspiration to many reporters and editors, died in a tragic car accident while on vacation in New Zealand with her husband.

I knew and admired Deborah, who had led newsrooms in the Twin Cities to Pulitzer Prizes and had been Washington bureau chief of Newhouse News Service before becoming the Post’s reader representative. She was a journalist’s journalist – tough, fair, caring, funny, hard-charging. Retired, she was on a trip of a lifetime, and her sudden death was a shock.

I was astonished and sickened to learn that online stories and columns about her death had prompted a storm of reader comments so foul that various news sites, including the Post’s, had to shut down comments.

Melinda Henneberger, editor of Politics Daily, said that while some writers praised Howell, some typed comments of the “woo-hoo, you’re dead!” variety. Henneberger wrote on

“There was also a shocking number of comments to the effect that since Howell was in the news business, she must have been a lefty, so how fabulous she'd been killed. There was joshing speculation about whether she'd been driving a hybrid, a joke about how liberals walking in lockstep really ought to be more careful, and a couple of cracks about how Republicans were sure to be blamed. `One less of those anti-US types to deal with,’ said one of several celebratory rejoinders from readers who by their own account had five minutes earlier never even heard of Deborah Howell.”

It’s worth underlining that not everyone responded so cruelly.

Still, when deceased strangers become fodder for partisan vitriol, we’re all in trouble. Nor are such cheap shots limited to perceived liberals. A Politics Daily obit on Irving Kristol also brought out mean-spirited remarks, Henneberger wrote.

My own quick survey found that at least one news site did allow particularly offensive comments about Howell to stand, and other readers blasted the writers in no uncertain terms.

I support “vibrant speech” online as Deborah Howell did, and I recognize that a certain amount of venom may be inevitable. We’re still struggling with how much is too much.

All too often the Internet rewards the coarsest among us. We like to think the Web makes us all publishers. In reality, it empowers most people to whisper into the wind. When it comes to political discourse, the harshest and most strident voices succeed in gaining huge audiences, lucrative book contracts and TV appearances.

Being reasonable tends not to be a smart career move online. It’s smarter to be rude and razor-tongued. For those on the right, it’s expedient to accuse the president of being immoral, evil, socialist or fascist rather than to disagree with his policies and offer constructive alternatives. Those on the left win by accusing their Republican opponents of being heartless, uncaring tools of business.

In fact, little is absolute in politics. There’s almost always a “yes, but” factor. People have a right to health care, yes, but it’s wrong to saddle future generations with debt. It’s easier to demonize in black and white; compromise exists in shades of gray. Insults won’t resolve the differences or move us forward.

One wonders how Deborah Howell would have reacted to this week’s venomous online attacks. Friends say the comments would have hurt her, of course, but the fierce journalist would not have wanted them pulled. I’m sorry the question even arises.

© 2010 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


  1. While I disagreed with Deborah Howell's extreme stance on online comments, I admired her resolve and was saddened to hear of her death. I worked at the Washington Post in the mid-1990s, though I never met her.

    I was intrigued by your comment about how "being reasonable tends not to be a smart career move online." The internet seems to reward such childish behavior even more unreservedly than cable television; no surprise that nutters like Ann Coulter and Michelle Mathios have found their niche online.

    It saddens me that true investigative journalism and thought-provoking discussions seem more and more relegated to nonprofit arenas such as PBS television (e.g. "NewsHour"), the Knight Foundation, and so on. These days, if you can't make a quick buck or a snide remark, most seem to think quality journalism simply isn't worth doing.

  2. While I did not know Deborah Howell, I agree that the negative comments about her are deplorable. Also deplorable is the state of affairs where attack and destroy seems to be the path to success. We can do better.

  3. I'm sorry for the untimely loss of your colleague. I visited New Zealand on the trip of a lifetime some years ago, and feel that keenly.

    Good column about what I think this is perhaps the single most important issue in American politics today.

    I usually don't read such WaPo story comments because the tone and substance are so low.

    Last fall a liberal acquaintance forwarded to a list that included me a joke with a punch line about how it was too bad Glenn Beck hadn't died in an some illness or accident. I grumped up the list with a response that no American should condone, tolerate or incite extra-judicial violence, illness or death for another American because of political views. He and others downplayed it as "joke".

    Despite the above example, my blog reading has revealed far more violent speech on the right than on the left. Of course, it's not just bloggers. The final weeks of the 2008 McCain/Palin campaign were chilling, with the two candidates tardy and half-hearted in telling their supporters not to yell, "Kill him!" about their opponent.

    Unfortunately, in the name of objectivity, the national news media in my experience (at least during the Bush years) tended to portray left and right as roughly equivalent here, and to downplay it as high spirits rather than dangerous, even when it was directed at the media itself (e.g., a joke about blowing up the NYT building). Tom Tomorrow has a good cartoon on this that he blogged about in 2006 -- --
    but the link from "this cartoon" is broken.

    None of us should condone, tolerate or incite extra-judicial violence, illness or death for another American because of political views.