WashingtonPost.com Executive Editor Jim Brady made the decision Thursday after the site's Post.blog, on which editors discuss the paper's policies, design and goals, featured a column by Post ombudsman Deborah Howell defending her position (registration required) in a Sunday article about fundraising scandals involving lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
The controversy began when many Post readers wrote and called Howell complaining that she had accepted Republican talking points linking Democratic members of Congress to Abramoff. Howell's defense in Post.blog attempted to soften the language she had used, but tried to make the point that Democrats had taken money from Abramoff's clients. Her blog entry was quickly hit with hundreds of angry reader comments.
A number of those comments included what Brady characterized as objectionable content, and on Thursday he shut off all comments on Post.blog.
"There are things that we said we would not allow (from commenters), including personal attacks, the use of profanity and hate speech," Brady wrote on Post.blog on Thursday. "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."
But far from putting out the fire, Brady's move only inflamed some bloggers, who quickly began firing off missives on sites throughout the blogosphere, accusing Brady and The Washington Post of silencing critics.
"I'm assuming WaPo management just imperiously decided they didn't want to have a public record of opposition to the embarrassment that is Deborah Howell," wrote the blog Firedoglake, "and Brady was forced to make some excuse for shutting it down."
Further, some bloggers said they didn't buy the Post's argument that the objectionable comments became too much for it to handle, given that many popular blogs moderate hundreds or thousands of comments a day.
Some comments will return
"We did that for four days (and) we had two people doing it full time," Brady told CNET News.com, referring to his team's removing comments it deemed unsuitable. "We're trying to do a 24/7 news site. This particular one was just wearing on our resources too much."
Brady also said that over the weekend, the Post will put back up the comments on the Howell blog entry that were within its decency standards and will begin searching for a way to proactively filter out comments that don't meet those standards in the future.
"We need to have more resources in here," Brady said. "Maybe we just have to have a couple of contractors...We have to have a better system for blocking people who consistently cause problems."
But such comments did nothing to soothe the anger of bloggers who feel the Post's decision was really about not being able to hear criticism.
Meanwhile, Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University and the author of the blog PressThink, isn't sure he buys Brady's reasoning, though he said he thinks Brady is a "straight shooter."
"When (bloggers) with substantial readerships say (they) get posts with 700 or 800 comments," they routinely get some objectionable responses and are able to moderate them, said Rosen.
Brady said that while he shut off comments on post.blog, WashingtonPost.com is still maintaining 25 other blogs with active comment sections. But Rosen said that doesn't mitigate the damage to journalistic openness caused by the single blog shutdown.
"The fact that they have others doesn't address the loss of this one," Rosen said. "So I don't give it that much credit. It's not good for the Post, and it's not good for readers, and it's not good for journalism's own progress in the interactive age."
That's particularly true in light of theto shut down a so-called "wikitorial," in which many readers participating in an online editorial became abusive and flooded the Times's site with profane content.
With the Times's situation, and now the Post's, there's some fear that other newspapers may be unwilling to experiment with open-ended reader participation in blogs or editorials.
"I think that's a danger," Rosen said, "but that's really a failure of nerve, because if in fact a newspaper went out and got the best intelligence it could about the Internet and chat boards and users...it would have been more prepared for this."