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Jim Brady of the Washington Post: A Case for Professional Help?

Ah. The Washington Post's Jim Brady strikes back:

BLOG RAGE | By Jim Brady : The afternoon of Jan. 19.... I closed down the comments area of one of our many blogs.... In her Jan. 15 column, [Deborah] Howell erred in saying that [Jack] Abramoff gave campaign donations to Democrats as well as Republicans. In fact, Abramoff directed clients to give to members of both parties, but he had donated his own personal funds only to Republicans.... So was I suppressing free speech? Protecting the Bush administration? That's what you'd think, judging by the swift and acid reaction to my move...

I think Jim Brady needs help--professional help. Moreover, I think he needs three kinds of professional help.


First, I think Brady needs professional help understanding the nature of effective moderation in virtual conversational spaces. Here the professional I recommend he should consult/engage/listen to/pay $$$$ is the currently snowbound Teresa Nielsen-Hayden: http://nielsenhayden.com/makinglight/archives/006036.html.

  1. There can be no ongoing discourse without some degree of moderation, if only to kill off the hardcore trolls. It takes rather more moderation than that to create a complex, nuanced, civil discourse. If you want that to happen, you have to give of yourself. Providing the space but not tending the conversation is like expecting that your front yard will automatically turn itself into a garden.
  2. Once you have a well-established online conversation space, with enough regulars to explain the local mores to newcomers, they'll do a lot of the policing themselves.
  3. You own the space. You host the conversation. You don't own the community. Respect their needs. For instance, if you're going away for a while, don't shut down your comment area. Give them an open thread to play with, so they'll still be there when you get back....
  4. Over-specific rules are an invitation to people who get off on gaming the system.
  5. Civil speech and impassioned speech are not opposed and mutually exclusive sets. Being interesting trumps any amount of conventional politeness.
  6. Things to cherish: Your regulars. A sense of community. Real expertise. Genuine engagement with the subject under discussion. Outstanding performances. Helping others. Cooperation in maintenance of a good conversation. Taking the time to teach newbies the ropes. All these things should be rewarded with your attention and praise. And if you get a particularly good comment, consider adding it to the original post....
  7. If you judge that a post is offensive, upsetting, or just plain unpleasant, it's important to get rid of it, or at least make it hard to read. Do it as quickly as possible. There's no more useless advice than to tell people to just ignore such things. We can't. We automatically read what falls under our eyes....
  8. You can't automate intelligence. In theory, systems like Slashdot's ought to work better than they do. Maintaining a conversation is a task for human beings.

And lots, lots more really good stuff


Second, I think Brady needs professonal help understanding the evolving culture of the internet. Here the professional I recommend is the impeccably right-wing but thoughtful and intelligent Eugene Volokh: http://volokh.com/archives/archive_2005_04_03-2005_04_09.shtml#1113000593. Brady should especially consider Volokh's thumbnail sketch of the downsides of the weblog, and think hard about whether washingtonpost.com as he envisions it belongs in this market niche:

  1. Takes time and effort.
  2. Yields zero money for most, a little for some, decent money only for a very few.
  3. May make one a controversial figure, which may be bad for some day jobs.
  4. Off-hand remarks on controversial topics sometimes push you to spend much more effort than you ever intended on follow-ups, rebuttals, and the like.
  5. Don’t blog if you aren’t willing to get (and ignore) nasty e-mail.

Third, I think Brady needs professional help understanding the mission of washingtonpost.com. Its mission is to inform its readers--to help them learn true things--in the hope that advertisers will pay enough for access to those readers' eyeballs to keep the operation solvent.

With that in mind, let's back up to the substance of the Abramoff story.

There are four money flows here that Jack Abramoff is connected with:

  1. Jack Abramoff's personal campaign contributions. Perhaps $150 thousand.

  2. The normal campaign contributions--mostly to Democrats--that Jack Abramoff's Indian clients made and continue to make in order to support legislators whom they regard as on their side in issues of special concern to Indians. Perhaps $3 million.

  3. The extra campaign contributions--almost all to Republicans--that Jack Abramoff directed his Indian clients to make as part of his lobbying efforts on their behalf. Perhaps $6 million.

  4. The fees--perhaps $80 million--paid to Abramoff and company, of which perhaps a quarter was respent as "lifestyle enhancements" for an overwhelmingly Republican group of legislators friendly to Abramoff. Perhaps $20 million.

With respect to these money flows, a few questions naturally arise:

  1. Would anybody--anybody trying to inform and not mislead their readers--who had to summarize these money flows in one sentence do so by writing--as Deborah Howell did--that Jack Abramoff "gave campaign contributions to Democrats as well as Republicans"? Is that a fair and balanced presentation of these money flows?

  2. Would anybody trying to inform--not mislead--their readers who had to summarize these money flows in one sentence do so by writing--as Brady does--that Jack Abramoff "directed [Indian] clients to give [campaign contributions] to members of both parties"? Is that a fair and balanced presentation of these money flows?

  3. What do Deborah Howell and Jim Brady think they are doing in summarizing the money flows from Abramoff in these--misleading, unfair, and unbalanced--ways? Is it consistent with the overall mission of washingtonpost.com?

I would advise Jim Brady of one more thing: As long as his thumbnail summary of the money flows from Jack Abramoff is the sentence "Abramoff directed campaign contributions to both political parties," I will interpret him not as being in the let's-inform-the-readers business but as in the I'm-playing-an-obscure-corporate-political-game business. That's a very awkward position for a journalist to put themselves in.

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