The decision of how a blog treats comments has proved to be a difficult one. I never dreamed, when we started the blog, how difficult it would be. Evan Smith and I have had long conversations about this subject. He has generally leaned toward giving readers the right to say their piece, that being the culture of the blogosphere. I have generally leaned more toward defining what is and is not acceptable and trying to enforce it–no defamatory material, no invasion of privacy, no personal smears. Over the months, our respective positions have moved toward each other; Evan has become more concerned about the liberties correspondents are taking, and I have tried to be less restrictive.
It’s not working. The reaction to Mike O’Day’s appearance on the Dishonorable Mention list and to the reason given (“Ungentlemanly personal conduct”) has caused me to rethink my position. Some readers may object that I myself went too far in publishing the comment about Mr. O’Day. I acknowledge the possibility, but at least I don’t cloak myself in anonymity. If you have a problem, you know where to find me. I felt at the time that the carefully chosen phrase was all that needed to be said about Mr. O’Day. Perhaps I should have anticipated the feeding frenzy that followed, with readers insisting that they had a right to know what conduct was involved. But I could never have anticipated the kind of comments I received. What I have learned is that, under the cover of anonymity, people will say anything. They will defame, they will invade privacy, they will make gratuitous comments about people in public life, and they will grind their favorite axes without regard for truth. One comment was a gratuitous shot at Dennis Bonnen, whose family I know, and who is a good and decent man. Another came close to revealing the type of ungentlemanly conduct, as well as information that could have pointed to a possible victim. During the session, one commenter posted Alexis DeLee’s personal phone number. Another falsely accused Patti Hart of applauding the walkout in the House gallery. I’m not just being a goody-goody here. While our commenters hide behind the shield of anonymity, Texas Monthly is legally responsible for what they post.
Although all comments are supposed to be moderated by me, I have discovered that some are posted directly to the blog. How this can happen is beyond my technical expertise. But it is worrisome enough that we are going to change the rules for posting comments. First, we have deleted all comments that pertain to Mr. O’Day except the Dishonorable Mention list itself. Second, I will continue to monitor comments for defamation, invasion of privacy, and personal smears. Third, in order to comment, you will have to be a registered user of the Web site. I hate that. One of my greatest enjoyments of being a blogger is having a personal relationship with my audience. I enjoy responding to comments as much as I enjoy writing items. But the lack of restraint on the part of commenters left me no choice. Commenters need to be accountable too. When everybody can state their opinions without resorting to defamation, invasion of privacy, or personal smears, we’ll open the blog to all comers again. I hope it’s soon.