Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

The Benefits of Online Chats

Every weekday The Washington Post hosts several online chats, from the serious to the silly. Apparently, The Post leads the field by far in terms of the sheer hours of chats it hosts (something like 60 hours per week, likely more). Add in several excellent online-only columns, and you have a nice model for what the modern newspaper can be. No paper is perfect. The Post was the most prominent paper I know of to botch coverage of the West Virginia miners, printing that they had been found alive when in fact most had died (the perils of a midnight deadline). Still, The Post’s own media critic Howard Kurtz skewered The Post for this (in his online column and his weekly chat), and surely it’s a healthy sign that this is possible (personally, I do not completely blame The Post on this, but they should have made their sources of information clear in the article itself and issued a brief front page apology/explanation the next day).

Similarly, many of The Post’s columnists and reporters host chats, and this allows for frequent interchanges with readers. This builds on and in some cases improves on the letters-to-the-editor and ombudsman mechanisms in place at major papers. Reporters will clarify points in articles, admit mistakes, and offer new insights. Comments raging in the blogosphere about a given issue — or a journalist’s latest piece — will often actually get a response. The Post also gives a Technorati link so that online readers can see what registered blogs have linked to a given article and read what they’re saying. The chats with filmmakers and authors are very welcome, but the chats with journalists really adds to, and improves, the dialogue occurring online in newspapers, magazines, and blogs.

One of the best chats I’ve read was Editor-in-Chief Len Downie responding to readers about Bob Woodward’s belated disclosure that Valerie Plame Wilson’s CIA identity had been revealed to him as well. Woodward, Downie and The Post kept credibility in my eyes for several reasons (whereas Judy Miller and Viveca Novak do not). The first is that Woodward admitted his mistakes and apologized. The second is that Downie publicly scolded Woodward for his actions but also expressed his overall support for him as a journalist, and spoke of steps both men agreed to to avoid a repeat performance. Finally, Downie held the chat and addressed reader concerns directly, including correcting himself about a mistake he made earlier in the chat.

The chats can also be revealing in other ways. The Post’s polling editor, Richard Morin, got inexplicably mad in a chat because many, many readers wanted him to ask a poll question about public support for impeaching Bush. As he correctly stated, with a Republican Congress, the chances of Bush being impeached are highly unlikely. Still, that has little to do with the public’s feelings on the matter. I remember reading the chat and being taken aback by his anger — what was the big deal? If at least twenty people wrote in asking about the same issue, what was wrong with a poll question on the topic, especially when impeachment polls on Clinton were widespread immediately after the Lewinksy scandal broke? I liked the fact that other Post columnists later questioned the Morin's reaction as well.

Meanwhile, most revealingly, U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales refused to define torture in a chat (following up his op-ed on the Patriot Act) and also stressed how renewing the Patriot Act would respect civil liberties because one could not get a wiretap without a warrant. The very next day, Friday 12/16, The New York Times published its story on illegal NSA wiretaps. On Monday 12/19, Gonzales was on TV defending President Bush and the illegal wiretaps. The irony was almost as thick as the bullshit, but not quite.

UPDATED slightly on 1/12, mainly to add links.

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