In recent days, the Forward has been taken to task for disabling comments on a provocative post on our Sisterhood blog. The writer of the post looked at the question of why, two generations after the Holocaust, the most mundane sights, sounds and words — in this case, a German-accented reality television host announcing which contestants would be “eliminated” — could, to this day, evoke Nazi imagery.
We decided to close comments on that particular blog entry not because we were receiving comments that challenged the writer’s thesis or the Forward’s decision to publish the piece or its follow-up. We did so because we were receiving comments that contained personal attacks on, and threats to, the writer and her family.
Many of the comments we receive on a daily basis are thoughtful responses to our coverage, and the often-difficult questions that our articles and blog posts raise. Many others are just plain nonsensical or contain copyright infringements or curse words.
And, I’m sorry to say, quite a lot of them are just plain hateful: Name-calling? Check. Libel? Check? Anti-black racism? Anti-Arab racism? Antisemitism? Holocaust denial? Check, check, check and check.
“THE WORLD WOULD HAVE BEEN SO PEACEFUL IF JEWS DID NOT EXIST. YOU ARE EVIL, YOUR RELIGION IS EVIL AND YOUR GOD IS EVIL,” read one recently deleted post; “I wish to express my outrage that the Holocaust, unlike any other historical event, is not subject to critical revisionist investigation,” read another.
We do our best to get this kind of material off our site in short order. For a small news organization, it’s a big task. Visitors to our Web site are commenting on stories, new and old, at all hours, on all continents (except, maybe, Antarctica). We frequently get comments totaling more than 100,000 words a week.
And monitoring comments is not always as straightforward as deleting the k-word from our Web site. We grapple with questions that our journalistic forebears could not have anticipated: If someone writes a thoughtful response to a Forward story and then pastes a copyrighted story from another publication, should we delete the entire post? Or should we just edit out the part that violates the copyright? If someone responds to a comment that contains an ethnic slur by explaining why such words have no place in civil discourse, should we delete just the comment that contains the slur? Or should we also delete the response to the slur, because there is no longer a context for it?
Monitoring what readers post on a Web site is very time-consuming. Which is why, perhaps, some Jewish Web sites do not allow readers to post comments on any of their stories or blog entries.
The Forward allows comments on most arts, features and opinion stories, on the vast majority of blog posts and on select news stories.
Here is our official commenting policy, published at the bottom of every story and blog post for which comments are enabled:
The Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, the Forward requires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, the Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.
In addition, we do not feel it is our role to play host to every debate. If visitors to our site want to “debate” the Holocaust, they will likely find their comments deleted. If a commenting section has been usurped by those who prefer to attack or threaten our writers, we may turn off commenting on that story.
Our role in fostering free speech is ensuring that our publication — in print and online — is a place where writers feel safe to take on uncomfortable issues and where dialogue is informed, passionate and civil.
Gabrielle Birkner is Web editor of the Forward. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.