Metro columnist Mark Fisher
Metro columnist Mark Fisher Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Top editors at the Washington Post have refereed their share of disputes between the print and Web shops. No matter where the two sides sit—miles apart like now, or in the same office—there’ll still be plenty to fight about. “Turf issues are part of journalism, and we’d have to negotiate those no matter what the overall structure was,” says Post Managing Editor Phil Bennett.

Actually, the newsroom ties itself in knots over the Web even when the people from aren’t involved.

Last year, the paper began reverse publishing a blog written by Post Metro columnist Marc Fisher—meaning that the Post took the work that Fisher first posted on and backed it into the print product. Titled Raw Fisher, the blog showcases the ranting and reporting of one of Washington’s most productive journalists.

Fisher’s stuff tends to draw gigabytes of comments, and he and his editors wanted to see some of the spleen laid out in the print incarnation of Raw Fisher. They got their wish: On May 1, Raw Fisher debuted in the paper via an item about the Neighborhood Pace Car program, in which a local group attempts to get drivers to studiously obey the speed limit.

The following were among the comments that appeared in the paper:

As a motorist who thinks pace cars are stupid, and as a bicyclist who refuses to honor the stop signs that appear every block on suburban streets, I’m pleased that today’s topic has raised such indignation. You folks go on with your indignation. I’ll go on passing pace cars and running stop signs.
—Mister Methane

Mister Methane, I hope you ride your bike through my neighborhood and try to pass me. I’ll take great pleasure in opening my car door right into you and your bike. It’s jerk cyclists like you who give us law-abiding riders a bad name.

Stuff that racy just can’t survive in the pages of the Post.

Mister Methane and dsbaf were up against decades of newspaper publishing tradition. They had sneaked their thoughts into the Post around the backs of the paper’s vaunted letter-vetting staff. These folks have long put all letters to the editor through a careful patdown, checking for author authenticity, address, and other issues of epistolary integrity.

They work for Fred Hiatt, editor of the paper’s esteemed editorial page. Under the Post’s solemn work rules, Hiatt doesn’t generally cross the fire wall that separates his opinion shop from the newsroom. But after sampling a little Raw Fisher, he verily blasted his way through—all the way through to Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr.

Hiatt’s plea drove right at the Post’s core values. First of all, he said, the Post tries to identify sources throughout the paper whenever possible. And the standard is even more stringent on letters. “When we run letters to the editor and op-eds, again, we virtually always insist on identifying the authors and, to the extent we can, any conflicts of interest they may have,” says Hiatt.

“Those are standards both on the editorial and news sides that we care about a lot, and we ought to think hard about…before importing anonymous comments from the Web,” continues Hiatt.

Downie agreed and ordered the Raw Fisher comments expunged from the paper. Experiment over, to Fisher’s dismay. The columnist is a free- speech absolutist who feels that the Post suffers little for the often hateful things that people post on the site. “My response was that this horse left the stable a long time ago,” says Fisher.

It’s tempting to dismiss the Raw Fisher episode as the product of an out-of-touch editocracy. Downie, after all, is 65 and not steeped in html. “I’m a late adapter to everything about technology,” he says. “I don’t have a pdf…whatever you call those things.”

But newspapers everywhere are agonizing over the same problem, in part because it raises an unsettling prospect: What was the point of screening letters for all those years if you’re just going to turn around and let anon82 sling mud all over your pages? The quandary also alights on a classic journalistic hypocrisy complex. Reporters love to plant anonymous mines in their copy but squeal when nameless pussies slam their work in the comments space.

The trick is to apply uniform policies across the entire paper—in other words, a feat that the Post hasn’t quite pulled off. The Sports section routinely publishes anonymous reader comments from its various blogs.

What’s up with the discrepancy? Downie says that comments are not “appropriate” for Fisher’s column but insists they’re OK in Sports. “This is a classic example of where the Web is different from the printed newspaper and there is a difference between Sports and Metro in that sports columnists have much more leeway than columnists do in the rest of the paper, and even Sports stories have more voice in them than stories in the Metro section.”