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Miami Herald Wrestles With Free Speech

The Herald has been accepting comments on its web site for stories that appear in the newspaper for about a month now -- and it has the feel of a bold experiment. There seem to be few controls. The editors allow commenting on a handful of potentially controversial stories each day and readers post them instantaneously. It's free speech in its rawest form and its now being done across the recently sold Knight Ridder chain.

Check out yesterday's response to Dan Christensen's story about U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez accepting $250,000 at a fundraiser partially organized by disgraced GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff. It's definitely raw.

"Cubans and Jews should go back from where they came," wrote a lovely fellow who goes by "La Pluma." "Anglos do business. Cubans and Jews steal."

Not exactly the Herald's standard fare (they usually don't do hate). Another commentator called Martinez a "crook" -- a charge that isn't made nor substantiated in the article. Another called him a "traitor." Still another wrote, "If you dig deeper, you will find Martinez takes part in aiding illegals enter the US."

Obviously, that stuff seems a little dangerous for the Herald to publish, especially the totally unfounded stuff about immigrant smuggling. It made me wonder if anybody is monitoring the comments at all. So I dialed up Rick Hirsch, the Herald's Managing Editor/Multimedia, and left him detailed questions about the posts and the new commentary system.

When Hirsch phoned in the afternoon, he said he hadn't been aware of the Martinez comments and had them removed from the site after he got my message. (Sure enough they were gone.) Were the comments approved by Herald employees before they appeared on the site in the first place?

"Readers post directly to the web," Hirsch said. "There is a button that enables readers to object to comments that they find objectionable. ... We try to review the comments, we keep an eye on them, but we've had some stories where we've gotten hundreds and hundreds of comments. To be looking at that 24/7 in real time is not something that we can do."

So it's a self-policing method: If a reader objects to a comment, Herald staffers are alerted. Then they use their judgment as to whether they want to delete it. When asked which story so far has gotten the most incendiary comments so far, Hirsch didn't want to get too specific but said, "People wrote some unusual things about [Miami Dolphins coach] Nick Saban."

Despite the occasional problems, Hirsch said that the Herald is basically dedicated to having a free-wheeling discussion.

"As a matter of policy I wouldn't call it an open mike, but it's a free debate," Hirsch said. "The web is not the same thing as the newspaper, certainly, and I think that anybody who has a web site has to wrestle with what you censor and where you draw the line. We try to stay out of the debate as much as we can."

You have to love that attitude and it's good to see the Herald -- and the entire soon-to-be-part-of-McClatchy chain -- throw a little caution to the wind. I've been told by people in the media business that there's actually no difference, legally speaking, between what appears in the newspaper and what's on the web site. But I have to agree with Hirsch -- there is an obvious difference. The web site is malleable and quickly fixable, while the newspaper is basically set in stone. So long as the Herald shows good faith in expeditiously removing libelous comments, it shouldn't have a problem. The First Amendment should win out.

That's should. Unfortunately that question could play out in a courtroom. It's a quandary that, as Hirsch said, just about everyone involved in the Internet has had to wrestle with at one time or another. What do you think?

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Journalist Bob Norman has been raking the muck of South Florida for the past 25 years. His work has led to criminal cases against corrupt politicians, the ouster of bad judges from the bench, and has garnered dozens of state, regional, and national awards.
Contact: Bob Norman

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