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Friday, March 16, 2012

The shifting sands of HTO comment policy

Posted by Scott Tibbs at 1:30 AM

Last May, I blogged about the Herald-Times' decision to delete comments that refer to abortion as murder. When I objected to the deletion, H-T editor Bob Zaltsberg explained the decision via e-mail:

Killing is not the same as "murdering." While there still is some debate about whether PP is killing babies, that's not the point here. If your post said, "In other words, stop killing babies and you can have the money" it would be left up.

Now the H-T has taken it a step farther, to a ridiculous extreme that exposes the Herald-Times not as a "newspaper" but as a partisan political newsletter. In the an editorial praising Charlotte Zietlow, The H-T wrote that she "has stood for justice for all in her 40-plus years of working for people in Monroe County." I posted the following comment:

Actually, that's not true. She worked for an organization that has perpetrated a terrible injustice by killing babies every week on South College Avenue. If she's interested in justice, Zietlow should renounce her affiliation with Planned Parenthood and denounce the abominable acts they commit each week.

I followed Mr. Zaltsberg's instructions exactly, using the word killing instead of murdering - and my comment was deleted anyway. This was the third comment that was deleted within 14 days, so this triggered an automatic suspension of posting privileges for the next 14 days, meaning I will be unable to post until March 26.

This is simply unbelievable. How can anyone follow the rules when the rules are changing like this, especially when things that were perfectly within the rules ten months ago are now forbidden with absolutely no notification of the change in policy? Since the language I used in the post that triggered my auto-ban was pre-approved by Zaltsberg last May (specifically that the word killing would have been left up) a two week suspension from HTO is grossly unfair.

The Herald-Times is free to set rules for comments on stories, and people are free to participate or not (or subscribe or not) based on what they think about the policy. Setting rules is one thing, but retroactively changing rules is another. HTO comment policy is often wildly inconsistent, to the absurd extreme that actually quoting the text of articles published in the "newspaper" can result in a comment being deleted.

And really, deleting comments that say abortion kills babies? Really? That is the new rule on HTO? Really? In his March 12 column, Herald-Times editor Bob Zaltsberg wrote "main purpose of the comments... is to advance community dialogue about issues of importance and interest; to allow people to exchange views on the main topics of the day."

There are few policies that stifle discussion over "issues of importance and interest" more than deleting comments that say abortion kills babies. After all, that is the entire thrust of the debate over the legalization of abortion. If abortion opponents did not believe that abortion killed a human being, we would simply not care that a woman chooses to terminate her pregnancy. If there is no killing, then abortion is no more morally complex than clipping toenails.

If I did not believe abortion killed a baby, I would not waste my time picketing Planned Parenthood, writing letters to the editor, lobbying the city and county councils, attending anti-abortion rallies or being active in local anti-abortion organizations. That would be the case for 99% of anti-abortion activists.

With this new policy, the Herald-Times has ceased to be a "newspaper" and has become a partisan political newsletter. The Herald-Times cannot pretend to be anything close to balanced, and cannot claim to be seeking to legitimately report the news in an accurate manner if HTO moderators are going to outright ban the primary argument of abortion opponents. HTO moderators have eliminated dissent on this issue by brazenly putting their finger on the scale.

Again, the Herald-Times is free to set whatever policies it wants. What the H-T should not do is shamelessly change the rules with no notice and brazenly take sides in one of the most contentious political, social, cultural and theological issues of our time by outright banning arguments from one side of the issue.

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