Drunk and Disorderly

Is it OK for papers to "disappear" controversial online content?

It all started with a really bad idea, a bottle of beer, and a still of our Secretary of State. And it ended with The Washington Post pulling down a video featuring two of its star staffers.

In between, the newspaper drew wide fire (from CJR and others) for Dana Milbank’s suggestion, in an attempt at humor, that Hillary Clinton drink “Mad Bitch” beer—a reportedly lovely Belgian tripel. The gag-inducing gag came in the course of an episode of Mouthpiece Theater, the Post’s tongue-in-cheek Web video series featuring Milbank and Chris Cillizza—think smoking jackets, a fireplace, and a backdrop of fake books—matching beer names with public figures in anticipation of President Obama’s much-hyped beer summit.

The Post decided to take the video down from its Web site. Reporters asking about the incident, including CJR’s Greg Marx, were sent a statement conceding that an undescribed “section of the video … went too far.”

But what did the Post do to alert viewers of the series, readers of their paper, or visitors to their site that they’d goofed? Nothing—no editors note, no apology, no explanation. (Update 08/05/09: The Post has since added a line of explanation and apology.)

It used to be that a newspaper or magazine’s mistakes—and the corrections and apologies they begat—would live on forever in archives and paper morgues.

But now that digital technology allows news outlets to wipe the bits clean—at least from their own site—what obligation is there to preserve the faulty material for the record, or even to note the errors?

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The Editors are the staffers of Columbia Journalism Review.