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What Constitutes “On Topic?”

topmast_hillary.jpgEver since FDL started having chats with authors, politicians and other public figures, we've had one basic rule — be respectful and stay on topic.  The reason for that is quite simple, really.  Unlike other sites, we don't allow people to post "drive-bys," we ask that they stay in the comments and engage our readership.  We expect them to come prepared to talk about the subject/book at hand and to be able to answer questions about it.  We're able to do this because we have the best moderators in the blogosphere, a team of readers who are sensitive to the standards of the community and patrol the comments section for abuse and trollage so quickly and seamlessly many people never notice they are there. 

In over two years of blogging that policy was never called into question until Hillary Clinton came and posted on equal pay for women.  Suddenly people were accusing her of "triangulating" with the issue and criticized us for allowing her to do it.  I think I speak for Christy when I say this issue is important to us and, we felt, to our largely female readership, and not one we believed was "triangulated."  I think it was to Senator Clinton's credit that she was bringing it up when it wasn't in the headlines.  The National Journal came through and cherry picked comments by people who were unhappy and thought we were sell-outs for coddling Senator Clinton.  I'll just say that nobody leveled these criticisms when Chris Dodd came to talk about his bill opposing escalation or John Kerry appeared here to chat about his book and leave it at that.

There were, however, questions raised as to what exactly "on topic" means, and that's something I'd like to have a discussion about.  People are, I believe, on the whole respectful when public figures take the time to show up here and engage our audience, but as guests they should be prepared to answer tough but civil questions when they are posed to them in the comment section.  I will say that I believe I made a mistake with Senator Clinton's appearance in that I did not announce what the topic would be beforehand (it was all rather last minute) and it did not give people a chance to familiarize themselves with it and prepare questions that would be relevant.  I don't think I would do that again.

I think Matt Stoller gave a good example of what a tough but fair on-topic question was during the discussion:

Thank you for showing up here and spending some time with us. Here’s my question, and I hope you don’t mind if it’s a bit frank. If you couldn’t even get a hearing or creatively work to generate attention for this legislation in the last Congress, why should we trust you to be able to pass this legislation?

And during the John Kerry Book Salon discussion the next day, Peterr had this to say:

So what’s to be done about the “lack of concern” by the Bush Administration? The roadblocks, obstacles, footdragging, and more have to be overcome, and your chairmanship of a critical subcommittee can be a strong platform for doing just that. Your committee website shows a number of hearings scheduled, but nothing that strikes me as related to “oversight.”

Both of those are pretty easy calls.  Anyone should be prepared to have these kinds of questions leveled at them during a discussion.  Things get a bit murkier with a point Hackworth' raised during the Hillary Clinton chat:

The issue of equal pay for women is very important (child care, also)but we have gotten so far behind the eight ball on this issue because of the successes of the VRWC juggernaut. It has had a domino effect. Where we are now (on so-called womens’ issues) relates to support for Bush’s war, support for Lieberman (and the converse – lack of viable support for Lamont, not Hillary so much but Big Dog), the NARAL issue re: Lieberman and Supreme Ct nominees, appointments, cloture, etc. It relates to how we got here and how we have been unable to improve conditions for working women.

I think it's absolutely considered "on-topic" and completely fair to raise outside issues if they have a bearing on the topic at hand, and I believe that they would have in this particular case.  I wish the question had been posed earlier while the Senator was here and had had a chance to respond.

I'll also note for the record that I didn't notice anyone who complained that no "tough questions" were being asked actually showed up and asked any.  If that's your complaint, I'm going to be looking for you to be here and have some prepared the next time something like this happens.  I promise to do my part and let you know in advance when that will be.  

This is new, it's a process and we're excited that our community can interact with public figures in what we hope will be an increasingly meaningful way.  We'd like to open it up and hear what you have to say on the subject, the parameters we set, and how we might improve what we're trying to do.

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Jane Hamsher

Jane Hamsher

Jane is the founder of Her work has also appeared on the Huffington Post, Alternet and The American Prospect. She’s the author of the best selling book Killer Instinct and has produced such films Natural Born Killers and Permanent Midnight. She lives in Washington DC.
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