CPB Office of the Ombudsman

Code Switch Shuts Him Down

Joel Kaplan

January 16, 2014

Last summer Michael Camacho wrote to the ombudsman complaining that Code Switch, an NPR project that promises to report on the frontiers of race, culture and ethnicity, had banned him from commenting on its website because he had not followed its discussion guidelines.

I sent the complaint over to the NPR ombudsman, but late last year, Mr. Camacho telephoned the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to say that Code Switch blacklisted him for a comment and refused to allow him to appeal that decision. He said that since Code Switch is partially funded by CPB, it should not be allowed to discriminate against minority viewpoints.

Here is the comment that Mr. Camacho posted to Code Switch that was removed and for which he was banned:

"Every time a race question is turned into news, it seems like every white male gets uniformly persecuted for being allegedly racist. Once the race card is thrown, any explanation gets silenced. I have been asked the following question several times and this is how it typically goes:

Stranger: Why do all white people hate black people? Me: What makes you think that all white people hate black people? Stranger: I watch the news.

Here is my 'ridiculous' question: Why does every race get a pass on being racist to white people? The dictionary definition of racism should be amended by adding to the end of it, 'except when directed toward white people.' A case on point is that anyone can write 'cracker' with impunity but everyone has to at least hyphenate the 'n-word'. Neither word should be acceptable in public discourse. While racism still exists, it is reverse racism that has become the status quo. I would never accuse anyone of being racist simply due to the color of his or her skin; neither should you."

My research assistant, Antoinette Siu, subsequently interviewed Mr. Camacho and asked him when or how Code Switch told him he was being blacklisted:

They didn't tell me. They just blacklisted me and so I tried to submit more comments to other articles, and it wouldn't work. I did a couple of times, and I sent a few messages saying, "Hey, there's something wrong with my account because I can't seem to get in." They sent me a couple of boilerplate emails like: Well, follow the instructions. But then after I sent them a couple of messages, they responded to me and said you're not allowed to use this anymore. They didn't even tell me. They let me figure out the hard way.

We reached out to Anna Christopher Bross, NPR's director of media relations. Here is what she had to say:

Thank you for bringing this issue to our attention.

First, a few resources that may be helpful, to understand how we moderate comments on NPR.org:

NPR's Community Discussion Rules

Code Switch Discussion Guidelines

The Four Types of Comments We Usually Remove on Code Switch, Code Switch, May 2013

It is difficult to have a conversation about race, ethnicity and culture on the Internet that is interesting, civil, thought-provoking and encompasses a diversity of perspectives. We have chosen to foster that kind of a space on Code Switch. As such, the Code Switch team fully participates in the conversations it initiates: actively moderating each topic to ensure that it is of the sort that we want to encourage - that it measures up to be all of the things that we promise. Sometimes, this includes removing comments or blocking users, who violate our community discussion guidelines, are otherwise inappropriate or are off-topic.

After receiving your inquiry, we reviewed our correspondence with Michael Camacho. In June 2013, he exchanged three emails with our Audience Services team, which manages communication with tens of thousands of listeners each year. Upon thorough review of this particular interaction, we concluded that Mr. Camacho should be able to comment on the Code Switch blog, should he wish to. His comment on a Code Switch thread was considered off-topic, and so it was removed by a member of the Code Switch team. He was also blocked from posting. That said, he should not be blocked from posting in the future.

Mr. Camacho's comment occurred early in the life of Code Switch. (The team launched in April 2013.) In the many months since, we've evolved and made improvements to how we review such matters, and what follows is our current process:

--In the discussion guidelines for Code Switch, there's a line that says, "If we've removed a comment you felt was a thoughtful and valuable addition to the conversation, please don't hesitate to get in touch with us by emailing codeswitch@npr.org." We also frequently encourage people who want to challenge moderation decisions on Code Switch to the contact form at npr.org/contact. If you select "I want to contact" and then under show or blog, select "Code Switch," your message goes to codeswitch@npr.org.

--Email to that address goes to an inbox accessible by the Code Switch team, and every email to that address also forwards directly to our editorial director, Matt Thompson. Every email with a question or concern about a moderation decision on Code Switch does not leave his inbox until it is answered. It takes Matt a few days to get back to each person - sometimes as often as a couple of weeks.

--If it's a question about being prohibited from post, Matt usually asks if the user wants to be reinstated, provided he follows the discussion guidelines.

Comments and concerns in this forum absolutely prompt action and discussion. We also weigh them against the many countervailing comments and concerns from other users that we receive. If we feel that something has happened in error, we talk this through with the relevant decision-makers on the Code Switch and Social Media teams. Several times we've reviewed a decision, decided we took the wrong approach, and used that process to improve our moderation going forward.

We are trying to make the best possible experience for as many users as we can. We knew early on that any decisions we made about moderation on Code Switch would have both benefits and tradeoffs, but we elected to devote time to actively moderating this discussion rather than not host comments on the blog.

Lastly, we would encourage Mr. Camacho to write to Matt Thompson directly at codeswitch@npr.org, to discuss his interest in commenting on Code Switch.

While Mr. Camacho was thankful that the ombudsman's office tried to resolve his complaint, he added:

I have no interest in posting comments on Code Switch or NPR. My concern is that I was blacklisted with absolutely no recourse and that Code Switch is censoring viewpoints on the basis of race. NPR personnel can write as many disingenuous messages as they want to saying "please don't hesitate to get in touch with us [blah, blah, blah]" but the fact is that I contacted the ombudsman several times via email several months ago and never got my promised appeal, I never got any reason for getting blacklisted or not getting an appeal, and I never got any notification that an appeal was in process. This is the clearest case of pretext and nose thumbing.

More importantly, Code Switch excludes discrimination against Caucasians in its application of the definition. My comment was "off topic" because; given the Code Switch definition of racism, the article was not meant to solicit comments about racism against Caucasian people. This clearly removes the diversity tenet that Congress included in the Public Broadcasting Act. This is why funding for Code Switch needs to be redirected somewhere that encourages diversity.

I got blacklisted for ONE COMMENT. ONE COMMENT. Ironically, NPR failed to even address my point about discriminating on the basis of racial viewpoints. This is telling. NPR (or at least Code Switch) is unworthy of tax dollars and this should be addressed.

Ombudsman's comments:

I have written extensively about the decline of civility and balance when it comes to anonymous comments on the Web and the importance of journalistic institutions to monitor and moderate such comments, come up with reasonable guidelines and enforce those guidelines.

In the case of Code Switch, that has been done.

Nevertheless, I found nothing out of bounds or profane about Mr. Camacho's comments even if I disagreed with them and, had I been running the forum, would not have removed them. But even if it had been removed for being off-topic, there was no justification to ban Mr. Camacho from all future postings.

Ms. Bross points out that the decision to remove Mr. Camacho's comments came early in the life of Code Switch and that the site has made significant improvements about how it handles such comments.

Here's hoping that Code Switch can find the correct balance in deciding which comments to post and which to eliminate.

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