The top post at Michael Hiltzik’s L.A. Times-sponsored Golden State blog reads as follows:
The Times has suspended Michael Hiltzik’s Golden State blog on latimes.com. Hiltzik admitted Thursday that he posted items on the paper’s website, and on other websites, under names other than his own. That is a violation of The Times ethics policy, which requires editors and reporters to identify themselves when dealing with the public. The policy applies to both the print and online editions of the newspaper. The Times is investigating the postings.
I have mixed feelings about this.
On one hand, I was very disappointed when I read Hiltzik’s response to my post exposing his mutually admiring sock puppet identities. I had hoped that he would make a forthright admission of what he had done, show an understanding of why it was wrong, and pledge not to do it again. Instead, he erected and demolished a strawman argument, pretending that my complaint was that he had used a pseudonym to comment on my blog:
[Patterico] seems to think that pseudonymous posting is deceptive, though he can’t articulate why that should be, given the abundance of pseudonyms and anonymity on his own blog starting with the name on the banner. He makes a stab at rationalizing his selective exposure of one out of his scores of pseudonymous commenters by complaining that my comments were “acid-tongued” or “insulting.”
Hiltzik habitually argues against strawmen, but this one was especially brazen and dishonest. I most certainly did not criticize the practice of commenting using a pseudonym. To the contrary, I defended it. What I criticized was the fact that Hiltzik and his pseudonyms praised and defended each other as though they were different people. As I said in my post:
Why does this matter — or does it? After all, I’m obviously not objecting to use of pseudonyms by bloggers and blog commenters. How could I be? I mean, you’re reading a post by someone who calls himself “Patterico.” And, while I made the decision to make my real name public long ago (it’s Patrick Frey), many of my commenters use pseudonyms. So what’s the big deal?
Here’s the thing. I am actually a strong defender of people’s right to comment anonymously, or pseudonymously. I myself was semi-pseudonymous for the first several months of this blog. But I don’t think that commenters should use pseudonyms to pretend to be something or somebody they aren’t.
(Note that I identified myself by name in the post. My name has been public for some time now.)
Although I was quite clear about why I had exposed Hiltzik’s sock puppets, Hiltzik pretended that I had “outed” him because of his liberal politics. He suggested that I was disrespectful of privacy — this coming from someone who was once reassigned because he had snooped into his colleagues’ e-mail. He also took the occasion to suggest that I am a racist — because I oppose illegal immigration.
Fortunately, virtually all of his commenters seem to have understood how dishonest his response was. The second comment to his post sums it up well:
Well, if someone starts leaving comments as “MrStrawMan,” we’ll know who it is.
With a reaction like Hiltzik’s, it’s hard to feel too bad about the blog suspension.
But there is a bigger picture here.
Another part of me is sad to see the blog suspended, even temporarily — not because it is (was?) a great blog (it’s not), but because I am afraid that this may mark the end of The Times‘s experimentation with the Internet for quite some time. And that would be a very bad thing.
I firmly believe that a newspaper should interact with its readers. I published two “Outside the Tent” columns in The Times last year. These were columns that allowed critics of the paper to criticize it, on its own op-ed page. It was a great experiment, although it appears to have died a quiet death.
There is no better way to interact with readers than by using the Internet. And last year, when Michael Kinsley began an experiment with interactive editorials, or “wikitorials,” I supported the effort. When the first one was defaced by pornography, many declared the experiment a failure — but I believed that it had been a success, just because the paper had the guts to undertake it.
In my year-end post reviewing the paper’s performance, I praised the fact that the paper had allowed Hiltzik to start a blog, saying in an update to the post:
[H]ow could I have failed to mention that L.A. Times columnist Michael Hiltzik started a blog of his own, hosted at the paper’s web site? It even has comments — and Hiltzik reads them and responds. I hope to see many more blogs like his.
I didn’t know anything about Michael Hiltzik when I said that, or I wouldn’t have made that comment. I don’t really want to see blogs like his — blogs manned by deceptive sock-puppeteering destroyers of strawman arguments. What I wanted to see was blogs manned by honest reporters and columnists of all political persuasions, who would be willing to engage their reading audience on a personal level.
I still want to see that. But I’m afraid that this incident may have ensured that we won’t see any such blogs on the Times‘s web site for a long time to come.
I hope I’m wrong. I hope that Times editors realize that their mistake was not the decision to allow a staff writer to operate a blog — it was the choice of Michael Hiltzik as that blogger. I hope that this is not the end of the paper’s experiment in using the Internet to interact with its readers. It is a noble experiment, and I want to see it continue.