Say it with me: It’s not the pseudonym! It’s the sock-puppetry!
It strikes me that it’s a very clever thing that the Los Angeles Times has done, defining Michael Hiltzik’s transgression as simply posting comments under a pseudonym. That, of course, is not why he is the laughingstock of much of the blogosphere, as I have made clear many times. Hiltzik is mocked, not for using a pseudonym, but because he used his pseudonyms dishonestly, as “sock puppets” who praised and defended him while pretending not to be him.
But his newspaper’s editors are doing a little pretending, too. They are pretending, as Hiltzik did in his initial defense of his sock-puppetry, that his real offense was simply using a pseudonym online. This definition of the transgression accomplishes several related goals for the newspaper.
It trivializes the offense. What’s the big deal about using a pseudonym?
It allows Hiltzik defenders to argue that his critics are hypocrites. After all, most everyone on the Internet does it. Why, even the guy who caught him does it — his real name is Patrick Frey, yet he calls himself Patterico!
And it allows the paper to maintain the pretense that it abides by standards of honesty and integrity that are greater than those observed by the rabble of the blogosphere. Hiltzik’s defenders claim that his only mistake was to adopt the loose practices of the blogosphere. Newspaper editors claim to be upset because, after all, the L.A. Times is better than that! It would never stoop to the standards of those bloggers!
It’s all a load of horse manure, yet many people are falling for it, large and small. For example, NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen was interviewed on Hugh Hewitt’s show. From the transcript:
HH [Hugh Hewitt]: What do you make of Mr. Hiltzik’s behavior?
JR [Jay Rosen]: Well, I think that when you are a writer today online, and you write in your own name, you should do everything in your own name, and creeping around the web under anonymous handles is just bad behavior. It’s bad practice, and you shouldn’t do it. And he got caught.
HH: What should, if any, the punishment be of him?
JR: Oh, well, I don’t really recommend what punishment should be for journalists, but I think it would be very surprising to me if he kept any column, kept his job, kept his space at the L.A. Times. I would be surprised if they kept him on.
HH: Oh, really? You know, Patterico, who revealed it, is urging that he not be disciplined at all beyond the public embarrassment. Do you think the Times has to get rid of him?
JR: Well, the reason I say that, Hugh, is that they said in their announcement on the blog that he had violated Times policy.
HH: Oh, yeah. And have you read their code of ethics?
JR: I have not read this part of it, but they explained that…I would have the same rule, wouldn’t you? You can’t go around with any other name than your own name.
HH: Yes, what they actually said, it was very clever, Jay Rosen. They said his guilt was not revealing himself as a Times reporter when he engaged the public.
Hugh didn’t elaborate at that moment what was clever about it, but he has said it on other occasions. It was indeed clever, for the reasons I have stated.
By the way, Rosen is a blogger himself, with a well-respected blog called PressThink. Jay is left of center, but he is honest, savvy, and knowledgeable about media ethics issues. I actually considered sending Jay my post before publishing it to see what he thought, both about its importance and the way I expressed it. (Ultimately, having alluded to the story in comments on another blog, I felt a time pressure to put the case together quickly, and didn’t get around to it.)
Jay ought to understand the distinction between what Hiltzik did and simply using a pseudonym in a non-dishonest way. But if he does, he didn’t express that understanding in the interview with Hugh. If Jay has been misdirected by the paper’s characterization of Hiltzik’s actions (and I stress the word “if”), then I think a lot of other people will too.
[UPDATE: Jay says in the comments that he understands this perfectly well. My point wasn’t to assert that he didn’t. That’s why I said I stressed the word “if.’ My point was that Jay should know the difference, but said nothing about it in the interview. He says in comments that it’s because he wasn’t asked. I do see that I did imply that Jay “fell for it” in another section of the post. That was sloppy language. Apologies to Jay. — Ed.]
Take this lefty blogger. She quotes from Hiltzik’s dishonest defense, and says:
Later in the same post, Hiltzik notes that 230 of the 259 comments on one of Frey’s posts were pseudonymous. All of this appears to be true, and it’s very common for many people, including people I know, to post pseudonymous comments on this blog.
So why, given the accepted practice of assumed names on blogs, did the Times suspend Hiltzik? It somehow seems wrong and hasty and not in keeping with good journalism for the Times to so quickly shut down an otherwise solid writer’s blog. Plus, do bona fide journalists not have the right that every other writer on the Internet has – to post under a pseudonym?
If they don’t, they should. But they shouldn’t have the right to use those pseudonyms as a chorus of cheering sock puppets.
This critic misses the point as well.
What Hiltzik did — sock-puppetry — is something that no self-respecting blogger would ever do. Every blogger who took the time to read my post instantly “got it” — and knows that the above commenters on the Hiltzik situation are missing the point entirely.
I wonder if that’s what the paper’s editors want. I’d like to think not. I’d like to think that they understand exactly what was wrong about what Hiltzik did. But so far, they have given no indication of this.
I hope that, whatever the final resolution of this matter is, that the editors will issue a statement that shows they understand why Hiltzik’s actions were wrong. It’s not the pseudonym! It’s the sock-puppetry!