Los Angeles Times editors announced this afternoon that they are discontinuing Michael Hiltzik’s Golden State column, as well as the blog of the same name. Hiltzik will be reassigned after serving a suspension. Here is the editors’ note:
The Times is discontinuing Michael Hiltzik’s Golden State column, which ran in the Business section, because the columnist violated the newspaper’s ethics guidelines. This follows the suspension last week of his blog on latimes.com, which also has been discontinued. Hiltzik has acknowledged using pseudonyms to post a single comment on his blog on latimes.com and multiple comments elsewhere on the Web that dealt with his column and other issues involving the newspaper.
Hiltzik did not commit any ethical violations in his newspaper column, and an internal inquiry found no inaccurate reporting in his postings in his blog or on the Web. But employing pseudonyms constitutes deception and violates a central tenet of The Times’ ethics guidelines: Staff members must not misrepresent themselves and must not conceal their affiliation with The Times. This rule applies equally to the newspaper and the Web world.
Over the past few days, some analysts have used this episode to portray the Web as a new frontier for newspapers, saying that it raises fresh and compelling ethical questions. Times editors don’t see it that way. The Web makes it easier to conceal one’s identity, and the tone of exchanges is often harsh. But the Web doesn’t change the rules for Times journalists.
After serving a suspension, Hiltzik will be reassigned.
UPDATE: Kevin Roderick has the text of a staff memo from Editor Dean Baquet and Managing Editor Doug Frantz, which expands on the Editors’ Note:
By now most of you know that Mike Hiltzik has acknowledged violating the paper’s ethics guidelines. He did so by using pseudonyms to post a single comment on his blog on latimes.com and multiple comments elsewhere on the Web that dealt with his column and other issues involving the newspaper.
Because of this violation, we are discontinuing Mike’s column in the newspaper, Golden State, and his blog of the same name. In addition, we are suspending Mike without pay for a period of time. At the end of the suspension, he will be reassigned.
Killing a column is a serious step. We don’t take it lightly. Mike did not commit any ethical violations in his newspaper column, and an internal inquiry found no inaccurate reporting in his postings in his blog or on the Web.
But employing pseudonyms constitutes deception and violates a central tenet of our ethics guidelines: We do not misrepresent ourselves and we do not conceal our affiliation with The Times. This rule applies equally to the newspaper and the Web world. We expect Times employees to behave with integrity and follow our guidelines in all journalistic forums.
A columnist has a special place within The Times. Editors, colleagues and, most of all, readers must trust the integrity and judgment of a columnist because of the freedom that comes with the job. Mike often used his column to pillory business leaders for duplicity or violating the trust of employees, shareholders or the public and we are no longer comfortable granting him that special place within our newspaper.
Over the past few days, some analysts have used this episode to portray the Web as a new frontier for newspapers. Some have said it raises fresh and compelling ethical questions. We don’t see it that way. The Web makes it easier to conceal one’s identity, and the tone of exchanges is often harsh. But the Web doesn’t change the rules for journalists.
The Web has created new opportunities for newspapers. It is undoubtedly a big part of our future. It is a competitive and chaotic world. The most important attributes we bring to that new world are our reputation, our integrity and our determination to put out a great newspaper that behaves in accordance with the highest ethical standards.
Dean and Doug
UPDATE x2: Obviously, the decision was the editors’ to make, and they have made it. I will have to reflect on this. I may post further thoughts over the weekend. Regardless of whether this was the right move, I take no joy in the result, and I encourage readers to show class and restraint in their comments.
Meanwhile, selected reactions will be posted below the fold as they come in. If you are on the main page, click on “more” for those reactions; otherwise, simply keep reading:
The memo from Editor Dean Baquet and Managing Editor Doug Frantz puts it pretty well, but almost misses Hiltzik’s crime against authorial morality in pinpointing the one against editorial policy . . .
The betrayal of trust is definitely one of journalism’s most serious offenses.
But from a blogger’s point of view, Hiltzik’s sin wasn’t posting under a pseudonym. Half the bloggers on the web do that, and some even make a living at it.
No, he stumbled by manufacturing two of his greatest fans, posing as them on his own blog and others, and trying to mislead the public as to his own popularity – both the height of vanity and the depth of stupidity for a blogger. It was only a matter of time before someone exposed him. If you proclaim yourself a truth-teller and analyst of fact, you can’t get away with lying for long in this venue.
In short, Hiltzik was bogus. He decided it was better to look loved than to let his audience ever dislilke him. And he got kneecapped for his efforts.
End of chapter.
It’ll be interesting to see what fun, experimental turf a Times blogger tries to lead us all into next.
The L.A. Times, in classic “bury the news” mode, has released this news on a Friday afternoon. A Times editor’s note to readers is at the subject link.
Hiltzik will be “reassigned.” I think that is overly generous on the Times’ part, considering this isn’t Hiltzik’s first ethical transgression. Apparently his pseudonym “sock puppetry,” as some bloggers are calling it, on top of hacking into his colleagues’ email accounts while he was stationed in Moscow years ago, wasn’t enough to merit firing in his employer’s eyes.
Unless Hiltzik has suddenly decided to reform, what will his ethical transgression be at his next Times assignment?
Isn’t it at least a little ironic that the Times releases this information on a Friday afternoon, traditional burial ground of bad news– in an obvious effort to have the story pass with as little attention as possible? So much for transparency.
Michael Hiltzik is just one of hundreds of examples of ideologicially blinkered agenda journalists at the Times. He just got caught.
The Times concludes “an internal inquiry found no inaccurate reporting.”
Yeah. Right. Very believable. Hiltzik may become an invisible presence at the paper, the Pulitzer Prize winner at the copy desk, or he may quit, but he’ll no doubt haunt message boards.
But the culture at the Times that produced him quite obviously stays the same.
The LA Times has consistently dodged this issue and issued in its editors’ note what I can only call disinformation:
“Over the past few days, some analysts have used this episode to portray the Web as a new frontier for newspapers, saying that it raises fresh and compelling ethical questions. Times editors don’t see it that way. The Web makes it easier to conceal one’s identity, and the tone of exchanges is often harsh. But the Web doesn’t change the rules for Times journalists.”
Here they go again: The old dodge of mischaracterizing an argument you don’t want to answer. But refusing to discuss the issue won’t make it go away. The Times’ evasions fool no one, any more than did Hiltzik’s.
This unwillingness to face reality sheds light on the Times’ culture of self-deception, a culture that let Hiltzik think he could get away with deceiving others.
The Los Angeles Times gives Michael Hiltzik a third life. Remember Hiltzik was reassigned to the Spring Street business beat after being disciplined for hacking into and reading a colleague’s e-mails while in Moscow with the L.A. Times.
Why would ANY employer want this unethical jerk writ[i]ng for them?
. . . .
Hiltzik has received a slap on the wrist AGAIN.
The only special place within the newspaper Flap would give Hiltzik would be OUT THE DOOR.
(All emphasis in original.)
If they’re going to go that far, why not just fire him? It smells like the Times recognizes his credibility is shot but doesn’t want to pull the trigger on a guy who won them a Pulitzer — and whose termination would be a regarded by some as a feather in the cap of the blogosphere in general and their bete noire in particular. So you end up with an odd compromise in which Hiltzik is publicly humiliated by the paper even while it reaffirms its association with him. And Patterico gets a scalp he doesn’t want. Bizarre.
I thought suspending his site was sufficient. Not because what he did wasn’t wrong, but because blogging is already too dangerous, as my boss knows only too well. If he’d plagiarized, defamed someone, or invented facts to support his stories, that’d be one thing. Being a wanker in need of an occasional comment-section security blanket is something else. Especially when you’ve already been caught and publicly disciplined by the Times’s own personal wanker police.
Allah and I see this issue similarly. He is correct that I didn’t want a “scalp” out of this.
Captain Ed also has a very sensible reaction:
I never had a high opinion of Hiltzik before the sock puppetry, and have an even lower opinion of him now. However, one has to wonder whether the Times went overboard with its reaction. As the editors state, Hiltzik didn’t break any rules in his column or in his reporting for the newspaper, at least according to the editors. The violations occurred on the Golden State blog and at Patterico’s Pontifications.
It seems to me that killing the blog and suspending Hiltzik would have been sufficient for the violations he committed. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t think Hiltzik wrote well enough or posed good enough arguments to warrant his own column anyway, as his silly and ignorant rantings over Hugh Hewitt’s Sitemeter stats proved well enough. If the Times thought so, then they should have just deep-sixed the column for that reason and been honest about it. If they liked Hiltzik’s work on the column, then they should have kept the punishment to the same venue in which the violations occurred.
The message the Times wants to send with this action doesn’t appear very clear to me. Why go through all the hassle to kill his blog and his column, suspend him, and then have his work still appear in their newspaper? Cancelling his blog acknowledges that he has shot his credibility in this arena, and the suspension serves as a financial penalty for embarrassing his newspaper. But canceling his column demonstrates a lack of faith in Hiltzik’s credibility as a columnist — which must then also apply to his work as a reporter. The Times has kneecapped Hiltzik for any other assignment at the Times.
The Times had the right principles in mind when they addressed this situation; they held Hiltzik accountable for his sad and pathetic attempts to invent people who would agree with him. Either they went overboard in their attack on his print work, or they should have fired him outright, and to do the latter would have been completely dishonest. The true punishment for Hiltzik’s foolishness is the knowledge that he made himself into a joke. The Times couldn’t leave it at that and turned him into a tragedy instead.
The L.A. Times obviously knows the best time to release bad news, which is why they chose today to reveal that they’re suspending Michael Hiltzik for his recurring quadrophenia. . . . I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for real, systemic change from most legacy media organs. At least not until 2014 or so.
Interestingly, the L.A. Times has posted about the issue on . . . a blog! Times opinion guy Matt Welch has this entry about the affair. He calls my reaction in this post “conflicted.” Feel free to go leave a comment.
I’m glad he didn’t lose his job. I imagine this was a tough call for the editors and they did what they felt was required. I also wonder if such a punishment would have been handed out were it a more popular, more widely read columnist.
I still see it as more of a personal failing than a professional one, owing to the nature of his comments to and about himself and his paper. No point in piling on. The Internet can take a toll from people. Often it brings out our very worst. That’s one reason why I opted to blog under my own name.
No doubt I have commented and posted some things over time I regret and might even cringe over now, though not too many. But because I did it as myself I learned from them. I doubt I would have learned anything from those experiences if I hadn’t been forced to own them internally because I was visible from without.
I think that makes a lot of sense.
On the upside for Hiltzik, at least they didn’t fire him. Although I have no love for Hiltzik, I think the LA Times really overreacted. A little slap on the wrist and a warning not to do it again would have been plenty of punishment given the minor nature of his offense.
Hiltzik was caught red-handed using sock puppet identities to make comments on blogs. The Times said in their statement the Hiltzik will be reassigned after the suspension. The statement is disingenuous, though, by missing the central point of what happened here. They phrase it as just an old fashioned ethics issue. But it’s a bit different than what they make it out to be. The odd thing here is they are killing his column and suspending him but say he did nothing wrong with the column or his reporting. So it’s somewhat of an overreaction on the part of the Times’ editors.
This has been a difficult time for the editors and managers over at the LA Times.
What do you do when one of your Pulitzer Prize winning staff columnists commits a fraud of persona in order to bolster the positions he stakes out in the pursuit of establishing credibility in a New Media medium?
To Mike Hiltzik, all I can say is bu-bye.
Nice Pulitzer you have there, but bu-bye.
Yes, I know that I agreed with and defended one of your posts (that bloggers are wrong in their analysis of newspaper fortunes) but there is the exit to the airplane, please use it. Now.
Hiltzik crossed a line when under fire at his blog, he deployed several pseudonyms to attack his critics.
I support pseudonyms and anonymous posts because of tradition and an occasional need for such protection. But Hiltzik’s purpose was to deceive.
Romenesko has mentioned the yanking of Hiltzik’s column.
I found the action appropriate within the boundaries of the Times’ ethics guidelines. The action is punitive and most importantly, narrow. It is in relation to this incident only. For better or worse, the Times as an employer can not take broad action against an employee that isn’t warranted by that employee’s actions.
Baquet and Frantz, in my opinion, took the correct action in response to Hiltzik’s behavior.
So, LAT columnist Michael Hiltzik’s unveiled antics have given way to the term “sock puppets.” And the puppet master has been given the smackdown – the LAT is killing the blog, his column and suspending him for a couple of days without pay. But they’re not firing him. Which is good, but I do have some mixed feelings about this whole situation, especially since I’ve had my blog shut down before by the LAT lawyers . . . .
Thus ends the roundup for now.