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Friday, April 21, 2006

LA Times columnist posts anonymous comments, has his blog suspended

Here's a story from today's Washington Post about Michael Hiltzik, a Pulitzer Prize winning columnist and blogger for the LA Times. Howard Kurtz writes that Hiltzik's blog was suspended when editors discovered that he had been posting comments to other blogs using fake names.

Hiltzik has apparently been sniping at conservative bloggers like Hugh Hewitt anonymously, and the LAT says that's a violation of its policy for reporters and editors to "identify themselves when dealing with the public." They're investigating the matter.

Hiltzik hasn't denied that he's been an anonymous troll. Before the editors suspended his blog, he wrote a response to one of the convervatives who complained about him:

"This is amusing, because most of the comments posted on his website are anonymous or pseudonymous. . . . Anonymity for commenters is a feature of his blog, as it is of mine. It's a feature that he can withdraw from his public any time he wishes. He has chosen to do that in one case only, and we might properly ask why. The answer is that he's ticked off that someone would disagree with him."

Well, maybe. But my gut reaction to this is that he shouldn't have been commenting anonymously. Anonymous commenters get to side-step responsibility for their remarks, and generally tend to dillute the conversation. People feel much freer to unleash their spiteful sides anonymously, and that's not really productive. Look no further than this thread about that Explore New England blogger plagiarist for evidence. I say responsible bloggers and journalists need to set high standards for themselves if they want to be taken seriously as sources of reliable information.

April 21, 2006 at 10:39 AM in Media/Keeping an eye on the competition | Permalink


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Wha? Uh, how would anyone know, if the comments were, you know, anonymous?

Posted by: anonymous plagiarist | Apr 21, 2006 4:02:23 PM

What's the difference between posting comments as anonymous versus using a fake name/email? evening is a fake name.

For whatever reason, anon talk doesn't irk me too badly.

Posted by: evening | Apr 22, 2006 8:32:02 AM

Evening is a fake name but there's an email address attached to your handle that makes it possible for me to respond to you off-blog (or off-list or whatever). There's a psychological difference, IMO. Also, if you post more than once to a given blog and use the same handle, you grow your identity on that blog. Regular readers of 802 Online don't know you personally, but they probably have a sense of your online personality (they would not expect you to randomly flame someone, for instance, given your demeanor here in the past).

I'm not "against" anonymous posting per se, but I take the poster with a bigger grain of salt if they post anonymously.

Posted by: Bill Simmon | Apr 22, 2006 5:07:39 PM

Bill - To me this part, "identify themselves when dealing with the public," means that using anything but his real name would be bad. So if he used a moniker, like kittens950, then that would be bad as it was anonymous or pseudonymous.

I think there's a fine line between the two, I'm commenting pseudonymously, but I could easily just write in some moniker and fake email address to be more pseudonymous, which would be anonymous, practically speaking. I guess that is why I keep thinking everyone is using anonymous to mean more than just "anonymous" as the name.

All that said, I don't know if it is fair or appropriate for the newspaper to say reporters must "identify themselves" when commenting on people's blogs. Are they a reporter 24/7? Why can't they use a moniker to pop-off, seriously comment, or whatever while they're online (using the moniker to represent their personal life)? Are they not allowed to enjoy the 'net like the rest of us just because they are a reporter?

Posted by: evening | Apr 24, 2006 8:22:01 PM

The LA Times has just spoken: you are a reporter 24/7, and the writer in question has not only lost his Times blog, but has also lost his print column and is suspended. [See www.nytimes.com/2006/05/01/technology/01blogger.html.] According to the NYTimes article, the LA Times will "reassign" him after his suspension. Back to the obituaries desk, perhaps?

Looks like the investigation cleared him of other wrongdoing, but the pseudonym issue alone was grounds for disciplinary action. Here's what the LA Times said, as quoted in the NYTimes: "But employing pseudonyms constitutes deception and violates a central tenet of The Times's ethics guidelines: Staff members must not misrepresent themselves and must not conceal their affiliation with The Times."

It seems like a harsh punishment, but I have to agree with their rationale. I do wonder how explicitly companies are expressing the ways in which their old policies apply to new technologies, like the Internet and blogging. It seems like some of these issues only get figured out after the fact, after a line has been crossed.

The writer's bosses probably wouldn't have cared if he was using a fake name on an Internet dating site. But if he was using "Mark Twain" to tackle issues-oriented material--such as defending his own blog!--or anything that could be remotely construed as work-related, then he certainly should have been honest about who he is and what he does.

The bottom line: Do we really need MORE reasons for the public's trust in the media to erode? Let's hold ourselves--as individuals and as an industry--to the highest ethical standards of openness and full disclosure. Maybe then we can stand on higher moral ground when demanding this from shifty, secrecy-obsessed institutions who are doing the nation real harm, like ExxonMobil and the White House.

Posted by: Lisa Crean | May 1, 2006 11:56:12 AM

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