The first layer of transparency: Identity

My take on LA Times reporter/blogger Michael Hiltzik‘s use of pseudonyms to comment on blogs in defense of his real self is that this is more than catching Hiltzik doing something silly and schizo.

This reveals a more fundamental issue in the relationship of mainstream news to blogs and interaction: Journalists have lost the ability to interact as people. Sometimes it’s a matter of alleged journalistic prissiness, a misguided attempt to maintain objectivity or whatever we call it now. Sometimes it’s a matter of corporate policy, rules that try to keep reporters from speaking except when edited. And sometimes it’s a matter of personal weirdness, an inability to face people directly. Another symptom of the disease — which I complain about here — is reporters sending emails to bloggers and demanding that their comments be off-the-record. Reporters, mind you, should be the last people on earth asking to be off the record.

The bottom line: Journalists who are afraid to speak as themselves in public. They thus separate themselves from the public they serve: scared of us or feeling superior to us, but not among us in any case. That is a mistake and an insult.

Now I was recently speaking with a journalist who reminds me that reporters and their institutions are larger, more visible, and juicier targets for attack than others. If you write about the Middle East enough, you get gun-shy seeing your name in forum posts or blog posts or emails. I get that.

But, still, here’s Hiltzik choosing to enter into a conversation with the public — the act of blogging is precisely that — but then pulling back to refuse to interact with honestly, at eye level. It’s an act of lying and of cowardice.

He complains that others online hide behind anonymity. And I agree with him in my general mistrust of the anonymous. But he doesn’t get to hide behind that. He has a byline and a podium and he can’t dash in and out of the closet, try as he might.

I would not fire Hiltzik. He screwed up and made an ass of himself. That is punishment enough. But let his story be a lesson to other journalists: The first level of transparency in your dealings with the public is identity. Stand behind what you say.

  • The default in the new Internet world is that people can figure out your identity – or at least tie together contributions in disparate places as the same person evin if it is unclear who that single person is. And tie your online identity to your offline one for that matter.

    This is, in general, a good thing because it makes you take responsibility for your speech. There are obvious exceptions such as those whose life is clearly in danger from people they report on or criticise but I don’t think much short of well-founded fear of death is a valid reason for anonymity.

  • It seems that frequently, journalists are not ready for all the responsibility that comes with their job. I know a lot of young reporters that do this kinds of weird or even abnoxious things, but my feeling is that they are just unsure about what to do because of lack of experience. It may be because many are in this trade for wrong reasons.

    It is weird for reporters to prefer speaking off-the-record though – no matter how you look at it. It’s like for computer programmers to obstain from using email. It happens, sometimes though… But it’s just so weird to the outside world.

    Also, Jeff, I wouldn’t generalize so broadly as to say that all reporters are “afraid to speak as themselves in public.” Many intellectuals in journalism do so frequently: Sullivan, Friedman, Kurtz, etc., etc. Generalizing so broadly serves no good purpose, in my opinion.

    Ordinary reporters are also not all “cowards” trying to hide behind editorial wall. For one, in my journalism days I gave interviews and spoke to reporters about issues frequently controversial and sensitive to my community and peer group…

  • Of all of the people leaving comments on the internet, what percentage obfuscate their identity? Of all the journalists leaving comments, what percentage use fake names? Is it just a matter of being embarrassing for a journalist when caught out?

  • clinton

    I heard you on NPR (I think it was Diane Reem (sp?) the other day. The conversation was about objectivity in reporting. At the risk of being an ass kisser i must say that i tended to agree with your perspective (that “objectivity” is a bit of a false god and ultimately unattainable and that transparency is important as a filter to separate facts from opinion). If i havent stated your oppinion at the least i have stated mine. That said the idea of news sources reverting to pure partisan politicking seems both scary and unlikely. The distant and unattainable goal of objectivity seems to me like the promise of salvation for evangelical christians. keeps em in line.

  • Well said, every word. He is rationale for using pseudonyms is flawed for exactly the reasons you point out. It’s not only cowardly. It’s childish. If a person can’t stand behind the words that he’s saying, perhaps that’s a signal the he should keep his mouth shut.

    I don’t think lack of experience is a good reason for false identity. The man won a Pultizer Prize for goodness sake. If he could figure out how to do that. He could figure out how to leave a comment with integrity and figure out that if he didn’t folks would be able to track back who he was.

    I think the point about firing him could be moot. In my book, I don’t know what he could do to restore respect for hiw writing.

  • Right of Center

    If he is concocting false identities to “defend” himself in a blog, why should I not believe he’d do the same in print to “defend” one of his stories.

    Sorry. He should be fired. Fake is fake and fake and journalism don’t mix.

    He lost credibility and that is the “coin of the relm”

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  • I can’t speak for much of the world, but my experience has been that journalists are far more likely to use their names on the internet than most bloggers and commenters. But as with most things in the blogging world, it’s hard to know for sure.

  • Dennis Mosher

    The actual facts of the Hiltzik case go beyond mere anonymity.

    The guy was getting hammered by critical comments on his own L.A. Times sponsored blog. His normal response to disagreement was to pompously decree that all who differed with him were idiots.

    He seemingly was trying to build traffic by starting flame wars with established bloggers like Hugh Hewitt, Mickey Kaus and others. For the most part, the other bloggers refused to take the bait.

    No matter what he tried, the comment traffic on his blog was normally extremely sparse, with the exception of occasional waves of comments defending a blogger he had recently attacked.

    Outnumbered, maybe fifty to one, he invented imaginary friendly commenters to come to his rescue against his hordes of critics.

    The L.A. Times Golden State blog could have worked, if they had staffed the position with someone who could take the heat.

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  • richard mcenroe

    Well, of course he shouldn’t be fired; he’s a Democrat misquoting conservatives. Besides, it’s not like he did anything serious like plagiarize a movie review.

  • Jeff, you’ve been areound the Internet long enough to know that the issue wasn’t anonymity or even his belligerent affect; the issue was, pure and simply, fraud.

    If I were to invent two other online persona – “Armed Moderate” and “Armed Thinker” and use them to extol my – and each other’s – positions while bashing people who agreed with me, I’d be defrauding the people I’m in dialog with.

    Here’s part of what I wrote about this:

    If Hiltzik were – as a hypothetical – in a recovery program, and someone who posted on a recovery website or discussion board under a pseudonym, to protect his privacy in “the world”, to have connected the pseudonym and the person would be an act of gratuitous cruelty.

    But there would be no intersection between his life in the world – as a reporter, columnist of blogger – and the personal world in which he was talking about issues related to his recovery (or sexuality or diet or whatever).

    Patterico and I both started out blogging under pseudonyms that we defended – there were very few people who knew that Armed Liberal was Marc Danziger, and at my first blogger events, TG awkwardly introduced herself as “Mrs. Armed Liberal”. We both did it for what we felt were valid reasons, and have both since come out.

    But no one has ever wonder what I wrote or where I stand.

    Everything I’ve written as a blogger is out there, and there’s a very simple and transparent ability of any reader to look at my words and, if they so choose, form an impression about who I am and what I think.

    When Hiltzik (or John Lott, who did the same thing) broke that rule, what he did was to poison the dialog by creating a situation where readers can’t trust writers.

    Marc Danziger

  • Armed Moderate

    What he said.

  • Armed Thinker


  • Armed and Legged

    What they said.

  • Unarmed Don S

    I use psueds from time to time (I’m using one now). But using them in concert with each other to shape a debate or to make it appear that there is more interest in a debate than actually exists seems a bit sicko.

    I use psueds for two reasons primarily. For years I posted using my own name and rigorously never used a psued. One day I was called into my manager’s office and given a written warning over something which I had written under my own name (on my personal time). Someone had reported me to the management and they disagreed. I would be fired if I continued.

    I began using a psued that night and have never stopped. I now use my proper name only to express views I think uncontroversial. I also shook the dust of that place from my feet as soon after as I could manage. Actually both the employer and the BB where the squealer resided. It’s a nasty judgemental world out there so the #1 reason to use a pseud is self-protection.

    I also use pseuds to express a viewpoint, particularly when I need to pile sarcasm onto a worthy head. In this case the psuedname is carefully chosen and the medium is indeed part of the message in those situations. This kind of pseud has a half-life of maybe 3 comments and a day or two at most.

  • Mumblix Grumph

    I wouldn’t comment if I couldn’t use a pseudonym. (I’m sure that there are many who would applaud such a development).
    Any “733t H4xx0r” could figure out my identity in about 12 seconds. I just don’t want my real name floating around out there in case I say something that my free speech loving boss might dissagree with and have me canned. (She is NOT a “733t H4xx0r”!)
    If I was trying to build a following, or a career, I would use my real name, but I’m not, so just call me Mumblix Grumph.

  • Kevin Peters

    I don’t use pseudonyms anymore. I did for a while after I received some very nasty e-mail’s. I understand why some still do. Hiltzig’s offense is not the use of false ID’s, it the use of pseudinyms to deceive his readers. He wasn’t advancing his arguments. He was creating a false impression. On some of the threads he commented under his name and then praised himself under a pseudonym. The only MSM comparison would be if you found out that the letters to the editor section of the paper were not written by readers but were written by the reporters under false names Hiltzik wants to frame the debate strictly around the use of pseudonyms because he knows that he will have many bloggers who will defend that practice. And the MSM will join the fray around that issue because it allows them to trash the blogs. To psued or not to pseud is a valid discussion but if Hiltzik and his friends are allowed to frame the debate around this narrow popint he will be able to hide what he did. I don’t think he should be fired. I have read the L.A. Times for the last 38 years and I would get rid of him for other reasons but this action is very tacky, very unproffessional, but not a firing defense.

    Kevin Peters

  • Fernie

    Hiltzig’s offense is not the use of false ID’s, it the use of pseudinyms to deceive his readers.

    What the hell is the difference? Talk about hair-splitting.

  • TomK

    Isn’t the Golden State blog a “publication” of the LA Times? In using pseudonyms (more than 1) to make comments on the blog, didn’t Hiltzik in essence make up quotes (Joeblow says X. janeblow says you are absolutely right joeblow)? Isn’t making up people and quotes verboten in the newspaper world?

    Mike Royko in the old Chicago Daily News days used pseudonyms and fake quotes in his column (Good Jane, Bad Jane (Byrne) and Slats Grobnick (sp?). But that was very clearly satire.

  • I’m kinda torn on the issue of Hiltzik’s conduct. It looks bad and dishonest on its surface. But we have a tradition of this type of deception to spur debate. Ben Franklin would often opine, then write in letters under a pseudonym criticizing the position his real self had taken. Just to further the discussion on the issue at hand.

    I suppose the critical difference is that Franklin was trying to spur debate, not squelch it, which is what Hiltzik appears to have been attempting.

  • mcg

    What the hell is the difference? Talk about hair-splitting.

    The difference is actually tremendous; and it’s pretty sad if you don’t see the difference.

    We’re not talking about someone who chooses a single pseudonym and uses it consistently and exclusively. That’s just someone who chooses to be anonymous, and we can assign less credibility to what we read from that person as a result.

    What we are talking about here is someone who chose to pose as multiple people on the Web, under his own name and more than one pseudonym. By his writings he deliberately led people to believe that each of these characters was distinct; e.g., that “mikekoshi” was not, in fact, “Michael Hiltzik.” He then did this to offer his “real” identity support from those who would challenge or attack him.

    Imagine if he wrote a post on his Golden State blog, and then “mikekoshi” came up and said “this is a fantastic article.” Obviously he tried to be slightly more clever than that, but that’s the spirit of the distinction we are making.

    There is also the little matter that this practice violated his employer’s code of ethics.

  • Thomas Jefferson

    Pro Cynic: I knew Ben Franklin. I served with Ben Franklin. Michael Hiltzik is no Ben Franklin.

  • mcg

    Fernie, I might add: Michael H. used at least one of those pseudonyms in comments posted to his own blog. Why did he feel the need to conceal his identity in the comments sections of his own posts!?

  • Kevin Peters

    Some people use psuedonyms because they fear retribution. Some people use them because they just are not comfortable speaking out in public, even online. There are many commenters who use pseud’s but they use the same name consistently so you can track their pattern of arguments and respond to them. I don’t do it anymore but after a few nasty e-mails I did for a while. Hiltziks use of pseudonyms were not done for any legit reason, he used them to create a false image. Hiltziks use of pseudonyms were not used to extend the debate. he used them to create the false image of a community of opinion that was not there. he used them to hurl insults without standing behind them himself. He even used them to praise himself on a comment he signed his real name to.

    This isn’t complicated, or hairsplitting. Hiltzik used false id’s to create a false image of a community of people who agreed with him and praised him when it was a community of just one person. He used them to give compliments to himself and to pretend that other people were insulting his opponents when it was actually him. This is simple. It’s dishonest and cowardly.

  • He used a pseudonym for one reason only, because he didn’t want people to know it was him saying bad things about his competition.

  • The Monster

    I post pseudonymously so that my employer has no legal reason to claim that I am violating company policy on public statements. Since I never identify myself or my employer, I can’t be construed as speaking on behalf of the company.

  • Pro Cynic invites a great hypothetical question: How would Patterico have acted and the blogosphere reacted if Hiltzik had pulled a Benjamin Franklin and used his sock puppetry to counter his own arguments.

    I certainly would have been impressed and would have applauded the effort. I think most in the blogosphere would have reacted that way, too, and particularly so if the effort was a serious one.

    And therein lies the difference in having three Hiltziks in the blogosphere and how much value he puts in conceit.

  • penny

    Michael Hiltzik ought to be held to the same ethical standard that would have had him fired if he was caught writing letters to the editor at the LA Times under a pseudonym.

    There isn’t really a big difference.

    It’s all about integrity and ethics. He’s a sneaky liar that got outed. Period. More than the reprehensible actions of journalists like him, it’s the defense of this behavior by peers and publishers that has brought the MSM to where it stands today, distrusted and disliked. Hopefully, more broke with time too.

    Not firing him on the spot is a dumb move by the Times and will cost them. Can they really afford to preserve his by-line and be admired for that by the public? I think not.

  • Matthew Shelton (aka Redhawke)

    With respect, Mr. Jarvis, I must disagree with you as to whether Mr. Hiltzik deserves to be fired. For merely inventing a scokpuppet (not just a pseudonym), who argued for him, and who said things that he apparently felt he could not say, and to create a false consensus of opinion in his favor, he deserves at least suspension of his bloging “privileges.”

    However, I understand that, on at least one occasion, Mr. Hiltzik posted to a conservative-leaning blog (Patterico’s, IIRC) a comment (as mikekoshi)attacking Sen. Specter in a manner that parroted his own criticisms of Specter. He then shortly thereafter reported in his own blog of how Sen. Specter was taking heat “even on a conservative blog.” This was (as I understand it) in no small part to add credence to his earlier attacks on Specter in his own blog.

    Here’s the $64,000 question – how is that any different from a reporter inventing a source for a story? Mr. Hiltzik “created” his own story by posting as mikekoshi, and I don’t think it’s too much to presume that he did so as mikekoshi, at least in part, so that he could turn around and report that there was some kind of groundswell from conservatives against Specter. Needless to say, I doubt it would have had much punch to have said “As I was ripping on Specter here, I was also ripping on Specter in a conservative blog. Doesn’t that add weight to my position?”

    For attempting to defraud his readers by manufacturing a “groundswell” in favor of a position he stated, by repeating his accusations in another’s blog, then reporting his own acts as the acts of others, he deserves no better than to have his journalistic epaulets ripped from him, and be expelled from the journalistic service. To do less now would be one more blackeye on a profession that is already suffering from a deficit of eyes to blacken. IMO. FWIW.

  • “He used a pseudonym for one reason only, because he didn’t want people to know it was him saying bad things about his competition.”

    Actually, I don’t think that’s true. As Howard Kurtz detailed this morning, Hiltzik said equally nasty things about his competition under his own name, all the time.

    I am on record (repeatedly) as saying he should not be fired or disciplined for this any further. Suspension of the blog and humiliation are enough.

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