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.