The ethic of identity

My ethic of identity is simple and clear: I stand by my words here and elsewhere with my name. I tell commenters that I will give them credence if they do likewise.

Elsewhere, online and in journalism, the ethic of identity is less clear today. Take as illustration the case of this post involving Politico and a bit of sockpuppetry from an employee of the newspaper in the comments.

The shortest possible synopsis: Politico’s Michael Calderone criticized Off the Bus’ Mayhill Fowler for criticizing Todd Purdum’s “hatchet job” on Bill Clinton — her words — and for misrepresenting herself — his word — when she questioned and recorded Clinton … and I, in turn, criticized Calderone parenthetically using this as an illustration of the clubbiness of the press. Calderone emailed me twice and then called me in short order to complain about my complaint and about the context (a discussion of race in newsrooms). We disagreed.

I arrived home and found a comment on my post that echoed his opinions closely under the name Mary. I looked up the IP and found it came from a Politico-related company. I responded to Mary and noted the source — and the irony that this appeared to be a person at Politico misrepresenting herself. Calderone emailed me saying he did not write the comment — which I hadn’t said — but acknowledged that a colleague did. He then left a comment on my post — which is how I would have preferred this discussion to have happened, in public. I looked at the IP address and it was identical to Mary’s. So I then asked him point-blank whether he wrote Mary’s comment. He said he did not and I take him at his word. I suppose the IP is the company’s firewall.

So I wrote to Politico’s editor, John Harris, asking his policy and views for this post. (Here is the complete email exchange.) On reporters’ identity, Harris said: “At Politico I expect reporters to identify themselves clearly as journalists when asking questions of public officials or average citizens alike. If there were exceptions to this, I would want as editor to be closely consulted about the reasons.”

But then I was rather shocked at what he said about hidden identity in comments — sockpuppetry: “My preference is that if Politico staff are going to engage in debates about journalism they do so with name attached. But the case of leaving comments on a blog or submitting a question to an on-line chat strikes me as not exactly involving sacred principles. When I was at the Post I would frequently send in questions under various to colleagues for their on-line chats, just to be mischievous. These days with a new publication I’m too busy for that nonsense. In any event, have you never done something similar?”

No, I have not. I am surprised that Harris would treat this as a prank even as he acknowledged that “Mary” not only did not reveal her Politico affiliation or reveal a last name but also gave a false first name. This is how you want your employees to act in a news organization? I would think that news organizations would be particularly sensitive to this after the cases of Lee Siegal of the New Republic and Michael Hiltzik of the LA Times.

I especially find it odd that Politico is not living up to the standard to which Calderone holds Mayhill Fowler. Why the slack? Well, after all, it’s only a blog and only a comment, eh? Said Harris: “I don’t get the fuss about the identity of the blog commenter.”

So what of Mayhill Fowler? I agree with Off the Bus cofounder (and friend) Jay Rosen that ideally, she would have revealed her affiliation to Clinton. But in a good profile of her in the LA Times, she makes it clear that her recorder was in the open. And I repeat my contention in my debate with the Guardian’s Michael Tomasky that this idea of playing by journalism’s rules becomes almost moot when journalism can done by any witness with a tape recorder and a blog. Says the Guardian’s Neil McIntosh:

I’m not sure how traditional journalistic rules of engagement (off the record, on the record, scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours) can be enforced when everyone has a camcorder in their pocket, and an easy way to reach millions via WordPress and some Googlejuice. In the reporting of public, or semi-public, or even private events where there are more than a few present, the only battle left is over who does the story best, and gets it up first.

This is about a few things: publicness., professionalism, and identity.

The acts of public figures in public places and even our lives there are now more public than ever. In an age that values transparency, I think that’s a good thing.

I understand the wistfulness for a set of professional rules carried out by a finite set of professionals. It seemed so in-control then. But I also think it is a very good thing that journalism and the sunshine it brings are opened wide. And my point to Calderone (and to Tomasky) was that we need to beware using these rules as a means to limit journalism to a closed club.

So now back to identity. This is more than an issue of professionalism (though I do think Politico and other news organizations should hold to a standard of open and persistent identity in their sets of rules). I think open and honest identity is an ethic for everyone online or off. Standing by your words and thoughts is a matter of etiquette and honor and respect for those with whom you are speaking. I believe that true identity is the secret to Facebook’s success. I see a layer of identity on the internet that will have higher value than the that without identity or with false identity.

If you want to disagree with what I say, great. But at least have the balls I do and say it under your own name.

: LATER: It gets worse. I got email from the person calling herself “Mary.” She misses the point by a mile. I won’t quote her by name; I leave it to her to have the guts to add her name to this discussion. She asked me not to post her email. I said sorry, but she works in public. I have to quote some of what she said:

My conduct seems standard practice. My stories frequently get hundreds scathing comments and spark harsh e-mails from readers that don’t identify themselves or where they work. If I’m interested in engaging further or curious whether they work for a particular campaign, I write them. . . .

This was the first time I’ve ever commented on a blog and I ended up embarrassed at work as a result, which leaves me questioning whether it’s worth it to join in on the great democratization of media.

Now that I realize anything I say can be escalated to my boss — without any obligation to contact me first — I think I’ll be staying off the Interwebs for a while.

Some of my response:

You miss the point by a mile.

This is a matter of honesty, integrity, and ethics.

You lied. You did not disclose your identity and affiliation. You even made up your name.

Should journalists lie? Ever?

Standard practice? God forbid. . . .

You say that you shouldn’t interact on the internet. That is precisely the wrong lesson to take from this. You should interact with your public but you should do so in a transparent and honest manner. . . .

I said more. I’ll spare you and her. Mind you, this is not a discussion with an unwashed blogger. This is a discussion with a journalist at a journalistic organization with a journalism degree. I find that shocking.

Truth is not a hard lesson to teach, is it?

: LATER STILL: Jacques Steinberg picks up on the Fowler story in tomorrow’s Times. There w have Jonathan Alter taking the clubby position and Jane Hamsher firing a grenade launcher through it:

“This makes it very difficult for the rest of us to do our jobs,” Jonathan Alter, a columnist and political reporter for Newsweek, said in an interview. “If you don’t have trust, you don’t get good stories. If someone comes along and uses deception to shatter that trust, she has hurt the very cause of a free flow of public information that she claims she wants to assist.”

“You identify yourself when you’re interviewing somebody,” Mr. Alter added. “It’s just a form of cheating not to.”

But to Jane Hamsher, a onetime Hollywood producer who founded Firedoglake, a politics-oriented Web site that tilts left, Mr. Alter’s rules of the road are in need of repaving. For starters, she said, the onus was on Mr. Clinton to establish who Ms. Fowler was before deciding to speak as he did. That he failed to quiz her at all, Ms. Hamsher said, was Mr. Clinton’s problem, not Ms. Fowler’s. As a result, Ms. Hamsher said, the public got to experience the unplugged musings of a former president (and candidate’s spouse) in a way that might never have been captured on tape by an old boy on the bus like Mr. Alter.

“It’s hurting America that journalists consider their first loyalty to be to their subjects, and not to the people they’re reporting for,” she said. Told, for example, that the Times ethics policy states that “staff members should disclose their identity to people they cover (whether face to face or otherwise),” Ms. Hamsher was dismissive. In the context of political reporting, she said, such guidelines are intended to “protect this clubby group of journalists and their high-ranking political subjects, and keep access to themselves.”

“That,” she added, “is not the world we’re living in anymore.”