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.”

  • John Doe

    Jeff: I totally disagree. If we couldn’t post anonymously, how would we go about spreading false accusations or defaming others with impunity?

  • Quite apart from the ethics of sockpuppetry, I cannot understand the motive for disguising one’s identity. Surely wants to project itself as being in the center of dynamic political discourse. How does it accomplish that goal by hiding its light under a bushel, presenting its own ideas as those of some unidentified “Mary”?

  • Liz

    I understand the ethics of what you’re asking. But if people couldn’t use pseudonyms or silly usernames, there would be a lot fewer posts on blogs, discussion boards, etc. A lot of people do not want to be identifiable by the proper name. I think full disclosure would be a nice aim but the custom of having creative usernames is so engrained, I don’t think it’ll ever go away.

    You use your name because you have a public profile. But for a lot of people, surfing the Internet is something they do in their spare time, on a break from work, and they don’t want to be identifiable. I’m not sure if we should have one standard for journalists and one for everyone else.

  • liz — obviously it is true that “a lot of people do not want to be identifiable by the proper name” but why would want to belong to that category?

  • Tom

    “I see a layer of identity on the internet that will have higher value…”

    This is something I think a lot about. I expect in the very near future each of us (well, those of us that really want to be part of the internet community) will have a verifiable internet presence that is independent of any particular application or network. In essence, our internet by-line. Those hiding behind anonymous or “mischievous” pseudonyms will be marginalized, while influence and respect will be the reward of those who are transparent in their views, affiliations and biases.

  • jeff

    i am fredwilson everywhere i can be, which is almost every service on the ‘net. i understand the “internet handle” but i’ve never used one.

    i loved your statement and reblogged it at


  • I follow Fred’s practice. Recently some unidentified scum assumed my identity and posted an ignorant comment at a number of lit blogs that are linked to my site…I had to email each of them individually to explain the situation. I think it is appalling that something like this can happen…has anyone else experienced anything similar, and if so, what is to be done?

  • George Pullman

    It seems that the “truth” is only valid when it suits your views and doesn’t bruise your ego. You hold “Mary” to a double standard: Whereas you defend Mayhill despite her use of false pretenses and specious journalistic practice (if you can call it journalism), you criticize “Mary” for using a pseudonym in a comment on a blog. Unlike you, most news organizations don’t have the time to check IP addresses. Perhaps as the self-identified new journalism police, you should take a closer look at your standards.

    Keep trying Jeff,

  • George (and thanks for using a full name!),

    I don’t see your point. I say that Fowler should identify herself. I criticize “Mary” for not identifying herself. Seems pretty darned clear on the identification issue.

    Fowler reporting what she heard is a separate issue and we may disagree about that but there’s no analogue to leaving an anonymous comment there.

    Keep trying, George.

  • works in media

    Being employed in the media and expressing political view points can be a career ending experience. I remember the edicts from management during “Gulf War I” to leave the antiwar sentiments off the air coming at the local level. Imagine the reaction one would get from their employer for expressing an honest opinion on media consolidation.
    Anonymity is preferable to losing ones livelihood.
    Respectfully yours….

  • You’d never tolerate lying in print but you tolerate lying to me in my blog in a conversation with me and my readers? Unacceptable. Unethical.

    If you’re a whistleblower or a Chinese or Iranian blogger, I understand. Anybody else: You’re chickenshit.

    And if you are going to hide, at least give the reader the courtesy of context: Tell me you work at, say, Time Warner, and that’s why you’re not leaving your name.

    what’s abhorrent about “Mary” is that she worked at Politico and was defending Politico but didn’t even say that. She lied.

    Who teaches jouranlists to lie? Who teaches them that it’s OK to lie when talking with readers? (That’s what I am.)

    Since when do we have editor who tolerate that — and admit to doing it themselves?

    This is professionalism? Aren’t the professionals the ones who say they hold the flame? They’re burning down the palace here, I’d say.

  • Like my grandfather always told me, if you don’t have the backbone to put your name to your words, you don’t really anything to say.

  • works in media —

    your argument is not illuminating in this instance. In what way could “Mary” have jeopardized her career by dropping the pseudonym? She was not dissenting or leaking or whistleblowing — she was supporting her colleague.

  • Here’s the heart of the matter (thanks, anonymous Tom):

    “Those hiding behind anonymous or “mischievous” pseudonyms will be marginalized, while influence and respect will be the reward of those who are transparent in their views, affiliations and biases.”

    Identified information from accountable individuals with transparent motives is simply more valuable – in general – than anonymous sniping. There will be exceptions, and that’s fine. But if truth and accountability don’t win overall, who wants to play?

  • Liz

    I think it is wrong to be misleading and pretending to be something (like ignorant of the person) is wrong, I’m not sure how much disclosure is really called for. It’s an ongoing debate in my field (sociology). It really depends on the context of the situation although no doubt a lot of people will judge me for allowing for a huge gray area. It’s not always easy to delineate what you do as a professional and what you are doing as a private individual.

    I know many want to draw a line in the ethical sand saying “this is acceptable, this is unacceptable” but some situations (say, investigative journalism) can sometimes warrant deception if the news is for the benefit of the public. I can say in this situation, she should have identified herself but I think it is dangerous to begin to veer into “always” and “never”s.

  • Mary’s use of the term “interweb” shows how far out of touch she is.

    It immediately stamps her as a media dinosaur.

    Of course she feels that her conduct is standard practice.

    Time for a reboot.

  • David,

    Or it’s an attempt to be ironic and hip.

    More than the wording, I think the attitude is what is behind. Journalists should not be frightened to talk with their publics.

  • Andy Freeman

    Once again, we see that journalism isn’t about informing people, it’s about maintaining special privileges for a group of self-appointed folks who believe that they should control what other people know.

    In this case, the rules are fairly simple.

    Journalists are supposed to lie to “bad people” to get the goods on them. It’s only wrong when “journalists” lie to “good people” to get a story which suggests that they’re not good to the rubes.

  • Tobe

    Anonymous sourcing is standard fare in the MSM, especially when reporting on politics. Using false identities to post on blogs is an unfortunate byproduct of this ethos.

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  • Rick Anderson

    Not unlike HuffPo and Fowler (who, rather than a ‘journalist’ was not much more than a citizen with a hidden tape recorder), you’re just a bit too full of yourself. “…at least have the balls I do…” Seriously? It takes balls to put your name on a shoot-the-wounded piece such as this? Casper Milquetoast salutes you!

  • Anonymousposter

    This is the reason newspapers always verify the identies of those who write letters to the editor. Perhaps the blog world could *gasp* learn a lesson from traditional media and restrict the shouting match to those willing to reveal themselves?

  • Funny you mention letters to the editor Mr. anonymous poster. For something like 20 years activist groups, political campaigns and others have been trying to use a combination of web sites, 800 numbers and email to plant fraudulent letters to the editor in newspapers all over the country — either using fake names or using real names and real people to send email LTEs that are actually written by professionals and posted to web sites that automate the process of sending them to dozens of newspapers. and Focus on the Family have been among the most vociferous proponents of this dishonesty.

    Real ID is critical to the credibility of the media — which is why it is so disturbing when representatives of a place like Politico would participate in watering down the public debate with comments shorn of their identity and context.

  • One of the quirks of human nature is that we fear in others what we find in ourselves. This helps explain the fears expressed by the mainstream that people “can” be dishonest on the Web. What they’re really doing is expressing what they’d do in such situations.

    And once again, they underestimate the people formerly known as the audience.

  • Most of the bloggers and posters I encounter in my strata (state- and local-level blogs) revel in anonymity. Most seem vociferously adamant on this point. Their arguments vary. Some, for instance, invoke the Anti-Federalist Papers.

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  • My apologies. I goofed up my URL in the above post.

  • The content of a comment speaks for itself more than the “handle” of the writer. Of course people hide behind anonymity when they’re flame-throwing or dishing out nonsense. Coherent arguments are just that, whether they’re made with a pseudonym or a real name. It’s the moderator as editor whose job it is to police comments according to the rules set by the blog. If that means being strict enough to demand real names in all cases, so be it, that’s your choice, but good luck getting a full range of feedback that way.

    If we’re concerned with promoting honesty and candor on the Internet, sometimes that will come only when a writer hides behind anonymity. Like it or not, we’ve learned an awful lot about human nature and people’s true beliefs this way. The concept of online anonymity should not be banned because some people abuse it.

  • Bob Higgins

    David St. Lawrence: Your comment about the use of the word “interweb” shows how out of touch you are, I’m afraid. As Jeff points out, it’s an overused way of displaying irony and hipness.

  • Bob Higgins

    Jeff: I think there should be a disclaimer at the top of your comments that anyone posting here is subject to having their IP address tracked, with attempts being made to identify them publicly.

    Either you allow anonymous comments or you don’t. If you want to require that people provide their true identity, their employer and any conflicts of interest, that’s your right — it’s your blog. But if you provide a forum that allows anonymous comments you have absolutely no right to play amateur detective and track them down.

    What you did to “Mary” is reprehensible, far exceeding her alleged transgression.

  • So now we refer to some keyboard tough guy as having “balls” because they’re not afraid to put their name behind something?
    No wonder this business is going broke.

  • Bob,
    Every blogging and commenting program I know captures IP and so will logs. I think that what Mary did is reprehensible. So we disagree.
    (And thanks for using your full name.)

  • Bob Higgins

    Jeff: Of course I realize my IP address is tracked. Most bloggers don’t go so far as to use that information to impugn the motives and integrity of those who have the temerity to disagree with them. I think that’s some mighty thin skin you have there.

  • It is much harder to go all ad hominem and throw out sexist, racist or just plain offensive claptrap when using ones whole name, but I can see instances where a person might opt not to do so while still make a valid point worthy of “conversation.” That having been said, I rarely if ever take any comment seriously — especially a pointed criticism — if there is not an identifiable name attached to it.

  • Bob,
    It’s a matter of principle. Here’s an organization that is holding someone who’d doing real reporting to a standard that is far higher than their own behavior. That’s not about my skin. It is about their integrity. It is about journalism. I don’t give a shit if she criticized me. I care that she lied and think it’s OK.

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  • If you work in the media, even as an anonymous copy editor or online news producer (such as in my case), you need to identify yourself clearly. If you’re a blogger, you need to do the same thing. Nowadays, credibility is all you’ve got. If you don’t feel like identifying yourself and your affiliations, don’t comment. It’s very simple.

  • jeff, thanks for the post!
    i’m actually dealing with this right now, in the real world, with a real piece, and i think the core of the issue, which i’m shocked hasn’t been pointed out, is that if you’re a journalist, blog comments can, and sometimes are, taken with the same level of gravity as reported pieces. this is a real problem. though we might expect our readers/listeners to draw imaginary lines in their minds between “reporter alex” (in formal pieces) and “normal alex” in blog comments, the reality is that this doesn’t always happen.

    i want to be able to say things in blog comments (if i happen to believe them, which i’m not saying right now that i do — necessarily) like “the philadelphia department of recreation is full of shit,” and not have that statement subjected to fact checks. though it is amusing, i don’t think parsing through this with silly personal attacks/defenses is particularly helpful. i’d love it if this topic were discussed with regard to real issues.

  • Alex Schmidt —

    I think you are creating a problem where none exists. Obviously it is possible for “Normal Alex” to be anonymous when posting a casual “full of shit” insult that would not pass muster according to the professional norms of “Reporter Alex.” But just as easily, “Normal Alex” could identify herself by name, adding a disclaimer that spells out the disparity in levels of gravity, such as “in my personal opinion” or “not speaking in my professional capacity” or “as an offhand unverified impression.” Readers of the post would thus have a more rounded view of Alex the person in both of her capacities.

  • Jeff Jarvis

    real names?
    naive beyond belief… but amusing all the same

  • The comment just above is not mine. I take the point.

  • @Andrew Tyndall yeah, i suppose that would be possible…but still, not necessarily good for the ole reputation. and it’s also clunky. this whole thing is in such early stages; disclaimers like those simply can’t last. there have to be some sort of accepted or intuitive guidelines for the way we and our readers/listeners understand blog comments. the sock puppet issue is only one angle of this whole thing. there’s a lot more that needs to be and has not been parsed. panels, articles, discussions…digital journalism world, please address!

  • Mark Raven

    Mr. Jarvis,

    Both the name and email to which it’s attached are quite legitimate. A pity, truly it is, that you cannot proclaim the same about each and everyone who has posted on this thread.

    Hmm, let’s see. Batting leadoff is none other than John Doe. Probably using his/her mother’s maiden name. Continuing further we have:

    Liz (Taylor perhaps?)

    Tom (Tomorrow?)

    works in media (Some sort of New Age name from the parents after a bad LSD trip?)

    Liz (Again? Maybe it’s her Conrad “Nicky” Hilton phase?)

    Tobe (Maybe related to the Lakers shooting guard with the interesting trips to Colorado in his past?)

    Anonymousposter (A CIA agent in the Global War on Terrorism no doubt?)

    darleene (With two Es. Just to stand out from the crowd. Or atop an eye chart.)

    That’s seven posters (eight total posts out of 42) that you have allowed to respond in complete anonymity. Why have you not held your respondents to the same level of open identification that you demand of Politico?

    Further, George Pullman, Andy Freeman, Rick Anderson, Bob Higgins (three times), a Jeff Jarvis with Claude Rains tendencies, and this scribe do not have personal blogs to which we have attached our names. That’s six posters (eight total posts out of 42) for which you cannot confirm with absolute certainty the identity of the poster, including, I must add, the writer of this very point. Why have you failed to establish a rigid means of posting on this website that demands the full and complete identity of each respondent?

    Remove your six responses (one assumes that you are, in fact, you and does so by acknowledging that you could have directed some intern or low-paid lackey to respond using your name and blog address), and only 20 of the 42 posts on this thread are attached to bloggers who have used their names and blog site links. That’s not even 50 percent (actually, 47.6 percent for those of you with a calculator on your computer).

    But can you really confirm with complete and total validity that each of these bloggers is actually who he/she claims to be? Are you absolutely sure that none of these bloggers has chosen to use some sort of Internet pen name, some type of Mark Twain nee Samuel Langhorne Clemens, albeit far the pale in terms of quality, of the 21st century?

    Let’s be quite sincere, shall we. You want traffic, Mr. Jarvis. No traffic. No ad sales. No ad sales. No blog site. How does one create traffic? By quality of posts? Perhaps. By controversial quality of posts? More likely.

    How does one stimulate or stoke the controversial quality of one’s posts? By allowing response to said posts and the more racy the response, the more apt others are to respond to it. Now, to achieve the controversial response, can the blog site boss demand the full and open identity of its poster? Perhaps, but one’s traffic, resulting ad sales, and eventual revenue will decline. This poster would rather try to win the lottery than demand the honest identification of the blogger as a means by which to generate end revenue.

    Instead, the poster is more apt to (wink, wink) issue a demand for open, honest discussion, but allow the identity of he/she/it who comments to remain rather anonymous. The human being is more apt to respond in blunt or even rude fashion when knowing that his/her name will not be used. (See just about any/every comment posted by a blogger at National Review Online for confirmation of this fact.) The respondent remains anonymous, the comment is rather salty in nature, the replies to said comment flow like the grizzly bear to honey, and the blog boss sees corresponding traffic, ad revenues, and profits increase.

    Feel free, of course, to correct on each and every point. I look forward to your reply.

    P.S. I don’t work for Politico. Have no allegiance to Politico. Care not one whit about Politico. Just like calling a spade a spade and cutting through the BS.

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  • Alex —

    “not necessarily good for the ole reputation”

    That is the interesting point, I think. Going back to the original inspiration for this thread. Unlike others, I do not think it harmed Bill Clinton’s “ole reputation” when he was quoted by Off The Bus as dismissing Vanity Fair‘s so-called hatchet job with such offhand insults — “dishonest report”…”real slimy guy” — even as he admitted that he had not read the article whose author he was badmouthing.

    Everyone understood that this was a flippant, uninformed, emotional response by the former President — not a formal piece of considered media criticism.

    Your example, Alex, that people talk in a different tone of voice in articles and in blog comments and at panels and in discussion is, I think, well understood. I have faith that people understand the context, rigor, tone of voice, professionalism — or lack thereof — of our utterances and I do not think it harms the “ole reputation” to be identified as one speaks in an array of registers.

  • Jeff do you consider an internet handle to be the same as posting anonymously or is it acceptable if one can track you back and say “Rachel Larris who blogs as NewsCat?”

    But that aside, I’m not willing to entirely agree with your idea that “journalists should never post anonymously.” I don’t know who Mary is, but what if she was a copy-editor (non reporter) at Politico who could lose her job for “speaking for the organization?” I’ve definately had friends who worked for major organizations (Microsoft) who wanted to post on blogs about some people’s anti-(their company). But becuase they aren’t “official company spokespersons” they can’t be posting as John Doe in Microsoft Tech Support.

    I think sometimes employees at newspapers and other media organizations want to jump into the fray and defend their colleague/company’s honor but doing so in their own name will get them into trouble. I agree that as a rule of rule, it would be good to say at least “Jane Doe from Politico” instead of “Mary from nowhere.”

    There is a difference between sockpuppetry and fear that your company will fire you for speaking in their name (even to defend it…).

  • Newscat,
    Yes I think that journalists should always be transparent and honest. It’s an ethic.
    But taking your view, I would agree that “Mary” should have at least disclosed her affiliation and interest. As it was, she gave us a triple lie: not her first name, no last name, no disclosure of her affiliation and interest.

  • Mark,

    I have told my commenters since starting comments that I will give less credence, attention, respect, time, energy, and eyestrain to what they say if they do not have the balls to stand up behind their words with their names. So whether they agree with me or disagree with me, that doesn’t matter. That’s my standard, always has been. It’s not my job to confirm their identities. I leave that to them and those who do identify themselves, I will generally take them at their word unless there is a reason to doubt it. Is this a standard that will be met universally or even most of the time? Sadly not. But that’s where I stand with every anonymous and pseudonymous commenter. That is what I call (drum roll, please), the ethic of identity.

  • Mark Raven

    Mr. Jarvis,

    I appreciate your response. Alas, you declined to address the central issue of my position.


    In honor of Warner Wolf, let’s roll the Internet Thread Tape with what I wrote:

    “Let’s be quite sincere, shall we. You want traffic, Mr. Jarvis. No traffic. No ad sales. No ad sales. No blog site. How does one create traffic? By quality of posts? Perhaps. By controversial quality of posts? More likely.

    “How does one stimulate or stoke the controversial quality of one’s posts? By allowing response to said posts and the more racy the response, the more apt others are to respond to it. Now, to achieve the controversial response, can the blog site boss demand the full and open identity of its poster? Perhaps, but one’s traffic, resulting ad sales, and eventual revenue will decline. This poster would rather try to win the lottery than demand the honest identification of the blogger as a means by which to generate end revenue.

    “Instead, the poster is more apt to (wink, wink) issue a demand for open, honest discussion, but allow the identity of he/she/it who comments to remain rather anonymous. The human being is more apt to respond in blunt or even rude fashion when knowing that his/her name will not be used. (See just about any/every comment posted by a blogger at National Review Online for confirmation of this fact.) The respondent remains anonymous, the comment is rather salty in nature, the replies to said comment flow like the grizzly bear to honey, and the blog boss sees corresponding traffic, ad revenues, and profits increase.”

    You neglected to address the topic of money, which is created via advertising revenues on this site. That, in turn, stems forth from the number of hits, as it were, to this site. Which, I have maintained, is the result of the controversial quality of the comments made by respondents on threads such as this. Such controversy, further, is bolstered by the commenter’s ability to remain anonymous if he/she so chooses.

    Instead, you confined your response to, let’s roll the Internet Thread Tape:

    “I have told my commenters since starting comments that I will give less credence, attention, respect, time, energy, and eyestrain to what they say if they do not have the balls to stand up behind their words with their names.”

    This writer respectfully submits that whether you give credence, attention, respect, time, energy, and eyestrain to the comments has no correlation to the quality, controversial or otherwise, of blog responses and, further, to the status, anonymous or not, of the various posters. Whether you like, dislike, or acknowledge a comment has no impact whatsoever on that comment’s very status on this, or any other, website. The hit has been registered. The number goes toward your total count. The count determines your ability to obtain advertising and, hence, profit.

    Above, you received a thread response from The Times Union of Albany, N.Y. Let’s examine the Letters to the Editor section of that publication or, for that matter, the same aspects of The New York Times and The Washington Times. On all three publications, one will find a litany of letters from respondents who identify themselves as doctors of medicine, business executives, representatives of non-profit organizations, and religious leaders. One respectfully suggests that each of these individuals possesses the income stream necessary to write a letter for publication without worry of impact on one’s financial status. Such is not often the case for many in the employ of another or of an organization that seeks to minimize any and all controversy. Surely you’ve either read or heard about employers now using various software systems to determine if job candidates have posted on various websites and what, in fact, said candidates have posted? This seems to be the latest in all the Human Resources rages, as it were.

    Further, we are all aware that Conservatives and Democrats send chain-type letters to various mid-market daily publications. The letters, often drafted by a staffer at some D.C.-based chop house, advocate a particular policy position or the election/re-election of a political candidate. Sometimes, daily publications catch such letters before they make it to print; oftentimes, the newspaper in question lacks the staff or software system to identify such letters and publishes them under the false guise of the independent opinion of a local and/or regional resident and reader.

    Let us suppose that The Times Union of Albany, The New York Times, and The Washington Times decided to post letters to the editor from anonymous scribes. Is it not logical to ascertain that the number of letters, and the vitriolic and/or controversial quality of such, would increase and markedly so? Would not these more volatile letters perhaps generate a certain “buzz” among a publication’s readership and possibly lead to great sales and/or circulation?

    Yet these publications, bound by a code of professional conduct, have so far refused to allow letters to the editor without name and address. Many such publications often require the telephone number of the writer and, prior to publication, contact said writer to determine that he/she has, in fact, written the item in question. Most papers typically reserve the authority to edit such letters for space and content.

    You, like most blog bosses, have implemented no such professional standards on your website. Again, let’s roll the Internet Thread Tape:

    “It’s not my job to confirm their identities. I leave that to them and those who do identify themselves, I will generally take them at their word unless there is a reason to doubt it.”

    That, of course, is your right. One could clearly maintain that it would be logistically impossible for an individual blogger to check the authenticity of each and every respondent before posting his/her comment on a thread.

    However, for one who often questions the veracity and ethics of the media, should you not consider your own standards, and clearly identify the reasons therefore, as part of your own personal vetting process?

    Something to think about.

  • Man, do you have a blog? You write longer than I do! ;-)

    Mark, first, I don’t do it for the money. I have given an open accounting of my blog’s revenue ( and the ad money is minimal.

    I do it to explore ideas.

    To your second point about the quality of comments: I do firmly believe — no, I know from long experience in many formats — that nasty anonymous comments drive audience away. So I disagree with your premise there.

    I leave this choice to individuals and don’t impose, partly because I can’t and partly because there are cases when anonymity has a place, as I’ve also long said.

    Once more, I’m just telling my commenters what I think of their comments if they don’t use their names.

    I find it convenient that some of them use consistent handles because I often skip reading their comments entirely. I won’t say who because you and I will make different judgments about that. That’s your freedom, as it was to put a name on your comments (which I thank you and I take you at your word that you are who you say you are).

    Now pardon me if I don’t respond to each of your comments. I’m now behind with work. That’s the other view I have of comments: I’ve had my say and I open the space where others can have theirs. They don’t need me to do that — they can have their own blogs in 2 minutes — but I welcome their response and, in most discussions, I find the discussion very helpful and quite worth the occassional inconvenience of skipping over a troll’s droppings.

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  • By the way Mark, please don’t call me Mr. That and Prof. make me feel older than I want to feel.

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  • yes, it’s my real name, though i’m not a journalist and i’m not giving you my last name. there’s this thing called identity theft and i err way over on the side of caution.

    there’s also this thing called politics. and the fourth estate has long proved that it’s far more aligned with the ethics of politicians than with their own profession, at least as long as it’s convenient.

    you’re pissing in the wind, jarvis, because it’s going to take a lot more than your own word to prove to me that your ethics are in order. guilty by association–work in the sewer, smell like ____. go ahead. insert your own words. you guys do it all the time.

  • “Steve’s” comment is a good example of the sort I don’t bother with because he doesn’t say anything and what he does say he doesn’t put below his own name.

  • Guy Love

    What a dilemma! Hijacked message spinning through identity theft is definitely a possibility and destroying your credibility through false avatars is a sure thing … if you happen to represent a journalistic organization that is supposed to be a trustworthy source of information.

    The traditional media types wonder why the public no longer considers them as infallible sources of information. They wonder why a large group of the public actually views them with disdain as arrogant and pompous. Building up credibility takes consistency and staying honest in communication, destroying your credibility takes very little time if you chuck those things out of convenience. The fact the Politico team doesn’t get this and actually prefers defending the use of “Mary” to disagree with one of their critics is a perfect example of the current disconnect between the public and the rapidly shrinking traditional media.

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  • Your blog is informative..

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