The Man Who Wasn’t Himself

The revelation that a Los Angeles Times reporter wrote anonymous comments on blogs makes us wonder: Should journalists be allowed the same freedom to post anonymously as other people?

Late last week, we found that we could add Los Angeles Times columnist and blogger Michael Hiltzik to the long list of journalists who thought that they could make up their own rules as they went along.

In a screw-up more embarrassing than criminal, it was revealed that Hiltzik had posted comments on his “Golden State” blog on the Times Web site and on other blogs with which he had long-standing feuds, using phony names he assigned himself to hide his identity.

According to today’s New York Times, this isn’t the first time Hiltzik has made himself look foolish via the wonders of technology. In 1993, when he was a correspondent for the Los Angeles Times in Moscow, he was caught hacking into colleagues’ email messages, and he was recalled from the bureau. But the paper gave him a break, and in 1999 he won a Pulitzer for the Times with colleague Chuck Philips.

Fast forward seven years, and Hiltzik once again underestimated the ability of computer technology to leave footprints that can be traced back to him.

On Thursday, the Los Angeles Times suspended Hiltzik’s Golden State blog and told its readers: “Hiltzik admitted Thursday that he posted items on the paper’s Web site, and on other Web sites, under names other than his own. That is a violation of the Times ethics guidelines, which requires editors and reporters to identify themselves when dealing with the public.”

Hiltzik’s latest infraction isn’t as bad, we would venture to say, as invading a colleague’s privacy by breaking into their email, but we’re a little surprised that some media watchers seem to think that posting inflammatory comments under fake names, whether at your own or at others’ blogs, isn’t as dumb as it so obviously seems to be.

This morning Jeff Jarvis at Buzz Machine, a high priest of the Cathedral of The Blog if ever there was one, dropped into a defensive crouch, complaining about the New York Times’ story on the Hiltzik affair, the tone of which he perceived to be anti-blog.

The case, he says, “isn’t about blogging as a form. This is about journalists being afraid to deal with people, eye-to-eye.”

Well, yes and no. This case is about blogging as a form, a form where it has become increasingly acceptable to post observations, remarks and even attacks under a pseudonym. To be fair to Jarvis, it’s also about Hiltzik hiding behind cover, afraid, or at least reluctant, to “deal with people, eye-to-eye.”

Similarly on Friday, Mediabistro’s, FishBowl LA wrote that “the root of online discourse is anonymous posting … Should or shouldn’t reporters enjoy that same freedom when posting anonymously? Aren’t we (with apologies to kids everywhere) ‘people, too’?”

Well, sure, Hiltzik is a “person.” But Hiltzik the blogger was just as much a Los Angeles Times employee as Hiltzik the columnist — which seems precisely why he made up those phony names, behind which he praised his own work and hurled ire and scorn at those he perceived to be his enemies. He knew the Times would never let him get away with that under his own name.

As to the question Fishbowl asks (should reporters be allowed the same freedom to post anonymously as other people?), the answer seems self-evident: Sure, if they’re willing to pay the price when they get busted. And with the sharks circling, waiting for a reporter to screw up, the chances are pretty good, particularly when they’re commenting on their own blog.

CJR Daily’s own managing editor, Steve Lovelady, spoke to Southern California blogger and radio host Hugh Hewitt about this very topic on Friday, characterizing Hiltzik’s actions as “sort of like stuffing the ballot box … I think it’s silly and stupid … the online equivalent of writing a letter to the editor under a false name praising your own work.”

And that’s exactly it. Blogging might be a new medium and the rules, such as they are, are still being made up as we go along, but the rules of journalism are long-standing — and no reporter can claim ignorance.

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Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.