Wednesday, February 4, 2004

Who Said That?

Salon.com‘s Christopher Farah has an article that strikes close to home for a lot of bloggers: the “anonyblogger.”

You don’t have to look long to find the names of a slew of public (and often media) figures held up for some serious derision on the blogs Atrios, Media Whores Online or The Minor Fall, The Major Lift.

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It takes a certain courage to shoot half-cocked into the media landscape like that. Or does it? These and other bloggers have made names for themselves by having no names at all — and by using the safety and security of their secret identities to spread gossip, make accusations and levy the most vicious of insults with impunity.

Anonybloggers have given various reasons for the decision to withhold their identity. MWO’s proprietor told Salon in a detailed e-mail that MWO writers and producers were concerned that if their identity were known, it could “detrimentally affect their employment,” given the site’s controversial content. “There is a long tradition of anonymous speech in America,” writes MWO, adding, “the right is consistently protected and defended by our courts.” MWO went on to claim that mainstream publications would be better off if all their articles were published anonymously. “Editors and publishers would be far more concerned with accuracy and credibility if they understood their entire news organization would be accountable.”

But what about the hypocrisy in attacking others while protecting oneself from any sort of retaliation? MWO says its critics “are able to respond directly to our content, and they do. Should any contributor run afoul of any free speech regulations, there would be legal accountability.” Atrios, meanwhile, refused to comment at all for this story, saying, “I just don’t think it’s an interesting topic.”

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Not surprisingly, journalism experts suggest anonybloggers are operating outside of any reasonable ethical line. “One of the things that’s going to have to become a standard for the Internet is, if you want to be taken seriously, you have to be identified,” says Alex Jones, director of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center. “Anonymity is almost always, for the mainstream anyway, something that says, ‘Be very, very careful.'”

Maybe it’s just me, but do I detect a tinge of jealousy in Mr. Jones’s warning?

Many of my fellow Liberal Coalition colleagues use pseudonyms, and we have our reasons, either serious or whimsical. It wouldn’t take Sherlock Holmes to figure out my real name (the members of TLC know it) and I don’t keep my blogging a secret from my friends and family. There’s a difference between the anonybloggers like Atrios and MWO and those of us who write under a pseudonym. They have their reasons for keeping their identities under wraps. I respect them, and it really doesn’t bother me that I don’t know what name is on their driver’s license; it’s their business, and I let their writing speak for itself. (Besides, how do we really know – or care – if “Christopher Farah” is the real name of the author of the Salon.com article?) As for going off “half-cocked” with wild stories and rumors, I take as much care with my sourcing and citations as I would if I were writing a research paper (old grad school habits die hard) regardless of what name appears on the post. After all, we read half-cocked and rumor-filled stories by people who use their real names – Jonah Goldberg, Pat Buchanan, etc. – and it doesn’t make them any more or less believable.

[Update: Check out Nick Confessore’s take on this issue at TAPPED.]