In this age of information transmitted instantaneously around the world, one of the few perks left to living in New York is getting sections of the Sunday Times delivered in paper before they're available across the country or on the web. The Sunday Magazine section that arrived this morning has a little nugget in it that I just had to share early. [Whoops -- apparently it is online (thanks mcjoan). Now there's no reason left for me to stay in NY.]
The Times interviews Lee Siegel, who I had never noticed before he got canned as the blogger for The New Republic for supporting his own arguments with a "sockpuppet" alter ego. Siegel defends this practice in a statement so self-deluded it rivals Jeff Gannon ("So feared by the Left it had to take me down").
Did you feel that you were doing something ethically questionable when you posted, for instance, a comment by Sprezzatura that carried the headline "Siegel Is My Hero"? Every man is a hero to his alias. No, it never occurred to me at the time that I was doing something wrong. There are other people who appear anonymously on Web sites; they do battle with their detractors. Anonymity is a universal convention of the blogosphere, and the wicked expedience is that you can speak without consequences. What was wrong about it is that I did it under the aegis of The New Republic, as a senior editor of the magazine.
I don't think we really need to go through (again) the points that (1) anonymity is not the problem, (2) pseudonymity is not anonymity, and (3) sockpuppetry is not pseudonymity or anonymity. Because at this point even that old bastion of ink and paper, the Times itself, gets the point, as they wrote Wednesday in an editorial:
A sock puppet, for those still boning up, is a false identity through which a member of an Internet community speaks while pretending not to, like a puppeteer manipulating a hand puppet...Mr. Siegel’s biggest offense, Mr. Foer says, was denying that [the sockpuppet] “sprezzatura” was he.
The Times does, however, preserve some of its endearingly outdated worldview in its conclusion, "Sock puppetry may be rampant online, but journalists writing for their employer’s Web site have a greater responsibility to be honest than run-of-the-mill posters." I question the veracity (or even existence of data about) the first, and strongly disagree with the second. But whatever. That's why I'm a blogger and not a writer for the Times.
Unlike many bloggers, I think, none of this really gets my dander up. I find it sort of adorable the way folks on the right and institutional media keep casting about for workable arguments that propped-up think-tanks or traditional media are inherently superior to what we do on-line (even as they try to copy us -- did you notice the Times now links to sources in some columns online?). And Siegel's deliberate misunderstanding of what he did wrong is also cute, like a kid with chocolate smeared on his face, hands in the cookie jar, shouting out with surprise "I didn't do it!"
What does get my goat, just a bit, is this bit of collusion between the institutional press and the lying right-winger to try to build a workable anti-blog smear:
Anonymous bloggers are also saddled with obscurity, which I doubt you would similarly glorify. That's right. In their case, anonymity is obscurity's rash. At least for those who practice incessant character assassination, which represents a good portion of the blogosphere, they vent out of the pain of being unacknowledged.
So, let me clarify. The pain we vent is not frustration with obscurity but the pain our country has been put through by the failure of the press to research and expose the lies told by the right wing, that led us into a false war, into economic disaster, and into just a nasty devastating time in our history. Blogs have taken up the job of fact-checking and exposing liars, because institutions like the Times failed.
When someone, like Rove, like Bush, like Siegel, blatantly lies and we call them on it, that's not character assassination -- that's reporting. Both Siegel and the Times would do well to take a lesson.