Saturday, April 29, 2006

The LA Times sorta said what Hiltzik did

The Los Angeles Times did indeed mention that Michael Hiltzik posted comments on his blog and other Web sites dealing with his column and the Times. Matt Welch, newly minted LA Times editorial page staffer and blog moderator, pointed that out. But I still think the explanation is inadequate. Here's what I submitted to the Times opinon blog.

(Quoting Welch)
"While you may lament the reluctance to use the phrase "sock puppet," there is nothing unambiguous about the wording: "using pseudonyms to post [...] comments [...] that dealt with his column and other issues involving the newspaper."

Point taken. But Hiltzik didn't just post comments that "dealt" with his column and the newspaper, he attacked critics and praised himself. The Times statement is still maddingly oblique as to just what occured.

Further muddying the waters, the editors' note states:

"But employing pseudonyms constitutes deception and violates a central tenet of The Times' ethics guidelines: Staff members must not misrepresent themselves and must not conceal their affiliation with The Times. This rule applies equally to the newspaper and the Web world."

The misleading pseudonym = deception meme rears its ugly head once again. The Times does not seem to have thought this issue through enough.

If a reporter with a disease posted pseudonymous comments on a Web site asking for help in dealing with the affliction, not for a story, but out of personal need, would that be considered a violation of Times policy?

Or, if a Times reporter took part in a blog discussion about sports (and the reporter was not covering sports), should the reporter automatically be required to reveal his/her identity? Would that be required of the reporter walking into a bar discussion?

This blog discussion is a good start to making the Times more transparent. But anyone seeking the most complete and accurate information about what happened with one of the Times' own employees would have to go elsewhere, namely Patterico. That is a sad commentary on the Times' refusal to answer questions and criticisms about its own workings -- the same information it demands from everyone else.
Matt Welch provided more interpretation of the info-poor editor's note in response to a followup post of mine:

"I do think that the editor's reaction, in both word and deed, demonstrates that a serious chunk of the offense was using the pseudonymity to comment on institution- and author-related matters."

That is marginally helpful, but still far short of a clear explanation as to what the Times objected to in Hiltzik's actions. A "serious chunk"? Is that more or less than a nanosecond? Bigger than a breadbox? Smaller than an epigram?

Matt's explanation goes no further to unwrapping the riddle of how serious an offense the Times thought mere pseudonymity constituted.

I know Matt can't speak for the LA Times editor and doesn't speak for anyone. But one would expect the editor of the LA Times has the communication skills to speak for himself and define precisely what the offense consisted of. Instead, we get a terse, opaquely written note with the obligatory gratuitious slam at the Web.

Although Matt demurred at being described as a mediator, that is exactly what he is. Matt is a journalist steeped in the traditions of the Web, a rara avis indeed. He is trying to help the Times understand how to reach out to the growing number of people who get their information through the Web and interact with each other through the Web.

Matt is doing his part, but the uncomprehending LA Times top editors are not doing theirs. The Los Angeles Times has done next to nothing to inform its readers about this matter. People have had to turn to the blogs, particularly that of Patterico, to get the full story. Incidents like this convince people that a dead-tree subscription to the LA Times isn't worthwhile. You won't get the full story there, so why bother?

If Dean Baquet and the other Times editors don't understand by now that this evasion detracts from the Times' credibility, it's unlikely they ever will.

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