Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Playing Dumb

Sigh. Patterico points out yet another article on the Michael Hiltzik sock puppet meltdown that ignores the true offense: the intent to deceive.

Here's the article's wholly misleading introduction:

Reporters are quoting Internet postings in their articles, but, in a medium rife with false identities, how can they verify that the Web writers are who they purport to be? And if everyone's using false identities, why can't journalists?

Let's take this one question at a time. First question: There is a difference between having a pseudonym and having a false identity. The former is simply a means of anonymity. The latter is an attempt to deceive by pretending to be someone you're not.

The second question is of the wife-beating category. No, everyone's not using false identities, and the practice is deceptive. Journalists are supposed to tell the truth. Got it?

The author digresses into MySpace and other areas of the Web where pseudonyms and false identities are often used. But that's simply an attempt to confuse the issue: The deception conflation of reporter and the public. Hiltzik wrote as a reporter, then commented on the same issues and praised himself, ostensibly as a member of the public.

Getting to Hiltzik's sorry case, the author manages to seamlessly confuse truth and fiction:

In posting to his own blog under a fake name, Hiltzik was clearly abusing the trust the paper had placed in him, and the Times has a right to protect the reputation that its brand depends on. But writing praise about yourself in pseudonym-ed comments is like a sitcom using a laugh-track; pretty lame, but not ultimately harmful. It just implies that Hiltzik isn't confident enough in his own writing to let it speak for itself (surprising for a Pulitzer-winning journalist).

The first sentence: True. The second one: False. Any practice that raises doubts about the truthfulness of a journalist harms the entire profession.

The third sentence: True and False. Yes Hiltzik obviously lacks confidence (and allies). But the deception also says something is lacking in Hiltzik's character, just as in the case of another confessed sock puppeteer, John Lott. I wouldn't want Hiltzik for a colleague. And I wouldn't use Lott as a source.

But even if he himself hadn't written the fake comments, he could as easily have gotten a friend to write similar comments under a fake name, thus sidestepping the writer-dealing-with-the-public problem. Whose "crime" would it be then?

Hiltzik's. And the "crime" is deception. This guy hasn't a clue about ethics, and yet E&P lets him opine about something of vast importance to journalists who suffer from the perception (and often reality) of low ethics and lack of accuracy.

Any journalists out there wondering why our profession has such a problem with lack of trust should know that such miserable evasions are a big reason why this is the case.

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