02 September 2006

New Times, New Ethics

A The New Republics writer I've never heard of, a Lee Siegel, has been caught up in a sock puppetry scandal. Mr. Siegel had a blog at TNR and commented on his own posts under a pseudonym, "sprezzatura." (For the time being, one of the threads at issue can be seen here.) "Sprezzatura" means a sort of aristocratic nonchalance, so Siegel apparently has no insight into his own character, but the thread, although completely unedifying, makes for fascinating reading. Given that TNR has become entirely irrelevant (too right for the left and too left for the right), when's the last time it published anything that made for fascinating reading?

So obviously it fired the author immediately.

What is it about sock puppetry that makes it a firing offense? The author is withholding information about his identity as a commenter, but do the other commenters really care? As author, a writer has the magazine's authority as well as his own and should be kept to a high standard of trustworthiness. But as an anonymous commenter? Why should we as readers care whether the anonymous schmo supporting the author is the author? This is an instance where dead-tree ethics don't seem to translate well to the on-line world and, in fact, get in the way of the magazine's primary duty to the reader: providing content that is interesting to read.


Duck said...

Well, I don't think that dead tree ethics should be any different than pixel ethics - they're all human ethics. Any information outlet, no matter what delivery format, needs to maintain a reputation for informational integrity. It's just like the fautography scandal at Reuters. Once you question one aspect of the content, you have to question all of it. Sock-puppetry is just the latest "stupid human trick" of publishing. It is a stupid thing to ruin your career on.

It's all about transparency. Once you introduce smoke and mirrors, you're through.

Peter Burnet said...

...says the man who runs a blog featuring "Duck", "Skipper", "Brit"and "Oroborous".

Hey Skipper said...


Keeping in mind, of course, that clicking on the respective icons brings up the nom de birth.

David said...

Duck: I really don't get what the problem is with sock puppetry. The theory of dead tree ethics is that the imprimature of the magazine/newspaper/etc. shouldn't be used for undisclosed purposes. This is already true more in the breach than the observance. The New York Times chooses the news and editorials it prints to further its political interests, and pretends to the contrary. Op-eds are often written by staffers or ghosts or lobbyists or anyone but the person who has the by-line. Reporters have all sorts of interests (down to getting their friends' names in the paper) that effect what they report. But, in theory, interests other than simply reporting the truth are to be disclosed and the person under whose name an article runs should be responsible for it.

In sock puppetry, I don't see the issue. Far from bringing the majesty of the TNR to bear, Siegel hid behind a psuedonym. Why should anyone pay attention to what is said by a pseudonym, other than for the inherent weight of the arguments made. (Which is, by the way, why Siegel's psuedonymous posts are so pathetic.) By getting down and dirty in the comments, Siegel may well be letting slip what a nutball he is, but he is at least engaging with the commenters on an even basis.

Duck said...

Yes, but I'm not expecting my readers to actually believe that I'm a duck.

David, I think you answered your own question. Does TNR really want one of their writers to use the website to show readers what a nutball he is? Sock puppetry, besides being dishonest, is looked on as a sign of being a little imbalanced (as opposed to writing under a humorous alter-ego, which is just cool).

David said...

Duck: Maybe not, but what at TNR has been as compelling to read in the last year? Time only hired Andrew Sullivan to blog after he had proved himself to be a nutjob. Nutjobbery makes for entertaining reading.

The bloggers' cry, after all, is "send in the nutjobs."

Susan's Husband said...

Mr. Cohen;

Your problem is that you are conflating psuedonymns with sock-puppetry, which are different things. "Duck", "Skipper", and "Oroborous" don't pretend to not be their actual selves, so they're just psuedonymns. Sock puppetry is when a psuedonymn is used precisely to pretend to not be who it is. That's the fraudulent part which makes it wrong.