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Posted by on Jun 9, 2009 in Media, Politics | 2 comments

Conservative Blogger Ed Whelan Apologizes To “Outed” Longtime Anonymous Blogger Publius

National Review conservative blogger Ed Whelan has apologized to “outing” the identity of an anonymous blogger who had criticized him and his posts — bringing an end to a mini-firestorm that swept across the “blogosphere” and perhaps setting down some future guidelines on what is acceptable and not.

On Sunday we ran THIS POST that dealt with some of these issues and contained an extensive roundup of blogger reaction to Whelan’s decision to “out” a blogger who wrote under a pen name and who had (basically) gotten him angry. What was most notable was this: Whelan had few defenders, in any part of the political spectrum.

Now he has issued this terse apology
on the National Review blog:

On reflection, I now realize that, completely apart from any debate over our respective rights and completely apart from our competing views on the merits of pseudonymous blogging, I have been uncharitable in my conduct towards the blogger who has used the pseudonym Publius. Earlier this evening, I sent him an e-mail setting forth my apology for my uncharitable conduct. As I stated in that e-mail, I realize that, unfortunately, it is impossible for me to undo my ill-considered disclosure of his identity. For that reason, I recognize that Publius may understandably regard my apology as inadequate.

And here’s the complete response from Publius:

Ed Whelan has written both publicly and privately and apologized. I know it was not an easy thing to do, and it is of course accepted. I therefore consider the matter done, and don’t intend on writing about it anymore.

The real story here wasn’t really about me anyway — it’s about whether the norm of pseudonymity is a good thing. And there’s a legitimate debate about that. Personally, I think that pseudonymity is a net benefit, whatever other costs it brings. More voices are better than less — and pseudonymity (to me) enriches the public sphere by adding voices that could not otherwise be heard. But people can disagree in good faith about these things, as Whelan correctly notes.

Anyway, I’m moving on. I appreciate Whelan’s update. And that’s all I have to say. Let’s talk about Jon & Kate Plus 8 instead. I’ve heard they hired attorneys.

What does it mean?

For one thing, many Americans have long shown a capacity to move once someone apologizes after an incident. So Whelan will likely regain some of the respect back among some who — frankly — lost it when it came to him because he had seemingly written a post in anger and shoved it on the Internet. (Keeping things from appearing in print written in haste is one of the advantages among the disadvantages of having layers of “gatekeepeer” editors on newspapers and magazines: those of us who worked in the mainstream news media know that sometimes the gatekeepers protected us from ourselves).

But there is a much larger issue.

His apology shows that “the marketplace” displayed a clear sentiment — and that a consensus did emerge. Whelan took in and considered that consensus and reconsidered.

The result? This unfortunate incident has now established a “norm.” In the future, someone will have to have a pretty good, darn reason to reveal the identity of someone who writes under a pen name and who asks that his or her identity be kept anonymous.

(P.S. I will now reveal that I write under the silly name “Joe Gandelman” when my real name is Elvis. Now you know where I have been all of these years. My dayjob at Krispy Kreme is fun.)

Rick Moran as usual has a long and meaty post that MUST be read in its entirety. Here are a few short excerpts:

It appears that Mr. Whelan, despite publishing a lot of stuff online, really had no clue of the consequences of revealing someone’s identity on the internet. It is no excuse for his actions but, as Publius himself points out, at the very least, Whelan has started a much overdue debate about a blogger hiding his identity by using a pseudonym…

…I note a couple of things from the comments and emails I’ve received on this matter. First, I found it more just a little ironic that many of those defending Whelan were anonymous commenters themselves. I think it also revealing – at least, based on an unscientific survey of comments on my site and elsewhere – that many bloggers, even on the right, sympathized with Publius and even supported his right to anonymity while many commenters did not.

The real issue of anonymity as far as I’m concerned has nothing to do with bloggers but rather with those who comment on their sites. Yes, there is a difference – a big one. I don’t think I can recall a single instance where a blog commenter lost their job, or was harassed or stalked, or suffered in any way for commenting on a blog post using their own name. If there are such cases, they must be very rare and not well publicized. What are the chances of an employer of a blog commenter who uses their real name, running across a comment made on a website – even if they’re looking for it – and firing that commenter for something he said?

The problem of stalking and threats may be a different matter but it is no accident that blog commenters who use their real name are much less likely to engage in “fighting words” hyperbole when commenting than the blog commenter who hides ignobly behind a fictitious character.

Anonymous Liberal:

It took a while, but this is an actual apology. And given the size of the hole he had already dug for himself on this issue, I’m sure it wasn’t easy for Whelan to write this. Though, as he acknowledges, this apology doesn’t do much for publius, it is nevertheless important and welcome. By acknowledging that he should not have done what he did, Whelan sets a helpful precedent and makes it less likely that someone else will do the same thing in the future. That’s important. This episode had the potential to create a chilling effect in the blogosphere, to discourage people in certain lines of employment from participating. But I think the near universal condemnation of Whelan’s conduct, coupled with his apology, may actually end up having the opposite effect. I think this episode goes a long way toward officially ratifying one of the most important unwritten rules of online ethics, i.e., that a person’s decision to write under a pseudonym should be respected barring compelling reasons not to do so. And retaliating against criticism is not such a reason. To the extent that rule is widely understood and acknowledged, it will encourage greater participation in online politics and result in a greater variety of voices being heard.

As Andrew Sullivan points out, there was one conservative writer/blogger who felt he had to defended Whelan.
And Winds of Change’s Armed Liberal, who also writes under a pen name, defends Whelan as well in a post that needs to be read in full. He says Whelan should not have apologized:

So I’ve been watching the dust clouds of the Halloween-style egg fight between Ed Whelan and Publius which culminated today in Whelan apologizing to Publius for outing him.

And I’ve been mulling this over more than a bit – particularly as a formerly pseudonymous blogger myself – and I think Whelan was mistaken in apologizing (at least to the extent he did)….

….’m sorry, but pitchers who throw at the head shouldn’t be shocked when an occasional bat comes loose and soars out toward the mound. People who see the root of blogging as critcising people harshly and offending where they can do forfeit some of the claim to courtesy which is really what weak pseudonymity (it wouldn’t be too hard to track down any of the pseudonymous political bloggers, really) is really all about.

So on both of those counts – because I think he was making the claim to pseudonymity for the wrong reasons, and because I think that what he really regrets losing is the freedom to throw elbows and then go sit innocently at his family table, I – a formerly pseudonymous blogger – think that Whelan committed a minor infraction of manners at worst.

James Joyner:

Whelan’s a bright fellow who has been trained in both analytical reasoning and (one presumes, given his employer) ethics. It’s a shame that he didn’t think this one through before posting.

The disclosure created one of the bigger blogospheric firestorm I’ve seen in quite some time, with a near-universal consensus among bloggers of all political stripes that what Whelan had done was wrong. Whether the arguments put forth therein swayed him or whether something else is at work, I haven’t a clue. I’ll take him at his word that his contrition is genuine, if belated.


Hat tip to Whelan for apologizing and making it public. That took some courage. And to Publius for the gracious acceptance. Lesson?

You don’t get to decide whether or not the privacy concerns of another are legitimate (unless very specific types of exceptions are extant – “shouting fire in the theater” type) – that’s why we talk about privacy rights. It appears Whelan has finally figured that out.

-Steve Benan:

This is certainly a welcome development, which, one hopes, will discourage similar efforts in the future. A.L. added, “I think this episode goes a long way toward officially ratifying one of the most important unwritten rules of online ethics, i.e., that a person’s decision to write under a pseudonym should be respected barring compelling reasons not to do so. And retaliating against criticism is not such a reason. To the extent that rule is widely understood and acknowledged, it will encourage greater participation in online politics and result in a greater variety of voices being heard.

Legal Insurrection:

After all the trouble you two caused, this is it?

Not so fast. Having opened the can of worms by (Whelan) exposing the identity of someone who merely was biting at your intellectual ankles, and (Publius) hyperventilating that the sky was falling because you had to put your name to your ankle-biting, you two have created an issue that will not go away.

First Whelan was attacked for outing Publius. Now he will be attacked for apologizing, as will Publius for accepting the apology.

A pox on Annonyblogging-Gate’s house.

Jules Crittenden has a long post that needs to be read in full. The beginning:

I’m a little late to this Whelan-Publius party, but as long as the great blogosphere is speaking, I’ll add my voice. I don’t understand why Whelan needs to apologize for identifying a law professor who thinks he can engage in public debate and orchestrate a targeted attack on Whelan under a false name. I think the law professor’s employers should be taking a close look at such low ethical behavior, and consider what kind of example he is setting for aspiring lawyers, who operate in a very public world, governed by personal responsibility and consequences.

People voice opinions on politics and politicians and engage in discussion of issues under false names on the Internet for a wide variety of reasons, and despite the fact that we live in a free and open society where that should not be necessary, I understand that some people have legitimate reasons and I don’t have a big problem with that. A lot of them are entertaining and bring something worthwhile to the table. Although, I’d add, anyone who has professional reasons for not expressing an open opinion, as the law professor seems to think he does, may want to consider whether doing it by pseudonym doesn’t corrupt whatever standards and ethics he thinks pseudonymity is allowing him to maintain.

In my business, we use anonymous sources all the time, in order to get at information that might otherwise not be available regarding crime, corporate behavior, and the actions of public officials and public figures. It is a different business than opining on politics. Reporters and editors who do this in the course of newsgathering should be applying some standards. Allowing gratuitous anonymous attacks on one’s adversaries is not one of them.

Now go read the rest of it.

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