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Posted by on Jun 7, 2009 in Media, Politics | 19 comments

Blogging Ethics: You Strongly Disagree With Me I Expose Your Identity

_1859653_sewage150.jpgThe late Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill once said “All politics is local.” But now, more than ever before, that needs to be adjusted to: “All politics is personal.”

This has been increasingly apparent in the escalating stridency of personal attacks in political campaigns every year, demonizing slash-and-burn talk radio’s overall influence on the nation’s political culture, and the tone and way political issues are now discussed — and in the evolution of the once-promising blogosphere.

Webblogs are an incredible, mind-boggling opportunity, particularly for those of us who once worked in the mainstream media. You can serve as your own publisher, editor, write posts that run on as long as you want and take literary liberties you wouldn’t have if you go through gate keepers. Originally, many hoped blogs would become a sea of citizen journalists.

In reality, blogs have become a sea of citizen op-ed columnists. But there is no intrinsic problem with that. Op-ed columnists can offer passionate debate…

The problem now is how the toxic talk radio political culture and the kind of angry and personal tone it entails has begun influencing the once-promising concept of weblogs. The latest manifestation: a blogger “outed” the identity of an anonymous blogger because he didn’t like his posts…posts which did get personal, but which did not warrant revealing identity in a medium where many fine writers feel they can’t use their names due to personal or professional reasons.

Like other sites, TMV has some people who can’t use their names. And there are writers on the left, center and right in similar situations. In fact, as you read this there are some people on the right, left and in the center who over time have indicated they won’t even blog using a pen name due to the problems it could create if their identity was known. They have things to say and might say them strongly but they wouldn’t “cross the line.”

But why would someone feel they have to expose someone’s identify if blogging is really about writing about issues, a spirited back and forth? Here’s the beginning of the post that is creating all of the buzz online:

One bane of the Internet is the anonymous blogger who abuses his anonymity to engage in irresponsible attacks. One such blogger who has been biting at my ankles in recent months is the fellow who calls himself “publius” at the Obsidian Wings blog.

In the course of a typically confused post yesterday, publius embraces the idiotic charge (made by “Anonymous Liberal”) that I’m “essentially a legal hitman” who “pores over [a nominee’s] record, finds some trivial fact that, when distorted and taken totally out of context, makes that person look like some sort of extremist.” In other of his posts (including two which I discussed here and here), publius demonstrated such a dismal understanding of the legal matters he opined on—including, for example, not understanding what common law is—that it was apparent to me that he had never studied law.

Well, I’m amused to learn that I was wrong about publius’s lack of legal education.

You can go to the link to read it as he “exposes” the identity of Publius, as a law prof.

Now, to anyone who is not a blogger, this isn’t a stunning piece of information. It isn’t the same as finding out where Jimmy Hoffa is (will he be revealed to be a blogger on Daily Kos?). Which leads to the question: why was this a blog post? Who would really care (see below)?

And Publius? He has now written a post under his name and here’s the beginning of that one (go to the original to read all of his copius hyperlinks backing up his post):

So there you have it – I’ve been officially outed by Ed Whelan. I would never have done that to my harshest critic in a million years, but oh well.

And to be clear – the proximate cause was that Whelan got mad that I criticized him in a blog post. More specifically, he’s mad that Eugene Volokh made him look rather silly – and he’s lashing out at me for pointing that out, and publishing my name.

For background, Whelan and others have been harshly criticizing [Obama’s Supreme Court nominee Sonia] Sotomayor for her comment that courts are “where policy is made.” Whelan has repeatedly seized on this comment (in print and on TV), and is demagoguing it (much like he did with selective and inflammatory readings of Koh).

The problem, though, is that it’s not even controversial that courts consider policy, which Whelan knows full well. [Top legal blogger Eugene] Volokh, responding to one of these Whelan posts, wrote an excellent and definitive blog post explaining in great detail why courts do consider policy (something Orin Kerr echoed a while back too). Volokh’s post embarrassed Whelan because it decimated his argument – and now he’s mad.

The key question becomes: how do you define “irresponsible?” And is outing an identity so that a person with whom you disagree can have problems in his professional or personal life the way to respond?

How about simply just not reading that person again or not responding to that person and moving on to discuss the issues and events that are occurring — rather than turning a blog or website into a vehicle to undercut someone personally? Although bloggers may not like to believe it, life is not only about blogging and blog posts and links and all of us have finite time on this earth.

Has the blogging involved into a little club where the promise of blogging has morphed into the reality of a series of highly personal battles? And, if it has, might there be enough substantive issues and events out there that most blogs (such as TMV) have not even gotten to or covered sufficiently? With X number of minutes in the day (and our lives) is “getting” another blogger, or another site, is this the reason why people who do weblogs write and is kind of personal attack “discussion” fulfilling the potential of this incredible infotool that anyone with a computer can use? Is this the kind of content readers who aren’t bloggers want to see?

William F. Buckley founded the National Review, the site on which Whelan’s post appeared. In both his magazine and his TV show “Firing Line,” Buckley focused on issues and didn’t usually use the approach that to counter a critic he needed to in any way undercut that critic personally. Buckley just flooded the critic with counter arguments.

Whelan’s piece is part and parcel of a mindset you can see by turning on a radio or watching a cable TV show. Once upon a time people debated vigorously, even furiously, on the points of an issue. But now the goal increasingly seem to be to discredit, characterize, or undercut a writer who dares to see things differently than you. Posts become about other writers and other websites. Whelan was upset because he felt the other blogger got personal…so he took it a notch higher and made it more personal by trying to prove a point by revealing Publius’ identity.

And the question then becomes: then just WHO was this revelation supposed to impressed?

Who was it supposed to sway?

It will not undercut Publius’ credibility one bit with people who read him or link to him.

It will not change how people who read Whalen’s posts already detest Publius’ writings.

It was, basically, taking the battle a step further — using the big blogging tool (a post, indexed on Google Web forever) to try to undercut someone personally.

But in the end? It won’t alter Publius’ argument being great or lousy in the eyes of those who felt his writings were great or lousy to begin with.

And those who hadn’t decided who don’t have a vested interest in defending or undercutting Publius? It just looks like an attempt to lash out and get someone — accurate perception or not.

Could there be a case where it would be valid to reveal an identify? Yes…if it truly crossed a line — “a line” being one that most people who agree was indeed a line.

So what happens next? A bloggers ethics panel will flop since many bloggers and writers won’t join it and will think of it as a freedom of expression constraint. The “marketplaces” will determine if Wehlan’s “outing” was OK or over-the-line. One marketplace is the bloggers. The other marketplace will be nonblogging readers. Meanwhile, individual writers, as they write their posts each day, will have to decide if they’ll opt for serious and often heated discussion of issues and events or contribute to the blogosphere’s potential sewage flow.

The betting? In the end, the outing will prove little except to show how angry some writers get and how they feel a need to retaliate online. To all but members of someone’s existing choir, going after someone due to disagreeing in a post often says more about the attacker than the one under attack.

As it did here.

Glenn Reynolds:

I think blogging anonymity is fine — though in the absence of a track record I tend to trust anonymous bloggers less — but is it a “despicable” act to identify an anonymous blogger? I’d say it depends. Certainly the political operative who leaked the Foleygate story via an anonymous blog had no right to anonymity. On the other hand, what about people who blog in a non-hitjob fashion but just want to avoid job repercussions? I’m more sympathetic there. But if you appoint yourself someone’s anonymous blogging nemesis, you can probably expect to be outed.

James Joyner:

I’ve blogged here under my real name for over six years and prefer to read and link bloggers who do likewise. Signing my name to what I write makes me think twice and the active realization that others whose arguments I’m engaging are real people also tends to make me more reflective. (Frankly, the blog might be more interesting if my writing were less tempered but I’m ultimately more interested in dialogue than drama.)

That said, I understand why some people can’t blog under the real name and can envision future circumstances where I’d be forced to adopt a pseudonym; not writing really isn’t an option at this point. As Glenn Reynolds likes to point out, blogging is a low-trust environment. Every post stands on its own merits based on the strength of the argument made and the quality of the linked sources.

Point of Law has a long post that needs to be read in full. Here is the intro:

For the record, let me say my views on the Ed Whelan/”Publius”/John Blevins affair differ widely from those of my valued co-blogger Michael Krauss. I understand why “hiding behind a pseudonym while sniping at a critic who is out in the open”, in Michael’s words, will often provoke wrath, as it provoked Whelan’s. But I can’t go along with the seeming implication that 1) only those of us willing to attach real names to our opinions should consider participating in online controversy; 2) publicly outing hitherto anonymous commentators is the deserved response to their hopes of anonymity; 3) tenure committees should intensify their scrutiny of candidates’ unsigned postings, and perhaps attach negative weight to the fact of blogging anonymously.

Rick Moran has a post that needs to be read in full (Moran’s posts are often content-filled and need to be read in their entirety). Here is just a small taste:

The closest Publius got to getting personal with Whelan was in calling him a “know-nothing demagogue.” And this was after making the point that Whelan knew better and was simply pandering to conservative sensibilities.

Holy Jesus, Ed. I’ve got pretty thin skin myself but it would take a helluva lot more than that to set me off. Questioning my integrity will do the trick as will trying to tell me what to write on my own site. And if you plan on commenting on this or any other post without reading what I’ve written and instead, substitute what you think I wrote or make the same points I made in the post and try and convince me I didn’t make them, you might as well be prepared for some skin flaying because that is my number one pet peeve.

But a “know-nothing demagogue?” In the rarefied atmosphere you inhabit at NRO and other elite bastions of opinion, them’s might be fightin’ words, but in the blogosphere, that’s almost a compliment. To point out that almost any blogger has experienced much, much worse (and dished it out accordingly) would be to mention the obvious to anyone who has spent more than an hour reading blogs.

So, through Whelan’s towering ignorance, he has outed someone for no good reason save his own sense of payback with still unknown consequences to a man he doesn’t know, who never did him any personal harm, and couldn’t affect his reputation one way or another even if that was his intent.

Yeah – way to go Ed.

The question of anonymity of bloggers is, I think, something to be settled by each individual blogger for the reasons I gave above. But what about anonymous commenters? Should they be granted the same comforting cloak that a blogging pseudonym brings?

Read it in its entirety.
Lean Left:

There are two reasons to identify someone who writes pseudonymously: they claim to be someone they are not and the claim has an overwhelming bearing on the credibility of their writing or to bully someone. Publius has claimed nothing that would have a deep bearing on his writing that was not true, and Whelan himself doesn’t even argue that Publius had. So that leaves bullying. In this country your boss can take away your job for anything political that you have ever said. In this country, people can and have tried to fire teachers for holding political opinions different than their own. In this country, people have attacked and even killed people for having political opinions different than their own. Some people have complicated family relationships and don’t want to cause family members pain or discomfort through their writing. Pseudonymous writers can protect themselves from those events and should be allowed to. The free expression fo dieas is perhpas the most important aspect of a strong democracy. If the law does not protect people of relatively less power, then they must find some other way to do so. By destroying that protection, people like Whelan are stating quite clearly that they hope for someone with power over Publius will punish him for the high crime of sowing up Ed Whelan. It is despicable, cowardly, and a direct assault on the free exchange of ideas.

And it proves Ed Whelan to be the hack and hitman Publius and others claimed him to be.

Tom McGuire:

Ed Whelan of the National Review outed the once pseudonymous “Publius” of Obsidian Wings due to what looks like nothing more than pique. Not cool at all.

If I had any free time at all I would dredge through past blogospheric outings – I know there has been interesting discussion of the practice of pseudonymous blogging over the years.

The Anonymous Liberal:

In his post outing Publius, Whelan claims that he is doing the world a service by “exposing an irresponsible anonymous blogger.” The entire tone of the post, however, is petty and childish. It’s clear that Whelan’s only motive is getting back at someone who was critical of him. Moreover, it is difficult to imagine someone who less fits the stereotype of a mud-slinging anonymous blogger than Publius, whose posts are invariably professorial in content and tone. Indeed, if you compare Publius’ posts to those that Whelan churns out daily at the National Review, the contrast is rather stark.

…Whelan is unquestionably a brilliant man. He graduated near the top of his class at Harvard Law School, was a Supreme Court clerk, and has had a successful career as an attorney…..

…This kind of stuff is Hannity-esque on the political hackery scale. But Whelan knows this. He’s too smart not to. And I think that’s why he’s so thin-skinned. Getting called out on your hackery is tough if you’re someone who takes pride in your intelligence. It’s embarrassing. So Whelan reacted by lashing out and “outing” one of his most thoughtful and persistent critics. It’s school-yard bully kind of stuff. An act of extreme insecurity.

The reality is that if you don’t think your work product can withstand the scrutiny of a few anonymous bloggers, then you have no business publishing it. And if your ego can’t withstand being criticized by people who write under pseudonyms, then you’re far too insecure to be blogging for a living.

First Draft:

You hear this constantly from mainstream media pundits sniping back at bloggers, too: Oh yeah, well who are YOU, Mr. Imginary Internet Person, to point out the sky is not purple as I quoted Newt Gingrich saying it is but is in fact blue? You don’t have a paycheck! I mean, so why? The sky is either blue or it isn’t. I do not understand the impulse to prolong one’s embarrassment at making a mistake by wanking about the credentials of the person who pointed it out. Except for that, of course, it makes the argument about something other than how you screwed up.

Take what’s useful about the criticism you get and use it, even if it comes from some anonymous asshole on the Internet. Shove the rest.

John Cole:

Shameful, but to be expected. I mean, after all, Publius was defending a racist latina! He had it coming. Good thing Whelan heads a group that deals with ethics. That kind of experience could come in handy during a situation like this.

And I’m just dying to find out what Publius wrote that could be considered “irresponsible,” as that was Whelan’s excuse. All he did was link to Eugene Volokh.

I’d say Whelan should be ashamed, but that, like empathy, isn’t an available feature in this current strain of Republican.

–One of the top conservative bloggers Ed Morrissey has a poll on the issue and here’s part of what he says:

When I first began blogging, I used a semi-pseudonym, a nickname I’d had for two decades before blogging, for much the same reason as Publius. I worked in the corporate world and not academia, but I didn’t want my firm’s customers or my staff to get uncomfortable working with me. My family already knew about the blogging, so that wasn’t a motivation for me, but otherwise I completely understand why Publius wanted to retain his anonymity. My success eventually outed me, and it did cause me some problems — most of which were self-inflicted — but I’m happy about how it worked out since, for obvious reasons. Had someone else outed me instead, I would have been furious, and for good reasons.

Had Publius published Ed’s personal information, or had slandered him factually, I could understand the need to make his identity public and force him to bear responsibility for such attacks. However, as Rick says, calling someone a “know-nothing demagogue” doesn’t qualify. It may be annoying, and I think it reflects very poorly on Publius, but that’s the kind of ad hominem attack bloggers get from Day One. Truman’s Axiom comes into play here — if a blogger can’t take that kind of heat, he ought to reconsider blogging.

Ed’s a great blogger, but I think he let Publius get too far under his skin, and he reacted poorly in outing someone and risking their professional career. Outing Publius didn’t do anything to advance Ed’s argument, but made him look vindictive and petty instead. Bloggers should worry less about the anonymity of bloggers (which isn’t a “bane” at all) and respond to the arguments instead — or ignore them.

(The above is a key to why Morrissey is a top blogger…)
McQ has a long post that needs to be read in full. Part of it:

,, Is it right or wrong to reveal the name of an anonymous blogger?

And the answer?

Well, it depends. It depends on what action by the anonymous blogger might drive such a decision by another blogger. I’m sure if I thought long and hard enough I could come up with a few that I think would justify doing so. But one of them wouldn’t be because some blogger had been “biting at my ankles in recent months.”

I’m sorry but that comes with the territory of blogging.

Heat. Kitchen. Either grow a thick skin or quit blogging.

If you are going to write and post publicly, and if you have any prominence whatsoever, someone is going to bite at your ankles. But that certainly isn’t a good reason to out someone who, for whatever reason they may have, has chosen to remain anonymous by using a pseudonym.

Oh sure, you can flog him or her for not having the gonads to use their real name and come out from behind the screen and stand by what they say (and that has some validity as an argument), but you don’t just decide you have the right to violate that person’s privacy because you’re annoyed.

For years I was simply “McQ” on the net and the blog for various and sundry privacy reasons. Certainly there were those who knew who I was, but they too respected my decision to maintain my anonymity. And that included people I annoyed on a regular basis. The decision to use my real name was mine and mine alone. As it so happens, I decided that if I wanted to be taken more seriously I should be willing to sign my work with my real name.

I find Whelan’s outing of Publius to be very bad form -unethical- especially for the reason given. If I had a nickel for every anonymous ankle biter I’ve endured for years, I’d be retired.

Read it in full.
Brad DeLong:

To which my first reaction is: What!? Eugene Volokh isn’t anonymous. He is very Nonymous indeed!

But it turns out that Whalen doesn’t dare pick even the smallest argument with Volokh. Whalen’s obsequious groveling is truly something to behold…So whence the “bane of the Internet… the anonymous blogger who abuses his anonymity to engage in irresponsible attacks…”?

The “anonyous blogger’ is Publius of Obsidian Wings. The “irresponsible attack” is Publius’s giving a wider distribution to Volokh than Volokh would have otherwise had.

Why oh why can’t we have a better press corps?

Library Grape:

Whelan apparently couldn’t handle some mild, objectively reasonable criticism about his dissembling intellectually dishonest nonsense.

Opinio Juris:

I loathe anonymous blogging and anonymous commenting. I think that, in the absence of a compelling reason to remain anonymous, people who take provocative positions and vehemently criticize others should have the courage to do so openly, under their own name. That’s why I respect someone like David Bernstein, no matter how much I disagree with him.

That said, I understand that some people do, in fact, have compelling personal or professional reasons to blog anonymously. I question whether someone in that situation should blog at all; I think it would be better for them to wait until they can do so openly. Yet that is their choice, not mine; I believe that every blogger has the right to remain anonymous just as strongly as I believe that they should go public. I have never “outed” anyone, blogger or commenter, and I never would.

Ed Whelan, unfortunately, seems to believe that it is appropriate to out bloggers who wish to remain anonymous. Whelan has just outed “Publius,” a leading progressive blogger at Obsidian Wings, because Publius had the temerity to criticize one of his blog posts.

…Blevins [Publius] has written sensitively and intelligently about torture, terrorism, and national security for a number of years. I can only hope that this horrific incident does not cause him to abandon blogging. If it does, the blogosphere will be that much the poorer.

I’m very sorry this happened, Professor Blevins. You deserved better.

UPDATE: Whelan responds HERE.

OUR REACTION: His response won’t change the views expressed, linked to or quoted above. The damage is done — and not to the blogger who he “outed.”