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By Mark Landsbaum
" let your 'Yes,' be 'Yes,' and your 'No,' 'No,' lest you fall into judgment." (James 5:12)
One of the most insidious and in the long-term, destructive characteristics of the Internet is its anonymity. Like all widespread sins, it's most seductive.
Even the intelligent, fair-minded among us can be blind to the threat and its consequences. Take the example the case this week of Los Angeles Times Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist, Michael Hiltzik (CQ). The Times suspended (Thursday) Hiltzik's online "blog" because he violated the newspaper's policy of posting derogatory comments under an assumed name. http://goldenstateblog.latimes.com/goldenstate/
After a rival blogger revealed that Hiltzik had posted anonymous comments on his and other blogs, the Times writer's reaction was to pooh-pooh the matter. http://goldenstateblog.latimes.com/goldenstate/2006/04/anonymity_on_th.html#more Hiltzik essentially dismissed the complaint against himself with the excuse that everyone does it.
Hiltzik, who already has two venues for venting his opinion (a column and a blog), apparently wanted a greater voice. And not surprisingly, what he wrote anonymously in tone and substance typically went beyond what he put his name to.
As a naïve young reporter I learned from editors at the same newspaper why bylines are placed atop articles. When I thought I was humbly protesting that I didn't "deserve" my name appearing on a story of pedestrian quality, a wizened editor explained to me that the byline wasn't a reward. It was to identify me; to make me accountable for what I had written. It wasn't an, "Atta-boy." It was, "This is who is responsible in case you have a complaint."
Click on any blog. Visit any website. Enter any chat room. In how many cases are real names attached to the material you find there?
If the Internet is the new newspaper, the anonymity of the Internet is journalism's version of drive-by shooting. It is graffiti, not commentary. It's not dueling opinions. It's sniper fire. The danger should be obvious. If not, let's review a few of the problems:
Anonymous writers escape responsibility for what they write. As a result, they are more inclined to say things they can't prove. Anonymous writers who besmirch others deny the person being written about an opportunity to know his accuser. They also deny the reader the opportunity to weigh the veracity of what was written by considering its source.
Comments online are intended to be read, and usually to persuade. Serial anonymous writers in effect stuff the ballot box by flooding discussion with what appear to be many different speakers, when in fact all those made-up names may represent only a few, or even a solitary person.
Anonymity on the Internet encourages these sins. If we are to let our "Yes, be Yes," and our "No, be No," it presumes that what we say is ours. Anonymous writers deny authorship of their own words right from the start.
When the speaker is anonymous, it's no surprise that the tenor of conversation online easily ventures into ad hominem attack, becoming crude, vile, libelous and vindictive. The very same people who commit these transgressions in almost every case would no doubt refrain from saying such stuff if they had to attach their names.
Whether there's still time to reverse this insidious trend remains to be seen. One way is not to patronize or enable it. I receive my share of e-mail from folks taking exception to things I write, which incidentally always includes my byline. I always respond to the comments, and always sign my name when I do. When e-mail arrives clearly with a pseudonym or unsigned, my first response is to request the writer identify himself if he wants to discuss what I've written. After all, I identified myself. I'm pleasantly surprised that even the vilest complainers usually are willing to put a name to the follow-up e-mail.
Some might point out that anyone can make up a name. That's true. But the essential difference here is that anonymous writers are saying from the get-go, "There are no rules, so I don't have to identify myself and be responsible." In contrast, people who give false names when asked to identify themselves are saying, "I acknowledge there are rules, but I'm going to break them anyway."
In the current, prevailing Internet culture, exposing an anonymous writer's identity exposes someone who may be cowardly, but who can claim he hasn't broken any rules. However, exposing someone who agrees rules exist but still violates them is an entirely different matter. That person is not only cowardly, but dishonest.
Rules, as we've seen since Moses, don't change people. But they do make them accountable. This is the difference between a postmodern worldview in which anything goes including not identifying oneself and a Christian worldview in which rules matter, and those who break them are deemed to have done something wrong.
There may be hope for reversing this Internet equivalent of drive-by shooting. The Times' own ethical standards http://www.asne.org/ideas/codes/losangelestimes.htm appear to address the matter from a Christian worldview, rather than from the postmodern anything-goes approach.
In part, the Times' policy holds that its writers, ". . . are committed to informing readers as completely as possible; the use of anonymous sources compromises this important value . . . When we use anonymous sources, it should be to convey important information to our readers. We should not use such sources to publish material that is trivial, obvious or self-serving . . . Sources should never be permitted to use the shield of anonymity to voice speculation or to make ad hominem attacks . . . Fabrication of any type is unacceptable. We do not create composite characters. We do not use pseudonyms."
Anonymity is most insidious when used by a writer to conceal his own identity to make accusations or advance views he obviously isn't proud of or willing to associate his name with.
Mainstream journalism is fraught with credibility problems. It's no secret that the vast majority of so-called "news" reporters and editors are left-leaning, and that what works its way into print and broadcasts is seriously tainted by a godless, secular humanism that fully embraces left-wing ideology. The Internet can be and indeed has been an alternative to such biased reporting. But by adopting the worst ethical transgressions of the Internet, the mainline press only aggravates its problem. It doesn't correct it.
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