December 16, 2008


My ex-boss is not exactly the sharpest tool in the shed. I knew that when I fled his newsroom in 1985.

But now he's displaying it for all the world to see:

Steve Hartgen would like a law requiring people to use their real names when they post material online. As a retired newspaper editor and publisher from Twin Falls, Hartgen is doubly aware that the news media catches a lot of flak, much of it politicall motivated, and its origin can be questionable.

He recognized in an interview with the Lewiston Tribune that the Internet has provided an opportunity for users to sound off on just about any subject, often responding to news stories or editorials via e-mail. But unlike letters to the editor, those persons typically are not required to identify themselves before commenting online. As a result, anonymity spawns a ton of misinformation which often is spouted by those who like to blame "the media" for the country's various ills.

As we can see, this is all about protecting "the media" from those meanies who like to complain about them anonymously. Because, evidently, they really really need it.

Pay no attention, oh you peons on the other side of the curtain, to the frauds operating the media scam that the Web has exposed. After all, they have themselves spawned "tons of misinformation" over the years that has gone uncorrected, and all with their names out there on the front pages. A lack of anonymity certainly has not prevented that.

And might we expect a similar law for people who publish material pseudonymously in the non-Web publishing biz -- say, Joe Klein when he wrote Primary Colors? Or any of the many pseudonymous newspapers writers who've made careers over the years (such as Dear Abby)?

I know that Hartgen knows all about Dear Abby, because he published it for years at the Twin Falls Times-News, where he was my boss for a year (1984-85). I fled as soon as it was reasonably possible because it became clear in short order that he was a clueless, rather pointy-haired boss. Nowadays he's an equally clueless Idaho legislator.

Here's a reality check for Steve: A lot of people use pseudonyms because they face employment or other personal repercussions for making their real opinions public, particularly if they criticize the powerful. (I know you know all about that, too, Steve.) Taking away that cover will remove valuable voices and important perspectives from the public dialogue.

Of course, I suspect that's what people like you have in mind anyway, since those dirty bloggers are treading all over the media's nice carpet. What you're attempting is a form of censorship that clearly tramples all over free speech. Nice trick for a former newspaper guy, eh?

In any event, people aren't as dumb as guys like Hartgen always seemed to think newspaper readers were. Most people are able to assess the difference in the quality of information from anonymous sources; people understand that it's not as immediately reliable, on a surface level at least. But its anonymity doesn't automatically make it unreliable, either. Conversely, the presence of a regular byline in the New York Times is no guarantee of reliability either. Remember Judy Miller?

Blogging has taken away newspapers' monopoly on reliable information and, more to the point, worthwhile viewpoints, much of which is indeed available on the Internet anonymously. The discourse isn't as easily controlled by our would-be editorial mandarins, and a lot of that has to do with the democratization of public expression -- including the ability to write anonymously or pseudonymously. And FWIW, I've used my very own name since the day I began blogging (as has John), but I haven't presumed that it's made me a better or more reliable blogger than Digby or Atrios.

This legislation, fortunately, doesn't even pass the First Amendment sniff test. But that never stopped guys like Steve Hartgen from trying dumb stunts like this in the past, and it obviously won't again.

Kevin Richert at the Statesman and Don@IdahoRadio have more.

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