In the last week one of the internet’s oldest chestnuts jumped back on to the fire to roast. Yes, it’s time to discuss everyone’s favourite topic again: anonymity.
The topic has a storied past. You might remember Bruce Dowbiggin putting out a bounty on bloggers. Or you might remember Brian Burke suing people — as a matter of principle — who theorize about his sex life. Those are just two examples, but there are dozens more cases where members of the media or professional sports organizations have taken on the brave warriors who do battle, not with swords and shields, but with keyboards.
The issue is on my mind this week because Mike Toth criticized me for writing about him without attaching my real name. His complaint, as I understand it, is that anonymity is inimical to accountability. The issue also arose when crime reporter Curtis Rush took his sleuthing skills to Twitter looking for a response to the April Reimer story. The wife of the Leafs net minder has been receiving mean Tweets, and in his attempt to defend her honour (and get some cheap and easy copy) Rush managed to misquote some people and defame some innocent bystanders. His story was eventually pulled and re-written without mentioning his errors. After some more public shaming, the Star printed a half-assed statement with a vaguely apologetic tone. So much for journalistic standards. So much for accountability.
I said what I have to say in the comments to the Toth story: focusing on the identity of the people criticizing your work is a way of distracting from the substance of the criticism.
You see this some of the time with athletes. They’ll say things like “you never played the game” to silence their critics, as if that detracts from the validity of the point. I have never written a screenplay but I’m pretty sure Prometheus sucked. You don’t need to have played hockey to know that the Leafs are a horrendous defensive team. It’s understandable that people would try to reject criticism by saying “you don’t know what you’re talking about.” That rejoinder probably has a place in some contexts, like theoretical physics or interpreting Kant’s Categorical Imperative. But media and pro sports are very audience-driven industries, so it’s odd to ask people to watch/read/listen but not to voice their own opinions.
To discuss these issues further I reached out to some my favourite writers for comment. The following people were kind enough to reply and share their insights:
* Cox Bloc is a three headed monster so their answers will appear in multiple parts
TSM: It’s hard to answer that question without some context. Look, Mike Toth doesn’t have much to latch on to these days so he’s resorted to attacking me for being “anonymous”. I am not hiding, when I did the TSM pressbox I used my name, I’ve never not told people who I am. The reality is I am a no one. I’ve never professed to be an expert on anything on this website. I started it simply to have an opinion. The attack on bloggers has gone from bathrobes, to basements and now it’s on anonymity. It’s a little more than ironic the MSMers who complain about it are the same one who seem to report on things that “they hear from sources” all the time. Trade rumours are a classic example of this. No one ever says that a specific GM or a specific agent or coach told them, they rely on sources. Those who come to my site, know who I am. I reply to every email.
DGB: I guess it depends on what you mean by validity. It can undermine the credibility of the person making the criticism, sure, but I don’t think it has any impact on the accuracy of what’s being said. If somebody says “This player is overpaid” or “That column was lazy, unoriginal clickbait”, the sentence doesn’t somehow become more true when it’s typed by John Smith and less true when it’s or TuckerFan69 or whoever.
PPP: The only things that undermine the validity of a criticism are the basis for the criticism and the motivations behind the criticism. Anonymity is the bugaboo that the MSM try to use to deflect any and all criticism while they do their best to hide their relationships to the subjects that they cover. During the 2010 Olympics, Damine Cox was a massive defender of Martin Brodeur when it long passed the point of making sense. The average person probably didn’t know that Cox wrote a book with Martin and his dad but bloggers are generally transparent about their biases. The MSM mostly just pretends that they don’t have biases. Oh except for when a player doesn’t play ball with them and then god help the poor bastard who will have his character torn to shreds in revenge.
CB: a) No. The validity of the criticism should be based on the strength of the argument, not the person making the argument. Orwell and Eklund are both fake names – readers can decide how they value their arguments. b) No, Gorilla Monsoon never steered me wrong
ML: To a degree, perhaps. I think when a person anonymously criticizes another, the anonymity does give the critic an advantage of some sort, as sitting behind a mask means they do have a shield from direct criticism. For example, if I go out and trash someone online (not that I would), the wouldn’t be able to look up who I was and where I worked to attack back.
TSM: Because they have nothing else to go on. I mean honestly, does it matter that Jonah wrote that he thinks a certain radio host, or writer is wrong, said something goofy or simply off base? No. It doesn’t matter whether it’s Tom, Dick or Harry. Those in the media know the ratings game. They know what their audience is and how they are doing. They don’t like the fact that despite the fact that they themselves are critics that they are being criticized. Long, long ago, letter to the editor where the only way that they would be called out. Today, it’s instant. Someone writes or says something and there are 1000’s of tweets and posts about it. Watch HNIC on any Saturday and each member of the team is getting ripped (or praised) for what they say or how they look. Would they feel much better if they knew who each critic actually was????
DGB: I think that in some cases it’s a genuine concern about the sort of extreme abuse we sometimes see online from people who are anonymous, or at least think they are. It’s the “keyboard warriors” scenario, and there are certainly times where it’s a legitimate problem. A lot of media have also been trained to think in terms of legal liability, and they may believe that anonymity is more of a shield there than it really is. But let’s be honest, there are also times when it’s just a knee-jerk reaction, a way to reject criticism without engaging it. I once had Al Strachan come after me for being anonymous — and this was at a time when I was appearing in a national newspaper twice a week under my real name. He hadn’t put any thought into what he was saying. He just didn’t like me that day for whatever reason, and I was an online guy, so he went to the anonymous card because he’d probably heard somebody else use it once and thought it sounded like a winner.
PPP: I think that the biggest reason that it bothers them is that they think that they are these paragons of virtue that write the unvarnished truth about players and then go to the dressing room every day to face the players. Nevermind that guys like Cox don’t go to practices or that they don’t say their piece directly to the players’ faces either. When they write something that accuses a player of being a lockerroom cancer for example they aren’t walking up to him and saying “you are a locker room cancer and I have anonymous quotes to prove it”.
CB: a) Because they get a lot of criticism and the fact that a lot of it is anonymous, while they have to put their names, (at times clearly fake names, come on “Damien Cox) to what they do. b) I don’t know for sure why they care so much. It strikes me as a bit rich to complain about people hiding behind anonymous blogs and twitter handles while at the same time filling columns and air-time with rumours and innuendo based on the words of unnamed sources. Maybe if everyone changed their twitter names to “Sources Say”, “Someone Close to Front Office Says”, and “Unnamed Former NHL Coach Says”, these journalists would be fine with twitter. c) Members of the media are generally insecure to begin with. They would have the same reaction whether the criticism is anonymous or not…but when it is anonymous they can make the easy and often false correlation that the person saying in it lives in their parents basement and that they are somehow better than them.
ML: Probably because whenever they are the one criticizing their name and/or face is plastered all over and they get personal attacks because of it. Maybe it’s also a feeling that people who do criticize should be brave enough to drop their mask and say it directly to their face.
TSM: As I said earlier, I am a nobody. I have no professional basis to claim to be an expert. I started using TSM when I started writing this for fun. I thought it was funny. Would people care if I signed my articles Jonah?? I don’t think I’d write it any differently. Credibility is earned. Either you establish that you know what you are writing about or you don’t. If all you write is opinions, people either read you because they agree with you or they hate you. No one reads you on a constant basis when they don’t care. If you write about facts or predictions you will be judged on accuracy. Either you are right most of the time or you aren’t. If you are right you become credible. If not, you are not. Look at Eklund. If he only posted a few rumors and those rumors proved accurate, do you think people would care if he was Eklund, Ellen or Eleven? He throws every single name on the planet in some sort of rumor and hopes one of them sticks. He lacks credibility because he is wrong more than he is right.
DGB: It certainly adds a degree of credibility, as it should. I do believe that there’s a certain point where, barring some sort of significant real-life concern, a writer with a large enough audience should put a name behind it. I’m not sure where that point comes, and it’s certainly not “as soon as you want to say anything online”, but it’s somewhere. But it didn’t have much impact on how I wrote, because even before I put my name on everything I knew I was never really anonymous. I doubt it would change much for most writers.
PPP: Nope. My credibility doesn’t come from decades of covering sports when there were massive barriers to entry or from my exalted status as a former athlete that may or may not know what they are talking about. My credibility and that of all bloggers comes from the track record of what they write. When we criticize or support a move by the Leafs, we do so on the record and that record can be checked. That’s how we build credibility and that’s how everyone should be judged.
CB: It would have absolutely changed how I write, because we live in a world where online surveillance by employers, governments, etc. is a reality. I also would have been kinder and less scathingly satirical, which would have helped a lot of my pieces, and hurt a few of them. These days I try to focus on the work, not the people writing it.
ML: No, I don’t think so. There are a lot of bloggers who are very public about their identity that are not very credible. Switching from “Minor Leaguer” to my real name would not make me more credible, at least in my eyes. When I criticize, I always aim to make evidence-backed arguments in order to support my point. I don’t think that it would change the way I write, except for when it involves a potential conflict of interest with my day job. In the couple of incidences when I have been contacted directly by the person I have criticized, I have always offered my full name and a chance to chat or talk on the phone. I have never turned down anyone from contacting me if they have a legitimate problem with my writing.
TSM: I think it depends on who they are quoting and why. If a member of the media wants to quote a player, coach, owner etc. from something that person says on Twitter- I have no problem with that. That person has put themselves into the public forum. When Nick Kypreos commented on TSN- “Those @#$!@#!@” that was fair game to anyone to use. So if he wants to quote what a player says on Twitter I see no reason not to. When JPA of the Blue Jays went on a rant on Twitter that’s fair game for the press to use. I don’t know why it wouldn’t by. Message boards are a different thing simply because verification is different. HFboards for example is not a place from which I would trust a quote as being accurate. Verifiable platforms I do.
DGB: Well, they’re fair game in the sense that they’re public comments and can be quoted if they’re newsworthy — you don’t need to go and ask permission to repeat what somebody has already said to the world. But I do wish media (and bloggers are guilty of this too) would hold online comments to a higher standard of newsworthiness. Anyone can run a twitter search and come up with some idiot somewhere saying something offensive. That doesn’t make it news. Often, it’s just a lazy way to manufacture a story and generate some cheap outrage.
CB: a) I think what people say online is fair game, whether or not a real name is being used. That doesn’t mean newspaper stories that collate stupid tweets aren’t lazier than a Kyle Wellwood pool party (Cox Bloc: Where it’s always 2008). And, if a journalist can’t manage to copy and paste the tweets verbatim and understand their obvious context, he probably shouldn’t have a job. b) If they source twitter or a message board then the comments should be just as valid as any other.
PPP: Ehhh, there have been some good posts about that lately because of a few incidents where tweets were used to build a story. I’m torn between agreeing with Hamilton Nolan and recognizing that if you are quoting something that someone said online that you may be calling a massive horde on top of them for comments that were only intended for a handful of acquaintances.
ML: I don’t think there should be a blanket ban on quoting from online sources, but as with all quotes, it is the media’s responsibility to evaluate their validity and utility, and then report it in context. It is also their responsibility to ensure that the public is not misguided into thinking that the actions of the very small minority represent the majority. There really isn’t anything fundamentally different between online and offline quotes–it’s just that it’s so much easier to find offensive / fringe opinion quotes online.
TSM: Good or bad Twitter has humanized journalism and sports. It’s pretty damn cool to be watching a game and interacting with those who cover the game. It adds an element that we simply didn’t have before. In my mind it’s great. Some journalists have a bad reputation and proved to be decent people on twitter. Others have proven to be jerks. I give them all a lot of credit in that most of what gets tied back to them is like listening to those post game call in shows; direct personal attacks from jerks.
I love it. I think it has brought those who chose to use it closer to their audience. You know the tv shows they watch, the music they listen to etc, their political views etc. Maybe you care, maybe you don’t. I think it’s added a whole different element to being a fan.
DGB: Journalists of all kinds are still trying to figure Twitter out, which is to be expected given that it’s only been a few years. I think a lot of what we see today has very little worth — I’m thinking of stuff like the race to be the first to tweet out line combos or starting goalies — and I hope that reporters eventually figure out that that’s not where the value lies. But the great thing about Twitter is the window it gives you into what kind of conversations sports fans are having at any given moment. A lot of media folks will tell you they don’t care about that, but they should. If you’re in sports media, sports fans are your only reason for existing, so a tool that lets you take their pulse any time you want is invaluable and should lead to better journalism. You just have to be willing to use it that way.
PPP: I think that it has largely been amazing. It’s easy to build a solid network of knowledgeable fans on any topic or team in any sports. It’s made it easier to interact directly with media members and to help shape coverage of your team to some extent. It’s also made it much easier to expose the truly terrible journalists and help to educate the average fan.
CB: a) From a reader’s standpoint, it absolutely has been much better, in terms of the ease of getting timely and diverse infornation. Twitter also gives other writers a platform who I would not have been exposed to, and may not have been hired by the traditional media gatekeepers. I am very grateful that Twitter is there to publicize their work so I get to read it and discuss it with others. From a journalists standpoint… you should ask a journalist. I will say that the people who tend to use social media effectively as Leafs journalists are the ones who seem the most committed and thoughtful in their coverage. They would have been doing the best work before Twitter existed. The idea of journalism as “quotes + my opinion blasted through my megaphone at the Star, Globe, Sun, etc,” has done done well in this era, and that’s a good thing for readers. b) It seems as if more people care about getting a zinger in on twitter then they do watching and enjoying the event.
ML: Yes, for sure. Twitter has allowed fans to get access to news that much faster, and allows for them to hold discussions with journalists where they can point out errors in fact or analysis. However, journalists need to bear in mind that the 140-character limit does not give them much room to explain nuance and other things one might expect from a longer piece. One of my pet peeves is when a journalist tweets a sensational story that begins with “Source:” then fails to follow up with a full story about it within a reasonable time frame. Without a longer piece discussing generally how they came to hear the story and whether they gave an opportunity for the person they were writing about to give a response, they’re just rumour-spreading, not credible journalism.
A million thanks to these fine folks for their responses.
Next week we will return to the usual menu of sports and social issues, how John Shannon is a pox on all of our lives, and other delights. (You can click on the mike in boston tag below to get a list of previous entries)
thanks for reading and commenting
mike (in boston)