There is a specter haunting American journalism; well, dozens actually, but today's specter is the purposeful abuse of the anonymous website comments board. In the past, when a journalist, or even a partisan, wished to attribute a quote to an individual or an organization, it was necessary to obtain some form of evidence that the person being quoted actually existed. No longer. Thanks to the proliferation of e-mails, instant messages and Internet message boards, our most august journalistic institutions are now quoting people who may well be imaginary. Worse, they may have assumed a phony identity for nefarious personal or political purposes.
The problem has arisen in a variety of contexts of late. When discussing reactions to the news that Bob Dylan appears to have borrowed lyrics from nineteenth-century Confederate Henry Timrod, the New York Times quoted an anonymous denizen of a Dylan web fan forum complaining in a juvenile and malicious fashion as a counterpoint to the more learned quotations from genuine Dylan scholars. Who was the guy? Who knows? He didn't even have a name. The Bobster's reputation may have suffered microscopic degrees of damage, but the primary casualty was the Times's reputation for veracity. Similarly, when the Washington Post, in one of its periodic sex panics, printed the salacious instant messages of Representative Foley and two former Congressional pages, the article noted that "attempts by The Post to contact the two former pages were unsuccessful." Nor did the paper reach Foley. Given that almost anyone can fake an IM exchange, to go to press with such damning words whose authenticity is unverified is recklessness itself. (Remember the good old days of the "Watergate rule," which required two corroborating sources for the publication of information based on anonymous sources? That went out the window with Monica Lewinsky's blue dress.)
To see how easily this lazy practice can be exploited, we need look no further than a recent article in the New York Post. The story, according to its author, Maggie Haberman, was fed to her by aides to Joe Lieberman's senatorial campaign and accused the liberal organization MoveOn.org of promoting anti-Semitism on its message boards. Posters on MoveOn's ActionForum had written of "media-owning Jewish pigs" and "Zionazis" and called the Senator "Jew Lieberman." The story contained quotations from the Anti-Defamation League's Abe Foxman taking MoveOn to task for the message board's "hateful content." In what could have been mere coincidence, I suppose, the story, which was also covered by the Moonie-owned Washington Times, was quickly seized upon by Lieberman supporters like Marshall Wittman of the Democratic Leadership Council and William Kristol of the Washington Post, the Weekly Standard, Fox News, etc. Writing on his Bull Moose blog, Wittman asked, "Shouldn't lefties ask themselves why the anti-Semitic haters are attracted to their sites?" and wondered "why Democratic leaders continue to collude with the anti-Semitic appeasing left." In a widely reprinted Wall Street Journal column provocatively titled "Anti-Judaism," Kristol took up this same theme and concluded, "Jews are under attack. And no one seems very concerned. Liberal Jews are more concerned about Mel Gibson than [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad."
In fact, none of the people reporting, discussing or pronouncing on the MoveOn comments had any idea who made them or why. It would have been easy, for instance, for a Lieberman supporter to post the comments and then complain to the campaign's friends in the Murdoch and Moonie empires, feigning the kind of shock, shock Captain Renault made famous in Casablanca. And shouldn't it be obvious that anonymous posters on a public bulletin board do not represent anyone or anything but their own silly little minds? When critic Lee Siegel donned his sock puppet to praise himself and attack the character of those who questioned his brilliance on The New Republic's comments board, no one blamed the magazine for Siegel's miasmic mishigas, since its editors acted quickly and suspended him. And Siegel was actually employed by TNR; the morons who posted on MoveOn may not even exist.
When I took the apparently unthinkable journalistic step of contacting the organization itself to discover what it knew about the incident, I learned that the postings were deleted immediately after MoveOn was informed of them. Many of the organization's key staff members, including its executive director, Eli Pariser, and communications director, Jennifer Lindenauer, are proud Jews and take no less offense at such things than, say, neocon pundits. Even the censorious Foxman, who ran to the media to complain without first talking to anyone at MoveOn about the postings, admitted that the organization had acted appropriately and that the incident was now "resolved satisfactorily."
The attempt to blame MoveOn for these illiterate scrawls is about as credible as blaming a presidential candidate for graffiti near a campaign stop. That Kristol would employ so slender a reed to slander a liberal organization is hardly surprising; this is, after all, a man who admiringly quotes his father Irving's kind words for Joe McCarthy. But Wittman's stance is more puzzling. Leaving aside that his own recent employment by a genuine lunatic anti-Semite, Pat Robertson, leaves him on rather thin ice, Wittman cannot have forgotten how his friend and former employer John McCain was undone by the same kind of unsourced slander by the Bush forces in South Carolina in 2000. What's more, Wittman is now employed by the DLC, which may not like MoveOn.org but should at least be respectful of its 3.2 million likely Democratic voters. Nevertheless, when I e-mailed Wittman to ask if he had reconsidered his blog post, he politely replied that he had not. Too bad.
Ultimately, however, it's the journalistic questions that loom largest: How can mainstream media organizations maintain that they hold themselves to higher standards than the Drudge-driven political blogosphere when they ape its most irresponsible practices? Time for another blogger ethics panel, perhaps?